The Fountainhead

As you have probably noted from recent Vital Statistics postings, I’ve been reading Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead for about a month and a half. I’m enjoying it for the most part and it’s not as hard as I thought it would be.

Rand invented a philosophy called objectivism and her novels are supposed to represent that philosophy. I became aware of Rand and her following some time after I graduated from college. I always wondered why I had never come upon Rand while majoring in Philosophy. Now that I’ve read her, I know the answer: lack of rigor.

Rand never makes a formal argument for her philosophy. Instead she writes her protaganists as representatives for objectivism and every other character as complete idiots who oppose it. Objectivism is all about self-interest and emphasizes the value of the individual over the group. Altruism, or serving others at the possible cost of one’s own interest, is abhorrent to Rand. The most loathsome villain in The Fountainhead is an altruist who manipulates people into donating time and/or money to help his various causes. Rand is careful to emphasize the means that he employs to achieve his charitable ends rather than discussing the ends, those who benefit from his heinous acts.

In The Fountainhead every character who is not a protaganist (and there are few of those) is either an antagonist or one of the great unwashed masses who accept that altruism is a reasonable goal for society to achieve. Rand’s chief tactic is to give the most negative “spin” possible to anti-objectivist arguments and then have the antagonist characters voice the “spun” argument. For me, this just weakens her argument because it’s clear that she either doesn’t understand the other side or that she won’t be able to stand up to real criticism.

The other troubling part of the story is the way that Rand manifests the interpersonal relationships of the characters. One of main characters is a woman in love with the protaganist who makes a concerted effort not to be with him while sabotaging his career as an architect. She even goes so far as to marry two other men (consecutively). The protaganist accepts this and still professes to love her. Of course, the origin of their love is even more disturbing since the sex scene in which Rand describes their first intimate encouter is pretty clearly the protaganist raping the female character.

The motivations for other characters are equally ambiguous. Another main character is a wealthy and powerful newspaper owner who makes it his business to drive men to ruin for no good reason sometimes. Later on his motivations become clearer, but they are no more believable. My conclusion is that Rand understood her fellow human beings so little that she was completely unable to voice the mind of “the other”.

Perhaps all of this was intentional, though, and it will all be resolved by the end. I still have a couple hundred pages to find out.

3 Replies to “The Fountainhead”

  1. Perhaps, if you may be so inclined, we can discuss the philosophy of Ayn Rand in the kind of “rigor” you are used to seeing in academic philosophies.
    The fact is, The Fountainhead was not meant to be a vehicle for Objectivism–Atlas Shrugged does that job. The Fountainhead is a novel about man’s soul, his essential nature.

    When I first encountered Rand, I had similar criticisms like yours–that Rand didn’t seem to quite understand human motives. However, over years of studying Objectivism as a philosophy, I discovered that it was my own weakness in grasping the depth of her perceptiveness.

    For purely philosophical handling of Rand’s ideas, I recommend Dr. Tara Smith’s books “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics” and “Viable Values.” Dr. Smith is professor of philosophy at University of Texas A&M.
    Also, read NYU visiting scholar and professor Dr. Sciabarra’s “The Russian Radical.”
    Finally, as an introduction to Objectivism, read Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.”

  2. “However, over years of studying Objectivism as a philosophy, I discovered that it was my own weakness in grasping the depth of her perceptiveness.”

    Holy cow! This statement bears an uncanny resemblance to the psuedo-intellectuals like Keating in The Fountainhead.

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