The Greatly Ghastly Rand
From the Aug. 30, 2010, issue of NR.


In her introduction to its 25th-anniversary printing, she says: “This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man.” Yet this man — the architect Howard Roark — turns out to be pretty boring. He rarely speaks. When he does, it is rarely interesting (and when it is, it is transparently didactic). He has no sense of humor. As his enemies try to destroy him, he shows so little emotion that the reader must rely upon an abstract sense of justice in order to give a damn. Howard Roark is a ghost of a protagonist.

To some degree this was inevitable, however — Roark will conduct himself with a minimum of drama, for Roark is egoless. I realize that’s a dirty word in The Fountainhead, but I’m using it in a special sense, one I think Rand could accept. For Rand, “egoless” means self-negating, sacrificing yourself to something or someone else. What I will use it to mean is an absence of self-consciousness about your ego — a self-esteem secure enough that you don’t compare yourself with others, a focus on your work complete enough that you don’t worry whether it will succeed, a general freedom from thinking of your identity abstractly and trying to justify or glorify it. This sense is approximately the antonym of “egotistical” — the word, Rand explains in her introduction, that she mistakenly used for “egoistical” when writing The Fountainhead. “I don’t make comparisons,” Roark says. “I don’t want to be the symbol of anything.” He does not want to be a great architect; he wants to build his buildings. That’s egolessness.

Its antithesis is Roark’s foil, Peter Keating, also an architect, whom we meet graduating from college as valedictorian and self-consciously enjoying the fact that many people are looking at him. The crucial distinction between these types is that only a Roark can be creative. A Keating, a man who must justify himself before and in comparison with the world, is essentially derivative. He cannot create anything his own, because he has accepted a standard not his own. And this principle comes with a corollary for anyone who wishes to be a creator: He must not — as Rand puts it in a note that her heir, Leonard Peikoff, reprints in his Atlas Shrugged introduction — “place his wish primarily within others” or “attempt or desire anything that . . . requires primarily the exercise of the will of others. . . . If he attempts that, he is out of a creator’s province and in that of the collectivist and the second-hander.”

This corollary is not, properly speaking, a moral imperative, because no obligation has been established to try to be creative. But the Randian hero is creative, and will observe the corollary, and that is why, in addition to never sacrificing his interests for another’s, he will never ask others to sacrifice their interests for his. Much like the Nietzschean superman, the Randian hero cannot be predatory or exploitative; this would not give him what he wants, because no one outside himself has it to give. (Chambers’s statement that the Randian voice commands “from painful necessity,” his belief that Rand favors rule by a technocratic elite, and the title of his review, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” are all, therefore, in error.)

Most of The Fountainhead’s second-handers are mediocrities out to make themselves feel better by cutting down their betters. This isn’t very interesting either. Rand doesn’t care enough about many of these characters to make real people of them, and she draws their personalities in a manner both crude and incoherent. Keating, for example, is both devilishly calculating — as when he forces out a partner at the firm, making room for himself, by accosting him with such violence as to induce a heart attack — and stupidly inert — as when his mother manipulates him into not marrying the woman he loves.

The book finally starts to get interesting when we meet its Devil, an architecture critic and public intellectual named Ellsworth Toohey. Toohey is a second-order second-hander: He preaches a gospel of collectivism so as to win power over the Keatings. He is out to “collect souls,” and they will consent to his rule because he will secure their egos (in my sense of the word) by destroying the egoless. His weapon is to invert values, so that the creators are despised. He is witty, urbane, eloquent, ironically colloquial, physically repulsive, smashingly dressed, surgically subtle, and purely ruthless.