In Defense of the Individual

The protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is Howard Roark, a young, principled architect who is pitted against manipulative forces that fear his individualism and seek to destroy him. The first such instance takes place in the beginning, when Roark is expelled from the prestigious Stanton Institute of Technology. The Dean dismisses Roark’s work because it bears no resemblance to the classical canon of architecture. Roark points to a framed photograph of the Parthenon on the Dean’s wall and asks, “why do you want me to think this is great architecture?”

That,” says the Dean, “is the Parthenon.”

A frustrated Roark snatches a ruler from the Dean’s table and taps the glass over the picture. “Look,” he says. “The famous flutings on the famous columns – what are they there for? To hide the joints in the wood – when columns were made of wood, only these aren’t, they’re marble. The triglyphs, what are they? Wood. Wooden beams, the way they had to be laid when people began to build wooden shacks. Your Greeks took marble and they made copies of their wooden structures out of it, because others had done it that way. Then your masters of the Renaissance came along and made copies in plaster of copies in wood. Now here we are, making copies in steel and concrete of copies in plaster of copies in marble of copies in wood.”     

Roark has his own principles and isn’t forced to accept the ideas of others. His roommate Peter Keating, on the other hand, emerges as a self-absorbed character with no real talent of his own. Although he was Stanton’s valedictorian, Keating constantly reevaluates himself based on the opinions of others. He begins working for the best architecture firm in New York, whose partners are also frauds.

Roark is hard-pressed to find work, as many of his potential clients beg him to include copies of old structures and collaborate with other architects. Roark refuses because he will not copy the ideas of others — ones that have been plagiarized for centuries — nor will he compromise on his own vision.  Slowly, he finds a few clients with extraordinary admiration for his innovation and austerity.

Meanwhile, Keating is busy making a name for himself. His firm is given one commission after another, but he lives in a constant state of fear, knowing that his plagiarism and insecurity are no match for Roark’s brilliance and independence. In response, Keating forms an alliance with the evil and corrupt art critic Ellsworth Toohey.

Toohey controls weaker minds to destroy their sense of self-worth and satiate his hunger for power. His newspaper column, “One Small Voice,” features endless attacks against individualism and advocates the subordination of the individual to the collective. His seemingly altruistic rhetoric is a tool to conquer the human spirit by making men small and insignificant, to rule the masses by coercing them to act with humble mediocrity, and to change the soil so that strong individuals like Howard Roark can never grow again.

At one point in the story, a fellow by the name of Hopton Stoddard wants to build a religious temple. Toohey manipulates him into hiring Roark; specifically, he instructs Stoddard to ask Roark for an edifice that is not religious, but rather one that is built for the human spirit and designed at the architect’s will. Stoddard obeys Toohey’s demands and meets with Roark, who agrees to the staged proposal. Roark builds a magnificent structure, infused with his very soul, and Toohey lambasts the very temple he secretly arranged. He viciously denounces it in his column with the subtitle “Sacrilege.”

Throughout the story, Roark builds structures that are testimonial to his own brilliance and boldness. Every building he creates embodies his individualism and refusal to conform and thus becomes the target of Toohey, who seeks to paint the architect as traitor of morality. But Howard Roark is disinterested in his enemies and impervious to their actions.

One day, the two characters are alone in the Stoddard Temple. Toohey turns and says, “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”

“But I don’t think of you.”

The collectivist mentality of Roark’s adversaries has become commonplace in American society, especially on university campuses, where forces that masquerade as virtuous groups engage in coercive tactics to stifle the voices of intellectuals.

A prime example is “By All Means Necessary” (BAMN), an organization that routinely engages in physical violence against the University of Michigan Board of Regents in the name of diversity. Last Spring, the group swarmed an orderly Board of Regents meeting and attacked the members, forcing the police to intervene and subdue the attackers. Like Toohey, BAMN cannot think for itself. It cannot solve any problems facing minority communities, so it demonizes the intellectuals to replace strong students with mediocre ones.

In The Fountainhead, one writer for The Daily Banner named Dominique Francon penned a column that championed Roark’s individuality and denounced the efforts to ruin him. Hours later, Editor-in-Chief Gail Wynand sent a telegram to Toohey, which read:

Fire the bitch. -GW

The Banner could not be more identical to The Michigan Daily, which threw out columnist Omar Mahmood for writing a nationally acclaimed mockery of the social justice movement. Indeed, the Daily preaches virtues of collectivism, and sees independent writers – ones that possess the strength, intellect and disregard for public opinion – as a threat to their mediocrity and tries to destroy them.

In his campaign to destroy Roark, Toohey organized “The Council of American Builders,” which supposedly stood for the preservation of architectural ethics. In reality, the group was used as a tool to viciously denounce “modern architecture,” a phenomenon the council attributed to Howard Roark.

The use of groups for purposes of coercion is illustrated no better than the organization behind the University’s “Inclusive Language Campaign,” which seeks to enforce its political ideology on everyone. In the name of morality, the group took $16,000 of tuition money last year to fund a program sought to combat “hate speech,” but in reality pulled incoming students out of the library, sat them down in a room and demanded that nobody use particular words that might offend people.

A similar program funded by the University demands incoming students not to ask one another about their holiday plans in the name of protecting the feelings of students who come from lesser means. Such programs are a manifestation of a greater collectivist doctrine that is laying the groundwork for students who are either successful or exercise their right to free speech to be shamed by society. The groups that advocate these programs, like Toohey, are fundamentally opposed to individual liberty. The University, like Keating and Wynand, is weak, cannot think for itself, and accedes to the demands of others.

More recently, the Ann Arbor chapter of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) forced the University into banning a screening of “American Sniper” on the grounds that the story’s protagonist, Chris Kyle, was a “racist” and “mass killer.” In the name of morality, the group forcibly took away the right of every individual to see the film.

Once the story broke, SAFE’s petition and the University’s impotence were condemned by every individualist across the country. Even the newly hired football coach, Jim Harbaugh, said that he was proud to be an American and did not concern himself with those who were offended by the film. Like Roark, if standing up for his convictions should mean putting his work on the line, Harbaugh will do it. And he will not rely on the opinions of others.

It became clear that SAFE’s tactic in banning the film was the exact same form of deception in its attempt to force a boycott of Israeli products – in the name of morality. Ironically, the entire leadership of the University’s pro-Israel movement denounced the outcry against SAFE and stood in solidarity with the group that hates them. Each and every one of the members copied a paragraph from one another and pasted it on social media. The paragraph lamented the world’s response to SAFE and pleaded for “peace”. The group appropriated religious values to support its position, and propped itself up by claiming its stance was collectively shared (“In Judaism, we believe…”). The students could not think for themselves and, should an individual dare to challenge them, they preached altruism for the purpose of mutual self-support.

Today, as the Iran deal is in its final stages of arming a tyrant with a nuclear weapon and billions of dollars to unleash terror, the same Jewish community is asking itself: how have we become so powerless?

The answer lies in the very mentality of that community, wherein the individual who wields the creativity and vision to thwart evil is drowned out by the collective.

In the end, Keating approaches Roark and pleads for his help on a housing project that he is incapable of doing. Roark agrees to privately design the homes, but accepts no payment and only wishes to erect his structure of brilliance. Although he allows Keating’s signature on the sketches, he disallows Keating from letting anyone else alter his ideas. Keating agrees, but later cannot withstand pressure from Toohey’s clan, which ends up perverting Roark’s design.

In response, Roark detonates the building because he cannot allow his ideas to be adulterated by anyone else. In a final courtroom battle, Toohey’s efforts to destroy Roark are defeated, as Roark wins the jury with a passionate speech about the importance of preserving one’s self and ideals.

Roark never wanted power. He fought only to defend his principles and inspired others to do the same. In the end, his skyscrapers stood untouched by the forces of evil that sought to destroy them.

 

Samuel Shrago can be reached at shrago@umich.edu

(Visited 472 times, 1 visits today)
  • marc

    You should explain what the writer misunderstands. Rand used fiction to explain her philosophical principles in reality not as abstractions divorced from reality. Reality demands you explain where the author erred saying so as a declarative statement is insufficient and intellectually dishonest.

  • ALMOST entirely misunderstands the book and the philosophy of Ayn Rand — and the novel.