Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ayn Rand: Triumph of the Will to Power

One need but read the opening paragraphs of The Fountainhead to understand how it ended up selling a zillion copies:
Howard Roark laughed.

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone—flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.

The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half. The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff.

His body leaned back against the sky. It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes. He stood, rigid, his hands hanging at his sides, palms out. He felt his shoulder blades drawn tight together, the curve of his neck, and the weight of the blood in his hands. He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine. The wind waved his hair against the sky. His hair was neither blond nor red, but the exact color of ripe orange rind.
Ayn Rand's simple prose gets right to the point and stabs the reader in the eye with it. With its talk of 'explosions of granite,' 'cutting rocks,' the 'weight of blood,' the narrative mainlines awesome virility like heroin straight into the reader's brain. Rand intended protagonist Howard Roark as an ideal, a god among men, and to identify with him is to channel Olympus, to master nature itself:
He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky.

These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.
It’s a literary amphetamine; after reading the book's first chapter, I wanted to put a cigarette out on somebody’s face just because I could. Reading it leaves no question of why the act of building a skyscraper is referred to as 'erection.'

Rand's shtick from the beginning was the glorification of individual strength over collectivism, but her early writing was seriously handicapped by luridly focusing on her heroes' exploitative sexuality and general contempt of humanity without providing much reason to not be utterly repulsed. Her greatest stylistic advancement, then, was to create a protagonist the reader could identify with, and whose disconnection from other people is enchanting rather than alienating.

There is a newfound self-awareness at work in passages like this exchange, between villain Peter Keating and Roark:
“Can’t you be human for once in your life?”


“Human! Simple. Natural.”

“But I am.”

“Can’t you ever relax?”

Roark smiled, because he was sitting on the window sill, leaning sloppily against the wall, his long legs hanging loosely, the cigarette held without pressure between limp fingers.

“That’s not what I mean!” said Keating. “Why can’t you go out for a drink with me?”

“What for?”

“Do you always have to have a purpose? Do you always have to be so damn serious? Can’t you ever do things without reason, just like everybody else? You’re so serious, so old. Everything’s important with you, everything’s great, significant in some way, every minute, even when you keep still. Can’t you ever be comfortable—and unimportant?”

Any artist can relate to Roark's drive to follow his creative impulse, to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else. He doesn't care what anybody thinks, to the point of what most people--and everyone in the book--considers career suicide: getting kicked out of architectural school, going to work for a has-been, insisting his buildings be built according to his desires and not the client's, going to work in a granite quarry rather than take a job with a firm, etc. And he beats the odds every time.

It's a creative person's wet dream, and at least initially, it all helps bypass the fact that Roark's behavior is kind of sociopathic. He never expresses much of any emotion, not even when by himself, and never doubts or regrets anything. He doesn't deal with people except to the extent that they are useful to his work (I'm not even going to touch the book's infamous rape scene right now).

Yet such a term as 'sociopath' is almost beside the point. Rand considered her fiction to be "Romantic Realism," dealing with idealized types and how life "ought" to be, and by her reckoning we all ought to be Nietzschean antichrists. Literally. If Christ is a paragon of selflessness, charity, and love, Roark is his antipode, the embodiment of self-interest, anti-socialism, and...not hate, not exactly:

“Howard, why do you hate me?”

“I don’t hate you.”

“Well, that’s it! Why don’t you hate me at least?”

“Why should I?”

“Just to give me something. I know you can’t like me. You can’t like anybody. So it would be kinder to acknowledge people’s existence by hating them.”

“I’m not kind, Peter.”

It's no mystery why disgruntled teenagers and college students become as obsessed with Rand as they do, especially with The Fountainhead so often serving as the gateway drug. Its early passages are intoxicating; I knew better, and yet Roark's appeal still managed to breach my defenses. However, the book's most superficially appealing traits are also the source of nearly every one of its many major weaknesses. As I will discuss in subsequent posts, its idealism saps the storytelling of all tension, and its celebration of overwhelming strength, and a consequent disgust with anything perceived as weak, makes it a profoundly beguiling and deceptively benign work of aesthetic fascism.


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  2. I look back and think I am rather fortunate: There was always a scholarship competition every year at my high school for the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, with major monetary rewards, and though I often thought about doing it, the books were thick and dense enough to keep me back. If I'd actually read them at that impressionable age, I can't imagine how insufferable I'd be!

  3. My school also had the competitions, for Anthem and The Fountainhead, if I recall. I actually entered the one for Anthem in my sophomore year. The prompt was along the lines of parallels with the story of the Garden of Eden, and I wrote something along the lines of it being about a rebellion against an authoritarian (I, in my teenage wisdom, used the word 'authoritative') rule. I actually had fond memories of the book before re-reading it for this project.

    The new memories are also fond, but for very different reasons.