A Quick Confession
I haven’t finished “The Fountainhead” yet. I’m only about 200 pages in. However, I’m familiar with the plot, having heard it discussed and having watched the Gary Cooper film. So, much like Henry David Thoreau, who spent one night in jail, thought, “Clearly I understand everything about this now”, and proceeded to write “On Civil Disobedience,” I’m writing this essay without having finished the book proper.
If you haven’t read “The Fountainhead,” or if you haven’t read it recently, you should check out this wonderful, funny summary from Thug Notes.*Some Spoilers Ahead*
Ayn Rand: Surefire Conversation Starter
If you want to be a magnet for interesting conversations, read an Ayn Rand book in public. No, seriously.
The philosophical tête-à-têtes began the moment I purchased my hefty paperback copy of “The Fountainhead” at Barnes and Noble. The timorous, cardigan-wearing-despite-the-weather cashier confided to me in a soft voice, “I love Ayn Rand.”
“Really? That’s not the most popular opinion in the world.”
She smiled, “Her books are so unique, and I think they’re really inspiring.”
“I’ve only read ‘Anthem,’ but I enjoyed that one pretty well,” I said.
“Me too. DOWN WITH COLLECTIVISM!” she screamed, stripped down to her bra, then set fire to an Eckhart Tolle display.
(Full disclosure—that last part may or may not have happened.)
Since then, I’ve been trying to suss out people’s opinions about Rand, and boy oh boy do they have opinions about her.
Ayn Rand and Sex Choking—More Alike Than You’d Think!
The best example I can think of to illustrate people’s rabid “pro” and “con” opinions about the creator of Objectivism is a joke one of my stand-up comedian friends, Shelby Wardlaw, has about the act of “sex choking.” (I’m assuming that anybody reading this article has at least a passing familiarity with the act of sex choking—if not, go Google it. I’ll wait.)
To paraphrase Ms. Wardlaw’s joke (probably poorly—sorry Shelby), people feel one of two ways about sex choking. Either they say, “It was awful. I felt really vulnerable and used,” or they say, “It was great. I felt really vulnerable and used.”
Similarly, people usually love Ayn Rand for the same reason that others (i.e. democrats, people who believe in slowing down in school zones) hate her: she only believes in the individual, and her philosophy is based on acting in one’s own self-interest.
Despite all of this, I do exist in that rare middle ground, in the group who thinks there’s something to be gleaned from Rand’s ideas, despite her flaws (such as her propensity for writing rape-prone protagonists…ick!).
(At this point, I’d like to add that while Shelby agreed that I could quote her joke in this article, she wanted to make it clear that she doesn’t agree with any of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Thanks for letting me use your joke anyhow!)
The Middle Ground
I’ve only had one conversation about Ayn Rand that lay in the middle of the love/hate continuum. It started when I was outside of a community college library, smoking a cigarette.
A man of about 50 approached me. His teeth looked like a crooked stack of half-burnt firewood as he lit up the business end of a half-smoked Black ‘n’ Mild cigarillo (something I can sympathize with all too well).
“Whatcha reading?” he asked.
“The Fountainhead,” I replied. I’ll admit that at this point, I wasn’t expecting an intelligent conversation.
“Oh, Ayn Rand.” (He pronounced it like the end of the word ‘vein,’ as opposed to ‘vine.’ Strike One, I thought.)
“Yep,” I said.
“How do you like it?” he asked.
“I like a lot of it, I’m taking other parts with a grain of salt.”
“Well, when you grow up in a totalitarian society like she did, her philosophy is a lot more understandable.” Okay, I thought, clearly teeth are not an indication of literacy. (Although, that’s something I should have already known as a dedicated Pogues fan.)
I agreed, adding that it’s impossible to think only of the “collective” as a whole without ignoring individual rights.
“My wife is a psychologist,” he said, “she had a good point about selfishness. She says that selfishness, in proper doses, is good for everybody. If you think about it, I’m being selfish right now by going back to school—taking time off of work, trying to better myself. But in the end, my goal is to help my family, and maybe eventually, society, because I’ll be able to get a more useful job.”
I smiled and wished him luck, shook his hand, and exchanged names (his was Chris, if memory serves). He put out his cigarillo and went along his selfish way.
Howard Roark: The Perfect Man (?)
Another reason I find “The Fountainhead” interesting is that, at its core, it’s admittedly Rand’s attempt to outline her idea of a “perfect man.” (Good news for ginger men–there’s at least one woman who thinks you’re a perfect specimen! Bad news for ginger men–she died in 1982.)
I find this fascinating because for the past month or so, I’ve been working on writing erotica books to sell on the Amazon Kindle Store (don’t bother looking me up, I use a pen name, and the stories are awful—unless you like your sex scenes interspersed with Caddyshack references).
The erotica books I’ve read for, err… “research” are filled with idealized versions of manhood, who come across to a semi-effete guy like me as “assholes.” Erotica and romance novels are filled with guys who can hardly spell their own names, but who look good with their shirts off.
While Rand draws Howard Roark as a fiercely intelligent man, Roark shares something with erotica alpha males–(aside from a willingness to “take what they want,” AKA rape somebody, which, again…just, ick. The fuck, Ayn?)–a completely uncompromising nature–they’re their own men, and don’t give a damn what society wants them to be.
Even if these traits don’t, by themselves, equal a “perfect man,” they go a long way toward answering Freud’s famous query, “What do women want?”
(Side note to Sigmund Freud–I’m not 100% sure, Siggy, but I’m pretty sure women also want someone who knows that a woman’s emotions come from somewhere deeper than the desire to be equipped with a cock.)
Howard Roark Vs. Peter Keating
To examine this idea a little further, let’s look at how Rand juxtaposes Howard Roark with Peter Keating, his colleague, competitor, and all-around frenemy.
Roark is unconcerned about other people’s opinions and the general “spirit of the age.” Peter Keating, on the other hand, is the consummate people-pleaser, who feels like he disappears when people can’t see him.
Put simply, if you ask Peter Keating what he wants for dinner, he’s always going to say, “It doesn’t matter to me. What do you want, dear?” (I’ve read enough issues of Cosmo to know that this indecisiveness is a turn-off for women, or at least to Cosmo readers.)
In contrast, if you asked Howard Roark what he wanted to eat, he would simply answer, “Thai food.” (Ok, perhaps I’m projecting my love of coconut milk-based curries onto Rand’s protagonist—maybe he’d rather grab some Banh Mi sandwiches.)
Do women, and people in general, gravitate towards dictatorial people? Do people want to be told what to do? Ayn Rand’s legions of supporters seem suggest that some people do. Her novels and philosophy are myopic—this is what is right, they say. In a world ever more defined by relativism, it’s hard to deny that absolutes can make for an attractive philosophy.
A Few People Who Remind Me Of Howard Roark (Well, Kind Of…)
Most architects and artists, hell, most people are nothing like Howard Roark—at least, not most sane people. Most successful artists have to compromise their ideas, or at least have a sound that “matures” over time–that or they just sound like they’ve been broken and castrated like the Red Hot Chili Peppers after they got off of drugs.
Or, to quote Rand:
Some of the nearest parallels I’ve found to Roark’s uncompromising, original ideas are in the world of outsider music–music performed by people on the fringes of society, offten dealing with mental illness. While they might not possess the same level of talent that Howard Roark had, you certainly can’t accuse them of compromise, nor can you compare them to the homogeneous tripe that dominates Top 40 Radio.
With the possible exception of Frederick Nietzsche, nobody’s philosophy has been quite as maligned as Objectivism. This is probably because, as with Nietzsche, many people read Ayn Rand to have someone tell them it’s okay to be an asshole.
These type of readers, blind to nuance and utterly accepting of Rand’s every word, call to mind this scene from “A Fish Called Wanda,” in which Jamie Lee Curtis calls Kevin Kline’s character an pseudointellectual and an ape.
“Apes don’t read philosophy,” he says, to which Jamie Lee Curtis replies, “Yes they do, Otto! They just don’t understand it.”
In this same way, many people (from both sides) misunderstand Objectivism’s ideas about selfishness, taking it to mean “greediness.” But like my dentally-challenged friend Chris said before, there can be a virtue, or at least a virtuous outcome to acting in one’s own self-interest.
It’s a problem of semantics, maaaaaan.
For Ayn Rand, who witnessed the sweep of Communism across her homeland as a young girl, “selfishness” meant the ability to act of your own accord, and according to your own need (which inherently differs from the State’s idea of “your own need”).
To use a personal example, when I was younger and first started to reject Catholicism, I found a book about Buddhism and latched onto it like a lovelorn octopus. Problem was, I took the Buddha’s Noble Truths that “life is suffering” and that “the only way out is to stop wishing it will become different” as an excuse to become more nihilistic and dick-headed.
At the core, most philosophies–including Rand’s–are aimed at self-actualization, which I’ve been told translates to “living your best life” in the newfound language that is “Basic Bitch.”
Ways You Might Unknowingly Agree With Ayn Rand
If there’s a better argument against following the collective will of the people and minding “the spirit of the age” than Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, I’ve yet to find it.
Rand, a conservative hero in her own right, had nothing nice to say about the GOP’s anointed Father figure/God Ronald Reagan (and frankly, neither do I). She thought Reagan was simple-minded and duped the masses into believing in bad policies. In that respect Donald Trump makes Reagan seem like a goddamned genius.
By the way, she was also a pro-choice atheist.
For a more in-depth examination of Objectivism in today’s world, this video is worth your time:
If you’ve ever talked about movies with a friend and expressed the view that Hollywood should stop re-hashing old movies, you’re unwittingly agreeing with many of the ideas Rand espouses in “The Fountainhead.” (Also, seriously dude, just start watching television shows—that’s where all of the good writers went.) Here’s a snippet of conversation from early on in the book, when Howard Roark is expelled from architecture school for insubordination:
“I want to be an architect, not an archaeologist. I see no purpose in designing Renaissance villas…”
“My dear boy, the great style of the Renaissance is far from dead. Houses of that style are being erected every day.”
“They are, but not by me.”
How To Like Ayn Rand Without Really Liking Her
According to interviews, Ayn Rand admired two authors above all others—Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoevsky. She liked them because they dealt in moral absolutes and wrote “Romantic” novels, deeply philosophical books based on the way they thought the world “ought to be.”
What’s more, she admired them despite disagreeing with them. She disliked Dostoevsky’s emphasis on religion and she firmly rejected Hugo’s socialist ideals, yet she culled what she could from their novels, and used the parts she liked to construct her own ideas.
Likewise, you can do this with Ayn Rand. There are ideas worth cherry-picking from her books, I assure you. Frankly, if you can’t read a book by someone you disagree with, I feel sorry for you.
If you’ve never read any of her books, or were forced to trudge through them for school, you should pick up one of her novels (like I said to the topless, pyromaniac Barnes and Noble employee earlier, ‘Anthem’ is pretty good, and much shorter than “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged”).
You might be surprised to find that she’s not Satan incarnate. Ayn Rand was a smart lady with a mix of ideas–some good, some bad, some misunderstood. You know, just like the rest of us.