Affirming our opposition to bad art and banal thought is satisfying and often necessary. In the few days after I’d immersed myself back into the sludgy consistency of Rand’s novel, with all its bald and unchallenged commonplaces, I felt a real need to vent distaste, even just as cathartic resistance. Schadenfreude is fun, but it can get close to bad conscience if that’s all we’re doing – often something of an online speciality. Spending our whole time decrying the bad doesn’t cut it – something that Rand herself would have done well to mark: for all her pleas of positive virtue created by individuals, the majority of The Fountainhead is spent sneering at the trivially dismissable.
Read the first half of this post here
In some lighter posts, I’ll come onto the severe weaknesses in Rand’s writing which I believe she cannot control, and which generated some of the fun that kept me sane during the harder going parts. But I think it’s clear that partially Roark’s bizarre construction is an intentional effect. Rand wants to create an embodiment of her virtues: if we were to describe Roark even in negative terms as unreflective, callous, monomaniacal or bone-headed, I can see the committed Randian openly embracing these qualities (though I suspect they would rather cast them as unswerving, selfish, focussed).
So why does it backfire so badly? I would challenge even the most starry-eyed devotee to find the Roark we’re given compelling. The narrative voice – and by extension Rand herself – chooses to spend more of the novel away from him than otherwise. Even if we allow ourself to discount the rape scene – where the distancing is total, and he may as well be an incidental criminal – he comes out as a pretty second-rate kind of superman.
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 is no secret that I come to The Fountainhead with rather low expectations. Everything I’ve heard, even sometimes from otherwise admirers, suggests that Ayn’s prose will:
- Exist purely for the service of an extremely rigid political idea. There will be no variety, no fun to be had, except to hammer home the message of objectivism, individualism and capitalism at every point.
- Be mostly dialogue, and contain extremely long and didactic soliloquies. There will be a lot of telling and not showing.
- Be extremely literal and earnest; irony, ambiguity, and humour will be absent
- Be indifferent to realistic descriptions of psychology; the surrounding world; the practice of professions; and personal relationships.
- Contain some very dubious sexual politics
I list these to make my initial biases explicit. My aim in reading The Fountainhead is to give credit where it’s due – I want to acknowledge where Rand’s text is good (or even just ok), and particularly where it bucks these trends. Hey, sometimes low expectations can be a good thing.
Welcome to Objectively Bottom Quartile, a blog in which I attempt to read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and furthermore attempt to comment on it in an pithy or at least mildly entertaining way.
Why are you reading The Fountainhead?
As an exercise in mind-broadening, or possibly masochism. Full disclosure: I have never been an enthusiast of Ayn Rand, and I think Objectivism is a half-baked philosophy, or approaching a cult, depending on how seriously you take it.
However, a heuristic for good art that I’ve been using for a long time is: are its defenders enthusiastic about its enriching qualities? There are many art forms that do nothing for me, but I can appreciate the genuine enthusiasm of those who are in to it. Rand’s novels clearly pass this test. And in the end: it’s difficult to justify criticism of novels based on excerpts.
Why the name?
Objectively Bottom Quartile is to poke fun at the literal imposition of supposedly “objective” values onto writing, philosophy and ethics, long the signature of Rand and her followers. It is intended to draw attention to the fact – in my objective opinion – that Rand, obsessed with genius and the great individual, was a very mediocre writer and a dreadful philosopher. Indeed, the very things she rails against in The Fountainhead – pretentious lauding of art because it flatters one’s ego or accords with your own political values – seems a central reason for her popularity.
Why The Fountainhead? Why not Atlas Shrugged?
It’s shorter. I’m not Spartacus.
So you object to Rand politically?
I don’t have a problem with libertarians or classical liberals. I find the kind of extreme laissez-faire capitalism advocated by Rand to be the least offensive of the common extreme political positions. I am sympathetic to some of the individualistic notions Rand supports – although of course they had long been expressed, in far superior form, elsewhere.
Yes. One of the goals of these posts will be to see how the rather large holes in Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, manifest themselves in her writing – generally with detrimental effect. Aside from specifically looking at this in Rand’s work, I’m also interested in some of the higher level questions: is there utility in creating a philosophical literature of ideas? Does this justify a tin ear for language?
Having said that, nearly all of Rand’s ideas have some – better expressed – equivalent which I can appreciate. I am sympathetic to virtue ethics, pragmatism, egalitarianism, meritocracy, liberalism, and individual creative engagement.
So this is an exercise in schadenfreude?
Yes, partly. This is not to rule out that there is also a good deal of wholesome fun to be had in some of Rand’s more bizarre attempts at, for example, figurative language. Any book that can unintentionally make me laugh out loud (in public) so often has something to recommend it.
But all this isn’t really very significant – I’d rather use it as a test case of my conception of good art – and to think about what makes some of the writers I admire skip over the pitfalls Rand tumbles into.
Secondly, there’s the interesting phenomenon of a oracle-like figure, proclaimed by a genius for her writing – fiction and philosophy – where the material works are so poor. The question of what is valuable in the work, and whose values, is one which continually lurks in the background of the Objectivist movement.
Finally, I also find Rand a somewhat tragic character: someone who had a genuinely interesting life, who could never live up to her own ascetic, sentimental philosophy, and whose acolytes transformed into a cult figure which must have been – at least partly – to her distaste. Fundamentally the juxtaposition of this with being the writer of the biggest selling book (after the Bible) in the US is simply an interesting story.
So which writers do you admire?
As far as I am concerned, Nabokov is the man. One benefit is I am beginning to reread Nabokov for contrast, and am gaining a clearer perception of his occasional flaws but mostly a deeper appreciation of what he achieved.
What about comments?
Comment is free, but I am unlikely to respond to them.
I fully expect to be deluged with material from Rand’s fans, followers and acolytes. I’m not really sure why: doesn’t this make commenters like the parasitic characters in The Fountainhead, continually worried about what some anonymous stranger (who has never even met them!) thinks? Shouldn’t you be spending that time building your one true individual heroic work, oblivious to the herd of faceless mediocrities like me?
Good arguments and interesting points will be picked up in blog posts.