Friday, February 10, 2012

Ayn Rand: Capitalist Realism

Strangely enough, for all of her fiction’s endless speechifying, Ayn Rand considered herself a novelist before a philosopher (she considered herself a great many other things, mostly narcissistic superlatives, but work with me here). It’s a fairly important distinction. Her fiction is much more than mere agitprop, which uses the confines of normal storytelling as a vehicle to preach a given message. For Rand’s whole approach to storytelling is marinated in her ideas on everything else, and so its bent approach makes reading it a decidedly different experience.

The Fountainhead shares the structural elements of a normal story: beginning, middle (more like two, really, the first punctuated, like the second, with a trial), climax, dénouement. A protagonist with a goal, and obstacles thrown in his path, an antagonist with goals athwart his own. So far so good. But it is the characters, colored by Rand’s singularly odd views on individuality, which drive the action, and give the book its hypnotically strange effect.

All of the book’s principle figures were conceived as symbols, with Howard Roark as “a man who is what he should be,” Peter Keating “a man who never could be [man as he should be] and doesn’t know it,” Gail Wynand “a man who could have been,” and Ellsworth Toohey, “worst of all possible rats. A man who never could be—and knows it.” This schematic view of plotting has the dual effect of making the characters both larger-than-life and two-dimensional, as if they were fixtures on a billboard. They serve the same basic purpose, channeling Rand’s radical individualism. The peculiar effect of her ideas about rationality and will, however, makes the proceedings feel, paradoxically, pre-ordained.

Consider what was perhaps the biggest surprise I encountered, dealing with a secondary character, Catherine, Toohey’s niece and Keating’s sometime fiancé. Such a pitiful, clingy creature is she that I was fairly sure she would kill herself out of sheer helplessness, especially after Keating ditches their wedding to shotgun marry the ice queen Dominique Francon. She instead resurfaces near the end of the book years later, reborn as a Washington bureaucrat with a lack of personality remarkable even for an Ayn Rand character:
”It wouldn’t have worked, Peter. I’m temperamentally unsuited to domesticity. It’s too selfish and narrow. Of course, I understand what you feel just now and I appreciate it. It’s only human that you should feel something like remorse, since you did what is known as jilted me.” He winced. “You see how stupid those things sound. It’s natural for you to be a little contrite—a normal reflex—but we must look at it objectively, we’re grown-up, rational people, nothing is too serious, we can’t really help what we do, we’re conditioned that way, we just charge it off to experience and go on from there.”
I ended up being more right about her fate than I had guessed: rather than merely kill herself, she killed her self.

Catharine’s lack of identity is as much a constant as Roark’s unflappable confidence, Keating’s venality, and Toohey’s super-socialism. Their essential nature is fixed, and there is never any real chance that they will ever change, for better or worse. Their defining traits merely become more pronounced, and grotesque, as the stakes raise ever higher, but the there is no real tension, no possibility of redemption or betrayal or surprise that hasn’t been telegraphed from the start. As busy as The Fountainhead's scenario is, it’s all mellow, no drama.

Yet cardboard characters aren’t derived (only) from general hackishness, rather they proceed directly from Rand’s own ideals of what constitutes a proper human being. As said by Steven Mallory, Roark’s sculptor disciple:
I often think that [Roark]’s the only one of us who’s achieved immortality. I don’t mean in the sense of fame and I don’t mean that he won’t die some day. But he’s living it. I think he is what the conception really means. You know how people long to be eternal. But they die with every day that passes. When you meet them, they’re not what you met last. In any given hour, they kill some part of themselves. They change, they deny, they contradict—and they call it growth. At the end there’s nothing left, nothing unreversed or unbetrayed; as if there had never been an entity, only a succession of adjectives fading in and out on an unformed mass. How do they expect a permanence which they have never held for a single moment? But Howard—one can imagine him existing forever.
Rand, who claimed her beliefs had remained essentially the same since she was a teenager, is here essentially making a virtue of stubbornness and refusal to grow as a person, under the same usual banner of willpower: the real individual knows he’s right, so why should he change? Her characters are demonstrations of this idea, as are the very many things they do and say.

Along with melodramatic plotting, Rand’s fiction is infamous for its didactic speeches and dialogues that go on for pages and pages at a stretch. My favorite, if it can be called that, involves newspaper magnate Gail Wynand and Roark going on a month-long yacht cruise—without Dominique Francon, who they’re both in love with and to whom Wynand is married. Wynand can’t stop looking at Roark’s half-naked body, “at the threads of water running down the angular planes,” that makes him think “of the yacht’s engine, of skyscrapers, of transatlantic cables, of everything man had made.” The scene’s tone veers between unintentional 300-style homo-erotica and an After School Special with amazing gracelessness:
”What’s left then? Where does decency start? What begins where altruism ends? Do you see what I’m in love with?”

“Yes, Gail.” Wynand had noticed that Roark’s voice had a reluctance that sounded almost like sadness.

“What’s the matter with you? Why do you sound like that?”

“I’m sorry. Forgive me. It’s just something I thought. I’ve been thinking of this for a long time. And particularly all these days when you’ve made me lie on deck and loaf.”

“Thinking about me?”

“About you—among many other things.”

“What have you decided?”

“I’m not an altruist, Gail. I can’t decide for others.”
This weird fusion of belief and behavior follows through to the book’s very end, which involves, lest we forget, a manically idealistic dynamiter being found “Innocent” by a jury. Most polemicists would stop with putting speeches in their characters’ mouths, but Rand’s conception of humans being driven by reason and ideals permeates the story’s very blood and marrow.

By traditional—objective?—literary standards, The Fountainhead is a failure: its characters are bold but ultimately dull, its plot bizarre, and its message delivered with all the subtlety of a boot stamping on a human face forever. Yet, my snarky post title notwithstanding, it’s unfair to consider it mere propaganda--that it bears some resemblances to the blandest Soviet pablum is a function of a circular political spectrum in which at a certain point the far left and far right begin to look alike. Nor is it pop fiction, which never aspires to be more than merely mediocre entertainment.

Instead it is a frantically ambitious product of its creator’s very idiosyncratic sensibility, the kind that thinks turning thought experiments into hundreds-of-pages-long plots on which to hang philosophical dialogues is the pinnacle of storytelling. As a result the book is, like a Tyler Perry movie, freakishly compelling and almost always interesting. The normal standards cease to apply. It’s beyond good and awful.


  1. This was a truly illuminating conclusion to an illuminating series of posts. I am glad that you are, as I think someone said at the Horde gathering, reading Rand so that the rest of us don't have to.

  2. I've been really enjoying your posts on Ayn Rand and her work. I am looking forward to hearing what you think about Atlas Shrugged. For me, Atlas Shrugged brought into focus one of the flaws in Ayn Rand's writing/thinking that I couldn't articulate when I read The Fountainhead - that she's incredibly naive about human beings. Or perhaps it's that narrowness and refusal to grow that you talk about above. Once you get into Altas Shrugged I'll have more to say about it.

    Perhaps Rand's black-and-white thinking is part of what makes her work seductive to people who read her in college. At that age, we were all groping for and trying out philosophies of how to live our lives. As we've talked about over at TNC's place, seeing the world and its history in a simple way is comforting.

  3. @WAKnight: Ah, but it won't be the last....

    @watson42: The appeal of The Fountainhead and its huge popularity is actually going to be the focus of the next piece.