(I took the header picture of a Common Loon resting on a pond in Utah on its way north in June of 2015. It was in transition from winter to summer plumage.)

Translate - I dare you. Then make a comment on the funny errors the translator made.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Some thoughts after reading The Fountainhead

(One of these days I'll get back to typecasting.)

So I finally read The Fountainhead. I stayed up past 1 in the morning to finish it, and in fact I even cried at several points throughout. I want to buy my own copy of it and underline passages and write all sorts of things in the margins.

This book has been staring at me for about 20 years from library shelves, mostly through the editions with Art Deco covers. Those were terrifying Apollonian arrows pointing to a destiny that I put off for too long (like Thomas Pynchon, but that's another story). So finally I checked out a copy from the local library and got sucked in. Today, a day after reading it, I wrote the following.

Producers and parasites. In the Fountainhead Ayn Rand shows (somewhat melodramatically, but that isn't a bad thing) model characters or characters as models of these principal types in their purity. I find myself unable to dispute the core of the principles in their purity, but what I think is the cause for worry about Rand isn't the truth in the “selfishness” that is essential to every individual soul (and I want to write more about that, also parse Lehi's “men are that they might have joy” in relation to this), nor is it the core principle of whether one produces or not. Of course in real life when one person produces something and the rest of us benefit. I think of Robert Fripp's words: “Music so wishes to be heard that it calls on some to give it a voice and some to give it ears.” Civilization has been around long enough to make the manifestations of these principles – in pure and perverted forms – so complex that applying them to real-life situations entails doing everything you can to trace each economic interaction and relation back to its roots. This is why mainstream partisan politics are so dissatisfying, and why TV news and talk radio are such dismal ways to try to be informed about what's going on in the world and what you can do about it. This is also why parlor politics rarely if ever gets beyond a ritualistic bashing of everyone's favorite imagined villains, backed up with appeals to everyone's favorite authorities.

I've certainly seen Ayn Rand cast as a villain, a Korihor-like prophetess of greed and callousness. In the purity of her concepts, I accept that she wasn't advocating racism nor greed for money and power (at least not in The Fountainhead). On the contrary, she exposed those as betrayals of self, mere variations of “second-handedness.” So why does she get such a bad reputation? I haven't studied her Objectivist philosophy, so I don't know what else she wrote that attracted such ire, but I intuit the following scenario repeating countless times: a man goes out and makes a load of money in some business, reads Rand, and then says: look, I have made stuff, employed people, ergo I'm a producer. How many people completely miss the lesson of Gail Wynand? How easy it is to assume that the producers in society are not just the entrepreneurs (which is already too narrow) but the ones who have become wealthy. And how easy it is to use the label “parasite” as a politically correct justification for dismissing any concern or basic human empathy or at least rational consideration of whole swaths of people. Are they the ones making the money, making the jobs? Are they among the few, the proud captains of industry? No? Are they in misfortune, are they (or do we see them as) dependent on any kind of assistance? Do they have the impudence to procreate without having steady means of their own self-sufficient heroic make to support them materially (according to our standard of living)? Yes? Why then they're parasites. Q.E.D. And we don't have to worry that we're being racist by going along with the wink-wink nudge-nudge because Rand (or whoever) Said, so we're absolved of any effect our actions have of perpetuating collectivist oppression. Of course we'll put ourselves in the camp of producers as we whine in our parlor talk or radio call-ins or at the voting booth, even if we're working at jobs we don't really want, even if our political involvement is really an attempt to prop up some sense of meaning in our desperate lives, because we think we Get It. It's so easy to slip into this.

If there are people living in poverty we don't have to cathect to our images of them in a show of pity and meddlesome “charity,” but neither do we have to dismiss them as feckless failures because they're not all independent workers (though what if we all could be?), with the gumption to stick with their work through the tough times without complaint, facing the world alone like Roark did until enough of us finally come around to reward their contributions (through fair media of exchange that might not be available, which we might not want to admit).

Everyone is born with their own gift to give to the world, and some are more prominent than others (after reading The Fountainhead I feel I now accept the parable of the talents better, and have a new appreciation for Alma's mission to the Zoramites too), but it has to be remembered and acknowledged that the forces that so stifled the gifts of the producers included entrenched money interests, impersonal boards of directors and other features of the capitalist system. How easy it still is for second-handers at the helms of powerful corporations to cravenly claim that they are the real producers, while continuing to suffocate the world under mediocrity. It's no longer drippy Progressive preaching of self-sacrifice, it's brazen praise for “self-interest,” meaning the appetites and dictates of false, non-individuating selves: blind egos, contemptuous introjects, unacknowledged complexes, possessive archetypes – but not the true soul of every Self. A lazy appropriation of the terms of “self-interest” and “selfishness” makes it so easy to fall back into the conventional semantics that Rand took so much trouble to take apart that I wonder if it was worth her trouble and she might as well have coined a new term.

For a similar reason I currently have no interest in Objectivism as a philosophical system, because it still stinks to me of Intellectual Property, which I don't believe in. Looking briefly at the character of Roark: there is no need to impose a fiction of “intellectual property” on the architectural designs of someone with such a unique vision. If someone were to copy one of his buildings it would be imitation as tribute, flattery or incompetent servility – but it would not be theft. It means much that Rand includes the dialogue about individual private ownerships of our experiences with the world: Roark owns his buildings irrevocably, but so do those who use them or even see them, each in their own inviolate way. For Roark to act like too many so-called libertarians do, he would have to post guards outside all of his buildings to charge fees for walking in or even looking at them.

This has to do also with the struggle I've long had with reading or talking about philosophy. I like reading about it, and about psychology, and I don't dispute giving credit where due. But I return often to the words of Montaigne (in translation): “Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after: 'tis no more according to Plato, than according to me, since both he and I equally see and understand them.” (Essays Chapter XXV “Of the Education of Children” trans. Charles Cotton)

Even Howard Roark, who others see as cold and antisocial, takes for granted that if you saw a drowning man you would try to rescue him. It means a lot that in connection with this, when the young Gail Wynand is crawling along the sidewalk after being beaten nearly to death, the one person he asks for help dismisses him in “bovine indifference.” That adjective is important, because it is certainly an inhuman act to be so callous towards a fellow being. Rand showed this here and I'm glad to have read the book in order to have seen her acknowledgment of this truth.

Even so, the fact that she spent so much effort justifying her unorthodox use of phrases like “self-interest” and “selfishness” might not be enough to defeat this danger: the bare words stick in minds when their substance has ebbed, and then people are quick to attribute the conventional meanings to them and justify their inhumanity by the same kind of servility to a creed, this time a secular one: Rand – or whoever – Says. It is the exact same phenomenon as “the Scriptures say.” Any such vague appeals to authority should immediately put your internal radar on the alert. I can't help but think of the parable of the Samaritan when I read that episode in Wynand's youth, and I don't know if Rand had it in mind, but I'm glad she didn't have the scene take place at the door of a church, with a reverend wrinkling his nose at the human trash importuning him and slamming the door. Whether Rand meant to or not, she shows respect to Jesus' parable here, by letting it stand as a definitive statement of how religion so often leads people to do evil. She respected the parable by rounding it out, and showing how the betrayal of self which leads to such callousness can come from other sources besides religion.

The bar-keeper's refusal to help the young gangster is a betrayal of himself. It seems like selfishness and most of us would describe it as such, but it's the same kind of second-handedness that the young victim swallows and which sets him off on his meteoric rise to power. In refusing to help a young man nearly dead at his doorstep, the barkeeper is not listening to his human self in recognition of another human self, he is listening to the blindness of an ego that pits itself against others, that judges the worth of souls according to criteria inherited and accepted from others without question: gangsters, street trash, worthless. This is the turning point in Gail's life, when his refusal to accept incompetence fermented into his resolve to rule. Who knows what his career might have looked like if he hadn't started it out with such a foundation, and if whatever enterprise he began allowed room for other producers to work within it true to themselves? Do I mean something like Silicon Valley? Well, what would it take for such conditions to flourish and purify all over, not just in such pockets of privilege? I find answers to that question in E.F. Schumacher, Ivan Illich, Kevin Carson and others. For one thing, you can't get there with so much of human knowledge and invention locked up in copyrights and patents.

My working hypothesis is that most of the wealthy businessmen who are so adored by conservatives and so-called libertarians are more like Gail Wynand than Howard Roark. I wonder what kind of world we would have if half of them had the courage to make the kind of restitution that Wynand makes at the end of the book. Are Carnegie libraries enough?

One of the features in Roark's design that makes him so pure is that while those around him see him as a hero struggling against the world, he doesn't. He refuses to accept the charge of defiance that others try to pin on him, or even to feel the resentment that others feel in his behalf. He doesn't do his work out of defiance (as Wynand does), he does his work because he has to. When his first buildings go up, he faces accusations of faddishness, willful whimsy – the kind of thing that has put up monstrosities like the Information ScienceBuilding at the University of Pittsburgh. But through the book, it is evident that his love for buildings is inextricably linked with human empathy: he designs buildings with the consideration of what it will be like to inhabit them. The concern for others may be unconscious but is none the less powerful for that – in fact it may be its unconsciousness that makes it so effective. After Roark finishes the Heller house, his client says “You were very considerate of me.” Roark replies: “I haven't thought of you at all. I thought of the house. . . . Perhaps that's why I knew how to be considerate of you.”

One of the bits that brought tears to my eyes was where he sat with Dominique watching one of his buildings go up – a humble five-story store in an insignificant Midwestern town – and she expresses misguided sorrow at seeing such a brilliant architect stuck doing such insignificant buildings. He points out that it doesn't matter: he loves each building for its own sake. In fact, it bugged me, reading the book, that his Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit is built so close to the earth, at such a human scale, as opposed to the intimidating grandeur of religious buildings throughout history which always tried to make people feel small and despicable (and there my straw man alert sounded the loudest of any point in the book), yet of course Rand has to have her characters gush about skyscrapers. And of course she also takes pains to qualify how skyscrapers don't make Wynand feel small but give him a sense of the “heroic in man.” What if the Stoddard Temple had been a tall skyscraper then?

When I read the part about the Stoddard Temple I thought of one of my Humanities teachers talking about Gothic cathedrals: their uplifting effect on the spirit as opposed to the intimidation of the older Romanesque buildings. Stepping into a Gothic cathedral, he said, is like getting on board a spaceship. (And it's interesting how Gothic architecture gets such scant mention in the novel.) I think I have come to respect skyscrapers in the way that Camille Paglia respects religion, but I'd still prefer a Gothic cathedral, or something like Simon and Jasmine Dale build – or Jung's Bollingen Tower. There's a temple of the human spirit for you!

The triumphant ending of The Fountainhead brought tears to my eyes, but it wasn't because the Wynand Building was the tallest on the earth. For me, Roark's greatest triumph is Monadnock Valley. That triumph flows from an explicit empathy for a human need, as Roark himself expresses in his presentation to the developers. By doing his work he has performed a true service to his fellow beings. So when later he lectures Peter Keating about how his design of Cortlandt Homes won't be motivated by concern for the poor slum-dwellers, I know what Rand means, and I accept that she felt the need to clear away the fog of Progressive sentimentality that surrounded her when she wrote. But it still reflects the truth that when you do find your own life's work and purpose, and are true to it, you inevitably benefit others – and I affirm the rightness of rejoicing in that and calling to that, even as I agree that boasting of it and taking it up as a sign of superiority over others corrupts it.

I choose to take as a sign of maturity that when I read the portrayals of sentimental praise for “the common man” in The Fountainhead, I didn't so much protest with the youthful idealism I might have once had – hey what's wrong with the common man? – but I reflected on the soul-sucking effects of state-imposed mass instruction, standardized testing and Common Core standards (which of course award lucrative contracts to a few winning business interests – are those people then Producers? Hell no!). I thought of an editorial by a retired teacher: “Please widen achievement gaps.” I thought of Sudbury Valley School and its dedication to democratic order which produces uncommon people, of Daniel Greenberg's statement that a right to vote is meaningless without mutual respect, of the self-fulfilling fear of mob rule by those who exercise their right to vote without exercising their brains.

“You are unique – just like everyone else.” “If everyone's special, no one is.” Such sarcasm is, to quote Jung, “the prerogative of habitual grumblers with bad digestions” (“Psychology and Religion” trans. R.F.C. Hull, Collected Works vol. 11, p. 105). Take time to reflect and to imagine what a world might look like where everyone really was equal in their right and opportunity to be unique. Let that dissolve the justifications you've accepted of everything that chokes such individuality – not only prevailing fashions in dress and so on, but the political and economic structures that support those who arrogate to themselves the undeserved title of Producers and betray themselves in imposing their mediocrity on the rest of us with state-backed protections of their so-called property.

 Ayn Rand might turn in her grave, but she is in agreement with Alma the younger in this: the outrage and impatience that come from seeing just how badly the world is run, how much individual human potential is wasted, should not be taken as an excuse to hate, but should strengthen the resolve of each of us to dedicate ourselves to the growth of our individual souls. Alma's tree metaphor (like that of the wise and foolish virgins) is self-centered in that way: you are the only one who can grow that tree, and you are the only one who can eat of its fruit.

So now I wonder if I'll go find out who John Galt is.

Also I have to wonder if Blixa Bargeld or any of his bandmates ever read the book.


Joe V said...

I haven't read Fountainhead but I have read Atlas Shrugged. My problem is with Rand's definition of producer. I know lots of talented people who produce things with their hands, with real skill and artistry, to little economic reward. Conversely is the excess of Wall Street where billions are earned but no real new wealth is actually created. Comparing these two examples, the true producer would be the financially unrewarded craftsperson, not the crooked investment banker. In that sense, imcome or prosperity is a very inaccurate gauge of a true producer's worth.

CStanford said...
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