Thursday, February 22, 2007

Relating to Rand: a reflective review of The Fountainhead

I wonder if my turning capitalist, or at least my awareness of it, was triggered by Ayn Rand. Recently I finished reading her novel The Fountainhead, a work of fiction used to lay the foundations of Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, which she summed up as "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute". The "heroic being" in The Fountainhead is architect Howard Roark, whom Rand describes as "the ideal man", a true individual who does not succumb to collective thought. Roark refuses to compromise his artistic vision and creativity, designing buildings that defy concepts of classical architecture and accepted definitions of aesthetic beauty. He creates for his own pleasure and fulfillment, and not to meet others' approval or standards. Many attempt to bring him down, "second-handers" who have no original thoughts in their heads, people who simply recycle ideas of the past and do not create anything new or unique, people who are content with conformity and mediocrity.

Through Roark's character, Rand depicts an egoist (as differentiated from an egoTist) as someone who is free to be himSELF, someone who independently exercises the functions of the self-- thinking, feeling, judging, acting, as opposed to the "selfless" man who sacrifices his self for others. In Rand's view, altruism, being selfless, is actually a bad thing, because pursuing his own happiness is the highest calling of man ("Man's first duty is to himself."). To sacrifice for the better good of society can be "evil" when it is imposed as an obligation and does not come voluntarily. But following the logic that man's own happiness is his ultimate goal, to put others before his happiness violates his nature and cannot be voluntary, and is therefore an imposition-- ergo, evil.

In contrast, the egoist does not sacrifice his self for others, nor does he ask others to sacrifice for him. He "does not exist for any other man-- and he asks no other man to exist for him." This is not to say that the egoist can survive alone; he too needs others, but he does not siphon off them. He will only take what is given by others if it is given voluntarily and for mutual advantage-- meaning, provided he gives something in return.

This is where Rand's philosophy upholds the principles of capitalism. Rand says, "Men must deal with one another as traders, giving value for value, by free, mutual consent to mutual benefit.... Capitalism is a system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights..." Until I read The Fountainhead, I had regarded capitalism as a soulless concept, even bordering on meaningless. The way she presented it, I suddenly saw how it is not only a sound sociopolitical system, but one that allows men to be free and fulfill their purpose in life. I also found myself agreeing with her points about how collectivism destroys a society instead of strengthening it; that the "common good" is not good at all, because it supresses man's ego, with all its personal, selfish motives-- that part of him which should be free to innovate and create, thus driving civilization forward. A society that operates on altruism and intellectual dependence stagnates; a society that operates on egoism and intellectual independence flourishes. This is precisely why Rand chose the title "The Fountainhead", a reference to her contention that "man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress".

I admit Rand's ideas sound exactly how I sounded when I answered Maddy with "Uh, the squatters shouldn't be there?" Granted, capitalism seems cold and inhumane, and even I am struggling with embracing it completely. The innate selfishness that comes with capitalism leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But if you consider that being human is all about the SELF, then being selfish is not only NOT bad, but what everyone should strive for. The only trouble is that we've been programmed by social norms (norms by themselves being collective in nature) and religion (don't get me started on religion) to regard selflessness as virtuous and admirable, and selfishness as sinful and abominable.

In case anyone starts thinking I've been thoroughly brainwashed by Ayn Rand, I'd like to make it clear that I am just starting to digest what I picked up from her novel, and by no means am I 100% convinced by all her ideas. I'm still having trouble reconciling them with values I've held dear for many years. But I do think she's brilliant, and that her philosophy is worth further contemplation. I'm already planning to buy her so-called "masterpiece", Atlas Shrugged, and read it when I'm ready to tackle Objectivism again.

As a work of fiction, The Fountainhead is on the ponderous side, so I wouldn't recommend it to someone looking for a steamy love story or a tale of political intrigue (although it IS both, but not typically so). The plot drags its feet at several points, and both the narrative and dialogue can be a bit dry for those accustomed to snappier, contemporary reads. The language is also a little stilted, and it's probably because English is not Rand's mother tongue (she's Russian).

As a philosophical work, however, The Fountainhead is remarkable. The way Rand conveyed her then burgeoning ideas of Objectivism through Howard Roark's story was sheer genius, allowing readers to get a good grasp of her philosophy by using Roark-- and the second-handers around him-- to illustrate her points. The reader finds it almost impossible not to detest the people who exploit, attack and condemn a man of such unwavering artistic and personal integrity. Roark may not be the most lovable of literary characters, but the reader will certainly root for him, and be in awe of him, and seriously consider that he truly is "the ideal man" of Rand's creation.

*All quotes from Ayn Rand were taken from the Centennial Edition of The Fountainhead, and the Reader's Guide at the back.
**Special thanks to Mini-me for recommending that I read this book. =D


At Friday, February 23, 2007, Blogger Jen said...

Finally glad you got to read it after recommending it to you almost a year ago :) Ayn Rand is brilliant. Hey I can get huge discounts every week off Borders here so if you want me to get you some books and then pass it on to like Ms Pe or your family when they come here, then let me know! Miss you, Doc! Gonna be staying away from YM until after my midterms are over.

At Friday, February 23, 2007, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Just how huge are the discounts? Most of the books on my 2007 reading list aren't available here, rawr. But Fully Booked has Atlas Shrugged, and I'm definitely getting that. :)

Good luck with your midterms. Not that you need it. ;p

At Friday, February 23, 2007, Blogger Jen said...

I can get 15%-40% discounts :) you just print vouchers from the mailing list!

At Friday, February 23, 2007, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Awfully tempting. I'll email you a list of titles to watch out for. :) Thanks Mini-me!


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