Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Fountainhead

It’s been an interesting week. I’ve just started a new casual job, as a social worker at the Crisis Contact Centre in St Kilda, Melbourne. The work involves taking telephone calls and face-to-face inquiries from people who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness, providing empathetic support and immediate assistance, and referring them to services that can provide ongoing support to get them back into secure housing, and address related issues.

Although I’m only one week in and still training, I can see that this job will involve plenty of challenges – from the heartbreak of seeing people in desperate or simply depressing situations, to dealing with outbursts of anger from frustrated or unstable clients, to dealing with con-jobs, like the charming, elderly, somewhat teary gentleman who had his bag stolen during a night spent at the Casino because he had no money to stay elsewhere, was put up in the best hotel we can afford, and given an array of vouchers to provide him with food, transport and a change of clothes, and then turned up again the next day, driving a red sports car.

This week I also finished reading Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Several friends expressed titillated disapproval on learning that I was reading Rand, due to the fact that she gets quoted at Tea Party protests, and was Alan Greenspan’s guru. Her ideas have inspired libertarian and right wing politics in the US to the point where her biographer, Jennifer Burns, describes her as "the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right." Flannery O’Connor, a wonderful American writer and a contemporary of Rand, once told a friend who had found a Rand novel left behind in the subway, "The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail."

When I came across The Fountainhead in a box of books on the street in Balmain, I was unaware of O’Connor’s advice. In any case, I was curious to find out what kind of story inspires libertarian politics. Maybe there was also a certain perversity that led me to start reading this book just before I was about to take up my new job.

For Rand, the social worker is the epitome of badly dressed evil. Her novel is designed to persuade the reader that altruism is the enemy of integrity, independent thought and creativity. She explicitly elevates selfishness to a moral and political ideal, making no distinction between self-centred indifference toward others, and the courage to remain true to one’s principles in a climate of mediocrity and corruption. (It is worth noting that the novel was first published in 1943 and can be read as an attempt to understand the forces and failures that had led to the state of the world at this time.)

The central character of the book is Howard Roark, a talented architect who remains heroically true to his ideal of functional beauty in the face of repeated pressures to compromise – and who begins his love affair with Dominique Francon, the main female character in the novel, by raping her. This beautiful, intelligent, unfulfilled woman responds by falling aggressively in love with him, and after various plot twists including a striking episode of self-harming which involves cutting her body with broken glass, an act which nearly kills her, they eventually live happily ever after. Dominique gives up her job as a journalist along the way, and becomes content to spend her days making herself look lovely and contemplating the beauty of nature as a background to her husband’s soaring phallic achievements.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

For me, the story of this woman and her relationship with the architect was the most intriguing aspect of the novel (admittedly I have glossed over many others in this summary). It appeared to be an effort to come to terms with what we might now categorise as a personality disorder, though it's likely that Rand would have condemned such a diagnosis as an example of the evils perpetrated in the name of altruism. Naturally, the reader is not encouraged to feel empathy or pity for this character; rather, she is portrayed as aloof, brilliant, intensely desirable to men, and consistently well dressed, providing a stark contrast to all the other remarkably unattractive women that appear in the novel.

Dominique’s suffering is treated as unimportant next to the ideals and work of her lover, but at the same time it is clearly, even dramatically, described. It does not appear that Rand’s fans have paid much attention to this aspect of the novel. If they did, they might find a clue regarding the kind of personal distress that can motivate a political commitment to extreme individualism.

But perhaps it takes the perspective of a social worker to see that.


Quatele said...

Compare the decisions of Howard Roark to those of Peter Keating. That is the essential difference between living a good life and not.

Peter said...

Interesting conclusion. I wonder what Rand's personal history tells us about the formation of her worldview ? I guess it's not insignificant that she left Russia in the aftermath of the revolution, which (as Wikipaedia puts it) "disrupted the comfortable life the family had previously enjoyed".

Good luck with the social work ! Are you still teaching ?