Weekly Rochester Events #294: Bégon Begone
Thursday, August 26, 2004Well, I finally finished Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. So far everyone I've told that I read it said I shouldn't say that I read it. Also, I guess a lot of intellectual people freak out about. Thankfully, I don't really care what other people think and when I do, I try not to (as some of you already know; and as a subset of those know all too well.)
So, this week, I thought I'd try to highlight what I saw as the central theme and see if I can provide enough insight to pique some interest without going quite so far as to completely replace the need to read the actual book. I'm sure you're all very excited about it! If, for some reason, you're trying to find the context of any of these quotes in your own dog-eared copy, the page numbers refer to the paperback edition published by Penguin Putnam Inc. and as best I can tell, the copyright date is 1952 ... I'm pretty sure it's the one sold on Amazon, linked above.
The central character in the whole thing is an architect named Howard Roark. He gets kicked out of architect school — not because he can't handle the math or anything — but because he continuously refuses to create designs that follow styles from the past: his works are functional, practical, and original. One of his peers is Peter Keating who is a very good architect who embraces the ideals of designing from past styles but is unable let go of those styles to create anything that is truly original.
As Roark branches out on his own, he seeks out Henry Cameron, an older architect who is broke and broken. His originality stood in defiance of classical styles which resulted in every one of his buildings being panned by architectural critics until he had no clients who'd pay him. Cameron offers Roark this advice (from page 65:)
"Not enough?" asked Cameron. "All right. Then, one day, you'll see on a piece of paper before you a building that will make you want to kneel; you won't believe that you've done it, but you will have done it; then you'll think that the earth is beautiful and the air smells of spring and you love your fellow men, because there is no evil in the world. And you'll set out from your house with this drawing, to have it erected, because you won't have any doubt that it will be erected by the first man to see it. But you won't get very far from your house. Because you'll be stopped at the door by the man who's come to turn off the gas. You hadn't had much food, because you saved money to finish your drawing, but still you had to cook something and you hadn't paid for it.... All right, that's nothing, you can laugh at that. But finally you'll get into a man's office with your drawing, and you'll curse yourself for taking so much space of his air with your body, and you'll try to squeeze yourself out of his sight, so that he won't see you, but only hear your voice begging him, pleading, your voice licking his knees; you'll loathe yourself for it, but you won't care, if only he'd let you put up that building, you won't care, you'll want to rip your insides open to show him, because if he saw what's there he'd have to let you put it up. But he'll say that he's very sorry, only the commission has just been given to Guy Francon. And you'll go home, and do you know what you'll do there? You'll cry. You'll cry like a woman, like a drunkard, like an animal. That's your future, Howard Roark. Now, do you want it?"Roark works for Cameron for a while and eventually starts his own firm. He gets clients infrequently, but his designs fit each client perfectly, generally making them quite happy — however, as was the case with Cameron, those same designs are critiqued negatively by the press specifically becuase they are original and don't follow classical styles. It is the fact that they stand in contrast so strongly to anything else that they are singled out as examples.
Ayn Rand introduces two other key characters whom, along with Keating, I'm going to completely gloss over. The first is Ellsworth Toohey who lives for his own private agenda and gains prestige through a network of friends he maintains by encouraging their communal nature. The other is Dominique Francon who has enough charm to hold dominion over many admirers but strives to lead a life of individuality instead.
The four central characters play out on opposing axes. Roark exists for his own self-interests, originality, and capitalism while Keating exists for the approval of others, consensus, and communism. Likewise, Toohey strives to spread his ideology by suppressing individuality while Dominique Francon strives to shed her influence over others to allow individuality to thrive.
Anyway, Roark takes a long time to find a peer and the newspaper magnate Gail Wyland is closer a match than anyone he's met: he runs his papers without regard to the opinions of others and enjoys the work he does. When he discovers Roark, he reviews the stories the paper had run in the past and is impressed with the buildings he created — in spite of the negative reviews printed in the paper. Within the files there is one photograph which is Roark looking upon a house he had designed, and Wynand is so inspired, he posts it on the wall over his desk.
As the two men get to know one another, their differences are revealed. At one point, Wynand takes Roark to some land he owns in the country and they discuss their philosophies (from page 551:)
"I was thinking of people who say that happiness is impossible on earth. Look how hard they all try to find some joy in life. Look how they struggle for it. Why should any living creature exist in pain? By what conceivable right can anyone demand that a human being exist for anything but his own joy? Every one of them wants it. Every part of him wants it. But they never find it. I wonder why. They whine and say they don't understand the meaning of life. There's a particular kind of people that I despise. Those who seek some sort of a higher purpose or 'universal goal,' who don't know what to live for, who moan that they must 'find themselves.' You hear it all around us. That seems to be the official bromide of our century. Every book you open. Every drooling self-confession. It seems to be the noble thing to confess. I'd think it would be the most shameful one."Later on Wynand's yacht, Roark Roark elaborates further (from page 605:)
"That's the pattern most people follow."and finally defending himself in court, Roark brings it all together (from page 681:)
"Men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egotist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge, or act. These are functions of the self.As you might have noticed in my past essays, I took the bait: I'll buy the idea that the actions of the individual are better when they follow their drive to act rather than what they feel would be best for others. However, there are several unexplored facets to all this.
First, can you really be assured that any drive you have is best? If the thing you enjoy most is to cut down trees, shouldn't you assess whether it would be best for others if, say, you stopped cutting down trees before you've razed the whole forest? Or what if you're joy comes from being a soldier: is that really a skill you should "give" to your community?
Second, what if you don't know what your passion is? I'm coming up on 12 months of being non-employed (to distinguish it from the involuntary variety, unemployed) and nothing has struck me as any particular thing I want to do. I sometimes envy people who have mastery of one skill and a passion for it because I'm adequate at a lot of things — and both a master of none and with a passion for none. It's often a pain to sort-of bumble through life playing the "well, this is fun for a while" game.
Finally, is there a place for consensus at all? Sometimes the actions of committees are successful. There are a lot of traps to avoid, but on occasion, there is a group decision made that is right for everyone. And what of diplomacy — of finding that which is the greatest benefit to all parties involved? Is that not just pure altruism?
I leave you to your amusements.
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On this day ... August 26
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Rochester Music Coalition
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Delusions of Adequacy
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About the title ... Michel Bégon died 294 years ago in 1710 and was the French governor in the West Indies whose name gives us the begonia.
This page is Jason Olshefsky's list of things to do in Rochester, NY and the surrounding region (including Monroe County and occasionally the Western New York region) from Thursday, August 26, 2004 thru Wednesday, September 1, 2004.
It is updated every week with daily listings for entertainment, activities, performances, movies, music, bands, comedy, improv, poetry, storytelling, theater, plays, and generally fun things to do.
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