Monday, August 29, 2011

The Fountainhead

Alert readers may have noticed that I didn't post anything last week.  This was because, in the parlance of our times, I "wasn't feelin' it."  Today, I make up for lost time with an enormously long post about something you're not interested in.  Thanks, good to be back.


I recently took on The Fountainhead, a very, very long and painfully serious potboiler about a brilliant architect who must battle with those who resent his genius. It is not a very good novel. It is written in a style that I think of as Mid-Century Stiff, a clumsy, formal, humorless prose that reminds me of my late grandfather’s office furniture. Its characters don’t really behave like people, and its crowds don’t really act like crowds. People speak in speeches, except when they are giving speeches; when they are giving speeches they recite the philosophical musings of the book's author, Ayn Rand. It is relentlessly didactic.

So, why bother reading a thick, joyless novel from sixty years ago? Good question. It captured my interest, I suppose, because it is a book with many partisans. When the folks at Modern Library chose a list of the “100 Best Novels” a few years back, their “board” picked a list of novels that are pretty much, well, great: Ulysses, Gatsby, and Lolita comprise three of the top four. We can quibble – Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence wouldn’t have come anywhere near MY top ten – but we can also recognize that these are books and writers that a large number of well-read people have felt represent a high level of excellence, baby.

But then the Modern Library folks also invited the general public to weigh in. And – along with Lord of the Rings – it turns out that the general public is mad not just for The Fountainhead, but for three other books by Ayn Rand as well. She owns 40% of the top ten! Now mind you, L. Ron Hubbard also has three books in the top ten, so you are already hearing alarm bells. Clearly, the vote has been jiggered by special interest groups in order to advance their specific agendas, a shocking state of affairs that I never would have thought possible on the internet.

Whee, Objectivism!

So what are Ayn Rand’s partisans partisans of? Why, they are partisans of a political philosophy called “Objectivism.” Let’s turn to the reasonable summary offered by the Wiki. There are some ontological trimmings, after which the real meat of the idea is like so:
the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness or rational self-interest, that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in laissez faire capitalism, and that the role of art in human life is to transform man's widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that one can comprehend and to which he can respond emotionally.
Now there is of course something to this, and indeed a loose version of the idea underpins the really quite admirable Constitution of the L&TM5K’s home country, the United States of America. And, if you are a precocious junior high school student, or have worked hard to resist an awareness of how complex and messy the world of humanity is, you could even work yourself up into believing that it was True in an absolute sense, boxing out all other Truths. Rand herself certainly seems to have convinced herself, and so in The Fountainhead we are constantly watching someone with a very large vocabulary and very formal diction acting as if everything were all very simple, and feeling very righteous for saying so.

It must have taken an enormous amount of effort to remain so Objectivist. In a long and insufferably pompous speech at the end of the book, her hero-character Howard Roark makes her case that the problem with the world these days is that there’s just too much altruism. No, really! Because, see, when we worry about less fortunate people, we are failing to honor the individual creators and innovators that create progress and wealth, and so we’re just dragging everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

Objective Thoughts

I won’t try to articulate an argument against Libertarianism, as it is basically a religious creed. Like Communism, another mystical political philosophy, it requires you to swallow some rather fantastic assumptions about what human beings would act like if only they had the chance, and once you’ve dedicated yourself to these precepts it is pretty tough to abandon the faith.

But I can’t help but point out that throughout The Fountainhead, Rand continually reveals her naiveté about… well, just about everything, really, but most importantly about the nature of art and architecture. See, Howard Roark is meant to be the manifestation of a Great Artist who works only from his individual vision, misunderstood and persecuted by people who don’t understand his great genius. But this is a deeply problematic space for an architect to be in, for while architecture is certainly the most creative of the trades it is also the most pragmatic of the arts. Rand wants to show that Roark is noble because he never compromises his creative vision.  For instance, he will not allow clients to alter his plans in even a single detail. Even were this approaching realism – and it ain’t; even contractors routinely alter architectural plans on site to deal with contingencies, and actual clients are notorious for wanting some say in how their hundreds of thousands of dollars get spent – it makes out Roark as not so much noble as clinically megalomaniacal.

It's significant that Rand never really tells us what exactly it is that's supposed to make Roark’s architecture so superlative. She makes references to straightening stairways, to allowing for effective entrance and egress, to the use of innovative materials (although many of the innovative materials she lists have proven to be pretty disastrous since 1943, but that’s hindsight for you), to making rooms that will get a lot of use relatively larger and more prominent, to placing a guest room somewhat away from the main area of a house – in other words, he is shown to understand the fundamentals of architecture at a level that might be expected from a subscriber to Sunset magazine. Beyond that, his buildings are profoundly impressive to a chosen few who “get it,” although most people think they’re ugly. Well, that’s one model of genius, I guess.

Trouble is, it’s not a very well thought out model of genius. It draws on a myth of lone-wolf artists suffering for their personal vision: the cartoon of the starving artist.  That concept is however pretty much a wholesale creation of press agents and hagiographic biographers. Seeing that, say, Beethoven struggled against the contempt of his peers, that Mozart died broke, that Van Gogh never made it in his lifetime, etc., etc., Rand has articulated some very precious thoughts about how the artistic genius must and will endure the contempt of society. But it is the vanishingly rare “great artist” who struggled to pursue an individual vision with no regard for the opinion of his peers. It would be awfully weird behavior, if you think about it.

To use the easy examples above: Beethoven had a personal vision, sure, and he had enormous influence, but he also wanted to make popular music that as many people as possible would like and want to listen to, and he devoted his energies to this cause. If he had the contempt of his peers, well, that’s mostly because he was kind of a jerk. Mozart had a quite successful career notable for his almost craven longing for public approval, and he wouldn’t have died broke if he didn’t gamble compulsively, chase skirt, and otherwise throw money around like a drunken sailor. Van Gogh wanted public acclaim very much, and indeed he was on the right track. If he had stuck it out a few more years, he might have ended up like, say, Monet, Haydn, or a thousand other artists that don’t really match Rand’s model: more or less happily churning out more or less commercial art that people liked, that paid handsomely, and that has since stood the test of time splendidly.

Indeed, the only certifiably sane artist of any kind that I can think of offhand who relentlessly pursued a personal vision with no care to the judgment of the masses is the nutball New England composer Charles Ives.  Ives has had some modest influence on subsequent composers, and is occasionally listened to today, but if truth be told he's only really known because he is the rare composer Americans can point to as having written music before Aaron Copland (our greatest national composer, an important artist of real vision and influence, and an unabashed whore for public acclaim) came along.

Towards the end of The Fountainhead, Rand takes a broad shot at the decline of cultural values by lampooning a playbill for a production of Romeo and Juliet that describes the play as “not at all highbrow,” but rather as a simple piece of popular entertainment. I kind of sympathize with her.  We int'lectuals want our enthusiasm for Shakespeare to reflect well on us. The trouble is, Romeo and Juliet is not at all highbrow. Its language is artful, and archaic, but it is in fact a very simple, if not simplistic, piece of popular entertainment.  While it’s safe to assume that Shakespeare wanted it to be artistically excellent, there is absolutely, positively, and inarguably no doubt whatsoever that he wanted as many people as possible to dig it and, more to the point, pay good money to see it. This key facet of the artistic process apparently never occurred to Rand (outside, presumably, of discussions with her agent), and so her whole treatment of Art and The Artist is pretty cringeworthy. She thinks she is a champion of individualism. What she really is, alas, is an embarrassingly overt snob.

The Rough Guide

Howard Roark, budding genius, gets kicked out of architectural school because his radical ways upset the hidebound prejudices of his professors. He accepts this with a weird stoicism that Rand clearly thinks very sexy, but which in the real world would just mark him out as odd and offputting. And indeed, Rand must work very very hard indeed to make her hero – in a startlingly pompous forward, she instructs that he is to be viewed as a “saint” – appear in a favorable light. She does this by making her army of secondary characters all outrageously foolish, manipulative, servile, venal, vindictive, vacuous, conservative, craven, and/or simply silly. This cast of straw men and straw women reaches such extremes that Roark seems sometimes to be wandering through a medieval allegory of the human frailties.

[Spoilers ahoy!]

Yet despite Rand's best efforts, Roark comes of as an asshole of monstrous proportions. He is contemptuous of those who do not share his tastes and purported gifts. His loyalty to his artistic convictions is such that he is self-destructive and abusive of the trust of his clients (Rand thinks this is awesome, of course). At one point he rapes a mentally unstable woman of his acquaintance (Rand makes clear that this is cool, because the woman likes it). At the book’s climax, he dynamites a large public housing complex that he designed because he resents that its plan was altered -- a gymnasium was added, and some cosmetic touches he doesn’t approve of were tacked on. (Rand, careful to point out that there were other gymnasiums already available in the neighborhood, thinks this is really heroic behavior. I am not making this up.) At his trial, Roark makes a long tedious speech about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of too much altruism, and the jury returns in five minutes with a verdict of Not Guilty. This is supposed to represent the vindication of Objectivism, but unfortunately for Rand it's a bit of a laugh-out-loud moment because of its sheer melodramatic absurdity.  [Note to young readers: In the real world, you are not allowed to dynamite buildings that don't belong to you, even if their designs were based on your ideas.  It's kind of like how you aren't allowed to kill your children if you don't like the way they're turning out, even though you made them yourself.  It sounds unfair, but them's the rules.]

Intertwined with the architecture is a bizarre romance which falls somewhere in the region between implausibility, insanity, and major kinkiness; to each their own. There is also a weird sort of bromance happening which is, well, complicated. The human relationships of the book defy short description because they don’t bear much resemblance to other human relationships I’ve seen in real life, or in other fiction for that matter. I don’t discount their possibility; Ayn Rand clearly occupied a much different psychological space than I do, and very probably interacted with her pals much differently than I interact with mine. But they are very strange relationships.

Rand eventually argues that the world has betrayed all we little people by forcing us to choose between sadism and altruism. This is sillybuggers on the face of it; the vast majority of us navigate through the world exhibiting no more than traces of either extreme in our daily lives. Not only is there room in the middle for a healthy self-interest tempered by the decency of common humanity, but that tends to be the attitude that prevails when circumstances allow. Indeed, we appear to be hard-wired for it, but Rand pushes the ol’ Cartesian dualism up to 11 and would probably have burst a vein at the very notion of humans being in any sense hard-wired for anything.

One of many things Rand heaps contempt on in The Fountainhead is trusting the judgment of others, rather than deciding the merits of an idea on one’s own. This makes it a little hilarious that her fans are out there manipulating lists of great novels. As for me, well, far be it from me to tell you whether The Fountainhead has any artistic merit (it doesn’t). You will just have to read it yourself and find out. Or, you could do something interesting.  Suit yourself.


The Calico Cat said...

Once again, thanks to M5000, I don't have to read to whole book.
But this was the best thing that I have read in quite some time & you hit it on the head!
I won’t try to articulate an argument against Libertarianism, as it is basically a religious creed. Like Communism, another mystical political philosophy, it requires you to swallow some rather fantastic assumptions about what human beings would act like if only they had the chance, and once you’ve dedicated yourself to these precepts it is pretty tough to abandon the faith.

Cartophiliac said...

Your sacrifice is commendable, if only a little unfathomable.

mrs.5000 said...

I've always stayed away from this, of course, except in my freshman year a bunch of us architecture students went to see a screening of the old movie with Gary Cooper--which, if I'm not mistaken, costarred a skyscraper as his pinnacle of artistic achievement rather than (guffaw) a public housing project. It does seem like it could all cook down to a pretty hilarious graphic novel. Or maybe that's just the noble, lonely brillance of the reviewer shining through...

Chance said...

I already knew that this book had no artistic merit simply from talking to people who enjoyed it. However, I admire and salute your investigation.

Jenners said...

I've toyed with the idea of reading this because I feel like I should but now I shall take your word for it and find something more interesting to do. I very much enjoyed reading your review. In fact, I wish you would write more book reviews as I enjoy them immensely. You're quite good at them.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

Okay, I'll be sure to stay away from that one. Sounds like a snore-job. Thanks!

Eric said...

Awesome to have you back. Good post.