Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Do unto others

Current book: The Fountainhead
Pages read: 620 - 727 (end)

Well, in the end, Keating's housing projects (designed, as you recall, by Roark) get amended and therefore ruined by other architects. Roark responds by blowing them up with dynamite. (Jerry Bruckheimer should make a movie.) He allows himself to be arrested and tried for the crime, though he pleads not guilty. While awaiting trial, he is condemned by the public and made a scapegoat for all social ills.

Wynand defends Roark in his paper, earning the contempt of the public and his board, and eventually instigating a strike against the paper. Though he gamely runs it himself with just Dominique's help for two months or so, eventually he gives in to the strike and relinquishes editorial control. He hates himself for it and realizes that he is not a paragon of the virtues of selfishness and integrity that he's learned to appreciate from knowing Dominique and Roark, and sort of shuts down. Meanwhile, Roark and Dominique become lovers again, due to the fact that she has finally accepted the idea that standing up as a model of integrity is the only way to show that you are truly an individual, and therefore is willing to let herself love Roark again.

At Roark's trial, he gives an impassioned speech about the virtue of selfishness in which he says that it's the individual who deserves all the praise in our society. He says that the public good is the greatest of all evils, and that countries are ruined by being governed by committees. To be ruled by the will of the people is to be ruled by the lowest common denominator. The man who invented fire was probably burned at the stake for his own invention, but he was the most heroic and deserving of all men. The creative urge is purely individual, and man has no instinct toward altruism, which is only a fictitious virtue. The jury, convinced by his absolute conviction and calm, declares him not guilty.

At the close of the book, Wynand hires Roark to design the tallest building in New York, the Wynand building, and swears that it will be devoted to only the virtues he espouses. Roark agrees and begins building it (though Wynand still seems to be broken by his own failure), and the novel ends with Dominique (now Mrs. Roark) visiting the half-built tower, where she sees, at the top, a vision of Roark standing above everything, with only the sky and sea as a backdrop.

Well, it's vastly better than Atlas Shrugged in that it actually held my interest for 725 pages, rather than making me want to shoot myself. I was surprised by the fact that Roark won his trial; I think it shows that Rand was much more optimistic at this point in her career than later on. While Atlas focuses on failure after failure after failure and ends by predicting the coming revolution, The Fountainhead seems to suggest that individuals who have been part of the ignorant masses (in this case, the men of Roark's jury) are already able to assert themselves and recognize what is important when the choice is offered to them.

What about the message? Well, it makes its point more convincingly and more moderately than Atlas Shrugged, I think. It says that selfishness is the virtue by which we should all live, and that the greatest examples of mankind have done so. I think that in the realm of the artistic, literary, and technological, the idea of the individual being the most important of all things is probably the correct one. However, I also think that Rand's logic fails when she tries to apply this idea to the political, the economic, and the social. In the case of the political, she posits the idea that the individual leaders of men are not exemplifying the selfish because they are working for power, which is, in effect, the approval of others, and not actually self-interest. However, she fails to offer any useful alternative. If we're not supposed to have leaders who want power, and we're definitely not supposed to be communist (Communism clearly terrifies her, since the thought of being entirely governed by committee is pretty much anathema to her philosophy.), what exactly are we supposed to do? Find ourselves a benevolent dictator with perfect personal integrity? Good luck with that. In the case of the economic, I think she didn't really try to explain that in this book, but left it for later, which is fair. I've already discussed it at length in Atlas Shrugged posts, so I'll let it go, too.

In the case of the social, by which I suppose I mean the divisions of class and the ideas of social responsibility, Rand probably falls the shortest. It's tied to the political in that she offers no solutions to the problems of class. She clearly has a great deal of contempt for the poor who have not somehow gotten themselves out of their situation through perseverance and hard work, so perhaps that is her only answer: they deserve what they've got and the only responsibility lies with them. I feel like it's completely unrealistic, but I guess she's happy to write them off. I wonder what she'd say about universal health care? Does selfishness as a virtue extend to the modern health care system? I'd say the incredible uselessness of the health insurance system in America is a result of insurance companies' selfishness, and it's leaving most people, integrity and hard work or not, in an untenable position. And yet, to take care of people who cannot pay to be cared for would be altruistic, and therefore despicable? So that must be wrong. Let me just write off all my uninsured friends then, and condemn them to pain, illness, and, in at least one case, probable death. I'll get right on it.

The real problem, sarcasm aside, is that at least one of Rand's conditions is incorrect. It is not true that altruism is not an instinct. Altruism, and its simpler form, cooperation, are, in fact, genetically programmed because they are often evolutionarily advantageous. There is actually an equation to determine when populations of animals will act altruistically and when they will not. In animals, its determined by shared genetic markers. In humans, it's expanded beyond that, but the principle is sound. Cooperation has allowed humanity to create and build in a way that would be impossible without it. Roark's buildings would never have been made had he had to act alone. Yes, you could argue that the contractors and construction workers who worked for him were being paid for their skills, and were therefore selfish, but that kind of selfishness goes hand in hand with cooperation. If they were truly selfish, they'd rob banks and wouldn't bother to work at all. When the city government had the streets built that Roark's building was connected to, when the pioneers who settled the area worked together to create a town that became a city, indeed, when the first humans acted as lookouts for one another, they were being selfish and cooperating at the same time. Does that sometimes result in pure altruism, too? Yes, it does. When genetically-motivated altruism is extrapolated to modern human society, sometimes we're nice to each other for no reason. Is it despicable that we build free museums that are full of art that we would never see any other way? Is it despicable that we house the poor so that they won't die in the streets? Is it despicable that I stop and help someone change a flat tire? Is it even, you can ask, truly selfish? These kinds of altruism are selected for genetically because they help us to survive better as a group, a tribe, and, eventually, a society. To condemn them universally as a weakness is not only absurd, it's blind to one of the basic realities of evolution. We didn't get this way by accident.

I digress. Is the book literature? No. Once again, Rand falls prey to her message over her art. It's closer than Atlas Shrugged, but it still exists to state its political message rather than to speak to the universal truths of humanity. I'm not emotionally involved, only intellectually. I don't consider Plato's Republic literature, either. Philosophy, sure; literature, no.

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