Yeah, you’ve guessed it right! The book I’m going to talk about in this post is ‘The Fountainhead’. This was the book I picked up after Gatsby and no wonder it took me a few weeks to come back and write this post. After ‘Shantaram’ I think this is the longest book I’ve ever read. I’ve read and re-read many passages in the book already. I liked it so much!
It’s a classic and I’ve been kicking myself for not having read it much much earlier. There are plenty of books that you read and they compel you to think. This one surpasses that. This is one of those books which one can be life-changing.
The protagonist of our story is Howard Roark. I remember reading the first few pages of the book and instantly liking the character. “I like how he’s so comfortable in his own skin, he doesn’t try to impress anyone with anything”, I remarked to a friend. In the climax of the novel, Roark confirms my prognosis with the following lines. This is what he says while defining an Egotist, “He is not concerned with them (other people) in any primary matter. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his energy.” And he lives up to this line through and through. I’ve got to say that Roark is like the quintessential Bollywood hero. He has principles and integrity, gets denied over and over, struggles against immense odds and comes out trumps in the end.
The other character I really like in the book is that of Gail Wynand. He is a man who has presumably achieved everything. He has a lot of clout and a lot of power. Though he realises eventually that he is not as powerful as he thinks. He feeds the people the crass matter they desire through the Wynand papers. But somehow manages to keep himself above it. He is an art connoisseur. He has good intentions too. He crusades for Roark but eventually capitulates. He is not as strong as Roark. As Ayn Rand put in her notes, he is a man who could have been! While asking Roark to build the Wynand Building towards the end, he tells him, “Build it as a monument to the spirit which is yours..and could have been mine”! I thought that was a very poignant line.
Then there is Dominique Francon. And Ellsworth Toohey. Another two characters that are excellently etched out by Rand. I could talk about them for a long while but I think I’d rather spend the rest of this post talking about the philosophy of Rand.
After completing the book I’ve been trying to reconcile what I’ve believed over the years with what I’ve read and understood of Rand’s philosophy. Clearly Rand and Roark don’t seem to be much in favour of altruism. Roark says, “I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others”. And I think I see what he means.
Over the years the defendants of capitalism (mostly crony capitalists) have used, rather distorted Rand’s philosophy to defend their system. Or perhaps they haven’t distorted it. I’d have to read more of Rand’s views on capitalism before I can say this for sure. But I think this book and in part Rand’s philosophy is more an advocacy of individualism than of capitalism. Roark talks about being self-dependent, about creating and about not borrowing ideas. He states in clear terms that he prefers the egotist to the altruist. And he says he does not recognise anyone else’s right to a minute of his life, nor to any part of his energy. But he almost never talks about money. Roark is a guy who is concerned with creation. “The only thing that matters, my goal, my reward, my end is the work itself. My work done my way”, he says. I think no one who ‘truly’ subscribes to his philosophy can care about anything other than their work and certainly not about the trappings that come as a result of their “creations”. Unless what they want to create is money! Think about the Wright Brothers. Think about Edison. Think about Steve Wozniak. The real “creators”, the “doers”. Do you think any of them were/are truly concerned with money? I don’t think so.
So when the Republicans want to shun taxes on the rich under the garb of defending innovation and individualism, I don’t buy it. In this world there are those fortunate few who are born in the right families and consequently know all the right people. And they get all the breaks. There are also those who are less fortunate, born into a family with no means and go from one disappointment to the next. Perhaps in Rand’s novels the hero can rise from extreme poverty and become a self-made millionaire but the truth is that when you do not get the opportunities and breaks that others get, it’s hard to break the vicious cycle of poverty and rejection. If we can extend a helping hand to some such people in our life, we shouldn’t shirk that responsibility under the pretense of objectivism. Altruism cannot be the driving force behind all our actions according to Roark/Rand. It leads to the “slavery of the soul” which is repulsive and I agree. But altruism can certainly be a by-product of our success and achievement. There is nothing shameful or repulsive about that! So when someone like Bernie Sanders says that even though America is a capitalistic system, there should be some things that shouldn’t be run for profit like healthcare and education, I completely agree with him.
I do not mean to bring up the age old debate of socialism vs capitalism here but I merely mention some of these things to show how I have reconciled Rand’s philosophy with what I think myself. I definitely loved the book and Rand’s ideas but I’m not smitten by her philosophy like a teenager!
Enough about the philosophy, back to the book. It’s a brilliant book overall. I love how beautifully Rand describes all her characters and clearly shows us “what their God is, what they would go to pieces without”. She is able to completely immerse the reader in her world. She has some really exceptional lines for all her characters. I’d conclude the post with a personal favorite of mine from Dominique Francon.
“If I found a job, a project, an idea or a person I wanted—I’d have to depend on the whole world. Everything has strings leading to everything else. We’re all so tied together. We’re all in a net, the net is waiting, and we’re pushed into it by one single desire. You want a thing and it’s precious to you. Do you know who is standing ready to tear it out of your hands? You can’t know, it may be so involved and so far away, but someone is ready, and you’re afraid of them all. And you cringe and you crawl and you beg and you accept them—just so they’ll let you keep it.”
P.S. Dominique! Marry Me!!