Monday, August 23, 2010

What happened to the soul of wit?

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 1 - 115

Hey, an actual post! It's so new and different! Too bad it's about Ayn Rand, who is not new and different.

Before I get snarky, let's do a run-down of the plot so far. Howard Roark, our hero, (who is almost completely emotionless, because emotion is clearly an ignoble weakness) gets kicked out of architecture school because he won't design Greek and Roman and Renaissance Revival style buildings, but instead only designs original Modernist architecture. (Do you get kicked out of architecture school for that? It seems like a bit of a stretch. But we'll move on.)

Peter Keating, who graduates at the same time that Roark gets kicked out, is the Golden Boy of the school, though has very little actual talent. Keating immediately gets a job at the top architecture firm in New York, Francon and Heyer, where he proceeds to manipulate people into quitting or getting fired until he's made top designer.

Roark has come to New York, too, where he starts work for a failed Modernist architect named Cameron, who recognizes his genius but warns him it will be his downfall. Eventually Cameron retires, and Keating gets Roark a job at Francon and Heyer, which he loses when he refuses to design a Renaissance-style building. He gets a job working for a new firm designing things like department stores.

We also meet Dominique Francon, Keating's boss's daughter, who hates all Revivalist architecture, and with whom Keating immediately falls in love. Unfortunately, Keating is engaged to the penniless Catherine Halsey, niece of Ellsworth Toohey, the foremost architecture critic in the country, who believes only in reproducing the great masterpieces of Classical and Renaissance architecture. That's about where we are, then: the downtrodden innovator can't catch a break, and the slimy, talentless manipulator is thriving.

Are you unsure about what the message might be? Do you need me to explain it? Do I know exactly where the following 600 pages of this book are going? You bet your lacy green knickers I do. Gee, will it be the story of genius held back by the machine of the establishment? Gee, will it be public opinion crushing the spark of creativity and rewarding the repetition of old ideas? Gee, will it espouse complete selfishness of Roark's variety as the only way to achieve any degree of freedom in society, while ignoring the fact that Keating's brand of selfishness is virtually the same thing? Gee, Ayn, I can hardly wait to find out!

Ok, I'm laying it on thick, but seriously, this is my problem with Rand. Everything's so damn ham-fisted that I know exactly what's going to happen five pages in. From the moment, on the third page, when I found out that Howard Roark got kicked out of architecture school for his innovative designs, I was like, "Oh, the point is that society and the establishment are so entrenched in their dogma that it's difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to change them, regardless of the merit of the new ideas one is interested in realizing." And now there are 700 more pages to prove that point in exhausting detail. So far, I must admit, the storytelling is a bit better than in Atlas Shrugged, but I don't doubt that I'll lose patience before it's over. We'll see if there are any 75-page speeches, I guess.

Also, when presenting a counter-argument, as I often tell my high-school-age writing students, it's a good idea to make the other side's position believable, rather than so exaggerated as to be ridiculous. Ayn Rand, apparently, didn't get the memo on that one. Here's her version of Toohey's statement about a piece of Classical Revival architecture:
"The discipline of an immortal tradition has served here as a cohesive factor in evolving a structure whose beauty can reach, simply and lucidly, the heart of every man in the street. There is no freak exhibitionism here, no perverted striving for novelty, no orgy of unbridled egotism. Guy Francon, its designer, has known how to subordinate himself to the mandatory canons which generations of craftsmen behind him have proved inviolate, and at the same time how to display his own creative originality, not in spite of, but because of the classical dogma he has accepted with the humility of a true artist. It may be worth mentioning, in passing, that dogmatic discipline is the only thing which makes true originality possible..." (41)
Dogmatic discipline is the only thing which makes true originality possible? Seriously, Rand? I know you're presenting the other side's argument in a light which you hope will make it ridiculous, but would be like to attempt to strive for realism, at least?

Did you miss the whining about Ayn Rand? I bet you did.


  1. You are overly hasty in concluding you know the message of the next 600 pages. Rand's message in this book is not what you have said ("Oh, the point is that society and the establishment are so entrenched in their dogma that it's difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to change them, regardless of the merit of the new ideas one is interested in realizing.") It will be interesting to see how many pages it takes you to figure it out.

  2. Well, I glossed it over fairly simply; I'm sure there's also a hint of "You have to be selfish to achieve freedom in a society that demands conformity," but we'll see. If she surprises me, I'll be thrilled.

  3. There are no 75 page speeches, or 95 page ones either.

  4. Claire, what's going on here with the centrality of architecture to new 20th Century ideas. I mean, sure, it makes a great object lesson and frame for what Rand wants to talk about, but didn't post-modernism arise as an idea in architecture first? Whether or not that's merely a mythical accretion of our undergraduate education, it is still of interest in its propagation.

    Also, architecture and architects pop up all in all kinds of wacky places, not the least of which is futuretracking.



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