Ayn Rand's Enduring Lesson


“Ayn Rand is dead,” wrote conservative author William F. Buckley in an obituary in 1982 about the best-selling novelist-philosopher. “So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn.”

Maybe so. But there it was last week, still going strong more than six decades after its publication, The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s first major literary success, on the “Our Staff Recommends” shelf at my local Barnes & Noble.

As regards “stillborn,” it takes sales of a few hundred thousand copies to make The New York Times best-seller list. The Fountainhead has sold some six million copies and continues to sell more than 100,000 copies a year (Rand’s total book sales have reached 30 million, and they continue at more than 400,000 a year).

What keeps up the interest is Rand’s unwavering advocacy of individualism and, on a larger scale, her celebration of capitalism and resistance to collectivism.

The hero in The Fountainhead (the title refers to Rand’s assertion that “man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress”) is Howard Roark, an architect with uncompromising creative talent and an ego that doesn’t depend on the approval of others.

Sent packing by the dean of an architecture school for failing to adequately bow to traditional styles of the past, Roark, a true individualist, refuses to compromise his work to gain business or satisfy clients.

Commissioned to design Cortlandt Homes, a low-rent housing project, Roark agrees to do the job on the condition that the project will be built precisely as designed. The condition is violated and Roark destroys the disfigured building.

Arguing in his own defense to the jury, Roark makes the case that he destroyed a piece of collectivism in dynamiting Cortlandt, a collectivism that’s destroying mankind.

“If physical slavery is repulsive,” asks Roark, “how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit?”

Repulsive because the servility is voluntary, a conscious decision to destroy one’s own integrity and autonomy in order to appease the group, to keep the collective pacified, a deliberate decision to destroy one’s own soul in order to gain a commission, a nod of approval.

“The ‘common good’ of a collective – a race, a class, a state – was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over man,” Roark declares. “Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetuated by the disciples of altruism?”

And the earnestness and sincerity of those seeking to compel servility for the common good? “The most dreadful butchers were the most sincere,” charges Roark. “They believed in the perfect society reached through the guillotine and the firing squad. Nobody questioned their right to murder since they were murdering for an altruistic purpose. It was accepted that man be sacrificed for other men.”

Roark is acquitted.

As Roark’s archenemy, Rand presents Ellsworth M. Toohey, a pro-collectivism journalist and architectural critic, “a man who couldn’t be, and knows it,” the complete antithesis of Roark.

Consciously recognizing evil as his only means to power, Toohey, resentful of Roark’s integrity and creative talent, plans to incite the public against Roark through a smear campaign.

A power-seeker with limited talent, Toohey explains how he plans to gain control over others by way of instilling guilt, by poisoning their self-confidence. “The soul is that which can’t be ruled,” he says to one of his own victims. “It must be broken. Drive a wedge in, get your fingers on it – and the man is yours. You won’t need a whip – he’ll bring it to you and ask to be whipped. Set him in reverse – and his own mechanism will do your work for you.”

There are many ways, he says, to destroy a man’s soul. “Here’s one. Make a man feel small. Make him feel guilty.” Instill “a sense of guilt, of sin, of his own basic unworthiness.” To cement the obedience, “Don’t allow men to be happy,” “kill their joy of living,” “take away from them whatever is dear or important to them.”

The result – a man afraid of not being controlled. “His soul gives up its self-respect. You’ve got him. He’ll obey. He’ll be glad to obey – because he can’t trust himself, he feels uncertain, he feels unclean.”

The above, “stillborn”? Not quite.

July 24, 2007