Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Literary Bite: The Fountainhead

I am struggling through The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It’s one of those classics of American literature that I’ve never read and now I know why. It’s a forward-thinking book that you really have to think about to get, and even then, you may not necessarily really get all the subtle nuances.

And really it’s not so much that I can’t get it, but I don’t care enough about the characters (or maybe I should say archetypes?) to force myself to put that much thought into them.

The postmodernist style reminds me of the James Dean/Rebel Without A Cause/Catcher in the Rye genre….

BUT one of my friends loves this book, so I have stuck with it to try to see what she sees…

According to my Rand-loving friend:
The reason I enjoy/love The Fountainhead is because it attempts to create a human superhero out of the main character, Howard Roark It is essentially a fictional example of the Nietzschean "superman" (Roark), in contrast to the Nietzschean "last men" (Toohey, Katie’s uncle and the ultimate sell-out with no faith in humanity). The Fountainhead holds up Howard Roark as beyond human limitation, not by physical power or "beauty" but because he can master the lower doubts of the human mind. Roark is the best architect (ever?). He is driven towards something - he has faith in a vision, which compels him to drop doubt, to drop fear, and to have integrity to that vision of perfection alone. That being said, Rand also shows the downside to extreme adherence to a belief that what one is doing is right. In some ways, Roark lets himself and his vision become his own god. He therefore cannot have morality or love as society would normally define it. This book is in many ways the picture of moral relativism. I love this book because it made me realize that we can’t hold to “ideals” if they are without God. Ayn Rand’s flaw is in holding that there can be a superman, but at least she is honest in showing both the upside and downside of it. Stick with this book, the characters all of them, are so wonderful! Dominique is one of my favorite characters more about her later…
I see what she is saying. The book is about black and white, you’re either entirely committed to your principles, or you’re not at all. I can appreciate that adherence to strict integrity. I’m only up to page 499 (out of 704), so I have yet to determine if Rand is ultimately a pessimist and has no faith in humanity, or if the “good” will triumph and the characters with integrity (Dominique and Roark) will prevail.

Roark’s humanity is a matter of debate. He does feel pain, but his pain "only goes down to a certain point" because it can't touch the core of his independent soul – that’s cool, I like that.

Rand is a philosopher, and I think that the biggest problem literature-wise in this book is that she uses her characters a bit too much as vehicles to preach her own dogma. It sometimes feels like a weird aside in a play – suddenly the characters are preaching to no one for no apparent reason. These blips in the narrative continuity are one of the reasons this book is taking me so long, they turn me off and I disengage from the story.

One reviewer wrote, “This is one of the fastest paced books I have ever read… I found the novel to be gripping and I couldn't put it down.”
Hmm…I was just thinking how embarrassed I am at how long it is taking me to finish this book! Of course, part of that is that I have had the busiest August ever, but still…

What Amazon thinks:

The Fountainhead has become an enduring piece of literature, more popular now than when published in 1943. On the surface, it is a story of one man, Howard Roark, and his struggles as an architect in the face of a successful rival, Peter Keating, and a newspaper columnist, Ellsworth Toohey. But the book addresses a number of universal themes: the strength of the individual, the tug between good and evil, the threat of fascism. The confrontation of those themes, along with the amazing stroke of Rand's writing, combine to give this book its enduring influence.

I wish this story was semi-true, just because I want to see what the buildings Roark designs look like! The images I've included in this post are just a result of me googling "modern minimalist architecture" (or some such word combo)...let me know if you have any idea what style his buildings actually were.

Here's a link to a video of Howard Roark's Speech from the 1949 film of the book.