‘I am Howard Roark in a world of Ellsworth Tooheys…’ I tweeted in a fit of depression the other day, though I rather wish I hadn’t. I’m not an architect — and if I were I definitely wouldn’t be a humourless monomaniac into concrete and influenced by Le Corbusier; I don’t have hair ‘the exact color of ripe orange rind’ (does anyone?); I’m not a rapist; and, to be honest, I’m not even sure I like the novel that much anyway.
It’s called The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, and if you haven’t read it that’s quite understandable as the Russian-born novelist and philosopher Rand (née Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum in 1905) is much bigger in the US than she is over here. Though she’s now better known for Atlas Shrugged (1957) — currently enjoying a massive revival in the US as part of the Obama backlash — it was The Fountainhead (1943) that made her name and has since sold around 6.5 million copies.
The thing that drew me to it was that it was Sir Michael Caine’s Desert Island Discs book and I’ve got a bit of a thing about Michael Caine. I love the fact that, during his National Service in the Korean war, his recce platoon was completely surrounded by Chinese and they thought they were going to die. As a last desperate measure, the platoon leader ordered them to charge through the Chinese lines and hope for the best. It worked. Caine has never feared anything since.
You do wonder, though, what kind of mindset you’d need to choose The Fountainhead as your all-time favourite book. For a start, there’s Rand’s prose style — poetic and quite Hemingway-like in small doses; prolix, monumental, portentous in larger ones. Then there’s her political philosophy Objectivism, to which all else is subordinate. Instead of dialogue, her characters talk to one another like Gladstone to Queen Victoria — as if addressing a public meeting. They have no inner life and, like the strained plots, serve little purpose other than to reveal what Rand seems to think is the great division in the world — between uncompromising individualists like Roark and parasitical, mediocrity-fostering ‘second-handers’ such as the vile Ellsworth Toohey.
Take the book’s rich, beautiful heroine Dominique Francon. She sees Roark as her ideal man — even more so, bizarrely enough, after he has raped her — but spends much of the book slagging off his architecture in her influential newspaper column, denying him work, and engaging in two marriages to men she doesn’t love. Why? Er, something to do with this weird notion she has that if society cannot be persuaded to accept Roark’s genius then she will viciously spite herself and the whole ignorant world by playing society’s conventions while secretly mocking their hypocrisy.
To create a character like that and believe that she works on any level you need to be one sick puppy. This is the view of the great Anthony Daniels in his recent demolition of Rand in New Criterion:
Rand believed all people to be possessed of equal rights, but she found relations of equality with others insupportable. Though she could be charming, it was not something she could keep up for long. She was deeply ungrateful to those who had helped her and many of her friendships ended in acrimony. Her biographer tells us that she sometimes told jokes, but, in the absence of any supportive evidence, I treat reports of her sense of humor much as I treat reports of sightings of the Loch Ness Monster: apocryphal at best.
Like Daniels, what I find most off-putting about Rand is her hardness of heart. She has a Nietzschean (indeed, borderline Nazi) contempt for human frailty and a total lack of sympathy for the underdog. In her weltanschauung, you’re either a hero (rare) or — much more likely — a mere filler of latrines. Any form of charity, she suggests, is a kind of grotesque liberal indulgence towards people who really aren’t worth saving.
For a novelist to lack any kind of human sympathy constitutes, I would suggest, a fairly major technical flaw. Her characters are as nuanced and mobile as heads on Easter Island; things happen to them not because of who they are but because Rand’s moral schemata requires it to be so. Rand’s fans hate being told this but she really is a lousy novelist. It’s not that she didn’t put in the effort — The Fountainhead took her seven years to write. She just lacks the internal wiring.
But that doesn’t mean she’s not worth reading. Hell no. Not if you’re conservative, at any rate. As I’ve grumbled before, one of the unfortunate facts of life is that most works of art are created by pinkos. So when you come upon a book where all the baddies are liberal-lefties and, better still, shown to be bad precisely because they are liberal-lefties, it feels as deliciously naughty and verboten and exciting as some pervy new sex act you’ve only just discovered your girlfriend is prepared to let you do.
This, I’m sure, is the real reason why Ayn Rand strikes such a chord with conservatives. It’s not so much that we love her heroes — not when, as Daniels points out, they have ‘all the human warmth of a praying mantis’ — as that we get so much pleasure loathing characters like her scheming collectivist Ellsworth Toohey.
Toohey, whose philosophy is ‘Don’t set out to raze all shrines — you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity, and the shrines are razed’, is by far the book’s most successful creation because he’s drawn with such intensely loving hatred and such ice-clear understanding of how the liberal-left operates. He’s a monster not because he’s so nasty but because he’s so seemingly nice. He has that slippery plausibility and benign reasonableness you find in, say, Ken Livingstone. It’s that quality conservatives find most terrifying about liberals: the affable shamelessness with which they are capable of advocating a creed whose core aim is to force everyone to act in such a way that they will end up poorer, less free, less fulfilled and less happy.
On the evils of collectivism, socialism, statism and political correctness, Rand was a thinker way ahead of her time. ‘Look at the moral atmosphere of today,’ she wrote in the early 1930s. ‘Everything enjoyable from cigarettes to sex to ambition to the profit motive is considered depraved or sinful.’ And there are some great passages in The Fountainhead where you want to give her a big tick in the margin for having analysed so percipiently the flaws in the socialist system. I particularly recommend Howard Roark’s principled objection to building social housing for the man who earns $15 a week: ‘Not if it raises the taxes, raises all the other rents and makes the man who earns forty live in a rat hole.’
But with Objectivism, Rand plays right into the hands of the enemy. It’s like Adam Smith with the invisible hand removed: so eager and strident is she in her defence of the importance of self-interest that she forgets to remind us of the benefits which will consequently accrue in the broader society. Liberals love to accuse conservatives of being uptight, humourless, selfish, uncaring bastards. On that score, Ayn Rand did us few favours.