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From Aristotle to modern times, the faculty of human reason has been the subject of contrasting depictions in literature. In Crime and Punishment, for example, Fyodor Dostoyevsky emphasizes the tragic outcome of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov’s obsession with rationalization; in the end, the protagonist rejects his intellect and embraces religious faith. With The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand presents an opposing viewpoint – that human reason is the foundation for achievement and happiness. The fictional world of the novel includes the rare few who use their capacity for rational thought, and the masses who, according to Howard Roark, do not want reason on their side. Though Roark never doubts the power of rationality, Dominique Francon and Gail Wynand partially surrender to the reign of absurdity, and Ellsworth Monkton Toohey and his lackey Peter Keating represent the forces of complete irrationality. This spectrum of attitudes serves to dramatize the philosophy outlined in The Fountainhead, or the essential difference between first-handers like Roark and second-handers like Keating.
Society in The Fountainhead is remarkably averse to truth and reason. The New York Banner is most successful when it ignores logical evidence in favor of emotionally-charged content. For instance, the Banner attempted to help two individuals, a struggling young scientist and a pregnant chambermaid: “One story was illustrated with scientific diagrams; the other – with the picture of a loose-mouthed girl wearing a tragic expression and disarranged clothes” (408). The logically articulated plea yields less than ten dollars in aid, while the lurid pictures of the pregnant chambermaid attract over a thousand dollars. Wynand shows this disparity to his staff because he wishes to demonstrate what holds more sway among readers: pure emotions and gut-level thinking. The content of the Banner is “without any necessity for an intermediary process of reason, like food shot through the rectum, requiring no digestion” (409). The fact that the young scientist is far more likely to make a significant, beneficial impact on society is immaterial; rational decision-making requires a conscious effort people are unwilling to make.
But irrationality has far deeper roots than simple mental lethargy and irresponsibility, especially for members of the New York elite. It provides an excellent escape route from reality. People like Peter Keating depend on others for their existence, because their self-confidence derives entirely from their public image. When Keating meets Guy Francon, they get along fabulously precisely because they do not value each other based on rational criteria, as evidenced by Francon’s demeanor toward Keating: “The approval, together with that wise half-smile, granted him a grandeur he did not have to earn; a blind admiration would have been precarious; a deserved admiration would have been a responsibility; an undeserved admiration was precious” (53). The admiration is undeserved – in other words, without reason. Keating subconsciously knows that he prefers to not be judged by his professional abilities or his personal integrity, but rather in his ability to expropriate the work of others and unquestionably affirm every statement Francon utters. Keating does not want to look in the metaphorical mirror and see his incompetence and dishonesty. Rather, he wants to have his cake and eat it, too – he craves the admiration earned by brilliance and sincerity but does not wish to act accordingly.
Characters that subscribe to the perversion of rationality can be divided into two groups: those who understand the implications of their actions, and those who do not. Keating blindly embraces irrationality without understanding that it makes him a hollow man; public adulation never translates into true self-respect and happiness. In contrast, Ellsworth Monkton Toohey understands exactly how he manipulates reality, and the implications thereof. His use of irrationality is a means to a different end, however – one that is far more sinister than wealth and fame. Toohey sees reason as the only threat to his quest for power. Only individuals who possess an independent, uncorrupted mind can succeed in foiling his plan to utterly control public opinion and the masses. He writes in “One Small Voice” that he would rather be kind than right, and merciful than just. Determining what is right and just require the faculty of reason, which Toohey opposes. Instead, Toohey asks that people be kind and merciful, and trust their hearts, not their minds: “Speaking anatomically – and perhaps otherwise – the heart is our most valuable organ. The brain is a superstition” (304). Without reason to guide them, the public is easily manipulated, allowing collectivist propaganda in the form of “One Small Voice” to exert great influence in molding public opinion. In making reason irrelevant, Toohey wants to crush the men of ability; he wants a world flattened to the lowest common denominator, a world of mediocre men and insignificant relationships. The Council of American Builders shows his progress in this direction; the meetings are listless, without rational purpose. The Council of American Writers, too, reflects Toohey’s purpose. Chairman Lois Cook writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that has no profound meaning whatsoever, resembling gibberish more than literature. Toohey knows that with the death of reason will come a new world order, one in which he is superlatively prepared to take control.
Compared to other architects and most of his potential clients, Roark’s respect for reason is unimpeachable. He hires his workers not based on their family names or appearances, but their ability: “[I]f a man worked well, he needed nothing else to win his employer’s benevolence: it was granted, not as a gift, but as a debt” (309). Competence at the job is the only logical criterion when it comes to hiring, and thus the only reason Roark considers. Roark also applies his intellect to designing buildings such as the Heller house, which spring organically from the surroundings, with form supporting function, instead of irrationally imposing an arbitrary Classical or Gothic look. Roark also understands that no compromise can exist between reason and anti-reason: the result is always the latter – an abortion of a building, of a life.
Similar to Roark, Dominique acknowledges the virtue of rationality. But she finds herself unable to bear the expression of beauty among ugliness – the work of a pure, uncompromising mind in a world of chaotic hypocrisy. She eloquently declares her position at the Stoddard Temple trial: “When you see a man casting pearls without getting even a pork chop in return – it is not against the swine that you feel indignation. It is against the man who valued his pearls so little that he was willing to fling them into the muck” (356). Dominique would rather destroy all genuine artistic achievement than see it unrecognized and scorned. She would rather sink her statue into the ocean than see it accumulate insulting graffiti. For most of the novel, her philosophy can be summarized as thus: if the world is irrational, commit intellectual suicide and conform to it.
The architect, not of buildings, but of a massive media empire, Gail Wynand is a could-have-been. Early on a member of a street gang, he shows an adept command of his mental faculties, exemplified by his strategic choice of time in looting the barges and his determined self-education. But he commits a fatal error when he chooses power in exchange for lowering himself to the level of the public and founding his paper on irrationality. A leash is truly a rope with a noose at both ends, and Wynand hangs himself. To please his readers, he must allow his papers to praise mediocrity simply because the mediocrity is created by well-liked people like Peter Keating; he fires Dominique for attempting to uphold the truth. He contemplates suicide when he first understands that true power comes from within, from an uncorrupted ego and intransigent rationality, but it is already too late. His attempts to assert himself over the issue of Howard Roark and the Cortlandt case result in failure, because he has never controlled the public; the public controls him and breaks him. He surrendered his ability to fight them – an unsoiled mind – long ago.
Speaking to Wynand in the yacht, Roark identifies disrespect for reason as one of the key characteristics of a second-hander, one who lives not in himself, but in others. Roark affirms, “When you suspend your faculty of independent judgment, you suspend consciousness… second-handers have no sense of reality. Their reality is not within them, but somewhere in that space which divides one human body from another” (606). Roark speaks in absolute terms because there can be no compromise. One plus one cannot equal anything except two. Furthermore, Roark knows that reason cannot be distributed and contracted out. Speaking at the Cortlandt case, he states that “there is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise… a secondary act” (679). The primary act must be carried out by each man himself, because to relinquish an independent mind is to leave the ego defenseless; to ignore the sanctity of the ego is to become a second-hander, doomed to self-doubt and unhappiness.
Only through perceiving reality as it is and making rational choices can freedom be achieved, ethics followed, and purpose in existence gained. Howard Roark regards reason as critical to architecture as well as life – to him, ignoring reason is tantamount to building with only straw and glue. As glass and steel are to skyscrapers, thus is reason to man. As Dominique rises to meet Roark at the end of The Fountainhead, Roark does not appear dwarfed and weak – the girders of the Wynand Building are made of the same material as Roark’s mind and spirit.
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