Sep 26, 2010
The Fountainhead

That’s Patricia Neal in a scene from the movie version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

I read Ayn Rand back in the 1970s after I started coming out of my radical phase, and before I returned to the Catholic Church. While it’s fashionable to say bad things about her novels and her philosophy, and as a Catholic I necessarily disagree with her on some pretty important issues, I must confess that I still like her. She’s also become something of a fave with the tea party crowd.

I saw a brief interview with Jennifer Rubin, author of a new biography of Rand, and she was a bit puzzled by Rand’s popularity with people, conservatives and Christians, who should dislike both her and her philosophy.

For whatever it’s worth, and since you’re reading this for free, well, we know what free anything is worth, my view is that despite Rand’s atheism, theists who read and like her see her atheism as separable from her defense of property. Now Rand herself didn’t see it that way, and her latter day acolytes, such as Leonard Peikoff, don’t see it that way, but I think she, and they, are wrong. Rand’s view is that a man works for his own satisfaction, and that another’s need does not constitute a claim on him. I don’t know whether she would push it so far as to claim that a child’s needs do not constitute a claim on the parent, but I think they do. That gets us into a whole other discussion of the nature and extent of claims that can be legitimately made by others on us. I don’t want to deal with that here, so we’ll try and come back to it later.

The film opens with Howard Roark, played by Gary Cooper, being told any number of times that he must conform, and give the public what it wants. What the public wants, according to Roark’s antagonists, is Beaux-Arts architecture, and neo-classic copies. The constant, and blatant, reiteration of “Conform, conform, conform,” is a bit much, and I would have preferred a more subtle depiction.

There is a scene in which Roark apparently rapes Dominique Françon, Patricia Neal’s character. Rand has recurrent images in her works of dominant men taking women. Whether this reflects something in Rand’s own psyche, and whether it’s rape I’ll let others decide. Rand’s view, when being apprised of Susan Brownmiller’s comments on the scene in the book, was “If it’s rape, it’s rape with an engraved invitation.”

Roark dynamites a building which he designs, and then justifies the act. As I thought about the movie it struck me that I’ve done something similar in the past. No, I didn’t dynamite a building. What I did was destroy a website that I had put up for a religious group that I belonged to. I use iWeb for this site, though I could use something like Blogger or Wordpress or Dreamweaver, or I could hand code it, as I did earlier sites. However, I like not having to worry overly about the niceties of HTML, and since I use the .mac for e-mail I use the web hosting as well. Now iWeb doesn’t take a lot of effort to use, but it does take some. Most of the effort is in doing the reading, and then coming up with something to say. I don’t ask for any money for doing this, what I mostly want is for people to respond to my writing by leaving a comment, saying “Thank you,” even if it’s not meant. I got greeted by total silence, which I interpreted as indifference or downright hostility, so I destroyed the sites. I did this twice.

The point here is that everything has a cost, even if it’s the purely psychic cost of the effort involved in writing a blog that no one reads. Every cost must have an equivalent price that the customer pays. It doesn’t matter if that price is the simple nicety of acknowledging an e-mail. It’s a price, and it has to be paid.

Rand classifies people as creators and as looters. I think to a large extent that’s right. When I work for hire, or for myself, I bring something into the world that never existed before, and I receive payment of some kind for it. When a man with a gun comes and takes my money, and uses it for his purposes rather than allowing me to use it for mine, he’s a thief. It makes no difference whether the man with the gun is a street thug, a mafioso, or an IRS agent, he’s looting the product of my effort, which he did nothing to produce, and which he has not paid for to give to someone else.

Where does that leave your ordinary person, your office worker, your laborer, your factory hand? They may not be creators, but they’re not looters either. So they really constitute a third category.

Roark makes these points in both book and movie.

The movie differs from the book in the fate of Gail Wynand. It does, however, end with Dominique ascending towards Roark at the top of the Wynand building.

Many, if not most movies, end with a long shot, or a dolly shot in which the camera pulls back. The Fountainhead ends with a zoom in as Dominique ascends the elevator. In most pictures, if the camera is not moving away on the horizontal plane, that of the earth-bound observer, it moves skywards while looking down on earth. The language of these shots says that you are leaving the world of the drama that you have just witnessed. The Fountainhead’s camera, however, moves up towards the heavens, and the lens points not towards the earth, but to Roark, who looks down upon the earth. Looking up from below is sometimes referred to as a frog view,or frog eye perspective, while the downward shot is a bird’s eye view. The movement of the camera suggests that Roark is the object of aspiration. As such he is an ideal, possibly even, in the Randian sense, which is that of the highest that man is capable of, a god. He is an object of worship to Dominique and ourselves.

Neither Rand nor Patricia Neal particularly liked the movie. Considering that Rand wrote the screenplay her distaste seems a bit unusual. It’s not a Christian film in either the ordinary sense in which Christianity is part of the sea in which humanity floats, or in the sense of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it may not even be a particularly good film, but it does shed some light on Rand’s philosophy, and on her sense of human possibilities.