There are—a few times in your life— experiences that shape your psyche and leave an indelible mark on your world-view. Reading Ayn Rand’s masterpieces ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was one of those experiences for me.
I have never been too fond of fiction and novels, with non-fiction having a place of pride in my set of preferences. The Fountainhead was on my radar for a very long time (think years!), but I could never get around to it. In a discussion we were having with some like-minded colleagues, someone brought the topic up and I picked up the book in curiosity. Boy, what a ride!
Ayn Rand weaves the motifs of the triumph of the human spirit, with intrigues of love and sex to politics in the corridors of power effortlessly and in a cohesive whole. Her philosophy of ‘Objectivism’ and ‘individualism’ are recurring themes that are evident throughout the novel. The book in notoriously difficult to begin and taxes your patience in the first few pages. However, if you endure the arduous climb atop the cliff, the view is exhilarating.
Rand has an unmatched ability to make her characters so life-like that they almost dance in front of your eyes. The protagonist ‘Howard Raork’ in particular is someone who is an outlier and hence is scorned and shunned by the society. The overarching theme is that the collective wisdom of the society thrives on averages and those beyond those averages are given a hard time by the society. It is also true that these outliers that struggle their way through to the top of the world are the ones that shape society and move the average ahead. As it is often said, an idea progresses from preposterous, to acceptable to obvious in due course, if the one proposing the ‘preposterous’ idea perseveres.
Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. man had no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons, and to make weapons – a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and we have comes from a single attribute of man -the function of his reasoning mind.
What is defining about this book is the unique perspective each character brings to the table. Roark ignores the world, Dominique mocks it, Wynand is out to destroy it. Toohey, the antagonist, is a parasite who loves playing games to thwart greatness and Keating is a bumbling fool who thrives on his mediocrity and is destroyed by it.
When you sit and read this book, you are giving a gift to yourself. The gift of your own life, that is yours to live and enjoy, the one where you can and do what you think is the best for your own happiness. Of course, if you happen to agree with the book 100%, you have not understood it. The author wants you to be an individual and form your own opinion and be superlatively selfish in the quest. As she herself says:
The Fountainhead’s is a confirmation of the spirit of youth, proclaiming man’s glory, showing how much is possible. It does not matter that only a few in each generation will grasp and achieve the full reality of man’s proper stature–and that the rest will betray it. It is those few that move the world and give life its meaning–and it is those few that I have always sought to address. The rest are no concern of mine; it is not me or The Fountainhead that they will betray: it is their own souls.
Though best read in context, here are some of the defining quotes from the novel:
On being followers of ideas rather than their proponents:
“Listen to what is being preached today. Look at everyone around us. You’ve wondered why they suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men. He’s not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion – prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded. He can’t say about a single thing: ‘This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me’. Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.”
On selfishness being a virtue and competence being the only thing worthy of worship
“It’s easy to run to others. It’s so hard to stand on one’s own record. You can fake virtue for an audience. You can’t fake it in your own eyes. Your ego is your strictest judge. They run from it. They spend their lives running. It’s easier to donate a few thousand to charity and think oneself noble than to base self-respect on personal standards of personal achievement. It’s simple to seek substitutes for competence–such easy substitutes: love, charm, kindness, charity. But there is no substitute for competence.”
On being true to your convictions in the face of adversity, a trait personified by the protagonist – Howard Roark
“Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea.”
“Self-sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed.”
On being pioneers of an idea; on persevering in the face of mockery, indifference and scorn; and on being the ones that moved the world.
“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.”
On being charitable to the undeserving; on the urge of the society to attune itself to the unworthy.
“Is it advisable to spread out all the conveniences of culture before people to whom a few steps up a stair to a library is a sufficient deterrent from reading?”
This is a great piece of art that must be worshipped. You may or may not agree with the entirety of the philosophy of the book, but it sure spurs some deep introspection and appraisal of the social moorings of the society.