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The Literary Achievement of The Fountainhead

The Literary Achievement of The Fountainhead

10 mins
June 30, 2010

Six decades after its publication, The Fountainhead is still very much alive. New readers by the hundreds find it every day, and as many old acquaintances return to it with revived curiosity. Every new reading is an occasion to reflect on the qualities that have made this novel an enduring achievement.

Easiest to specify is the book's political and ideological significance. The Fountainhead originally provided, and continues to provide, a powerful inspiration to the individualist movement in America and throughout the world. More than any other work, The Fountainhead reawakened popular enthusiasm for a way of thinking, and a way of life, that in 1943 was regarded by virtually every sector of intellectual opinion as outmoded, discredited, and even dangerous. Rand's courageous challenge to accepted ideas was rendered still more courageous by her willingness to state her individualist premises in the clearest terms and to defend the most radical implications that could be drawn from them.

For many people, the ideological significance of The Fountainhead has tended to obscure its literary significance. Friends as well as foes of the novel have focused their attention almost exclusively on its ideas, noticing literary issues only by a kind of peripheral vision. And there is another obstacle to literary assessment -- the difficulty of determining exactly what one is assessing. To determine how well Rand does her literary work, we need to determine what kind of literary work she is doing. But when common literary terms are applied to so individual a book as The Fountainhead -- not a page of which could be mistaken for anything other than a page of The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand -- those common terms lose much of their usefulness.

Even to classify The Fountainhead as a novel seems slightly beside the point. It can be called a novel in roughly the same way in which the architectural creations of its protagonist, Howard Roark, can be called houses, apartment complexes, filling stations, and office buildings. The Fountainhead is a story about characters set in more or less realistic social contexts; it is therefore a novel, according to one conventional definition of that term; but the word doesn't really tell us much about it -- just as words like "house" and "apartment complex" fall short of evoking the kind of thing that Roark builds. When Gail Wynand, the publisher of the New York Banner, commissions Roark to design a house for him, he says he wants it to be a "palace," a "fortress," a "treasury," and a "temple." Clearly, he wants something more than a house; he wants something completely individual -- "a separate world" with a distinctive but almost indefinable "Roark quality."1

Similarly, Rand's vast, self-commissioned work is a novel and something more than a novel. It's a metaphysical statement, a treatise on psychological theory, an aesthetic manifesto, a commentary on American architecture, an analysis of ethics, a declaration of political principles. It has often been seen as a palace, fortress, treasury, and temple; and, let me add, one doesn't have to be a simple-minded "cultist" to see it in that way. Each of those terms -- palace, fortress, treasury, temple -- suggests a monumental self-enclosure and self-integrity. The application of all these terms to a single building suggests a monumental integration of complex qualities. What Rand says of Roark's buildings helps to identify the kind of building that she wanted to erect out of words; it identifies the kind of aspirations that give The Fountainhead its distinctive character as a work of literature.

But I'm afraid I'm getting ahead of myself. I've come perilously close to stating my conclusions without providing evidence for them. Let's do as Rand liked to do: let's start with the basics, and see what can be built on them.

The Fountainhead is a work of American literature; of that we can be sure. And I want to emphasize the word American, because it's an adjective that we don't take seriously enough when we talk about The Fountainhead. This book is saturated with American experience, with the life of the American city, with the lives of American people pursuing archetypically American occupations -- businessman, journalist, builder of skyscrapers. It is filled with the language, the gestures, the strange social customs and improvisations of Americans.

Consider the little scene in The Fountainhead in which a young playwright of sentimentally proletarian sympathies reads his latest manuscript to an audience of politically correct intellectuals. The playwright's name is "Ike," just "Ike" -- a syllable that makes a politically correct, ostentatiously humble gesture toward his role as representative of the working class. Among his audience is Lois Cook, a cruel parody of Gertrude Stein. Lois is a high-class author whom her friends regard, in a typically American display of hyperbole, as "the greatest literary genius since Goethe" [232]. When Ike finishes reading his play, Lois responds to his efforts in the way in which a cynically self-satisfied American intellectual elitist could be expected to respond. She raises her arms, stretches herself, and says, "Jesus, Ike, it's awful. . . . It's perfectly awful. It's so awful it's wonderful." And Ike responds in the way in which a cynically defensive American could be expected to respond. "If Ibsen can write plays, why can't I?" he says. "He's good and I'm lousy, but that's not a sufficient reason" [468].

As the scene continues, everyone in the group announces his judgment, and defines his spiritual identity, with vividly appropriate language and gesture. Jules Fougler, dramatic critic and self-styled "individualist,"

stretched out his cane, caught the playscript with the hook of the handle and dragged it across the floor to his feet. He did not pick it up, but he repeated, looking down at it:

"This is a great play."

"Why?" asked Lancelot Clokey.

"Because I say so," said Jules Fougler.

"Is that a gag, Jules?" asked Lois Cook.

"I never gag," said Jules Fougler. . . . "I shall make a hit out of -- what's the name of your play, Ike?"

"No skin off your ass," said Ike.

"I beg your pardon?"

"That's the title."

"Oh, I see. . . . I shall make a hit out of No Skin Off Your Ass."

Lois Cook laughed loudly. [468-70]

One of my reasons for mentioning this scene is that Rand's talents as a satirist, which are very considerable, have escaped the notice of almost everyone who has commented on her work. Do you recall the episode in The Fountainhead in which all the mediocre architects in New York City attend a costume ball for which they dress up as their "best buildings"? Peter Keating, perhaps the most mediocre architect of them all, is

the star of the evening. He looked wonderful as the Cosmo-Slotnick Building. An exact papier-mâché replica of his famous structure covered him from head to knees; one could not see his face, but his bright eyes peered from behind the windows of the top floor, and the crowning pyramid of the roof rose over his head; the colonnade hit him somewhere about the diaphragm, and he wagged a finger through the portals of the great entrance door. [323]

Like Ike the playwright, the architects try to project themselves as individuals, but they cannot do so proudly and decisively. What they can do is produce a very American combination of pretentiousness and self-abasement. The architects are so proud of their buildings that they pretend to be their buildings, effacing themselves so that their bright eyes barely peer from behind the windows of their top floors. But it's all in fun, you know; it's one of those jokes we play on our own individuality. The architects are disappointed only because Howard Roark, the true individualist, refuses to attend.

Episodes like this illustrate Rand's ability, which is most evident in The Fountainhead, to use American language, character, and incident to do just about anything she wants to do. Research has revealed that the architects' masquerade is not some weird figment of her imagination. It really happened, at the Hotel Astor on January 23, 1931; a photograph of the event has been recovered.2 Imagination shows her what to do with such realities. She knows that both pretentiousness and self-abasement are characteristically involved in Americans' attempts to announce that they are individuals, and she identifies precisely the kind of scene that will dramatize this strange condition and suggest the phoniness of so much of what passes in America for individualism.

And here, of course, we have stumbled on the most American thing about The Fountainhead, which is its focus on the most American of all problems, the problem of individualism. What most admirers admire most in Rand is her intransigent advocacy of individualism; what most enemies detest most about her is the same quality. But it is one thing to preach individualism; it is another to identify its problems; it is still another to render those problems in their precise American context and idiom.

We should never forget that the Americanness of The Fountainhead is an accomplishment, not a mere given. The author of this book, whose ear was so finely attuned to the American language, always spoke that language with a thick Russian accent. She was one of the handful of authors who have ever learned English well enough in adulthood to use it successfully as a vehicle of imaginative literature. Her view of America, furthermore, was always that of an intellectual and emotional, as well as a linguistic, outsider. She loved America, she was proud of America, but she was even prouder that she was not an American in any commonplace definition of that term. She was proud of her refusal to fit comfortably into the mainstream of American life. She saw, with clairvoyant intensity, that the shaping ideal of America is individualism, and she was determined to distinguish that ideal from the paltry misconceptions with which mid-twentieth-century America blinded itself to its own form.

In the climactic episode of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark is placed on trial before a court that tries to decide whether he is an American hero or an American villain. Roark wins his own case by arguing the more general case for American individualism. By winning he vindicates America as well as himself. In his address to the jury, he calls America "the noblest country in the history of men" [684]. The jury's decision shows that America is still worthy of that title. But the decision requires that the jury be convinced by Roark that it needs to rethink America, to reimagine America, to see it from a vantage point that lies outside conventional American opinion -- the vantage point where both Roark and his creator stand. This is the positive function of Roark's much-noticed "alienation." Because Roark stands apart from the crowd, he can see where it is going and what it is leaving behind. "Our country," he says,

was based on a man's right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else's. A private, personal, selfish motive. . . . Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

Now, in our age, collectivism . . . has reached a scale of horror without precedent. It has poisoned every mind. It has swallowed most of Europe. It is engulfing our country. I am an architect. I know what is to come by the principle on which it is built. We are approaching a world in which I cannot permit myself to live. [684-85]

To see America as Rand enables Roark to see it, as a structure based on principles that cannot be violated without the demolition of its original and essential form, requires that one take a long view and a distant one. Rand was fitted to take this view by her early struggles in a time and place that remain almost inconceivably alien to most Americans -- the Russia of the Bolshevik revolution. Because Rand had seen America from the outside, she could see what America was and what was happening to it in ways that insiders might easily miss. The trick was to find the artistic means to express that vision so that even insiders could see it as intensely as she did. Like Howard Roark, Ayn Rand pursued an intellectual project that was also necessarily an aesthetic project. The project was a monumental reimagining of America as a complex structure deriving its integrity from a single unifying set of principles.

Rand was not the only author who attempted an individualist reimagining of America. In 1943, four important books addressed that goal. Besides The Fountainhead, there was Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Rose Wilder Lane's The Discovery of Freedom, and Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine. Each of these books tried to identify America's radically individualist principles; each of them tried to use these principles as the basis of an uncompromising critique of the conventional ideas of contemporary American intellectuals; each of them helped to inspire the renaissance of American individualism. These books helped individualism work its way back into the American intellectual mainstream, from which it had been expelled (some thought, forever) by the cultural forces epitomized by the New Deal.

In 1943, real individualism was a cultural outsider's eccentric notion, even in America. It was a philosophy that had little appeal to philosophers, an economics that had little appeal to economists, a politics that had little appeal to politicians, an ideal of the good that had no appeal whatever to do-gooders. The vision of an individualist America had to be delineated by people who were not professional philosophers, economists, politicians, or doers of good. They were literary people with no allegiance to any specialization except the practice of the imagination. These people stood at a distance, away from the political mainstream and above it. The distance was provided by genius, courage, and a lifelong habit of living someplace on the outside.

Rose Wilder Lane, a daughter of the Western frontier, was a novelist and adventuring journalist who enjoyed living in (of all places) Albania. Albert Jay Nock, who had grown up in backwoods Michigan, enjoyed living in Belgium. After escaping from his job as an Episcopal priest, he supported himself, but not always very well, as a writer on many subjects. Nock was a self-contained gentleman who kept even his marital status an impenetrable secret. He gave his autobiography one of the most alienated titles imaginable: Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Isabel Paterson grew up in poverty on the Canadian frontier; when she was 24, she married a man who soon disappeared from her life. Left to support herself, she somehow managed -- with only a brief formal education to report on her resume -- to become a prominent novelist and literary critic. By 1943, Paterson saw herself, and was seen by others, as virtually the last surviving specimen of what she called "classical Americanism" -- the last specimen, perhaps, except for Nock, Lane, and Rand.

None of these authors regarded his or her work as a product of a social group or movement. They were like Howard Roark, who says that he doesn't expect to be "given a job by any group, board, council or committee, public or private" [580]. Paterson remarked that she would not join a group even if it were supposedly in agreement with her own ideas, because she didn't want to get "thrown out as soon as we get down to cases."3

Although Nock praised the work of Paterson and Lane, he saw no reason to seek their further acquaintance. The two women were friends for many years, but they finally lost the ability to argue with each other amicably, and their relationship collapsed. Rand corresponded with Lane for a while but found her too slow on the uptake.4 She disliked Nock for his cultural pessimism, his suspicion that American individualism was doomed.5 But with Paterson, she experienced, during 1942, the year when the bulk of The Fountainhead was written, what may have been the closest intellectual relationship of her life. Paterson was as much of a mentor as Rand ever knew. From Paterson, she appears to have derived much of her knowledge of history and government, especially American history and government. She spent many a night sitting at Paterson's feet in the critic's home in Connecticut or her office at the New York Herald Tribune. Yet Rand and Paterson differed with each other about a number of issues, including Paterson's belief in God. After 1943, their friendship cooled; in 1948, a climactic quarrel ended it.

But it's interesting to notice what the four individualists have in common as figures in American literature. Their most obvious similarity is an unembarrassed refusal of normal literary practice. They were attempting to realize a vision of everything important to them, a vision of their world as seen from an individualist perspective. They were going to have their say about this, and no formalist ideas about the customary uses of literary genres were going to stand in their way. Nock produced an autobiographical memoir that reads more like a series of essays in cultural and political criticism. Lane produced a political history that reads more like a manifesto written in exceptionally long lines of poetry, or like a lyrical novel that uses archetypically opposing forces as its leading characters. Paterson produced an analysis of political structures that is simultaneously a history of the Western world, a theology, a moral theory, an educational theory, an economic theory, a commentary on constitutional law, and an essay on the nature of energy. Rand produced a novel that is a standing affront to normal ideas of what a novel ought to be. Her vision was too big to be constrained by any such ideas.

What is further peculiar about Rand's vision is that it is simultaneously unconstrained and fanatically disciplined. The intensity of vision in The Fountainhead results in large part from the precision of its local effects. Rand knows that a big vision is always in danger of becoming a flaccidly diffuse vision. One way of meeting this danger is to crystallize vision in epigram and aphorism.

I don't intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build. [26]

A house can have integrity, just like a person . . . and just as seldom. [136]

He was certain that it was profound, because he didn't understand it. [234]

One wonders how much impact The Fountainhead would retain if Roark had been made to observe that "thinking gets done inside the heads of individual people and not in consultative groups," etc., instead of announcing, aphoristically, that "there is no such thing as a collective brain" [680]. The supposedly minor art of the aphorism is one tool that Rand uses to charge every part of her novel with the meaning of the whole, to make every page of it unmistakably and intensely a page of The Fountainhead.

Another tool is the art of the symbol, the art by which Rand transforms the infinite raw stuff of American life into a "separate world" with its unique "Rand quality." Roark, of course, is Rand's major symbolic effort, as well as her most insistent attempt to unify her vision of herself with her vision of America. Roark speaks and acts for Rand; he is the artistic and intellectual alter ego of a Russian writer who had sought refuge in the United States. But Roark is also a working-class kid from "somewhere in Ohio" [25] who studies at a fancy Eastern college, gets thrown out of it, suffers ridicule for his advanced ideas, but eventually achieves public recognition as a representative of classical Americanism. He is a representation, therefore, of both the outside and the inside of America; and his history is simultaneously the story of America, as Rand saw it -- a story of the progress of the individual creative imagination -- and the story of Rand's own ability to create a promethean figure out of the dust of "somewhere in Ohio." Throughout the novel, Roark creates meaning, yet we are always aware that Rand has first created it in him.

Roark is Rand's most important symbol, but he is supported in his role by many subsidiary symbols. Repetition is necessary for aesthetic patterning, and a succession of events is necessary for a sense of history. To form a pattern and reinforce a history, Rand introduces not just Roark but also his mentor and precursor, Henry Cameron. Roark as architect represents the individualism of the era of Frank Lloyd Wright (without, of course, needing to be Frank Lloyd Wright); Cameron as architect represents the individualism of the era of Louis Sullivan. Cameron and Roark together represent the historical pattern and continuity of the American creative imagination.

But the aesthetic patterning of a novel demands differentiation as well as repetition. In her literary essays, Rand emphasizes the idea that novels must have action, and action must result from conflict. But there is no conflict without differentiation. A symbolic structure erected in the spirit of an ideal must include representations of antagonism toward that ideal; otherwise, there can be no conflict. The Fountainhead gives a leading role not just to Howard Roark but also to his enemy, the collectivist architectural critic Ellsworth Monkton Toohey. To reiterate and reinforce the conflict of visions, The Fountainhead provides Cameron with enemies, too: the conformist architects of the beaux-arts movement.

Rand does not retell the whole history of American architecture; she focuses on historical episodes that she can use for the symbolic concentration and intensification of many meanings at once. She found such an episode in the Chicago World's Fair, and she held it in her vice-like grip until she had turned it into an image of every unAmerican thing she could think of. It was only a World's Fair, but it was anti-individualistic, irrational, antiprogressive, antilife:

The Columbian Exposition of Chicago opened in the year 1893.

The Rome of two thousand years ago rose on the shores of Lake Michigan, a Rome improved by pieces of France, Spain, Athens and every style that followed it. . . . Its architects competed on who could steal best, from the oldest source and from the most sources at once. It spread before the eyes of a new country every structural crime ever committed in all the old ones. It was white as a plague, and it spread as such. [45]

There it is again: the shadow that falls across American individualism, the self-assertion that is really self-abasement, the competitiveness that is really just conformity and theft. The next time someone tells you that Rand is without subtlety or irony, tell that person to read The Fountainhead more attentively and consider, for example, why Rand insists on calling the World's Fair by its official but now almost forgotten name, the Columbian Exposition. What, she implicitly asks, are these new Columbuses, these new heroes of the West, discovering -- or exposing?

She herself is fully attentive to her ironies, just as she is fully attentive to the choosing of every word in The Fountainhead. To intensify the effect of artistic self-consciousness, she makes Roark think about his art in the same way in which she thinks about hers. "Most people," Roark says,

build as they live -- as a matter of routine and senseless accident. But a few understand that building is a great symbol. We live in our minds, and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and form. [517-18]

Many people have been confused by Rand's later statements, in the essays collected in The Romantic Manifesto, about her association with the "romantic school" of literature. There is a tendency to locate her romanticism merely in her moral passion and her idealization of heroic characters. Does she not maintain, in The Romantic Manifesto, that romantic literature is the literature of moral values, of what "might be and ought to be," and not merely of what is?6 Yes, she does. And it is remarkable that her literary essays, in which she is by no means reluctant to recognize her own virtues, do not so much as mention such seemingly unromantic issues as her skill as a satirist and aphorist, her mastery of the American language, and her insight into American character types -- though all of this contributes mightily to The Fountainhead's complex combination of literary elements.

If, however, we press Rand's concept of romanticism a little harder -- perhaps a little harder than her essays are willing to press it -- we will get a clearer view of The Fountainhead's artistic character. We may also get a clearer view than I have yet presented of the difference between Rand and the other writers who attempted to reimagine America from an individualist perspective. "We live in our minds," Roark says, "and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and form" [517-18]. Isabel Paterson says something similar: "Ideas precede accomplishment. . . . Nations and cultures are ideas. . . . Every achievement is foreshadowed in fancy."7 But Roark goes further. A real accomplishment, as he understands it, is a concretization and integration of many imaginative ideas. Speaking of a building he plans to design, he says:

I love this work. I want to see it erected. I want to make it real, living, functioning, built. But every living thing is integrated. Do you know what that means? Whole, pure, complete, unbroken. Do you know what constitutes an integrating principle? A thought. The one thought, the single thought that created the thing and every part of it. [580]

That's what Roark says in The Fountainhead. In The Romantic Manifesto, Rand specifically applies the principle of integration to novel writing. "A good novel," she says,

is an indivisible sum: every scene, sequence and passage of a good novel has to involve, contribute to and advance all three of its major attributes: theme, plot, characterization. . . .[A]ll three attributes have to unite into so well integrated a sum that no starting point can be discerned. [93-94]

This is interesting. But Roark had spoken of an even more challenging integration, determined not by "three attributes" but by "one thought." Rand repeats this idea in other passages of The Romantic Manifesto, where she says that one attribute, "the theme of a novel . . . sets the writer's standard of selection, directing the innumerable choices he has to make and serving as the integrator of the novel" [81]. A theme, of course, is an idea, "the single thought that created the thing and every part of it." All art, according to Rand, is "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments" [19]. But Romantic art is special, as Rand suggests, because it is not merely the product of a choice of values and materials; it is about the choice of values. Volition provides the source, the structure, and the meaning of a Romantic novel, which therefore achieves "perfect integration" [107]. Another way of putting this, in view of Rand's insistence that volition is always a property of the individual, might be that individualism provides the proper source, structure, meaning, and everything else about a Romantic novel, as Rand constructs it. A perfect illustration of this idea would be The Fountainhead, a novel of full integration, in which every literary device and skill is individualistically adapted to the service of individualism.

My subject is the novel itself, and not the theory that it implicitly or explicitly represents. But permit me to observe, in passing, that Rand's aesthetic theory is itself an integration of three aesthetic ideas that often present themselves in quite distinct forms: the idea, associated with Aristotle, that all the parts of a literary work should be rationally adjusted to its central rhetorical intention; the idea, current in the Romantic movement and perhaps best expressed by Coleridge, that all the parts of a literary work should be shaped into an organic whole by the unifying force of the individual imagination; and the working assumption, current among skilled literary craftsmen in many ages, that the materials employed in a literary work must be selected in accordance with their likely effect on the work as a whole.

The startling thing is the degree to which Rand puts her integrationist assumptions into practice. In this respect, her contrast with Nock, Lane, and Paterson is marked. Lane achieves unity by a severe selectiveness about ideas and methods; she presents the big picture, but she presents it in outlines and sketches that eliminate much of the differentiation of materials that would pose a challenge to integration. Nock and Paterson, on the other hand, are hospitable to complexity, especially to complexity of speculation; but they are also hospitable to speculations that are not explicitly and totally integrated with others.

This goes to the root of the personal conflict between Paterson and Rand. For Rand, a radically individualist ethics and politics entails a completely individualist psychology, sociology, epistemology, aesthetics, and theology (or lack thereof). As Rand sees it, people who attach the proper value to their individuality should be psychologically free from the need for other people's good opinion, should act for themselves and not for others, should place full confidence in their own reason, should view imitation as artistic suicide, and should reject any idea of man's relationship to a higher power. But as Paterson sees it, such positions may not all fit in one package. She is more skeptical than Rand, less likely to expect ideas to unite in close patterns of mutual reinforcement. She has no trouble being an individualist and at the same time being a theist, an advocate of certain forms of what Rand would call altruism, and so forth. Paterson outraged Rand by saying that although she valued reason, reason was capable of determining its own limits. Rand wanted to know how such a position could possibly comport with Paterson's individualist political views.8 As for Paterson's novels, which advance individualist ideas but are seldom strictly focused on individualism, Rand seems to have regarded them as commonplace, conventional works.

That was a bad judgment; Paterson's novels aren't commonplace at all, but they're not like Rand's novels. In The God of the Machine as well as in her own fiction, Paterson is able to achieve effects that do not interest Rand, because Paterson does not judge all her material by its ability to be woven into a single, seamless web. Her art is different from Rand's, because she does not pursue, as a chief priority, the startling intensity of integration that Rand pursues.

The romantic individualism of The Fountainhead is like DNA; it's present in every cell, and it controls every cell. The major psychological conflict of the novel, the conflict between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon, is not permitted to remain what almost any other novelist would make it, a conflict simply between two strong people. It is not even permitted to remain a conflict between two strong individualists. It becomes instead a conflict between two strong individualists who have individual ways of showing their respect for individualism, and in particular for Howard Roark's own individualism. Howard values it so much that he makes it the consistent basis of an ultimately successful career; Dominique values it so much that she tries to destroy that career before it can be destroyed by others. This is strange, but it is strange in a completely Randian way, a way that could never be mistaken for anyone else's.

The same might be said of a hundred other features of The Fountainhead. These features can be read both as doctrine and as symbol, but they are more usefully read as symbol.9 After Howard and Dominique have their first sexual encounter, he receives a letter inviting him to proceed to New York and undertake an architectural commission. He leaves immediately, without informing Dominique; he doesn't tell her where he is going or even who, precisely, he is. Understood as a doctrinal statement about the conduct of relationships -- advice about what one should do when love conflicts with work -- the episode is somewhat overspecific, to say the least. To read it as a direct statement of doctrine is like reading Jesus's remark about turning the other cheek as strategic advice for prize fighters. Treated as a symbol, however, Howard's seeming abandonment of Dominique becomes an intensifying summary of Rand's belief in the complete independence and self-responsibility of the individual.

The meaning of the episode is further emphasized by its integration with all the other symbolic episodes in the novel in which Roark refuses to exalt the Other above the Self. One of the most memorable of these episodes is a scene that might be called the Meeting of the Antipodes. Roark, the individualist hero, and Ellsworth Toohey, the collectivist villain who for hundreds of pages has been plotting against Roark and everything that Roark symbolizes, are finally brought together for a conversation. It is Toohey, not Roark, who wants to talk, so we have not just ideological conflict but the psychological conflict that underlies it: it is Toohey -- not Roark -- who needs to talk to others, to discover their opinions, to know precisely how cruelly he has wounded them and how much hatred they bear for him as a result. Toohey urges Roark to say what he thinks of him. Toohey is curious -- and so is the reader. We, like Toohey, have been waiting for this moment. Toohey presses the issue: "Mr. Roark, we're alone here. Why don't you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us." Roark replies, "But I don't think of you" [389].

The difference between Toohey and the reader -- if the reader is at all aware of what Rand is doing -- is that Toohey is disappointed with Roark's response, and the reader, surprisingly, is not. For the conscious reader, Roark's six-word reply symbolizes, integrates, and intensifies the meanings of Rand's vast novel: Roark's independence is constant and complete, at once psychological and ideological; it is an independence not just of actions and opinions but of the soul and the soul's "one thought." Roark, as he says in his final courtroom speech, just "do[es] not recognize anyone's right to one minute of [his] life." [686]

The reader sees, as in a flash of light, the nature of Roark's consciousness -- and integrated with this impression is, perhaps, an almost equally intense perception of the reader's own consciousness. We recognize that we are not, after all, disappointed, as Toohey is. We are pleased with Roark's response, and in knowing this we identify our affinity with him.

But suppose we ignore the way in which Rand uses Roark's words to enforce the novel's integrated meaning. Suppose we read his words simply as a statement of doctrine, something like: Individualists should never even think about collectivists. Such a dis-integrated reading would be nonsense. Rand herself spent a great deal of time thinking about collectivists. She spent a great deal of time thinking about Toohey. She created Toohey. She not only created him; she made sure to integrate him completely in her novel. She did not integrate him purely in a negative way, as a mere foil to the characters she likes. She did not turn him into an idiot, which would be her way with many of the villains in her next novel, Atlas Shrugged. In The Fountainhead, she knows that the intensity of a long-protracted conflict needs a strong antagonistic force, a force whose influence can be felt on many levels. Roark is the active and effective embodiment of an individualist system of values; Toohey is the active and, in almost every case, the effective embodiment of a collectivist system of values that engages Roark's values at every point.

And Toohey is not just a set of values; he is an intelligent, volitional, complex, free-standing individual. He is always and obviously the creation of Rand, the fitting antagonist that she created for her own ideas; but he is always and obviously himself, too. When Roark's friend Steven Mallory tries to assassinate Toohey, Toohey "remain[s] calm and sane":

Toohey shrugged, smiled, and said, "If it was an attempt at free publicity -- well, what atrocious taste!" [226-27]

I don't need to tell you that that's not how Rand would have responded in similar circumstances.

But it's not just that Rand gets Toohey right; it's also that Toohey gets Rand right. Toohey's values are totally wrong, from Rand's point of view, but his analysis is almost always correct. "Every loneliness is a pinnacle," he says, like a true Randian individualist [277], and he is one of the few people able to recognize Roark's lonely genius for what it is. Toohey analyzes, in Randian fashion, the indebtedness of the many to the genius of the few, and the inspiration given to the collectivist spirit by the envy that results from that indebtedness [281-82]. In a way, Toohey even shares Rand's aesthetic; like her, he regards every detail of a personality or a work of art as an embodiment of its central idea. Rand is thus able to stand both outside and inside Toohey, and to shape even this alien principle to her own integrative purpose. We should remember this when unsympathetic readers suggest that her art is simple-minded. We should remember it even when sympathetic readers suggest, in effect, that it is innocent of any but doctrinal complexities.

I always laugh when I watch the opening credits of the film version of The Fountainhead. We see on the screen an image that looks like a skyscraper; then the building turns, and behold! it's not a building but a gigantic book: "The Fountainhead, a novel by Ayn Rand." This is a silly trick, but the image is appropriate. Rand refers in her literary essays to the difficulty of producing "so gigantic an end as a novel" [97], and she's not referring to size alone. The Fountainhead is a monument of American culture; monumental in size, monumental in scope, monumental in effect, monumental in the statement that it makes about America, but monumental also in the complexity and integration of its statement.

The Fountainhead is a monument that has stood in our neighborhood for almost sixty years, and it's still causing trouble. Some of the neighbors would like to tear it down. They claim that the zoning commission should never have allowed it to be built in the first place; they don't think there's any room on this block for a palace, fortress, treasury, and temple. Other people are determined to ignore the monument. They're put off by its quality of self-integration, amounting to self-enclosure; they don't find it "user-friendly." Many others love it and would like to know it better, but their investigations are limited to what the standard guidebooks have to say. I think it's time for everyone to get up, go outside, and take a fresh look -- walk around the property, inspect the materials, study the blueprints, and see, as if for the first time, how it all fits together, how it grew out of the American earth, and why it will never be torn down.

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1 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943; New York: Signet, 1993), pp. 519-20. For the reader's convenience, I cite Rand's works in the widely available paperback editions. Page numbers from The Fountainhead will hereafter appear in brackets in the text.

2 Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 10-11.

3 Isabel Paterson, "Turns With a Bookworm," New York Herald Tribune "Books," November 16, 1941.

4 See Rand's letter to Lane, December ?, 1946, Letters of Ayn Rand, ed. Michael S. Berliner (New York: Dutton, 1995), pp. 352-56.

5 Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986), p. 163. On Rand's relationship with Paterson, see especially Branden, pp. 164-66.

6 Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, revised edition (New York: Signet, 1975), pp. 80, 168. Page numbers from this edition will hereafter appear in brackets in the text.

7 Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine (1943; New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993), p. 53.

8 Branden, p. 165.

9 Ronald E. Merrill, The Ideas of Ayn Rand (La Salle IL: Open Court, 1991), p. 79, makes a similar observation about certain features of Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

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Dr. Stephen Cox is Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. Among his works are Love and Logic: The Evolution of Blake's Thought (University of Michigan Press), The Titanic Story ( Open Court Publishing Company ), and many articles and essays, such as the biographical introduction to Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine ( Transaction Publishers) . This essay is reprinted from The Fountainhead: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration, published by The Atlas Society.

Stephen Cox
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Stephen Cox
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