Overrated: Ayn Rand
The influential American novelist may be fine for teenage misfits but not for adults
Home Secretary Sajid Javid likes to read the trial scene from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead twice a year — something he has done since discovering the book as a teenager. It could be worse — his other youthful cultural interests were Star Trek and the film Wall Street, although Javid’s reading of the latter was rather different from that of its director, Oliver Stone. To Javid, Gordon Gekko was an untarnished hero.
Falling under the spell of Rand’s mid-20th-century American novel is not unusual, at least not in the United States. In his classic 1987 account of how academia has come to fail us, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom recorded how he liked to ask his first-year students which books had really mattered to them. He was hoping they might mention works by Austen or Dickens, as he himself might have done at their age. Instead, Bloom noted that one student might say the Bible — and university would anyway drum that interest out of them — and that “there is always a girl who mentions Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a book, although hardly literature, which, with its sub-Nietzschean assertiveness, excites somewhat eccentric youngsters to a new way of life”.
Whilst its attractions are hardly limited to girls — I have come across many more males who have been besotted by Rand and all things Randian — The Fountainhead has great appeal to the misfit teenager. The book tells the story of the perfect man, Howard Roark, and the almost perfect woman, Dominique Francon — or at least very close to perfection once she has learnt from Roark that one does not need to appease life’s second-raters. Roark is a genius of a modernist architect: poured concrete and lack of adornment are the markers of his style — Roger Scruton and David Watkin would not approve.
Our hero has never managed to fit in. Everywhere he goes he has been hated, because second-raters and second-handers, Rand’s favourite terms of abuse, cannot bear his greatness. To quote from her other canonical novel, Atlas Shrugged: “Do you know the hallmark of a second-rater? It’s resentment of another man’s achievement. Those touchy mediocrities who sit trembling lest someone’s work prove greater than their own — they have no inkling of the loneliness that comes when you reach the top.”
If you used to be a loser kid, from reading The Fountainhead you learn that it is your brilliance, and others’ resentment of it, which caused you not to fit in. Roark’s antagonist, the perfidious egalitarian Elsworth Toohey who becomes the leading newspaper columnist and cultural arbiter of his age, was the most popular boy at school, a sure sign of perfidy in Randland and perhaps in the real world too.
While both authors would have hated the comparison, the appeal of The Fountainhead to the teenage mind is similar to that of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The second-rater of one is the phoney of the other.
It is unfair in most cases to judge a novelist’s morals by the actions of their creations, but this is not the case with Rand. She regarded realism in literature as a grave crime and states that Roark is the prototype of human perfection.
This makes some of his moral choices rather peculiar. He is a rapist, although — this being Randland — the victim, Francon, then realises that being ravished by Roark is her profoundest desire. Rand’s views on sexual attraction were extremely dotty. She believed what attracted rational people to each other was admiration for the other person’s reason, which the extremely rational could instantly detect across a crowded room. (“It was her reason I was gawping at . . . ”)
It is not usually regarded as a morally acceptable form of architectural criticism to blow up a half-completed public housing project. Roark’s motivations for doing this are often misrepresented when left-wingers attack Rand.
Roark does not dynamite the building because he disapproves of public housing, although he does, but for much madder motives. A hugely successful second-rater by the name of Peter Keating has been commissioned to build a housing project, but he cannot do it on budget to the specifications. He knows the only man who can is Roark, who agrees to design the building but wants no acknowledgement or payment. His price is that not a single detail of his design may be changed.
Keating loses the battle to perfectly preserve Roark’s design, so Roark believes the only rational response is to blow the thing up. Rand is not a champion of modesty.
She did not write a substantive book on objectivism — what she modestly called her world view. Her non-fiction works such as Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and The Virtue of Selfishness are collected lectures, essays from her newsletter and other ephemera. The Fountainhead is quite a good read (the same cannot be said of Atlas Shrugged), but it is not a book for grown-ups. Rand’s sub-Nietzschean philosophy has been taken too seriously by many people who should know better.