Friday, January 27, 2012

Hell is Ugly People

Before discussing the niggling fascism of The Fountainhead and its seductive portrait of a self-willed hero, it's best to begin with a definition of an infamously slippery term. Susan Sontag's definition, in reference to the films in photography of Leni Riefenstahl, will guide our way:
Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in The Last of the Nuba. More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, "virile" posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.
This is by no means a perfect definition for my purposes; Rand's notions of heroic individualism at first blush would seem to preclude any consideration of masses of people. (This is, however, belied by her later development of a personality cult of young admirers that adopted her opinions, tastes, and even fashions.) Yet much of it is discomfittingly apropos: Howard Roark's egoism, his absolute self-control and stoic endurance of every obstacle, the master/slave dichotomy at work with him not just socially but sexually (my god, the rape scene!), his magnetic virility.

On its own Roark's role as a paragon of overwhelming power might not be so bothersome. But the problem is thrown into stark relief when one considers the cast which surrounds him, which is largely a rogue's gallery of "selfless" venality.

Of the mere mortals that stand in Roark's path, the most pesky are Peter Keating and Ellsworth M. Toohey. Keating, Roark's "rival" (Roark naturally could give a damn, while Keating is haunted by his own feeling of inferiority whenever dealing with him) has no particular interest or talent in architecture, but does it in order to be more famous and financially successful than anybody else. Toohey, architecture critic for tabloid rag The New York Banner, is a self-described "humanitarian" whose charity work and social conscience are a cover to enhance his own standing and power and paper over his own lack of talent.

The unifying thread of all such characters is their "selflessness." This is something Rand details to great extent, so it is worth clarifying: a power-hungry douchebag like Peter Keating is egotistical, "selfish," in the traditional meaning of the term, but he is in a sense "self-less," in that his entire identity is wrapped up in how he is perceived by others. He has no self, while Roark, even though he is 'better' than everyone else, is only concerned about living up to his own standards.

This is the pervasive theme of The Fountainhead, whose original working title, based on this theme, was Second-Hand Lives. Rand developed this notion and the idea for the book after asking a young Hollywood secretary what her goal in life was. The response:
Here's what I want out of life. If nobody had an automobile, I would not want one. If automobiles exist and some people don't have them, I want an automobile. If some people have two automobiles, I want two automobiles.
An appalling outlook it is indeed, and Rand's formulation of 'self-lessness,' based around this idea, is novel and genuinely insightful. One of the few positive things one can take away from this book is this consideration of whether one is acting for one's own enjoyment, or merely to curry favor with others. I

But, typical of her black-and-white thinking, Rand goes on to insist that this is the only alternative to Roark's heroic individualism, which is itself the only kind of virtue possible. Thus traditional selflessness and altruism are not merely matters of individual generosity or societal cooperation, but a barely-disguised collectivism that seeks to drag the best and brightest into a stew of mediocrity and completely eradicate the notion of the self (it also bears little relation to what any person actually thinks):
You must be willing to suffer, to be cruel, to be dishonest, to be unclean--anything, my dear, anything to kill the most stubborn of roots, the ego. And only when it is dead, when you care no longer, when you have lost your identity and forgotten the name of your soul--only then will you know the kind of happiness I spoke about, and the gates of spiritual grandeur will fall open before you.
Toohey is the most obviously villainous example--his very name is the sound one makes when hawking spit--but virtually anyone who isn't working for or paying Roark is emotionally defective: Keating's mother, who "supports" him every step of the way, is a passive-aggressive emotional vampire whose "love" is a cover for emotional manipulation, while his girlfriend Catharine, Toohey's niece, is pitifully passive and frail, with no will of her own to protest Keating constantly ignoring her and taking her for granted.

More than just morally defective, the undesirables in Rand's universe are physically repulsive too: Toohey is an obvious case, fey and skinny, a sickly creature with a Hitler mustache. But it extends to all manner of minor and background characters. Some of The Fountainhead's most vivid passages are the ones communicating physical disgust. In a memorable scene, Keating goes to one of the partners of the architecture firm he works for in order to force him to retire, and ends up giving the poor bastard a second fatal stroke.  The language Rand uses to describe this nonentity is some of the most viscerally disgusting in the book:
Heyer sat still, with his pale, bulging eyes blank and his mouth open in a perfect circle. Keating shuddered and wondered whether he was speaking to an idiot.

Then Heyer’s mouth moved and his pale pink tongue showed, flickering against his lower teeth.

“But I don’t want to retire.” He said it simply, guilelessly, in a little petulant whine.
Rand describes how the old man’s “left hand with the paralyzed fingers jabbed at [a sheet of paper] blindly, purposelessly, like a hook,” how “the yellow face at the edge of the table opened its mouth and made a wet, gurgling sound like a moan.” Then: “A shadow cut diagonally across his face. Keating saw one eye that did not blink, half a mouth open, the darkness flowing in through the hole, into the face, as if it were drowning.”

Later Toohey opens up a Home for Subnormal Children, which I guess is supposed to be funny in an "oh, those bleeding heart liberals" kind of way:
A small, experienced staff was chosen by Toohey. It had been harder to find the children who qualified as inmates. Most of them had to be taken from other institutions. Sixty-five children, their ages ranging from three to fifteen, were picked out by zealous ladies who were full of kindness and so made a point of rejecting those who could be cured and selecting only the hopeless cases. There was a fifteen-year-old boy who had never learned to speak; a grinning child who could not be taught to read or write; a girl born without a nose, whose father was also her grandfather; a person called "Jackie" of whose age or sex nobody could be certain. They marched into their new home, their eyes staring vacantly, the stare of death before which no world existed.
The hatred of weakness is most explicitly articulated by an acolyte of Roark's, a young sculptor who attempted to shoot Toohey:
Listen, what's the most horrible experience you can imagine? To me--it's being left, unarmed, in a sealed cell with a drooling beast of prey or a maniac who's had some disease that's eaten his brain out. You'd have nothing then but your voice--your voice and your thought. You'd scream to that creature why it should not touch you, you'd have the most eloquent words, the unanswerable words, you'd become the vessel of the absolute truth. And you'd see living eyes watching you and you'd know that the thing can't hear you, that it can't be reached, not reached, in any way, yet it's breathing and moving there before you with a purpose of it's own. That's horror. Well, that's what's hanging over the world, prowling somewhere through mankind, that same thing, something closed, mindless, utterly wanton, but something with an aim and a cunning of its own.
Rand makes strength and beauty into absolute ideals and frivolity, frailty, and ugliness, which is a hallmark of fascism. She allows no room for compromise, ambiguity, or charity, and so adopts an attitude of austere judgment and contempt. This permeates the book throughout, in every aspect and area, including, as we will see, the realm most often thought immune from such attitudes: love.


  1. I may have missed it - what prompted you to dig into all the rand-ness lately?

    I have to say that I'm pretty far on the left of the spectrum, but I still "enjoyed" Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead, despite all their obvious flaws. I'm certainly not a Rand-head, nor do I espouse her philosophy, so it's hard to say why... but hey, no accounting for taste, right?

    Anyway, just popping in to say thanks for this.

  2. Thanks for reading! I became fascinated by Rand's life after reading the Jennifer Burns biography. I think her story would make a great play, so I'm reading all of her work to better understand her. The posts are a good way for me to organize my thoughts and generate some material for the blog, which would otherwise be lying fallow again because this is occupying so much brain-space. Win-win!

    I'm actually enjoying it a lot, precisely because I disagree with so much of it, like when I was covering C.S. Lewis around this time last year. It's great way of clarifying my ideas and opinions. And Rand's mind operated so differently from just about anyone else's that the material is ripe for analysis.