Monday, August 07, 2006

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

(Book Review)

In 2000, The Banner published this letter by me (in response to their hatchet job on Emma Goldman):

Goldman’s quotation was taken completely out of context. It should be noted that her article was written in 1934. During that same year Goldman gave a series of talks about conditions in Nazi Germany. She was also active in rasing money to get anarchists out of Germany. In Quebec, Goldman was told she could not sell or distribute literature at her meetings unless the police first approved it. Goldman was also told her chance of obtaining a visa back to the United States were unlikely because of the hostility against all radicals in the government. And all this happened after Goldman left Stalinist Russia because she was disgusted at what that oppressive government was doing.
Therefore to take Goldman’s quote about government oppression in a period when government oppression was a horrific reality worldwide and compare it to a parent-child relationship is some of the worst writing I have ever seen

...Perhaps you can guess where I’m going with this.
I wanted to read “The Fountainhead” because its one of those books that keeps popping up in discussion. But I had heard enough bad things about it to know beforehand that I probably wasn’t going to like it. And with good reason. This is in many respects an awful book. But before I start ripping into it, I want to try and be fair. I’m sure the 30s and 40s, when all of Europe was squeezed between Fascism on one hand and Stalinism on the other, were a frightening time to be alive.

George Orwell was at his most prolific during this period as well, and “1984" was written only a few years after “The Fountainhead”. In fact there are a lot of similarities between the two books. The villain of “The Fountainhead”, Ellsworth Toohey, is a dead ringer for O’Brien from “1984". Not only their characteristics, but the didactic speeches they give are so similar you could practically switch the characters and not notice any difference. Were it not for the fact that “The Fountainhead” was published first, I’d be tempted to accuse Rand of ripping off Orwell.

There’s a lot of important stuff in this book about the rights of individuals, and the importance of keeping your own identity in the face of the pressure to conform. Arguable the same material has been handled better by other authors, but like all great themes it can never be emphasized enough.

Where Rand goes off the rails is when she asserts that any philosophy that seeks to help others, whether socialism or Christianity, is really just an attempt to enslave humanity. And that the people who preach such philosophies are at best a bunch of dumb old cows (like the society ladies in “The Fountainhead”) or at worst actively plotting the downfall of humanity (like Ellsworth Toohey). This is why people say they wouldn’t want to live next door to someone who takes Rand’s work too seriously.

Also, if one were to take seriously Rand’s belief about throwing off societies conventions and establishing your own morality, than you would assume Rand would be in sympathy with the 60s counter-culture and the New Left. But she wasn’t at all. If you read Rand’s book on the New Left (Calvin’s library has a copy), you can see the bitterness dripping from her pen. Like many ideologues, Rand only idolizes the rebel when he throws off societies conventions to conform to her expectations. If the rebel goes in another direction, then the printed page can’t hold enough epithets.

As to the literary content of the book itself...
Someone in my blogging circle (I think it was Phil, but I can’t find the link) recently said of this book something to the effect of, “My God, it was even worse than I thought it would be. The characters aren’t real people, they’re just cardboard cut outs representing ideals.”

And this is really true. The book resembles a medieval morality play. The only thing lacking is if the characters had introduced themselves as ideals instead of people. “Hello, I will be representing the common man.” “And I will be playing the ideal man.” “And I will be playing the evil altruist who is trying to actively destroy humanity.”

There are a lot of people who believe that morality plays have rightly ended up on the dustbin of literary genres. And there might be something to this. But if morality plays can still meet any human needs at all, I think they at least need to at least conform to some criteria.

1). They need to be short. I could have forgiven a lot if this book was 500 pages shorter. There is absolutely no excuse for this book to be so long. Orwell was able to make his point in a lot less pages. And 800 pages is way too long to spend with cardboard cut-out characters.

2). A morality play must affirm what we already feel to be true. Its not a genre suited to making new arguments. If you already believe in what Ayn Rand is saying, you’ll find yourself nodding along to the book. If you disagree, there’s not a lot of character development or transformation that will help you along the path to see the light.

This is why you never ever hear people say, “I disagree with Ayn Rand’s politics, but I admire her talent as a writer.” People might say that about Orwell, Updike, or Ezra Pound, but unless you’re already onboard with her philosophy, Rand’s novel offers very little in terms of literary value.

The glowing description’s of Howard Roark as the ideal capitalist man remind me somewhat of the description of Ernest Everhard as the ideal socialist man in Jack London’s “The Iron Heel”. But more than anything this book reminds me of “What is to be Done”, the 19th century socialist novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. From a literary perspective both novels suffer from many of the same flaws in terms of characterization and plot. But from an ideological perspective as well both deal with characters who have discovered the perfect system which enables them to live perfect lives removed from the foolishness of normal people.

Dostoevsky spent much of his literary energy writing in response to “What is to be Done”, and I believe his work stands as an effective rebuttle to “The Fountainhead” as well. Dostoevsky’s books aren’t filled with supermen who rise above the struggles of ordinary people, but with broken human beings. Take Raskolnikov the student from “Crime and Punishment” who believes he has discovered a new system of morality which justifies killing the old woman. Or the drunk Marmeladov who, despite his best intentions, always ends up repeating his mistakes.

I don’t agree with Dostoevsky entirely on everything. (He believed that the best form of government was the dictatorship of the Czar.) But I don’t want to get into all that right now. All I’m saying for the moment is that I find his portrayal of humanity a lot more convincing than Rand’s. There’s not a lot of point in debating it since Rand never really offers any sort of proof for her systems. She just says, “This is the way the world is. This is what humans are really like if they can only rise to their potential.”

My own experience in life makes me more inclined to agree with the words of the Apostle Paul: “I do not understand what I do. The good I wish to do I don’t do, and the evil I do not wish to do, I do.” But I can’t prove this any more than Rand can prove her thesis. Its just where my gut tells me humanity is at.

In closing: I can’t really say I recommend this book. But if you haven’t read it already, I imagine you’ll probably be tempted to read it for the same reasons I did. It's one of those books that pops up in discussion every now and then, and you want to be able to discuss it intelligently. And that’s as good a reason as any to read a book I suppose. But at the very least, if you haven’t read “1984" or “Crime and Punishment” yet, put those at the top of your list instead. “The Fountainhead” can wait.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Richard Nixon on Jews: "You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana are Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists." 26th May 1971

Link of the Day
Media Mouse has compiled links to its own coverage of the August 8 elections as well as the corporate media's coverage in a modest attempt to increase the access voters have to information needed to make an informed decision in Tuesday's election

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