Realm Of Randomness

December 10, 2007

The Fountainhead

Filed under: Book,Opinion,Philosophy,Review — Randomizer @ 2:49 am

[Disclaimer: The following is a discussion on Ayn Rand’s book, the Fountainhead. For those who haven’t read it, and intend to, please come back once you have! ]

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So, finally, after years and years of being on my I-must-read-this-book-at-some-point-in-life list, I completed it, though admittedly over a period of 2 months of sporadic reading. While some of the pages at the half-point were a serious drag, I managed to get through them and was glad that I didn’t give up on it mid way. I totally enjoyed the second half of the book.

Critiquing this book, of course, is no easy task – for simply put, it was a literary masterpiece. Ayn Rand is a genius with words. Writing 700 pages worth of words, where every other sentence needed at least a moment or two to completely comprehend what was being spoken about, was surely an amazing feat, and I was completely bowled over by her writing – it was like watching an artist at work.

Some quotes I loved from the book

Gail Wynand, driving in his car and thinking to himself about how people his age (mid 50’s) are desperately searching for meaning in their life, but he is fully aware of what that is to him:

I am Gail Wynand, the man who has committed every crime except the foremost one: that of ascribing futility to the wonderful fact of existence and seeking justification beyond myself. This is my pride: that now, thinking of the end, I do not cry like all men of my age: but what was the use and the meaning? I was the use and meaning, I , Gail Wynand. That I lived and that I acted.

Gail Wynand again, in conversation with Dominique on their yacht, contemplating how ‘humbled’ they should feel looking at the vast, endless ocean around them..

Dominique: You’ve never felt how small you were when looking at the ocean.

Gail: Never. Nor looking at the planets. Nor at mountain peaks. Nor at the Grand Canyon. Why should I ? When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man. I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all that senseless space.

Finally, nearing the conclusion of the book, a memorable line

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.

More memorable quotes from the fountainhead are available here and here.

My critique

Okay. So I expected The Fountainhead to be this book that would change me completely…. but to me, this book was more like poetry. I just kept going ‘wow’ at all her flowery prose, and the philosophy and content of her writing didn’t have as much of an impact as it probably would have had if I’d read this at 17 . Some things in the book I really didn’t like:

  • Roark had no competition: Roark was sold to the reader for free, like a mother spoon-feeding her baby. He was given great firm looks, and he was the best architect by far. Who was Howard’s competition? Was it Peter Keating – who right from page one is described as a good-for-nothing poser of an architect? Was it Elsworth Toohey, who is pure evil, throughout? Gail Wynand came close, but he is intimidated by even the sight of Roark, right from the first time they meet! Ayn Rand did *not* convince me that Howard Roark achieved success because of his individualism, and NOT his obvious expertise over everyone else in the realm of architecture. Had there been another character who was equally as good an architect , but who was not as individualistic, it would have given the reader at least the choice of deciding his/her preference. In this book, Peter Keating was not competition enough to convince me that individualism triumphed.
  • Roark did not seem real: For the first half of the book, Roark was described as someone whose mere sight made people around him feel humbled… like he was the embodiment of human existence – a life form in its purest state – like a walking, spiritual soul. Rand’s physical description of Roark – orange hair and so on – did not fit the meta-physical aura in which he is described throughout the book, and I found it extremely hard to visualize him when reading the book.
  • Dominique Francon was an alien, much like Roark. So in the first half of the book, she sacrifices herself to the ‘lowest man for the lowest possible motive’ by marrying Peter Keating … I cannot imagine any woman doing this – this simply wasn’t a woman. Nor can I imagine such a woman going on to marry Gail Wynand, either… when she is totally in love with Roark, right from day one. She becomes a lot more ‘human’ only towards the end. I totally disliked this character in the first half of the book, as I simply couldn’t imagine a real-life version of her.
  • Individualism for the cream of the crop: Howard Roark could afford sitting on his high horse throughout the book because of one simple fact – he was the best architect in New York, and his creations were described to be so magnificent that people wanted to destroy it just because such an amazing thing did not deserve to be seen by mere mortal men. Well, to this, all I say is – if you are the best anyway, you can afford to have this ‘my way or the highway’ attitude. Anything short of the best – and you will have an ending much, much different from that of Roark. There is no mention anywhere in the book, of the fate of the layman who is individualistic.
  • Not a word on compassion: So Altruism takes a beating in this book, and this is frankly one of the concepts that the author has definitely made me question. Unfortunately, the face of altruism in this book, is the Evil Elsworth Toohey, who is merely trying to feed altruism to the masses so he can ‘rule the world’ when everyone buys his socialistic agenda. But what of the compassion of man for his fellow man? Charity is what takes care of the world’s orphans, the old, and the crippled. This unnecessary attack on charity was a turnoff from an otherwise splendid book.

Overall, it was a fantastic read, and at an age like 1943, when these concepts were not mainstream, it was an amazing feat to have thought these thoughts and written them with such skill. The Fountainhead is definitely a tribute to the spirit of man, and it is a book I shall read again at some point in the future.

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10 Comments »

  1. […] therandomizer’s thoughts on “The fountainhead”; remarkable how if I had written mine, they would have been so similar […]

    Pingback by Just links « Epistles — December 10, 2007 @ 5:54 am | Reply

  2. The only line that stood out for me in the entire book is ‘Man’s ego is the fountainhead of all progress.’

    Is Atlas Shrugged next on the list then? :)

    Comment by Joy — December 10, 2007 @ 6:44 am | Reply

  3. @Joy – You know what, I completely missed that line when I read the book. I was going through the ‘memorable quotes’ from another site, and I read that sentence and went ‘Huh?’ :-P Anyways, I’m done with philosophy for a while… I’ll probably read some fiction or sci-fi next, and get to Atlas Shrugged late next year or so… (That is, *if* my reading habits continue this way .. I have not counted the coming of the Xbox some time soon in any of my calculations :) )

    Comment by Randomizer — December 11, 2007 @ 12:25 am | Reply

  4. “Man’s ego is the fountainhead of all progress” – Enlightenment philosophers from 18th century had said it ( and I am sure some obscure lines from a more obscure Upanishad too ;-) ) .

    Comment by Sharath Rao — December 11, 2007 @ 2:50 am | Reply

  5. Hey! That was an interesting read! However, I have opinions that differ from what you have to say, about Roark esp and the reason for his success. If I remember right, Roark was never called the ‘best architect’ anywhere in the book. He was the best architect of his time and had no equal, only because of his individualism. He was a brilliant architect, technically strong, which ‘at least’ few other contemporaries of his could have been, though they are not mentioned in the book. His greatness as an architect was only because of the fact that, while all other architects of his time chose to copy old styles, cater to popular taste, build buildings without the purpose in mind and add unnecessary structures to it, solely to please public opinion, Roark stood by his desire to construct a building solely with its purpose in mind and to let the building serve its users best. Roark was not born genius, though he might have been born a brilliant architect. This is even more evident when Henry Cameron notices Roark’s brilliant designs, but makes numerous corrections to his designs. Even at the time of Roark, there was one architect, Henry Cameron, who was a much better architect than Roark, also because he stood by his reason and logic. Indviduality and the ability to use logic and stand by one’s, when not expressed as should be over a long period of time, become lost in an indvidual. Those ar ethings that Roark never suppressed. That is why Roark triumphs as an architect and not really because of his expertise.

    Comment by Meenakshi Pavithra — December 24, 2007 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

  6. @Meenakshi – Thanks for your comment ! :)

    I feel that Roark’s expertise over the other architects is evident in the Cosmo-Slotnick competition. He designs the building for Peter, Peter makes a few trivial changes here and there, and he wins the commission. This shows that Roark was always an exceptional architect – the only reason he wasn’t successful was because of all the bad press he was receiving from Elsworth Toohey and Dominique Francon, who were both out to destroy him, for their own personal reasons.

    It is true that Roark does not copy. But inventing something on your own requires tremendous skill and expertise, right? As an analogy, in the software world, there are paradigms that programmers follow in building good software. Now, there might be an individualistic programmer who believes the years of paradigms are useless and he creates his own design for a system, much to the shock of his peers and employers. What will make this programmer successful? Is it

    (a) the fact that he stands against decades of accepted protocol ( Individualism ) or
    (b) how efficient / usable his design really is ? ( Expertise )

    I think we will both agree that the programmer will be considered successful only if, as in case (b), the system really is more efficient and productive. Now, you might say that he went ahead to design his own system *because* he was individualistic – and I will agree with you – but a major portion of his success still lies in the skill/expertise with which he designed this new system.

    The book doesn’t separate the two – his individualism and his skill – and so, I remain a little unconvinced about the reason for his success… it seems to me like both had an equally important role to play.

    Comment by Randomizer — December 27, 2007 @ 1:59 am | Reply

  7. Yeah, I do agree with your analogy and the fact that Roark’s expertise was very important for his success. Only that I wanted to reiterate that he couldn’t have been what he was with his expertise alone, if he had given up his individuality. I guess we both agree that expertise and individuality were important for Roark’s success, but happen(ed?) to attribute it more to a different reason out of the two :)

    Comment by Meenakshi Pavithra — December 27, 2007 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  8. I’m in a kind of hurry, but would like to leave a comment on the fact, that the story isn’t about the best architect in town and his individualistic character, but rather the fact that DUE to his individualism, he turned into the best there ever was.

    Comment by Anonymous — November 17, 2008 @ 11:47 pm | Reply

  9. contd… and I loved every single written word in Fountainhead, in fact there just weren’t enough things said, thus I don’t see any time there to drag.

    Comment by Anonymous — November 17, 2008 @ 11:51 pm | Reply

  10. Ayn Rand is the queen of straw men.

    Comment by dan — March 23, 2010 @ 12:29 am | Reply


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