Friday, August 27, 2010

Summer Reading - "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand

This summer I decided to tackle one of the elusive Ayn Rand books that I always intend to read, but never start because of their daunting size.  Knowing that I had a couple of months to travel and relax in-between school years I figured that this was the best time to take on the beast.

First off, The Fountainhead was written in 1943 as Rand's third novel and the first of two that would bring her fame and milk money (Atlas Shrugged is the other).
Without telling you too much, in case you want to read this joker, the story is about architecture on the surface and the struggle between individualism and collectivism at a deeper level.  The protagonist is an architect named Howard Roark who epitomizes individualism by choosing to only work alone to design modern buildings that are progressive and unique, while the other architects of his day merely crank out buildings using classical structure and facades borrowed from the Greeks and Renaissance periods.  He is a freakin' hero because he doesn't seek fame, wealth or any form of personal gain...........only to supply society with his buildings that are typically seen as ugly by the common man since he only designs buildings for function rather than appearance. 
Roark is introduced alongside another architect, Peter Keating, that has never had an original thought in his life and uses others, including Roark's genius, in order to amass wealth and success.  Roark, on the other hand, turns down any opportunity to design a major project if his clients don't allow him to build it exactly as he wishes.  While it appears prideful to all, it's not out of pride that he refuses his services, but out of integrity.  He doesn't mind if other architects design copycat buildings to please the public, but he will not take part in something that he doesn't believe in.
There's also a love story intertwined in the plot as well as several other intriguing characters which make this novel a very enjoyable read.  I really enjoyed the latter part of the novel, where Rand comments on individualism vs. collectivism and selfishness vs. selflessness.  Here's an excerpt:

"..........Look at Peter Keating.......What was his aim in life?  Greatness -- in other people's eyes.  Fame, admiration, envy -- all that which comes from others.  Others dictated his convictions, which he did not hold, but he was satisfied that others believed he held them.  Others were his motive power and his prime concern.  He didn't want to be great, but to be thought great.  He didn't want to build, but to be admired as a builder.  He borrowed from others in order to make an impression on others.  There's your actual selflessness.  It's his ego he's betrayed and given up.  But everybody calls him selfish."

In this case, Roark believes that Keating embodies "selflessness" more than the "selfishness" of which he's accused.  On the other hand, Roark believes himself to be selfish, since he is more egotistical in his work.

Another interesting quote from the novel comes from Ellsworth Tooey, who lives to manipulate popular opinion by writing editorials on architecture.  In this scene, he is telling another character how easy it is to control man....
"Here's another way.  This is most important.  Don't allow men to be happy.  Happiness is self-contained and self-sufficient.  Happy men have no time and no use for you.  Happy men are free men.  So kill their joy in living.  Take away from them whatever is dear or important to them.  Never let them have what they want.  Make them feel that the mere fact of a personal desire is evil.  Bring them to a state where saying "I want" is no longer a natural right, but a shameful admission.  Altruism is of great help in this."

He goes on to say that this has gone on for centuries and is at the heart of any world power growing out of a system of ethics.  You can see where this ideal is controversial, but it is interesting food for thought.
In the last few chapters of the novel Roark must defend himself in court by delivering an amazing monologue loaded with thought-provoking quotes, such as this one:

"Rulers of men are not egotists.  They create nothing.  They exist entirely through the persons of others.  Their goals are in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving.  They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker and the bandit.  The form of dependence does not matter."

So, to wrap it up, it was a thought-provoking read and I can see how it could raise some controversy in its day, and even today.  As a Christian I believe that we should put others ahead of ourselves and sacrifice some of my desires in order to give to others of my time and resources.  It seems that Rand would argue that any form of altruism is some form of slavery to a system because I am convinced that I should deny myself certain things.  She would also argue that I am not a free man because of this form of slavery.  This idea also seems to comment on forms of socialism and communism where the individual is forced to give up freedoms for the greater good of society.  I also found it interesting that Rand views rulers, those that normally are put on a pedestal in history, in the same light as beggars, social workers, and bandits that are all dependent on others.

What struck me most, however, was the first quote where those that are seen as "selfish" by society may also be seen as "selfless" from another perspective since that person typically loses his/her ego to dependence on others.  I applied this concept to my work as a teacher.  In pretty much every job I've held and in life I think that I strive to work hard and do my best with some part of me seeking approval and acknowledgment from others along the way.  Yes, I want to invest in the lives of kids and make a difference, but I also don't mind hearing from my administrator that I'm doing a great job.  I guess one would seem a little less human if he/she didn't respond at all to any praise for accomplishments, but it seems that true integrity would be striving towards excellence without needing or wanting any approval from others.  At any rate, I am aware that I seek the approval of others and almost need that feedback to keep me going.  This seems to be a natural human tendency, but one that I would like to break free of. 

From a Biblical standpoint, I believe we should strive to please only our Creator, as we find in the following passage from Colossians 3:23-24:
"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.  It is Christ you are serving."  With that in mind, I think that it is a worthwhile goal to ask God to work on our hearts to help us break free from the enslavement of seeking approval from peers.  Not that we can't appreciate any praise or compliments from others; rather that we should not need it and have confidence in every aspect of our lives.

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