The Fountainhead

Author: Ayn Rand

Genre: Philosophy, Fiction, Classics

One of the most brilliant books ever written! A treatise on individualism and the ideal man, it also shows the hypocrisy of the society we live in.

Howard Roark as an architect is the famous protagonist and Ms. Rand’s depiction of an ideal man. He tries to create original designs as an ode to humanity but is condemned by his peers, leaders and society for not conforming to the status quo. Ayn beautifully portrays the struggle of an original thinker who does not pursue money or name, nor even a desire to help others. Just the pursuit of creative thought unbridled by any external authority.

“Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution – or there will be nothing to distribute.”

For his outlandish designs, Howard is rejected professionally and is sued for incompetence (he puts an unusual design and a nude image for a temple) and loses the case. The irony is that many who testify against him have been secretly using his designs in their own works.

Howard remains unfazed. True Freedom is defined as “To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”

Dominique is his beautiful, sensual love interest, also supremely independent. She tries to protect Howard but fails and, in her frustration, marries Howard’s worst enemy and his classmate, Keating. She worships the human greatness of Howard Roark but also pragmatically realizes that such men are doomed to fail in a society ruled by mediocres. Keating gets one success after another but later starts asking questions on who achieved real success – Roark who followed his own path or Keating who depended on society’s approval.

In a romantic defense of egoism, the novel says, “To say ‘I love you’, one must first know how to say the ‘I’”.

Gail Wynand is the rich owner of a newspaper, independent himself (dates multiple women and let’s media talks of his many affairs but as a rule does not sleep with any of them) and prides himself on his power and ability to shape opinion. He genuinely believes in Howard and tries to defend him but realizes his power is because he continued to pander to the public taste. When he goes against the popular mood, all his supporters go away and his newspaper comes on the verge of collapse. He bails out realising the true nature of the power he held: those he thought he controlled actually controlled him.

He finally shuts down his newspaper and gives Roark a final task to build New York tallest skyscraper and to “Build it as a monument to that spirit which is yours… and could have been mine.”

Toohey is the scheming opinion maker who masquerades as a humanitarian. His speech on how people like him obtain power is a macabre reminder of much that is happening around us today: “If you learn how to rule one single man’s soul, you can get the rest of mankind. It’s the soul. Not whips or swords or fire or guns…. Want to know how it’s done?… Make man feel small. Make him feel guilty… Preach selflessness. Tell man that he must live for others. Tell men that altruism is the idea… Not a single man has ever achieved it… Man realizes that he’s incapable of what he’s accepted as the noblest virtue – and it gives him a sense of guilt, of sin, of his own basic unworthiness… You’ve got him. He’ll obey. He’ll be glad to obey – because he can’t trust himself, he feels uncertain, he feels unclean.

Intelligent himself, Toohey realizes that Keating is no match for Howard, yet does everything to promote Keating and destroy Howard. Because people like Toohey feed on our insecurity and need for public approval while Howard cared a damn about what others thought of him.

Toohey: “Mr. Roark, we are alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me?”

Roark: “But… I don’t think of you”

If everyone became a Roark, there will be no place for opinion leaders like Toohey. Therefore, Toohey’s philosophy is that “Great men can’t be ruled. We don’t want any great men.

Ayn Rand was a Russian but quickly developed a distaste for socialism, communism and all forms of collectivism where the individual will is subjugated for supposedly common good. The problem was that everyone who preached that we should be slave to the common good saw their own selves as masters who will guide us in the right direction!

Believing that “the world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing”, she preached that independence, integrity and rational individualism are much higher values than conformity. Ego is the fountainhead (and hence the title of the book) of human achievement and progress. In her own words: “My philosophy (Objectivism), in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

I spent days agonizing over the message (how will society exist if everyone chooses to pursue self-interest) but still came out a strong believer in Ayn Rand. The many speeches in the book (read Toohey’s explanation of how in making God big, we have made humans small; and Roark’s defense of creative selfishness) will make us stop and think. In a paradoxical way, the invisible hand of capitalism (even with all its flaws) still ensures the greater good. The fine line is between the right selfish (pursuing my ambition without a concern to other’s opinion) and the wrong altruism (sacrificing my own individuality to pander to public sentiment).

The book is not an easy read. A really thick book (700 pages) with small fonts. Many criticized it for being too intellectual (12 editors rejected it) before it eventually became a best-seller. The other strong criticism is on the first sexual encounter between Howard and Dominique which is seen as being offensive to women. One grammatical error in the book is the use of the word egotist in describing Roark while Ayn meant (and later clarified) egoist. I also think that altruism and individuality can co-exist in different areas and it is not always a zero sum game, something the author ignored.

Why should you read the book: A supremely engaging story, deep philosophy in a tightly wrapped fictional plot, that will make us think and question many of society’s ‘universal truths’. And the story of one man against the system may give us courage to establish our own philosophy of life, instead of following the rat race. The book and philosophy have influenced youth the world over and made Ayn Rand a cult hero. The cult was the cult of “man-worshipers… those who saw man’s highest potential and strived to actualize it.” [Funnily, it even became fashionable to be an Ayn Rand fan… Eva Mendes for instance said that anyone who wanted to be her boyfriend should first be an Ayn Rand fan!]