Book Report: The Fountainhead

I thought it was going to be a slog through an unpleasant and ideological plot weighed down with long descriptions when I picked up The Fountainhead. I was pleasantly surprised to find it captivating, enjoyable and challenging. I must admit that I was biased against it from the start, knowing that it was an intellectual source for libertarians and ideologues like Glenn Beck, whom I disagree with on important issues. I hope that I was able to open my mind enough to give the book a fair description.

I’ll attempt a brief plot summary, as I remember it, for those who have not read it or who do not remember it(major simplification is necessary due to its length): There are five main characters. Howard Roark is the hero architect who listens only to what he believes and doesn’t care what others think. He stands alone against conformity. Peter Keating is the tragic pawn who submits to conformity to gain success and approval, but finds only unhappiness in his submission. He is the foil for Roark; an architect also, but one who only copies the classical styles and allies with Toohey. Ellsworth Toohey is the intellectual puppeteer who shapes the opinions and values of the masses to squelch individualism and creativity in order to create an altruistic and egalitarian society. Gail Wynand is the rags to riches character who forfeits his integrity to gain power and money, but who fails in the end because he betrayed his self-respect. Dominique Francon is the cold beauty that hates the ugliness and superficiality of the world around her and scorns society and its mindless members at every turn. Her character connects all the rest and is useful in tracing the relationships between the active characters. When she meets Roark, she discovers that integrity and self dignity exist in humanity, but despairs that he will be destroyed by a world not fit for its existence. She marries Keating in order to hasten the decay of humanity by joining in in its destruction, fighting with Toohey against Roark professionally while continuing to be his lover. Then she meets Wynand and they realize that they both see the same bankrupt reality. Wynand has channeled it in order to gain power while Dominique has joined it in a kind of fatalistic self-destruction. They find comfort in their shared estrangement from society, but when Wynand meets Roark he realizes his error of selling his integrity to gain power. He tries to make amends by defending Roark against Toohey and the conformist masses but fails and eventually is defeated by Toohey. Roark stands against all of these forces and cannot be destroyed. Dominique finally leaves Wynand and is reunited with Roark in his triumph. The storyline consists of Roark’s fight against conformity in architecture, Keating’s rise, empty triumph and decline, Toohey’s shaping of the masses through intellectual control of culture and Wynand’s realization of his error and failed attempt to repent. Everyone is defeated but Roark and Toohey, indicating that only the self is true and invincible and that collectivism and social conformity will always threaten man. Dominique is not exactly defeated, but her character never takes a stand, so could not be defeated. Apathy has nothing to lose.

I was not impressed with the characters or the plot, but I was captured and challenged by the ideas and some of the dialogues. The characters were flat and unrealistic, amounting to little more than mouthpieces for Rand communicate her points(Worse, Dominique’s apathy and passiveness seem anti-feminist and by the end of the book she is little more than an empty shell moved and redeemed by men). It is a tribute to Rand’s interesting ideas and setting that even these superficial characters were fascinating to follow in the world that she constructs. She builds the societal dynamics in the book carefully and reveals the psychology of her characters slowly and deliberately. This creates a nice, building tension and a driving momentum that carries the reader though the pages. Unfortunately I felt that the climax of intellectual exploration happens when Wynand and Roark ally, about 100 pages before the narrative climax of the book. This second climax is flimsy, constructed and predictable, full of monologues and obvious eventualities. It’s as if Rand ran out of material or time to bring her ideas together with the story she was using to communicate them to end the book well.

Her intellectual explorations were the most interesting parts of the book and clearly the point of writing it. Rand works to simultaneously expose what she sees as the negative consequences of altruism as well as the benefits of egoism. If any man sacrifices his own ideas for the benefit of others or depends on others for happiness, love or acceptance then he is betraying his own all-important self. She says that all men should be self-reliant or else be considered evil parasites. Altruism will lead to dependence and the death of creativity and human greatness by forfeiting innovation and creation for egalitarianism. Only by being true to what one believes and wants without reference to others can one be sure that they are acting as humans, endowed with mind and reason, should.

I was not convinced by either her arguments for egoism nor against altruism. She has important points about each, but skirts around simple facts, like how people are not self-sufficient by nature, communication is possible between individuals, people are not always rational, and we have responsibilities to others with whom we co-inhabit the ecosystem. She assumes that man is born with only a self and no way of moving beyond that self and therefore this is the only legitimate source of action, thought and value. This ignores the social needs of humans, the inherent interdependent needs of procreation for survival, and the sources of value outside of human thought and creation, like plants, air and water. She says that because we can never fully understand another person, we cannot rely on communicative exchange to guide our thoughts and work. We can only find progress in aggregated individual contributions in cooperative agreement, like a market. She says that anything a man wants for himself, without relation to others, is good and justifiable, but she ignores the fact that if a man wants to destroy or consume resources that don’t belong to him this affects others who must exist in the same world. She ignores nature entirely except as material for man’s work, which is a simplistic and irresponsibly short-sighted conception of the environment around us.

She also exaggerates the consequences of altruistic ethics. She claims that it implies parasitism and the destruction of free will, but this is not strictly true. She incorrectly assumes that altruism is primarily concerned with self-sacrifice, while in reality it refers to service to others regardless of self. Service to others can occur without self-sacrifice, just as service to self can occur without sacrificing others. She ignores the role of social cooperation and communication that has evolved with us for our survival and benefit.

What I believe is a kind of synthesis of the two positions. This is probably so often claimed that it is a cliché but, nonetheless, I can’t see any morality of extremes fitting to the shades of gray in our world. Without respect for self and the individual, I can’t see how human rights can be respected, but without responsibilities towards others and the acknowledgment of our social and ecological existence, we cannot achieve a sustainable moral existence. As a complicating factor, I believe in the subjective construction of reality and that it is impossible to be truly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about anything. Science can guide us to our best guesses as to how our world works, but not to how we should treat it and each other. There can only be consensus about what we need for mutual and self respect and the rest must be freedom to find one’s own truth. I see the way out of this dilemma of subjectivity through dialogue about these topics and agreement on principles of respect for individual rights and collective existence that includes valuing nature and non-human life. In pursuit of this goal, I invite anyone to contribute their thoughts and opinions about the book and my discussion below.

Happy reading, thinking and living!

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Andrew,

    Could I send you my reading list so you can summarize them for me? You’re better at it than I am. By far. Really. Keep reading & writing!

    re: altruism. I believe that altruism is hard-wired in. I should do a blog post about it. Here’s a snippet from something I wrote earlier this year:

    Research reveals a physiological basis for the feelings associated with altruism in the activity of our vagus nerve. This bundle of nerves in our chest that gives us the familiar warm feeling, accompanied by a lump in our throats, and the release of oxytocin, the hormone that enables feelings of trust and love (Keltner 2009a).

    Altruistic behavior is also reflected in our brain activity. Contributing to charities increased activity in both areas of our brains associated with all types of pleasure, including food and sex, and the uniquely human areas associated with relationships with others (Rilling and others 2002, Moll and others 2006). Human altruism appears to be both rewarding in a general sense and to be closely linked to our role as social beings.

    A combination of biological observations, behavioral studies and modeling concluded that altruistic behavior may have increased the reproductive potential of early humans by increasing access to reproduction and coalition building (Bowles and Gintis 2003). These worked together to both increase the number of offspring from altruistic individuals and their chances of surviving (Bowles and Gintis 2003).

    The evolution of moral capacity is thought to have developed along with our complex societies. Developing a moral sense required complex emotions such as shame, guilt and empathy and the development of social institutions to reinforce cooperative behaviors within groups and competitive behaviors with others (Bowles and Gintis 2003). Organized religions may be one institution that allowed nonrelated people to live cooperatively in relatively large groups of unrelated people and provided a belief framework for protecting group members against outsiders (Wilson 2002 as cited by Diamond 2002).

    Our altruistic tendencies may be reinforced by utilitarian feelings of pleasure and pain. Behavioral studies indicate that acting in harmony with society’s morals provides pleasure and doing the opposite inflicts pain (Gintis and others 2008). Viewed as a whole, much research suggests that groups dominated by altruistic individuals are more successful than other groups (Gintis and others 2008). While altruistic individuals incur a cost for their helpful behavior, it is offset by the success as a member of a cooperative and safe group (Gintis and others 2008).

    Reply

    • Thanks Cindy! Great points. This information makes clear that egoistic interpretations of human nature are fundamentally lacking in their explanatory power. Clearly we are hard-wired to respond to both self-preservation and group-preservation, just like every other socially evolved being. I ran across an interesting tidbit in my Wikipedia research (alas all I have time and resources to access at the moment) about how people who self-identify as altruistic tend to get more benefits from being altruistic than self-identified egoistic persons and vice-versa, which may suggest that we can rewire our brains based on expectations, beliefs and emotional sensitivity. That plus there’s probably a genetic component and natural variation. Here’s the link: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/61312.php

      Reply

  2. Posted by Cindy Salo on December 20, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Whoa! You’re blowing my the posterior superior temporal cortex!

    That’s fascinating, Andrew, and it’s certainly part of the story. I hadn’t run across this; thanks for sharing it. I really must take a sabbatical and think about all this.

    Cindy

    Reply

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