My favourite source (wikipedia) describes the process of the The Fountainhead as a series of interactions between Roark, the “author’s ideal man of independence and integrity” and a continuum of lesser personalities. While it’s certain that Roark is an flawless paragon for Rand, as I plowed through the first section it became very clear that Rand has no interest in providing us any nuanced characters. The Fountainhead is a novel where the characters are neatly split into badies and a vanishingly small number of goodies – it is never in any doubt which are the favoured creatures – and there is no prospect of complexity, heterogeneity of character, or redemption.
It’s quicker to name the goodies: out of dozens of characters in the first section of the book (many of whom would be classed as minor, but seem to warrant pages of dialogue here) only Roark, Mike (his friend of sorts), Heller (his client, who within a week comes to think of Roark as “the best friend he would ever have”) Cameron (his mentor) and finally Dominique (whom he rapes) have anything to recommend them. The other characters are variously weak, cowardly, dishonest, sycophantic, or downright evil in varying admixtures. In rather tedious procession, these characters are paraded past Roark, measured against him, and found to be very crudely flawed.
“I teach you the Superman”
It’s clear then the novel revolves around Roark, and he is meant to be some sort of representation of the good. Not just a man living a (or the) good life; not just a good man; not just a genius – but a living embodiment of the idea of virtue. Rand makes this indisputably clear in her introduction to the 1968 edition:
“This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal … to which any … values contained in a novel are only the means. My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark”.
But Rand’s expression of this in the text is very awkward. She may be content with Roark appearing unsympathetic or unlikable – after all, why would this superman need to approbation of the sort of moocher that would engage in literary criticism? – but the Roark we get can barely raise even these responses in the casual reader. The most striking thing about him is his passivity – and when he is providing input, as in the long speeches Rand sometimes makes him give, he’s more like a vessel put of which to pour Rand’s worldview.
In a self-described romantic novel we surely expect some dynamism from the hero. I’ll try give a sense of this odd dissonance in the text. Could some of the internal contradictions of Rand’s ethics have lead her to adopt such an uncompelling character for Roark?
NB: to quote even modest portions of the text, I’ve had to cut out significant portions, indicated by ellipses – Rand is extremely long-winded (particularly in dialogue) and I think it’s important to get a feel for the woodenness of the writing without having to plow through pages of the same. I don’t believe that I’ve altered the sense of any extracts, and sadly there’s little poetry in any of this dialogue to disrupt.
An unedifying paragon
Given the gushing introduction, it’s a major puzzle why Roark seems so dull to be around. The narrative voice of the book – which is certainly one and the same as that of Rand – almost seems aware of this, given how little time we spend in his company compared to the “second raters”. At many points I even got the distinct impression that the author was sick of her own creation, and would rather spend time with the neurotic Keating or sexually fantasising with Dominique. In the first book of TF, passages dealing with Roark make up maybe one third of the total content – we spend much more time with Keating, who is supposed to be the paradigm parasite.
For the first 600 “pages” in my ebook, corresponding to the section I’ve read, I sampled every 50 pages, and noted down every one which contained any mention of Roark or him speaking. I ended up with only 3 “Roark” pages to 8 “non-Roark” – almost all of the latter concerned with Keating – somewhat less than the third I estimated.
Part of the problem is that Roark is extremely passive, almost like a prop moved from scene to scene as required. Take the scene when he first is hired by his mentor, Cameron:
“Why the hell should you pick me?”
“I think you know that.”
“What infernal impudence made you presume that I’d want you? … Come on, answer me! Answer me, damn you!”
“It’s not necessary.”
Or when shortly afterwards when Cameron realises he is just too good an architect, and tries to make him leave:
“You’re fired,” said Cameron.
Roark stood, halfway across the long room, his weight on one leg, his arms hanging by his sides, one shoulder raised.
“Am I?” he asked quietly
“You’re too good,” said Cameron. “You’re too good for what you want to do with yourself. It’s no use, Roark. Better now than later.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s no use wasting what you’ve got on an ideal … that they’ll never let you reach [long speech] … compromise … Save yourself from that. Leave me. Go to someone else.”
“Did you do that?”
“You presumptuous bastard! How good do you think…” … he saw that Roark was smiling “No … [long speech] Well, you’re right. You’re as good as you think you are … Will you try to understand?”
“I understand. I think you’re wasting your time.”
“Don’t be rude … Will you listen and not answer me?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I didn’t intend it as rudeness”
[very long speech] “You’ll cry like a woman, like a drunkard, like an animal. That’s your future, Howard Roark. Now, do you want it?”
“Yes,” said Roark.
Cameron’s eyes dropped … “Howard,” whispered Cameron, “I’ve never told it to anyone….”
“Thank you….” said Roark.
(We might smirk at “I didn’t intend it as rudeness” – but I want to put aside for another post the wider point of the tin-ear for speech displayed here. Needless to say that that is a quality running through the whole novel).
Both encounters go on for several pages: Cameron’s bombastic part countered by a few colourless, single-line responses. This is supposed be the formative moment in Roark’s life and art, a pivotal point in a self-described romantic novel – Cameron is left to provide all the interest the scene might need and ends up passably hammy, but Roark gives us almost nothing. It’s not even that we can dislike him, as (say) arrogant: there’s nothing substantially human to react to, and as a cipher he is trivial. This is typical throughout: for the majority of his dialogue Roark never speaks at length, asks any questions, or engages with his interlocutor in anything other than the most superficial way – as his neutral replies to the apparently furious Cameron show here. In a novel full of verbosity from the most minor characters, this is surely intentional.
When Roark’s terseness often reads as passivity, it sometimes makes him just sound unpleasant to be around. Keating gets it in the neck a lot – when he comes to show Roark his entry for a competition:
“As a matter of fact I did think I’d show you my own entry, you understand I’m not asking you to help me, I just want your reaction, just a general opinion.”
He hastened to open the folder.
Roark studied the sketches. Keating snapped: “Well? Is it all right?”
“No. It’s rotten. And you know it.”
We can bookend this with the end of Cameron’s arc, several hundred pages later, when Cameron is dying. This is depicted over several days, during which Roark stays in his house. The extended scene is full of Cameron’s last words (which are rather hard to take seriously): “Watch the light metals industry, Howard…. In a few… years… you’ll see them do some astounding things…. I don’t… hate anybody any more… only Gail Wynand …”) but Rand doesn’t have Roark say a single thing in response or demonstrate any affect. Through the entire passage, Roark’s activity is limited to exactly two descriptions:
“Roark inclined his head in agreement; he could acknowledge … only by a quiet glance as solemn as Cameron’s”.
“Roark listened and concentrated on not showing that he knew what went on in the terrible pauses”
Even when he goes for a walk near the house, this only follows from Cameron advising him to (“Go out, take a walk through the garden, Howard. It’s beautiful”) and we see the results from Cameron’s perspective (“watch, with contentment … Roark’s figure moving among the bare trees”).
I have a dream
Roark’s strange passivity is his defining feature in this part of the novel – but there are isolated points where he does provide some action. The most common is his speechifying mode, which is the only extended expression we get from him (in a book packed full of often painfully extended dialogue). Sometimes these are directed against very flimsy straw men like the pantomime Dean:
“But all the proper forms of expression have been discovered long ago.”
“Expression—of what? The Parthenon did not serve the same purpose as its wooden ancestor … Every man creates his meaning and form and goal. Why is it so important—what others have done? Why does it become sacred by the mere fact of not being your own? Why is anyone and everyone right—so long as it’s not yourself? Why does the number of those others take the place of truth? Why is truth made a mere matter of arithmetic…”
Another method is to drop them into conversation – examples can be negative, as when Roark gives Keating some friendly advice:
“…on the other hand, Guy Francon offered me a job with him some time ago. Today he said it’s still open. And I don’t know which to take.”
“If you want my advice, Peter,” he said at last, “you’ve made a mistake already. By asking me. By asking anyone. Never ask people. Not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”
“You see, that’s what I admire about you, Howard. You always know.”
“Drop the compliments.”
“But I mean it. How do you always manage to decide?”
“How can you let others decide for you?”
or positive, as in the (single) example of substantial dialogue which I left out of the Cameron passage above:
Roark got up and stood against the edge of light on the desk.
“If,” said Roark, “at the end of my life, I’ll be what you are today, here, in this office, I shall consider it an honor that I could not have deserved.”
“Sit down!” roared Cameron …
Roark … astonished to find himself standing. He said: “I’m sorry. I didn’t know I got up.”
There are several defining features of both modes, and hence to all of Roark’s substantial utterances:
- Short or long, they are given as monolithic soliloquies. There’s no real engagement with the fellow conversationalist – and even if they do react (and agree with him), Roark returns to his terse mode.
- While there’s usually some initial attempt to make them relevant to the context, very quickly they drift into universalising rhetoric.
- The outbursts are rare, and there is the sense is that they are gems of virtue winkled out of Roark by his interlocutor.
The examples demonstrate these features well – but the reader would be hard pressed to find any expression more than a few words long which don’t fit this pattern. In the first case, Roark delivers his piece (which I’ve cut down), and then clams up, giving single lines to the Dean for many pages: after telling Keating what’s what he becomes positively rude, and he seems surprised himself after his more positive response to Cameron. In each case Roark becomes a rhetorical mouthpiece for Rand: note how quickly the initial talk of architecture in the Dean example quickly grades into a familiar groove of railing against collective values, or the be true to yourself message is delivered to Keating just for asking for advice, or the protestations of honour in virtue (which is admittedly quite sweet) given to Cameron. Finally, we only get these pearls of wisdom out of Roark after extended one-sided badgering, for many pages (in the case of the Dean and Cameron) or paragraphs (from Keating). The messianic theme is particularly strong in the final example, where Roark is actually seen to stand up and step into the light before he gives his rousing speech.
In isolation, and if leavened with some more substantial character, we might only think these devices are a little cliched. But when this is the only insight we get into the mind of our superman, the effect becomes deadening. The scenes with Roark essentially leave the reader waiting for him to drop one of his special insights. And are we to be satisfied with a few baldly stated samples of Rand’s ethics?
Finally, on rare occasions Roark actually does something to drive the narrative forward. I want to emphasise how rare these are: even the (apparently iconoclastic) seeking out of the old, drunken master of Cameron is driven as a fait accompli at the beginning of the novel. But there is something unconvincing about these moments. Take the scene when the Roark is fired by the architect Snyte, as he is presenting his design for Heller’s house:
The sketch lay on the Chinese artist’s table, and the artist stepped aside diffidently, in silence. The next table was Roark’s. He stood with his back to Heller; he went on with his drawing, and did not turn.
“It’s so near somehow,” said Heller regretfully, “but it’s not right  It lacks something and it has too much…. If it were cleaner, more clear-cut … what’s the word I’ve heard used?—if it were integrated….”
Roark turned. He was at the other side of the table. He seized the sketch, his hand flashed forward and a pencil ripped across the drawing, slashing raw black lines …
It was being done before the others had grasped the moment when it began. Then Snyte jumped forward, but Heller seized his wrist and stopped him.
Roark threw his head up once, for a flash of a second, to look at Heller across the table. It was all the introduction they needed; it was like a handshake.
As Heller said nothing, Snyte felt free to whirl on Roark and scream: “You’re fired, God damn you! Get out of here! You’re fired!”
“We’re both fired,” said Austen Heller, winking to Roark. …
Roark went to his locker to get his hat and coat.
Then Heller was gone, and Roark with him; and the door, as Heller swung it shut behind them, sounded like the closing paragraph in one of Heller’s articles.
Roark had not said a word.
Whatever we think of tenability of this scene ever taking place, the actual action gets significant description here. What is supposed to be happening here is the explosion of a frustrated and repressed genius, immediately recognised by the individualist Heller. In practice, Roark hardly seems to be consciously present at all. We see him acting – but have no indication there are any thoughts or feelings compelling him in what is supposed to be this dramatic act. In its place we are given a long description of architectural features being amended, which is not quite the same thing. Even as he’s vandalising some blueprints, Roark is weirdly passive, a tool for Rand’s ideas about architecture. He turns, is “at” the other side of the table – we get a couple of words of actual physicality (seizes .. hand flashes forward) – and that’s it. The rest comes from the other characters (Snyte jumping forward, Heller grabbing him) and even him being fired is handled by Heller. Rand underscores by emphasising his neturality (“had not said a word”): we get a dull description of his going to his locker, and then he “was gone” along with Heller
Scenes of this sort involving Roark are few and far between – but it would be remiss not to mention the rape scene (a longer post will deal with the bizarre and very questionable chapter containing this, during which the novel briefly turns into Mills and Boon). It is difficult to look upon Roark with anything but horror here, and indeed the entire scene is described from Dominique’s viewpoint. The following morning we are told that the rape was
“…a point reached, like a stop in the movement of his life. He was moving forward for the sake of such stops … last night had been what building was to him. [A week later] when the train started moving, he remembered Dominique and that he was leaving her behind. The thought seemed distant and unimportant.”
Even apart from our struggle to reign in our disgust at the reduction of violent sexual assault to banal thoughts about architecture, this scene gives us in distilled form why we might find Roark so unappealing – any suggestion of complex character has to be reduced to a reflection of his supposed architectural genius.
Don’t overthink it
In between scenes, we might be tempted to imagine Roark being safely stowed away, perhaps propped up in a corner. His physical passivity – which is sometimes, rarely, broken – is a reflection of his mental vacuum, which is virtually complete. I have searched through the sections I’ve read, but cannot find a single example of a thought. There is no suggestion that Roark has any inner life at all – for an apparent genius, he seems essentially untroubled by any kind of thought.
An (unintentionally) amusing side-effect is that the characters in the novel seem aware of this – from Keating the “parasite”
“Can’t you be human for once in your life?”
“Human! Simple. Natural.”
“But I am.”
“Can’t you ever relax? … Can’t you ever be comfortable—and unimportant?”
“Don’t you get tired of the heroic?”
“What’s heroic about me?”
And even from his ally, Heller:
“You must learn how to handle people.”
“I don’t know how. I was born without some one particular sense … Besides, I don’t like people who have to be handled.”
“I’ve always thought that you were the most anti-social animal I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.”
“I need people to give me work. I’m not building mausoleums. Do you suppose I should need them in some other way? In a closer, more personal way?”
“You don’t need anyone in a very personal way.”
Even the novel itself sometimes depict him literally lifeless. When Roark is waiting for news on a client, he comes in every day and sits
“at the desk in his office, waiting … He had become dependent on that telephone in the last few weeks … His rent on the office was long since overdue … He sat, slumped across the desk, his face on his arm, his fingers on the stand of the telephone … He thought that he should take his hand off that phone; but he did not move it.”
Wouldn’t we expect a genius, someone whose life so revolves around architecture, to spend free time they’ve had thrust upon them more productively? Even with no clients, Roark could sketch imaginary buildings, practice his technical skills, or just walk around the city exposing himself to architecture. Roark appears to have no motive force in investigating anything of the world around him: ideas, people – or even the endeavour in which he’s supposed to display such talent and passion.
Roark smiles ironically when Keating tells him he’s not relaxed – to him that’s equivalent to physical floppiness:
“…he was sitting on the window sill, leaning sloppily against the wall, his long legs hanging loosely, the cigarette held without pressure between limp fingers.
“That’s not what I mean!” said Keating.”
Not even the best architect
It’s just conceivable that we might be able to put up with Roark’s antics, or lack of them, if we were convinced that he really was so exceptional (a case in point: Roman Polanski). It’s safe to say that creating a fictional character that is supposed to be a genius of some sort is fraught with difficulty. Even moderate ability must be backed up with at least enough background knowledge and depiction of the world in question to pass by a layman – or the character quickly becomes risible (see, for example, just about every depiction of poker experts, mathematical prodigies, scientific geniuses on film). Rand falls well short of convincing us that Roark is God’s gift to architecture. (I think this is an interesting subject, and intend to write a much more detailed comparison with Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defence – a much more successful depiction of a genius shortly).
Much sound and fury is expended in pouring scorn on what is presented as the dominant – even exclusive – architecture of Roark’s day. It’s important to remember that the novel was published in the 1940s, and spans twenty years or so between the 20s and the 40s. The architecture in the college town is described as
The township of Stanton began with a dump … The road led past the first houses to a church. The church was a Gothic monument of shingles painted pigeon blue. It had stout wooden buttresses supporting nothing. It had stained-glass windows with heavy traceries of imitation stone. Behind the lawns stood wooden piles tortured out of all shape: twisted into gables, turrets, dormers; bulging with porches; crushed under huge, sloping roofs.
and we soon see that this is supposed to apply to the whole country:
“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 … 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.
People came, looked, were astounded, and carried away with them, to the cities of America, the seeds of what they had seen. The seeds sprouted into weeds; into shingled post offices with Doric porticos, brick mansions with iron pediments, lofts made of twelve Parthenons piled on top of one another. The weeds grew and choked everything else.”
Cameron is supposed to be have been the lone voice of dissent:
“While architects cursed, wondering how to make a twenty-story building look like an old brick mansion … Henry Cameron designed skyscrapers in straight, vertical lines, flaunting their steel and height. While architects drew friezes and pediments, Henry Cameron decided that the skyscraper must not copy the Greeks.”
Architecture has supposed to have stagnated – nothing is supposed to have changed since the 1890s, and architects are supposed to be obsessed with producing inferior copies of older buildings.
The problem with this is that even to an architectural ignoramus like me – this is obviously baloney. Really, we’re supposed to believe that nothing changed in American architecture through the most important 50 years of its history? That everyone has been slavishly copying classical architecture, while obviously modernist movements like art deco were overwhelmingly popular in the 20s (an “assertively modernist style”)? Skyscrapers like the Empire State building and the Chrysler building, built in the early 30s? Or the Flatiron building, which would have been completed about the time Roark was born? What about Frank Lloyd Wright? So Roark might be partly based on him, but the idea that there weren’t massive changes in architecture afoot in the culture he was part of is hard to maintain. And if this weird neoclassical style was the most popular, where have all the buildings gone now? Perhaps they were so terrible they’ve all been torn down, to be replaced with homogeneous steel and glass that is now bloody everywhere.
Rand’s references to architecture are painfully limited – just search for the word “Parthenon” and you’ll find just about every passage where she wants to rail against her burlesque of state of 40s architecture. The structures she criticises are obviously absurd. Likewise, her positive idea of what good architecture is, to modern eyes, very boring. Straight vertical glass and steel – now the safest, least imaginative choice. If I bought that Rand/Roark really were trailblazers here, I might be sympathetic that times have changed and these constructions have become passe since the 40s. But Rand can’t rely on this here – she’s trying to make universal timeless statements. That tastes or arts might evolve over time, and what was once daring and novel become hackneyed, isn’t something she could countenance.
An interesting aside to this is that the most these observations – good and bad – are made by the disembodied narrator, or Rand. While he’s often depicted drawing, Roark expresses his views on architecture surprisingly little – and when he does, it often quickly grades into a more general speech on something else: say, individualism. Apart from the couple of fictional characters invented to propound the same sort of architecture as himself, there is a not a single reference of Roark studying, admiring, critiquing, learning from, or having any contact with any real-life architect. Likewise, there isn’t a single description of him taking inspiration from any real-life buildings – and there are scant descriptions of him even looking at any other buildings with an architect’s eye. There is absolutely never any description of Roark engaging with some sort of community of architects – even negatively. Roark is supposed to go to learn from Cameron, but we never get any sense that this is occurring and indeed Roark appears to be superior from day one.
Apply this to something like fine art: imagine an artist who takes no interest in paintings, cannot name a real-life artist they admire, does not spend their time comparing and honing their technical with others – and yet considers themselves a conventional genius. We as readers are rightly immediately suspicious of these claims.
Rand wants to insist that good architecture is something like arithmetic – that there is a right answer, and someone can be a genius just by consistently pointing this out. Even with the sketchiest idea of how architecture works shows this is untenable (putting aside engineering issues like the building not falling down, since Rand does the same). Plainly, good architects reasonably disagree all the time on matters of taste and design. To deny this is to insist that the majority of architects that have ever lived must have been self-recognised frauds. Indeed, the number of human endeavours in general where there is some immediately verifiable right answer and no room for disagreement is surprisingly small – arithmetic may be trivially deducible in this way, so no mathematician spends their time working out sums. In fact, the closest thing to this sort of absolute verifiability that Rand wants could be something like chess – and Nabokov shows just what a deep, incomprehensible abyss of thought that can be.
The overall impression we get is that for all the talk – Rand – and Roark – just aren’t that interested in architecture. I certainly learned nothing new from spending time with him – and I start from a very low base. Rather, architecture is a proxy for innate knowledge of absolute truth. It seems unfortunate for Rand that she chose something that to thoughtful reader is plainly subjective and changeable – indeed, it seems largely chance (an adaptation of an earlier screenplay) that architecture ended up being Roark’s skill. While it may suit the romantic side to her writing – the more successful side (though that’s another post) – it jars badly with the message she wants to put across.