Just Finished The Fountainhead

Posted by $ servo75 8 months, 3 weeks ago to Books
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Just finished reading the Fountainhead for the first time, and I'm bursting at the seams with thoughts that I couldn't discuss earlier without risking a spoiler. I then rented the movie version and watched it over the weekend. I have to say early on I found the characters less than likeable. Even Roark himself, like in the scene where he refused the commission for that bank when all they wanted was a few minor changes and he was on the verge of being penniless. I'm screaming back at the book, "You fool! You idiot!! It's just a tiny change and once you pull this off you'll be a huge success and you can then turn down projects you don't like but for now you've got less than a dollar in your pocket and you're about to have the phone turned off!"

I don't know of Rand ever discussed this but doesn't mankind have a duty to help him/herself? I design databases for a living, and of course it doesn't really compare to architecture since creativity isn't nearly as big a factor. But if I only developed apps my own way and said to hell with what the customer wants, I'd be out of business very quickly. In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden could make a lot of money doing something he really loved and making something that a lot of people wanted. It was a win-win-win. But what happens when your individualism and your survival are at direct odds with one another? That's the main difference between Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead to me. Is it really reasonable, if you're a florist and someone hires you to make a flower arrangement for his son's Bar Mitzvah, to say, "Sure but I get to choose how I make it?" In Atlas Shrugged, it was a moot point in that Rearden's steel or Galt's motor happened to be very useful things that society DOES want, and there's not really a whole lot of room for creativity in making raw metal, it either works or it doesn't. So there's that difference as well, I guess.

I got through the first part of the book saying, "Does this book even HAVE a protagonist?" Even Dominique seems to purposely shun pleasure. Wanting to earn a living and producing things that your customers want, a la a Hank Rearden or Ellis Wyatt, wanting to survive, is rational self-interest, isn't it? So how does this jive with Roark's decision to impoverish himself rather than take the most minor insignificant compromise? It really wasn't until the second half of the book, especially when starting to see the contrast to Keating and Toohey, when I really saw the point of what makes Roark tick but I have to be honest I did not like him at all at first.
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  • Posted by freedomforall 8 months, 3 weeks ago
    Consider your job of designing databases in the context of your principles.
    Suppose a prospective client says they will hire you, but you have to design the database to use no modern tools. You have to do the design and get it working with a large number of mechanical adding machines and accounting columnar paper and lots of no. 2 pencils. They will pay you a lot of money and publicize your service and willingness to do as the customer wishes in all the trade magazines. Will you take the engagement?
    Howard Roark wouldn't take it even if they asked him to do it using computers and software that was the state of the art a few years ago because Roark has a better solution.
    Howard Roark has a better way and that is what he offers to the customer. Howard won't compromise and deliver mediocrity regardless of how much money he is offered. Howard Roark knows that there will be a customer who will recognize the advantages and accept his better product and he refuses to deal with fools and looters.
    Roark is not running for public office. He doesn't have to get 50.1% of the people to like him or his product. He doesn't have to exaggerate the advantages (lie) or kiss the prospective customer's babies (or parts of their anatomy) to get their money. He does have to deliver a superior product, and that is what he does. All the conveniences and advantages of the modern world were created by people like Roark.
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    • Posted by $ 8 months, 3 weeks ago
      Okay, you bring up some very good points here. Let me address them:
      No offense, but I think your first example of designing databases with early 20th century technology is a LITTLE bit contrived. I mean my answer to this would obviously be no I would not take it. My reasoning however would be that such a system simply wouldn't be practical. It would be equivalent to being asked to build a building without electric wiring in my opinion, or insisting that the builder cut corners by making the floors out of a weak and unreliable material like Rearden Metal (JUST KIDDING!). Such a "solution" would not get the job done so I would reject it in the same way that a doctor would refuse to amputate a healthy limb. In my professional judgement it would not be a wise decision. Though I suppose, re-reading your question, my first play would be to try to convince the client that what they are looking for is not practical. In my experience, most clients will defer to my professional judgement in these cases. What I would not do is quibble about the color of the forms. If they want it all orange and pink, then so be it. As I said in another response, there are shades of gray. If they are minor cosmetic differences, so be it If it's building a website for a neo-Nazi group, they can pound sand.

      So my reaction to that particular scene from Fountainhead is that I thought, IMHO, that he was rejecting the job for trivial reasons. If a client asked for a solution that was impractical, it would be the DUTY of the architect to reject it, if only to save the client from themselves.

      "Howard Roark knows that there will be a customer who will recognize the advantages and accept his better product and he refuses to deal with fools and looters."

      And that is how it worked out in the end. In hindsight, I can understand his decision a little bit more. My gut reaction was just that, a gut reaction and I think it was still Part 1 of the book when I was still really trying to get a handle on the theme. With books like this, I try to find out as little as possible about them in advance. I began the book not having any clue what the plot was about in advance, which is the way I like it. Toward the end, when contrasting Roark with weaklings like Peter Keating and villains like Ellsworth Toohey who make Mr. Thompson look like a Boy Scout, the contrast is much more apparent and I fine-tuned my opinion in retrospect. Early in the book my opinion of Ellsworth Toohey was just as a run-of-the mill elitist intellectual, like a Balph Eubank from Atlas.

      "He does have to deliver a superior product, and that is what he does. All the conveniences and advantages of the modern world were created by people like Roark."

      I don't doubt that at all, and I hope my OP did not come across as a critique of objectivism and creativity. I haven't been around these boards long enough so I understand how, having few posts here, I could accidentally come off as critical of the overall philosophy. I totally get it. Again if the client asked for changes that would compromise the quality of the product, that's obviously a non-starter. I just didn't judge that to be the case in that instant.
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      • Posted by freedomforall 8 months, 3 weeks ago
        I don't think I misunderstood your original comment and I didn't consider it an irrational critique. If I was Roark, I would have seen the customer's suggestions as insulting. They were unwilling to compromise the aesthetics and effectively wanted to hide the improvements in design that I created behind thousand year old facades that were good for obsolete materials but foolish for modern materials. I see it in every sfd residential built today. Stick built housing is stupid today. imo, it is a tremendous waste of labor, materials, and energy and it enriches ignorant, cowardly Luddites because newer, more efficient designs have a different aesthetic. Mustn't make any change that challenges the small-minded female house buyer. Little has changed since 1943 in basic residential construction.
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        • Posted by $ 8 months, 3 weeks ago
          It sounds to me like you have a pretty good knowledge of architecture yourself, or at least civil engineering. I know very little myself of those subjects, old facades and new materials, it's all over my head, I'm just a layperson reading a book :). So I can see how having that knowledge would give you a different perspective on Roark's decision. My reaction was purely guttural. I would have thought, "let's see, compromise vs. homeless" and would have made the survival decision, unless, as I explained, accepting the project was something so utterly against my belief system that I could not live with myself to accept it. From what you say in your response, it looks like maybe the latter was the case from a professional's POV. Where I might differ from Rand is that I see more shades of gray, they're not all binary choices. But like I said, I'm just a guy reading a book.
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      • Posted by Lucky 8 months, 3 weeks ago
        A widespread misconception of the thoughts of Ayn Rand,
        expressed even in this forum, is that self-interest is measured only by money.
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        • Posted by $ 8 months, 2 weeks ago
          My bad, I didn't mean to imply that here. The only reason I brought that up is because between Rearden's quote and, well the sign-of-the-dollar symbol, it did seem that way. But for Roark, it wasn't a matter of getting rich, it was survival at that point.
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  • Posted by $ 8 months, 3 weeks ago
    I actually had another unrelated thought: What was the reason for Wynand's outright rejection of Roark at the very end. He wanted him to design the Wyant Building but never speak to him again? That just didn't make sense to me. Roark's acquittal seemed to vindicate them both? The only thing I can think of is that it was Wynand's embarrassment / guilt over having to turn against Roark to end the strike, thus being dead wrong about the verdict.
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  • Posted by $ 25n56il4 8 months, 3 weeks ago
    You must understand the mindset of people Ayn Rand wrote about. I have encountered all of them in my lifetime. My father was a builder. When someone wanted a subdivision built or a skyscraper if they hired him, they got out of his way. He delivered. If they got in his way, they apologized.
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  • Posted by exceller 8 months, 3 weeks ago
    Rand wrote "The Fountainhead" in 1943.

    I bet you were not even born then.

    If you watch the film you will not get more confirmation of Rand's philosophy, let alone a positive image of the players.

    Cooper was too old to play the role of Roark by at least 30 years. The only high point was during his trial when he led the jury through the rare gift of talent who refuses to compromise.

    That is the angle you have to assume when you absorb this novel.

    The uncompromising drive of talent that is a stranger in his profession because everyone else succumbs to trends and fashionable "needs" that get customers.

    It is a phenomenon that is missing in today's society and industry and I gather from your statements here you have difficulty understanding it.

    Of course the book has a protagonist: it is Howard Roark. According to records, Rand conceptualized his character from Lloyd Wright.

    This work is a witness to the eternal fight between the evil power of bureaucrats and the divine talent they are unable to subjugate.

    I can't find any examples of that today.
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    • Posted by $ 8 months, 3 weeks ago
      You're right, I was not born (not even close) in 1943, but I fail to see how that's relevant. I also made the same observation you made about Gary Cooper being too old, he was nothing like I envisioned when listening to the novel.

      And I believe you slightly mis-characterized my criticism. I said, "I got through the FIRST part of the book saying, 'Does this book even HAVE a protagonist?'" I said that rather tongue-in-cheek, maybe that didn't come across. But it seemed to me early on that Roark and Dominique had almost a masochism about them. By the end I did view Roark as a hero but even there it was partly due only to the contrast with Keating and Toohey. My lack of finding a hero was not because I thought Roark was a bad person. He just seemed to me... sort of flat, not really likeable. I also really had trouble grasping the theme of the novel early on... "So... it's about two architects? I don't get it." Like with Atlas Shrugged the theme was instantly obvious. With Fountainhead I really didn't grasp the overall theme until midway through, which is more so what made Roark's decisions so puzzling. Later on, after seeing what became of Peter Keating, and the absolute evil of Ellsworth Toohey, another person whose role took a long time to develop (early on I saw him as more of a useful idiot like James Taggart than someone who truly wanted world domination), was when things came into focus for me. Sorry if I didn't make that clear.

      My other point was to make the contrast with Hank Rearden of Atlas Shrugged. Now, there's nothing really creative about making steel, a raw material. It either holds up a bridge or it doesn't. So his goal of success and his desire to produce and his customers' needs were all in congruence. Only in Fountainhead was there, in my opinion, a contradiction among those factors. That was where I was coming from. Other images from Shrugged were the sign of the dollar, and Rearden's quote about "My only goal is to make money" (or was that only from the movie?) I saw in Roark someone for whose rational self interest is divided between providing for himself or achieving his creative goals. In my opinion, the former has to come first, it's lower on the hierarchy of needs. I'm in no way suggesting that an architect completely "whore" himself to every whim of fashion or construct a building whose design he detested just to make a buck. If I was an architect and someone wanted me to design a building with a few minor changes, I'd view that as a compromise and build the building. If they wanted a shrine to Adolf Hitler, then I would rather go to the quarry. It's a matter of, accept a few minor changes now, live to fight another day, put yourself in demand and then you can be more choosy, vs. give it all up now and totally destroy any future career. To offer a real-life example, take the Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding. For him to bake that cake would have constituted a breach in his very belief system. He would be using his labor to support a cause that he found abhorrent - same sex marriage. Personally I do see it as closed-minded but that's not the point. I support his refusal at least on some level, because taking that customer would violate deeply-held beliefs, it's not like he supported their marriage but they just differed on the color of the icing. Do you see the difference? I see there as being shades of gray to this and my "outburst" was a gut reaction to what I saw someone potentially going to destitution and giving up a long career in which he can afford to be more choosy, for a few barely noticeable changes. There is to me such a wide gulf between Roark and Peter Keating that I hardly see a few minor changes to one building as going down a long-term path of conformity. I guess that's where we'll differ on this.

      And incidentally, please do not tell me what I do and do not understand. I understand the philosophy just fine. I'm allowed to, in spite of that understanding, disagree with the finer points of it. I'm merely pointing out some observations and my thoughts on that. I hardly think that requires surrender of my Objectivism card.
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      • Posted by $ 8 months, 3 weeks ago
        EDIT: When I made the remark about Roark coming off as "flat", I was perhaps judging by the deadpan voice that the narrator gave to him (this was the audio book).
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      • Posted by exceller 8 months, 3 weeks ago
        "And incidentally, please do not tell me what I do and do not understand. I understand the philosophy just fine. I'm allowed to, in spite of that understanding, disagree with the finer points of it."

        You have a perfect right to believe what you wish to believe.

        My point was that understanding AR has a lot to do with generational perceptions and the issues society faced six or seven decades ago and today.

        Your rebuttal clearly reflects the passing of time.
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      • Posted by CircuitGuy 8 months, 2 weeks ago
        Your comments make me want to read Fountainhead again. Thanks for writing so much about Rand's books.

        My understanding was most customers in the book couldn't identify good architecture. They relied on the newspapers to tell them what was good. Wynand owned the newspaper. He had given up on pursuing his personal dreams in favor of showing the world that no one would tell him he didn't run things. So he just told his readers whatever sold papers. Keating became successful by making political connections to people like Wynand and by other nasty political games, even though he was not good at architecture. I think Roark feels like if he puts politics over art in any way, then it's a slippery slope to turning into Wynand or Keating.

        I thought the same thing. He could just make the minor change. It's one building. It doesn't take away the joy of craft or the fact that people like the suicidal young man might see one of his true works of art and have their life changed by it. I think maybe the book is saying compromising your personal values to others, even on a limit basis, is a deal with the devil. It makes you a little bit a second-hander the way someone can get just a little bit pregnant.

        I want to ask Roark if he didn't want money. I don't mean that money is everything, but it's one thing he might have wanted, to be sure he can always afford to pay rent and keep doing real art. That wouldn't be selling out the way Keating did. Roark doesn't see it that way though.
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