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.