Tuesday, November 13, 2007

B.W.'s Book Report: The Fountainhead

Depending on how much time I have left, I suspect this fall will be one of those watershed moments in my life - I believe I will be able to measure the difference made by my reading The Betrayal of the American Right, Out of Step and The Fountainhead in quick succession.

These will be random thoughts over a beer less than an hour after finishing Ayn Rand's famed book. I haven't read the afterword or other commentaries in hopes I can capture my first thoughts more or less untarnished, so I suspect some of this will be old hat to longtime Randians and others familiar with the work. If you haven't read the book and want to someday, there are a few vague >>>SPOILERS<<< below. Fair warning.

There's a black-and-white dynamic at work here - individualists versus collectivists - but two of the five major players are gray. It's the story of two pure individuals, Howard Roark and Dominique Falcon, and one pure collectivist, Ellsworth Toohey - one of the smarmiest and most evil villains I've ever encountered in literature. Then there are the in-betweeners, Peter Keating - who immerses himself in the collectivist world while jealously admiring the individuals he hasn't the will to join - and Gail Wynand, who makes millions catering to the collective while asserting his powerful individualism in private.

The black-and-white characters land on their feet in the end. I so wanted Toohey to be crushed and humiliated, but he merely fails to crush Roark and Dominique. Keating and Wynand, on the other hand, remind me of (of all things) the passage in Revelation about the church of Laodicea: "because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth." Life spits out Keating and Wynand, punishing them for trying to live in both worlds.

I think Rand is an intriguing thinker. And she has created some compelling characters. I don't know that the novel needed to be 700 pages, and the main reason is the tendency for these characters to bog down into philosophical speechifying. Toohey, for example, has a lengthy speech to Keating towards the climax in which he explains all of the devious machinations that he's perpetrated over the past 650-odd pages. The attentive reader has long ago figured out what Toohey is up to, and why - the scene has the feel of the clich├ęd speech by the villain ("So you want to know how I'm going to rule the world?") that gives the hero time to wriggle free of the knots so he can punch out the bad guy and save the day, except that Keating doesn't wriggle free.

But while the speeches make for tough sledding along the way, it's an entertaining ride for the most part. And Rand spells out in black and white the nature of the media bread and circuses that continue to this day. When I signed on to write this little entry, I was greated by Yahoo! news stories about UFO sitings and "Britney's retirement plan." It's a bit disconcerting to recall that the same thing was happening in 1943, but not unexpected.

To paraphrase a magical line from As Good As It Gets, this book made me want to be a better man. The stuff it says about the nature of creativity and the importance of one person's vision in the artistic process, that stuff is priceless. It makes me want to go write another Great American Novel, compose a symphony or two, and otherwise exercise my muse to death.

This intense period of exposure to Rothbard, then Chodorov and now Rand has shifted a great number of synapses in my brain. And that's a good thing.

And on a baser note, Dominique Falcon is hot. Patricia Neal played her in the 1949 movie? Yeah, that might work ...

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Anonymous John Newman said...

Congratulations on finishing the book.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Wally Conger said...

Glad you enjoyed the book, the best of an overall great Randian lot, IMHO. Do yourself a favor and move on to Atlas Shrugged in the next few months. You might wanna just skim the 60-page Galt speech, though.

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Happy Curmudgeon said...

Wally, I can't believe you are suggesting that he skim the John Galt speech (which took her over 2 years to write, according to Barbara Branden). What are you, an evil whim worshiper or something? :) I do agree that BW ought to read Atlas at some point. It's a wonderful book, although in the best of all possible worlds, B.W. ought to have read this before Rothbard.

7:37 PM  
Blogger B.W. Richardson said...

Actually, seeing as The Fountainhead is a 700-page build-up to two philosophical essays - Toohey's speech to Keating and Roark's testimony at the trial - maybe you could just tell me where the 60-page speech is and I'll skip the rest.

I'm kidding; reading the book wasn't a major chore, it was actually extremely entertaining, but I do think she tends to overwrite. The philosophy is brilliant, the drama a little overwrought as well as overwritten. And, ummm, sorry, but Roark wouldn't have gotten away with the climactic incident in real life.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous CK said...

So many had that same feeling you have expressed after reading the Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, don't be alarmed the feeling will pass. Pat Neal was a terrible Dominique, Stanwyck might have done that role justice and Cooper was a stiff as Roark just utterly unbearable to watch him in that role. Maybe a Gable or a Bogart could do the role justice.

6:52 AM  
Blogger B.W. Richardson said...

CK, I hope when you said "the feeling will pass" you didn't mean the feeling where I said "It makes me want to go write another Great American Novel, compose a symphony or two, and otherwise exercise my muse to death." 8-D

Thanks to the miracle of Netflix, we watched the movie Friday night. Will post my thoughts later this weekend.

9:33 AM  
Anonymous CK said...

That is exactly what I meant. The quotidian wins over the exalted.
In Fountainhead, Rand created archtypes in Atlas Shrugged she fleshed them out. Finish A.S. and you will know the exaltation feeling again and a few weeks or months or years later and you re-read A.S. and wonder what happened to you in the interim. The symphony will not be finished, the Great Novel or Expose will remain inchohate; the world shaking business plan will have gathered dust in the face of the inevitable quotidian.
Now as to properly casting a remake of Fountainhead today, the single important role is Toohey and the only actor for it is Redford, character fit and belief fit. For Dominique, Jolie; but I do not see Pitt as a Roarke ... almost tempted to suggest Johnny Depp. Nick Cage as Gail Wynand is a natural.

9:28 AM  

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