Monday, December 13, 2010

The Fountainhead by Anne C. Heller

Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller

In one form or another, Ayn Rand had been daydreaming about Howard Roark all her life. In figure, he is tall, thin to the point of gauntness, and almost always rigid with creative tension, although in repose he can be as supple as a cat. He possesses moral certainty and self-confidence, even to the point of insolence. Like Zarathustra, he welcomes the difficulties that propel him beyond the ordinary, drab humanity to the formation of new values. He is single-minded in pursuit of his goal. Nothing can shake his self-esteem and he has no desire to convert others to his creed. He would 'walk over corpses to be an architect but no matter what inducements or penalties he faces he won't compromise his architectural vision by a single pilaster. Rand calls him 'the noble soul par excellence,' paying homage to Nietzsche's definition of a hero as 'as soul that has reverence for itself.' He is the archetype of the creator in a dissipated world.

Familiar to Rand as his ideal character was, not the least because she thought it resembled her own, Roark did not provide the first germ of the idea for The Fountainhead. His glossy, callow schoolmate and opposite number, Peter Keating did. Rand like to tell the story of how she conceived of Peter Keating, who gave the novel its original title, Second-Hand Lives.

In 1931 or 1932, while she was still living on North Gower Street and clerking in the wardrobe department of RKO, she became fascinated by her next-door neighbor, Marcella Bannert, the young women who had helped her to place Red Dawn at Universal Pictures. Marcellas was an executive assistant to David O. Selznick, at the time RKO's chief of production, and she was ambitious. Every day the Russian emigre observed the American go-getter, admiring her obvious drive but disliking almost everything else about her, including her choice of career and the impression she gave of being a Hollywood climber.

One day, to pin down the differences between them, she asked the woman to explain what she wanted to achieve in life. Marcella had a ready answer. If nobody wanted an automobile, she would not want an automobile. If some people had an automobile and others didn't, she would want an automobile. If some people had two and others had only one or none, she would want two automobiles, and so on. And she would want people to know that she had more than they did.

The conversation was a revelation to the 27 year old Rand. By her standards, Marcella seemed not to want anything for herself. Rand's goal was to create a fiction of ideas out of her experience and extraordinary gift for imagining and reasoning. Marcella merely wanted to outstrip the Jones. The prickly young moral philosopher's judgments about people were based on whether they shared her values and 'sense of life.' Marcella appeared to have no values except those derived from other people; she prized what they prized and wanted more of whatever they had, evidently to fill an emptiness inside.

Although some people might have called Marcella selfish because she set her sights on luxury and status, Rand didn't look at it that way. On reflection, she saw that the young woman was actually 'selfless' in the sense that she had no authentic self with which to desire or create anything that was hers alone. Marcella's quality of selflessness, or lack of passionately held ideas and values, explained why she and so many other people Rand knew conformed to apparently meaningless conventions. It gave her the key to a problem that has puzzled her since childhood: why people who were so much less intelligent and passionate than she was treated her with such unfriendly indifference or even malice, seemingly because of her gifts. Pondering her conversation with Marcella, Rand concluded that her resolve to do and think what she wanted, so different from what others seemed to want, challenged the premises of their existence. Not only was she a genius surrounded by mediocrities, she also possessed a moral independence and integrity that the others did not. To some degree, she shamed them merely by living.

Marcella's admission stirred a broader revelation. It explained the psychological source of what she called 'the collectivist motivation', by which she meant the drive to see the meaning of life outside oneself. Collectivists hunger for an all-knowing deity, an altruistic purpose, or a dictator to tell them what to do as a fig leaf for their own inadequacy and emptiness, they love what is average and 'selfless' and fear what is exceptional, original, and has to be created by the self. Such people live by others' choices. They exist at second hand. The absence of an authentic selfishness – that is, a desire to live according to one's own principles, based on the action of one's own mind – this, she decided, was what the Bolshevik mobs, Russian Orthodox votaries, and ordinary Americans had in common.

And so Peter Keating was born, with the soul of a second-hander. Vain, affable, dependent on his popularity for self-respect, and without specific talent, he enters into the book in a mild state of adolescent self-inflation and ends in a frightening and irreversible moral decay . 'He was great; great as the number of people who told him he was great. He was right; as right as the number of people who believed he was right. He looked at the faces, at the eyes; he saw himself born in them.' As she began to outline The Fountainhead, Keating became the emblem of all that Roark is not.


  1. Ayn Rand was and continues to be extraordinarily influential figure in American Letters and politics- a champion of 'flinty individualism, the vision of a zero-sum society in which no one can win unless someone else loses, the conviction that signs of altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness, and the exaltation of solitary striving above the illusory benefits of cooperative mutual aid.' Yet her work and moral message is not without contradictions and paradoxes.

  2. I wish I could make myself read Rand so I would have first-hand knowledge of why I despise her so.