Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Fountainhead

This is the reason I had to restart my blog.  This is the book that demanded conversation.  In fact, I am writing this within minutes of reading the last line, desperate to prolong the experience and allow it to set its roots in me.

Reading Anthem as your only book by Ayn Rand is a crime to literature, a crime that I was guilty of for quite some time.  As you can probably tell from my blog, I like to sample literature like a buffet, tasting just a little bit from a wide selection of different authors and periods.  In many cases, I've read only one piece by an author before moving on to someone else.  But although Anthem is an interesting novella, it does not even begin to do justice to Ayn Rand.  She is absolutely brilliant, and the way she carefully crafts and unfolds a long story is almost breathtaking.

I cannot bring myself to give you a plot synopsis for The Fountainhead because it doesn't even begin to capture what the story is truly about.  If you absolutely need to know, I'm sure you can find one online somewhere.  To be honest, I didn't have much interest in reading this book at the beginning.  I had heard so much about Rand's philosophy and politics that I thought it would make for a dry and serious novel.  But now I am kicking myself for avoiding this book as long as I did.

Nearly halfway through the novel, I wondered why everyone emphasized her philosophy so much and yet I had heard nothing about the plot.  I felt that it was a story about architecture and unique characters, with the philosophy running merely as an undercurrent.  Now that I have finished the novel, I understand how everyone seems to forget that.  I acquiesce that every page mentions some form of the word "architecture" or "building."  The descriptions are dripping with succulent care.  There's a love and brilliance in the presentation of the buildings, and the man who is Howard Roark.  But by the end of the novel, one recognizes that it is not about these things.

Ayn Rand is the Howard Roark of literature.  She was a genius in her craft and clearly had a clear vision for what she meant to convey.  However, this book has received its fair share of controversy, and I can hear the objections ringing in my mind - that it's long, that it's indecent, that it's unrealistic, that it's pretentious, that it's boring.  Even though I absolutely love this book, I will not recommend it to friends as freely as I do with others, and yet I quiver at these objections.

So what is it that makes this book so great?  Why does it stand immortally in the shelves of Classic Literature?  I believe she offers a voice that is not heard in other pages.  Truthfully, I do not fully agree with her feelings about individualism and collectivism, but it doesn't matter.  I still benefit from hearing her perspective, and I feel like a stronger person because of it.

Only great literature can make you feel like a better person for having taken the time to read it.  There are a few books that have done this to me before.  Crime and Punishment, Invisible Man and East of Eden immediately stand out in my mind as works that have made a lasting impression on me and deeply fed a need.  But I have spent this past year being torn down by a number of unforeseen obstacles and curveballs.  I have been broken and lost and aimless.  I have pushed through pain and fought to maintain a healthy and positive attitude.  I have started rebuilding myself from the rubble of this past year, and The Fountainhead pushes me to make this new version more wholly me than any model of the past.

In my opinion, the most interesting concept in The Fountainhead is a redefinition of the words "selfish" and "selfless."  Immediately, a swarm of associations come to mind with those words.  But Rand defines "selfless" literally, as the lack of a sense of self.  Selfless people are the ones who have built their identities on what they believe other people desire and admire.  If pressed, they probably could not identify any of their choices as ones which truly came from their own desires.  I understand this concept because I have lived it.  Selfish people, on the other hand, know exactly who they are, and nothing could make them change it.  There is nothing so valuable to them that they would compromise who they are and what they believe.  Not public opinion, not personal comfort, not great success.  Howard Roark is the embodiment of this kind of selfish person, and it is fascinating to watch him wage war with the rest of society.

Interestingly, I don't love this "hero" of the story.  I would venture to say that Rand didn't even want readers to love him.  But I do admire and respect him.

Finally, I can't help but note that one of the most surprising things I discovered in this novel is that it is romantic at its heart.  By no means is it romantic in the most common sense of the word, but there is a powerful, underlying theme that there is someone for everyone.  The key relationship is strange, insensitive, and unnerving, but they fit as though they were built to be together.  There's something so romantic in the unexpected aspect of this, and I'm afraid that often gets lost in the typical discussion of this book.

If you have read my entire post, thank you for taking the time to listen.  I welcome your thoughts in the comments below. 


Brian Bither said...

I'm glad you finally read The Fountainhead, but you have yet to do justice to Rand without having read her real masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged. In any case, I enjoyed your post and certainly your comment that Rand is romantic. I suppose that's true, even though I've never heard anyone say that before.

Although I cannot endorse her moral perspective, I - like you - found her redefinition of selfishness to be intriguing. At least since Kant, we have come to see "Unselfishness" as the ultimate vice, and she rightly challenges that. I think the problem is actually the way the self and the other are pit against one another in our ethical formulations, and so I would accuse her of going to the opposite extreme. Even so, she's a great dialogue partner, as you said. Thanks for this post.

mark said...

I read this post in my RSS feed the other day probably seconds after you clicked "Publish." It was a good read. I haven't read The Fountainhead yet but your post tempted me to abandon my current read completely and dive in. I'm going to wait until I finish what I'm reading now, but all I have to say is that as soon as I am able, I am going to read this book.

And I am so glad to see you back.

steelsuzette said...

I've been avoiding Ayn Rand for the same reason: I don't want to read a philosophical treatise, and that's all people talk about.
But your review tells me to rethink that, and maybe give 'The Fountainhead' a chance.

Amy said...

@Brian, thanks for your comments. I don't endorse her moral perspective either, though I think it's worth considering.

@Mark, thanks for welcoming me back! And let me know when you read this book. It's definitely worth it!

@Suzanne, I was avoiding Ayn Rand for the same reason! It's really not a book of philosophical treatise but an interesting fictional narrative. Trust me, you should try it out.