Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The beast with two backs

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 115 -225

Plot-wise, we've got Roark quitting the firm he was working for to build a house for a rich eccentric. As a result, he sets up his own firm and gets a few commissions, but eventually goes bankrupt and gets a job quarrying stone at Francon's quarry in Connecticut. There he meets Dominique Francon, who is immediately sexually attracted to him and simultaneously repulsed by her own inclination toward human dependency. (We've also learned that Dominique considers any kind of dependence on anything or anyone absolute anathema.) They have a couple of adversarial conversations (though the hostility is veiled on both their parts) and then, eventually, violent sex. (Rape? Hard to say. Not really? The whole thing's dependent on Dominique not wanting it, but Rand says, a couple of times, that the only reason she's aroused is that Roark doesn't acknowledge her with any sort of tenderness.) Dominque never learns his name, and doesn't actually know who he is. Only a few days later, Roark returns to New York to meet with a prospective architectural client.

As far as Keating goes, he's under pressure from Catherine to marry her, and yet is fascinated with Dominique. He proposes to Dominique, actually, and she turns him down, saying that she would only ever marry him in order to punish herself. Around this time, Keating becomes a partner in the firm, having driven Heyer, the previous partner, to have a stroke by threatening him with blackmail. In addition to making partner, Keating has achieved acclaim by winning a well-known architectural contest, which he accomplished with a design that Roark edited significantly for him. After winning the contest, he visits Roark and offers him some money as compensation for his involvement in the plan, and they fight about Keating's lack of talent and Roark's unwillingness to compromise his artistic ideals. Keating decides, afterward, that he hates Roark.

This Rand novel is significantly more tolerable than Atlas Shrugged. I'm not sure why; it might be that it's about needing to assert creative freedom in order to be truly free. I respond better to the idea of creative freedom than I do the idea of economic freedom. There has been less of an emphasis on selfishness so far, as well. Although, thinking about that statement, I'm not sure Rand would agree; she would say that asserting one's creativity is a form of selfishness, since it's something you do to reach personal satisfaction. It's just that I identify a lot more with that need than I do with creating a railroad empire, as in Atlas Shrugged. Anyway, I think the story also moves along significantly better, and there's been less repetition of similar events, as well. Roark's story seems to be evolving more fluidly than Dagny Taggert's did.

The sex, though, and, in fact, Dominique in general, I'm not sure what to make of. It seems like her assertion of a complete lack of dependence is supposed to be a good thing, and yet, she seems to be making herself miserable, which, in turn, makes her happy. I can't tell if Rand is supporting that or condemning it. Clearly, she's more admirable that Keating, who is so dependent on the opinions of others and any type of external motivation that even his selfishness isn't really selfish, and yet, she's not as admirable as Roark, who is driven by his own vision of great architecture, and therefore dependent on seeing that vision realized. So, what does Dominique mean? I'm not sure. She may be an example of the idea of independence carried too far, but it seems unlikely that Rand would be portraying that message. I'm also confused about the violent sex, though it's not the first time we've seen it in Rand. Dagny Taggert seemed to have the need for violence and control in her sexual experiences as well. Is it supposed to be another example of weakness, or a statement about the character of sexual relationships for strong, dominant women? If so, is it good or bad, or is Rand simply showing it to us? I'm reluctant to say it's simply a fact and let it go at that, but what is it supposed to prove? To be part of a truly independent relationship, sex can have no emotional meaning, and, therefore, is reduced to its raw state, which is one of male dominance and female submission? I don't know, and solutions are not forthcoming.

Speaking of reducing things to their raw states, I think it's interesting, too, that Rand seems to deny the social nature of the human species. Her most admirable characters are almost completely socially inept, mostly because they refuse to compromise their values and morals for the needs of the group. (It's almost as though Roark and Dominque are autistic, actually; they simply don't think of social needs and interaction the way that other people do. It's not wrong, but is outside the normal mental spectrum.) I understand why she's saying that, and that she considers such moral integrity not only good, but necessary, but it seems hard to ignore the fact that the phenomenon of social organization itself is built on the principle of compromising for the good of the group. Is it possible to function as a society without it? I'm sure Rand would argue that it's necessary to subvert the base instincts of the social animal in order to create a better society, but, to carry Rand's idea of complete independence to its logical but absurd conclusion, a society cannot function when all its members are completely independent. It will fall apart.

You can't fault her for making you think about stuff, at least. It counts for a lot.

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