Are the Rand times here?

In 2006, the German architectural practice Gerkan, Marg & Partners (GMP) took a client to court. The client was the German national rail company, Deutsche Bahn. The architects argued that their design for the new central station in Berlin had been changed without their knowledge: Deutsche Bahn had hired new architects – Winkens Architekten – to substitute flat ceilings for vaulted ceilings over the lower level platforms. The change allowed Deutsche Bahn a cost saving; GMP took the position that cost shouldn’t come before design integrity. The Berlin District Court ruled in favour of GMP and ordered Deutsche Bahn to demolish what it had built and implement the vaulted ceilings instead. This decision surprised just about everybody.

It might even have surprised your typical Ayn Rand reader. Even the most heroic of architects isn’t supposed to win in court quite like that. In the Rand world, those who create will inevitably have their designs interfered with by those who don’t create. Creators aren’t expected to take it lying down, though, just like von Gerkan didn’t. In The Fountainhead (1943), the inner-directed and incorruptible Howard Roark is hired (on condition of anonymity) by the self-serving, wonkish and manipulative Ellsworth Toohey to design a public housing project: Cortlandt Homes. From the beginning, it’s Toohey’s intention to mess around with Roark, and so Toohey has it that architects with less integrity than Roark are secretly hired to make modifications. Roark moves to sue the client, but is rebuffed. With the help of Dominique Francon, he moves to physical intervention; he blows up the altered housing project. Only then does he get to go to court; he’s prosecuted. After making an inspired speech to the jury in his own defense, he gets off. Although the drama of the novel is more or less unaffected by this decision, Roark’s acquittal is still important for Rand’s purposes. She wanted everyone to know that the universe isn’t malevolent; by extension, neither are the people in it. Not all of them, at least.

Rand has been getting a bit more play in the wake of the recent crash: she’s an ‘end times’ kind of author. But this means that writing about Rand is a bit like writing about Jesus, or about creationism. Many people take themselves to be inspired by Rand’s vision, and they mean it: her stuff has always been this-is-no-joke popular. At the same time, it’s always been widely despised. A. N. Wilson had a go at writing about Jesus: he wanted to retrieve something of value from the accumulated cruft of popular belief. Richard Dawkins remains an ardent creationism de-bunker, to the point where he’s lumped with the creationists as a personality type. As for myself, well I’m not going to make it my mission to reform Rand, as if I believed there were a way to both acknowledge what’s good in her writing while fending off what’s so obviously bad. Perhaps the worst thing about Rand is this: at all times, while reading her, you’re rehearsing this mental list of reasons why society couldn’t possibly work along Randian lines. You’re forced into political catechising. What if there were millions of other people out there trying to condition themselves in line with Rand’s prescription, you ask yourself. What would that do to social arrangements? But, then, only a moocher would take Rand’s bait by starting to worry about how things might come to affect other people. Even if you’re not Roarkian, exactly, you’re better than a moocher, you think. And of course, it’s disconcerting to find that Rand’s book obliges you to convince yourself of this.

The Fountainhead is preachy: utterly, to-its-core. It lays it on, as they say, with a trowel. With preachiness – necessarily – goes relevance. The setting is as up-to-date and as local as the author could make it. Rand wrote The Fountainhead after moving to New York in 1934 (she was a Russian emigre): the setting is indeed pre-war New York. There are big buildings getting built, there’s big business and wealthy people to commission those buildings, there’s a newspaper baron, there are society figures, and there are public administrators. As it happens, New York in the 1930s and 1940s was an environment in which public administrators could do well: Robert Moses, a man who derived most of his authority through his chairmanship of the Triborough Bridge Authority, most prominent among them. Robert Caro won a Pullitzer for his 1974 biography of Robert Moses: the picture of Moses you take away from The Power Broker is that of some modern troll; powerful, mostly discontented, sometimes tempted to outright malevolence and – crucially for the troll role – an actual bridge under-lurker (the Triborough Bridge Authority had its headquarters on Randall’s Island, almost literally underneath the bridges it controlled). It’s been suggested that Rand found the politics of New York in the 1930s much more collectivist and institution-oriented than she’d expected, and she was horrified.

Rand spent some time working as an administrative assistant in an New York architect’s office. Her description of commercial practice rings true; at least, truer than I expected. There are indeed senior architects who’ve moved away from a day-to-day active design role; there are indeed younger architects ambitious to make buildings. These things do affect a practice’s internal working arrangements, as you’d expect, and maybe it’s best that the outsider doesn’t know. Rand doesn’t take that view, of course. For her, the abdication of a creative role is a form of self-betrayal, and it’s an either-or thing. Roark doesn’t work – can’t work – in a certain sort of established commercial practice. He can neither make nor collude with those sorts of compromises. Neither, by implication, should you.

If the depiction of architectural practice in The Fountainhead is drawn from the author’s experience, what about the architect hero himself? People have wondered if Frank Lloyd Wright was the model for Roark. Wright himself believed that he was (on good evidence), and complained – perhaps tongue in cheek – that Rand got the colour of his hair wrong (Roark has red-orange hair). Rand, though, denied the connection, saying only that she admired Wright’s designs. The model for Roark’s character – Rand said – was Rand herself. But Rand’s characterisation of Roark is slim. He seems to have no parents, for instance. His attitudes are rarely disclosed; his dialogue is laconic. I think it’s reasonable to assess this minimalist treatment as being at least partly motivated by technique. Roark is the hero of the story; there needs to be little enough said about him that the reader can imagine themselves in the role. But more on that later.

Rand also had things to say about the newspaper business. The Fountainhead features the Hearst-like Gail Wynand; a man who’s gotten to own the newspaper in every town in America. Wynand is only part-Roarkian. He has the self-reliance, he’s not a compromiser, but he’s not a straight-dealer either: he frequently uses his publications to monster people he doesn’t like. Wynand gets a fuller characterisation than Roark. The man-devil of the story – Ellsworth Toohey – gets the fullest treatment. There’s a mini-biography of Toohey from childhood and Rand frequently spells out Toohey’s intentions and attitudes. And this is where I think you get to another major problem with Rand. Most of us hesitate to draw conclusions about a person’s inner life. But one of the norms Rand asserts is that it’s perfectly OK to do this: you can indeed write a person off, just as her fictional Toohey is written off. You can write them off because you know. Conversely, there are times when you can write a person on, that is, you can take them for granted. For example, Rand has it that Roark knows that Dominique Francon both desires him sexually but will not explicitly consent to sex. In a 1965 letter to a fan, Rand wrote:

You say you were asked whether ‘the rape of Dominique Francon by Howard Roark was a violation of Dominique’s freedom, an act of force that was contrary to Objectivist Ethics?’ The answer is: of course not. It was not an actual rape, but a symbolic action which Dominique all but invited. This was the action she wanted and Howard Roark knew it.

The objection here is pretty obvious. It’s one thing to specify that a character in a novel has a desire, or knows something. It’s altogether different to assert that real people can be assessed with total confidence. We’re fairly sure that we wouldn’t know that a real Francon would want to be forced to have sex, and since we wouldn’t know that, neither – we believe – would a real Roark. Hence we don’t condone rape or rape-like acts; instead, we work to establish a norm of explicit consent. Of course, we do also believe that attitudes may be indicated. But Rand takes this to an extreme. Francon’s gestures and the few things she does say to Roark are held to be fully reliable indicators of Francon’s attitude.

Similarly, Roark’s designs are held to be fully reliable indicators of Roark’s creativity. Much hangs on this. Rand never attaches a precedent to any of Roark’s work; his designs are chthonic, they are as if sprung from the rock. Such originality, according to Rand, gives the originator certain rights, including the right to specify how a design is used by others. In particular, a design shouldn’t be modified by a non-originator (this is what justifies Roark’s demolition of the housing project). But is the premise convincing? My personal experience in architecture is that precedent finds a way. After all, you’ve seen how things have been done by others; this is just a historical fact about you. What’s more, it seems to me as though many of the effects of this exposure might be held sub-consciously. Of course, you might work to purify yourself of influence, even though plenty of people will tell you that this is a stupid thing to do; immature, even. Well, maybe they’re just second-handers. Nonetheless, I suspect that most designers would stop short of giving a guarantee that a design is influence-free. Even the flagrant personal myth builders can often be ‘read’: we can see several inherited stylistic strands in Wright’s work, for instance, and Wright is one of the most original architects we’ve had (at any rate, his work impressed Rand sufficiently for her to commission him). Of course, stylistic innovation is easier to be certain of when everyone else is still doing the old style. Rand has everyone besides Roark (and his teacher, Henry Cameron) doing classical. In reality, modern architecture has many precursors, and there were many proto-modern architects.

After a while, Rand found she had to say that The Fountainhead wasn’t about architecture. Too many real modern architects – including Frank Lloyd Wright – fell short as people. I think this gives the game away. To return to my initial criticism: the worst thing about Rand is that as you read her, you get the sense that she’s set things up so that the plank can be kicked away at any time. For Rand, the ideal man will have perfect integrity and be successful, since the universe isn’t malevolent. That’s the screed. So how do you measure up? Perhaps you feel you’re less than successful. Well, maybe you don’t stand by your ideas; you’re an affirmation-seeker without integrity. OK, but maybe you are successful; your stuff, as a matter of fact, is out there. Ah yes, but did you go about it the right way? Perhaps you’re just one of these second-handers who knows how to work people (Wright was a chronic spendthrift who often lived off his spouse). Rand puts the reader in a bind, and you can’t even call quits. Why, she wouldn’t expect a moocher to accept any part of the message of The Fountainhead; that’s what moochers are like.

Texts laced with survival and self-propagation mechanisms are the stuff of cults: to see an example of long standing, look at the last verses of Revelations. The capacity for a medium to refer to itself in the form of a warning is – it seems – something we’re spooked by, and things which spook us get our respect. Horror entertainment plays with this sensitivity, with the difference that it’s easier to laugh at. For example, The Ring gets under our skin by telling us that the consequence of watching the video in The Ring is that you’ll die unless you make a copy of it. In the case of The Ring, no real person actually does this, of course. But then, real people know it’s only entertainment. So I wonder if the following for Rand’s fiction isn’t partly to do with her having produced texts which damn their refuters. Cult and horror fiction overlap in other ways too, and Rand makes free use of some of these genre devices. Howard Roark is blank enough to allow the reader to inhabit the role of lead character, but he still has many attractive qualities; he’s young, he’s physically able, he’s confidently self-reliant, he has a successful creative career. Who wouldn’t want to be him? But when it comes to Roark’s nemeses, Rand makes it clear that these are disgusting characters; she often gives physical descriptions that are intended to repel. What’s more, these characters suffer psychological torments that Roark is entirely free from.

People have pointed out that Atlas Shrugged – Rand’s other big novel – features what is essentially a rapture, an ‘end time’ when good people are taken away to heaven. The rest don’t go to hell; not directly, anyway. It’s important to the rapture concept that the unraptured get to stumble around for a while on earth, where things quickly degenerate. In the more sophisticated versions of the rapture story, this hell on earth is entirely the result of human shortcomings, now fully exposed. And there’s a variant rapture – secret rapture – the contemporary popularity of which may be down to Rand. It differs from the traditional Thessalonians-style version in that it’s unannounced: the elect just vanish. Secret rapture seems to regularly come up in fiction. I’m thinking here not just of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, but also more respectable stuff, such as Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma. With rapture, you’re either left behind or you’re not: it’s categorical social dissolution. Secret rapture adds a twist; the elect know that they’re saved, and why, but the left behinds don’t. They’re not only the damned, they’re also the ignorant. From the point of view of the first-handers – to use Rand’s terms – the stupidity of the second-handers is simply taken out of the game. With a single decisive judgement – what Whittaker Chambers (no relation!) called ‘a surging release of power and passion’ – the way is clear.

(Helped along by Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, ed. Robert Mayhew, Lexington, 2007.)

3 thoughts on “Are the Rand times here?

  1. I’ve never read any Rand (life’s too short) but I have read lots of early Heinlein, and I’m struck by how much that’s written here also applies to his work.

  2. That’s interesting: I’ve never read any Heinlein. Maybe I will …

    I wanted to say more about Wright and Moses. Neither qualify as good Roarkians but both seem to have achieved an immense amount. I’m wondering if Wright’s life history in particular doesn’t give the lie to Rand’s ethos, tout court.

  3. If not Wright’s life history that “gives the lie to Rand’s ethos, tout court”, then it is surely Nikola Teslsa’s, in the architectural context consider the story of his Wardenclyffe Tower, or even Richard Stallman’s, especially during the early and mid-eighties when he single-handed matched the output of all the Symbolics programmers and founded the GNU.

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