Thoughts on The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Paul R. Potts

This essay started out as a note sent to a friend in an e-mail message. My view on what comprises “genius” has changed over the years. I now believe that “genius” consists mostly of the ability to concentrate on, and complete, more work than other people, and that’s really the most important definition.

There’s a “ha-ha, only serious” gag circulating online about Ayn Rand; I am not sure who to attribute it to:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

There are reasons I far prefer orcs to Objectivists. This essay expresses just a few of them.

I thought you would like to know that I have read The Fountainhead and am 600 pages into Atlas Shrugged. (Atlas Shrugged is about 1100 pages, in small print; it is a massive novel, about three times the length of an average massive novel). I’m doing this mainly because lots of people ask me about Ayn Rand and I seem to be expected to have some opinions on the matter.

Anyway, I can’t briefly sum up all my impressions of all this Rand, but I can say:

It is really hard for me, growing up steeped in cultural relativism, to be convinced that any absolute ideas have validity in real life. Besides just applying absolute laissez-faire capitalism, she conveniently makes all of her heroes self-contained, self-made, and absolutely moral and self-righteous. It’s hard to take it seriously, but one feels compelled to give her a chance.

The capitalism she is defending as a moral absolute comes from a simpler, even simplistic, world. There is no global warming, no environmental destruction, no morally ambiguous success. (There is no Bill Gates). None of her heroes ever practiced “bundling” or “tying” or forced competitors out of business through quasi-legal means. (In other words, competition is on a level playing field… what color is the sky in her world?)

There are not very many lawyers, and the ones that do exist are on the side of the bad guys. The good guys don’t need them. They defend themselves in court using devastatingly witty speeches.

Her notion of male-female relations also seems a bit anachronistic and, well, psychotic. Women can be as strong as men, but whenever her hero and heroine meet up, their primarily impulses towards each other seem to be to destroy each other. I’m not sure just why this should be; are people like cats where the male’s biting of the female’s neck is necessary to trigger ovulation? In my relationships, when my partner and I have wanted to hurt each other, it quickly became apparent that the relationship had become pathological, not heroic.

The heroine of The Fountainhead is, from Rand’s own notes, the perfect partner for Howard Roark, the hero, but his method of seduction is to break into her house and rape her, and her method of being a good lover is to spend ten years trying to destroy his career. There’s another rape scene like this in Atlas Shrugged. Her heroic couples are never cuddly, loving, and tender. The the way they “give” to one another is rather hard to understand. You get the impression that Ayn Rand might have been quite a fiery lover, but when you were spent she would claw your eyes out and spit on you.

Rand’s heroes of industry are heroic in every sense; her villains impress their villany on each of your senses. She is fond of describing character through facial features and body types. Her heroes are tall, thin, well-groomed, with chiseled features, and slightly ugly, passionate, brooding, intense faces. They have red hair or raven hair, pale skin, and piercing gray eyes. They frighten the common people. Her villains are pudgy, greasy, watery, balding, sneezy, generally non-Northern-European ethnic, with limp handshakes. An Ayn Rand heroic figure could never be short, overweight or suffer from allergies. By the time she gets to Atlas Shrugged, she has moved away from this physiognomy-as-destiny approach a bit, but The Fountainhead is riddled with it.

Anyway, obviously there is a lot more to say. She is definitely worth reading. If you do get through her work I’m be curious to see what you thought.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
May 20, 2006

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