|Apr/May 2000 Nonfiction|
Not too long ago, I visited my local, marketing-conscious post office branch to buy some stamps. As I stood in line I glanced up and saw, glaring at me from the wall, the determined visage of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. The U.S. Postal Service had issued a 33-cent Ayn Rand stamp: a grid of twenty of them, hung at eye level, stared grimly at me, causing me to think that Andy Warhol had sprung from the grave to make one final wicked pop culture statement.
When I was an undergraduate student, some thirty years ago, Rand's novels, particularly The Fountainhead, were all the rage. Class-mates who normally never read anything unassigned other than their mail clutched copies of the weighty book and read it during coffee breaks at the student union. I got left out of this trend and had no idea what the fuss was about.
Over a decade later, I turned on my television to watch Donahue, and there was Rand, cheerlessly insulting and humiliating other guests who had the gall to disagree with her. This wasn't Jerry Springer. This was a well known American author behaving like a three-year-old bully in an un-monitored pre-school spat.
More than another decade passed, and curiosity got the better of me. I decided to read The Fountainhead.
"Howard Roark!" my brightest, most socially sensitive friend yelled out when I mentioned one night at dinner that I was reading the book. "That was my favorite book in college!"
I then called my other brightest, most socially sensitive friend and told her.
"Ayn Rand! Why on earth would you want to put yourself through that?"
I'm still not sure that I know the answer to that question, but I think that it lies somewhere between my own compulsive determination to complete a task and my unhealthy appetite for the macabre. Howard Roark, indeed. Though the fictional architect does bear the admirable individualist characteristics of Rand's school of objectivism, he is also, coincidentally, a rapist. He rapes Dominique Francon, who eventually becomes his wife. And during the rape scene, Rand makes it clear that Dominique-despite her intense struggle to get away from Roark-actually wants very much to be raped.
Which brings us to the character of Dominique herself, surely one of the most perverse women in all of American literature. This is a woman who holds the values of her day in such contempt-who admires Howard Roark's rejection of those values so much-that she proceeds to publicly vilify Roark, then marry his nemesis. According to the author's reasoning, Dominique finds society's ostracism of Roark so distasteful that she con-siders it more honorable to try to destroy him than to defend or comfort him.
There is a noticeable streak of masochism in Dominique, and this characteristic penetrates her life in every form-sexual, psychological and social-throughout the novel. Fortunately for her, there's a sadistic streak in Howard Roark, and their pas de deux of humiliation endures for hun-dreds of pages.
The theme of objectivism-and of The Fountainhead-is that no man (we have already established Rand's non-feminist thinking) should ever live or act for anyone but himself, and that self-sacrifice actually de-stroys civilization. This destruction comes about because men are denied their right to be creative and authentic, while altruistic forces continue to seek out suffering so that they can justify their own existences.
This is a ponderable idea, and there is no doubt that Rand was a keen intellectual, as well as a fairly good storyteller. But she goes about it all with so much anger that it is hard to take her seriously. Howard Roark, for all of his moral purity (he blows up his own building because someone alters his original design), is a one-dimensional, not very likable character. And Dominique Francon-whom Rand refers to in her notes as a "priest-ess-is mordacious and misanthropic. Sound familiar?
Early in the novel, Rand has Dominique say that she writes "To have something to do. Something more disgusting than many other things I could do."
The Fountainhead is available in its fiftieth anniversary edition for all who care to read it. I have recovered from the shock of my post office visit, but I am at a loss as to why-with all of the American literary giants available-I am forced to glimpse the face of Ayn Rand when I open my mail.
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