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Could there be a fully comic novel that is also fully Objectivist in philosophy?

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Part of me says that an Objectivist novel must be fully heroic in nature, and that full-on comedy and full-on heroism cannot co-exist in the moral universe.

It seems that a story that is predominantly comic cannot be fundamentally heroic, but rather must be fundamentally anti-heroic. 

Don Quixote is comic, not heroic. 

It seems that the message, explicit or implicit, in all comedy, is that heroism is a joke and a fraud. 

"Forrest Gump" has some comic moments, but it is fundamentally a story of the journey of a hero.

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Well, there is nothing un-Objectivist about humor, per se. To quote Rand, humor is "the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at". It means that you laugh at the unreality of something, how bizarre a given thing is, etc. What matters is the object you direct your ridicule towards. 

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LB, can you think of a single fine novel, whether or not it has heroes, whether or not it is romantic, whether or not it is philosophical at all, which is predominately comical? The absence or paucity of such a work shows that there is nothing distinctly Objectivist about a fine novel with Objectivist heroes not being predominantly comical.

On 11/28/2019 at 6:44 AM, Boydstun said:


Leo means lion. Leo of We the Living laughs in his first encounter with Kira. It is a cold and empty laugh (WL I, §IV). His laugh is not that of Nietzsche’s laughing lion, the overman (Z IV “The Welcome”). Leo is the sort of character Nietzsche might well call a higher man. Zarathustra is the physician and teacher of such men. In Leo’s second encounter with Kira, we are told he is a man come down to one desire: to learn to desire something (WL I, §IV). In the end, Leo is spiritually defeated. The hero in his soul has perished (Z I “On the Tree on the Mountain”).

The Fountainhead has two principals who fit the Nietzschean designation of the higher human: Gail Wynand and Dominique Francon. Like the higher men of Zarathustra, they are spiritually convalescent. They are learning their way towards recovery in the course of the novel.

In June 1938 Rand wrote the opening of The Fountainhead. “Howard Roark laughed.” In final form (1943), the text continues “He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. . . . The stone had the stillness of one brief battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion” (PK I 9). Below him the lake into which he will dive reflects the sky. “So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff” (ibid.). Earlier that morning, he had been expelled from architecture school. He laughed at that and “at the things which now lay ahead. / He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh” (ibid.).

Roark is not without roar. Is Howard Roark Nietzsche’s laughing lion? No. Roark is not the overman, not the higher man, and not Zarathustra.

I stated in the preceding installment that what “had been set long ago” was (i) Roark’s life-purpose, architecture (since age nine), and (ii) the constitutional plan of his soul. Is his soul and course of life set in a predetermined way by his body?

Roark’s body is center of the opening scene. Later, during a period of his struggle in which he has no contracts he passes by a construction site in New York and thinks he will never be entering such a site for a building of Howard Roark, architect. “It’s true, he would tell himself; it’s not, his body would answer, the strange untouchable healthiness of his body” (PK XIV 183).

Years later, when Roark has become successful and Peter Keating’s success has died out, Keating meets with Roark to hear Roark’s decision on Keating’s proposal for winning the big Cortlandt contract. Keating thinks to himself of Roark: “It’s in his whole body, that look of a creature glad to be alive. And he realized that he had never actually believed that any living thing could be glad for the gift of existence” (HR VIII 630). That was part of Roark’s laughter in the opening scene of the novel. He wants to laugh partly from the joy of his existence.

In Zarathustra laughter is often emblematic of Nietzsche’s campaign against “the spirit of gravity” (Z I “On Reading and Writing;” IV “On the Higher Man” 16, 18, 20; “The Awakening” 1). There is some of the laughter against the spirit of gravity in the laughs of Roark. However, in laughter against the spirit of gravity, Nietzsche includes laughing at oneself and indeed at anything serious (Z IV “On the Higher Man” 15; “The Awakening” 1; GS 1, 382; BGE 294). This is something Rand speaks against in Fountainhead.

Roark seldom laughs (ET IV 253). He laughs as the face of an associate reveals a dawning comprehension of something in Roark’s motives (PK XV 202). He laughs over the prospect, when he has to close his architectural practice, that his enemies will gloat over him being reduced to tradesman work (PK XV 207). He laughs soundlessly at turns in his first bedding of Dominique (ET II 225, 230). He laughs soundlessly upon learning, from Joel Sutton, that Dominique is the one who has persuaded Sutton to decline Roark as his architect and that Dominique told Sutton to tell Roark she was the one (ET VII 288). He laughs softly when Keating finally comprehends that to be able to say “I built Cortlandt” is a gift possible only from oneself and is worth more than any money, fame, and honor that one might receive from others on account of the accomplishment. That soft laughter “was the happiest sound Keating had ever heard” (HR VIII 630).

Robert Mayhew observes that right after Roark’s laughter at the opening of the novel, there enters something arresting of attention and laughter. “He did not laugh as his eyes stopped in the awareness of the earth around him. . . . / He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters” (PK I 9–10; Mayhew 2007b, 210). When it comes to his work, his life-meaning, and his essential person, Roark does not laugh.

Rand gives to villain Ellsworth Toohey the idea that an ability to laugh at oneself, and at anything one holds to be important, is a good thing (ET III 242, 246–47; IV 251, 257; IX 326; XIII 385). Shortly before Roark’s soliloquy in the courtroom for the Cortlandt destruction, Rand gives Toohey a soliloquy, which includes the following: “‘Kill by laughter. Laughter is an instrument of human joy. Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction. Turn it into a sneer. It’s simple. Tell them to laugh at everything. Tell them that a sense of humor is an unlimited virtue. Don’t let anything remain sacred in a man’s soul—and his soul won’t be sacred to him. Kill reverence and you’ve killed the hero in man. One doesn’t reverence with a giggle’” (HR IX 636).

Rand was not the first to note that laughter can be used to kill. Nietzsche has the ugliest human (he who had been the object of pity for his ugliness and who had taken revenge for it by murdering God, who had super-pitied him) say to Zarathustra “‘But I know one thing—it was from you yourself that I once learned, oh Zarathustra: whoever wants to kill most thoroughly laughs. / “One kills not by wrath, but by laughter”—this you once spoke’” (Z IV “The Ass Festival” 1). But Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, unlike Toohey, has not the slightest intent to kill, by laughter or otherwise, the truly sacred in men’s souls, the hero in man. It is an earlier writer who observes the thoroughly vicious use of laughter we find admitted in Toohey’s soliloquy.

In The Man Who Laughs (1869), Hugo’s Gwynplaine takes his stand for humanity in a speech in the House of Lords, and these his most serious, most sacred words are laughed into dust. When the mountebank Gwynplaine had been in shows, performing as a freak, laughter had applauded him; but here, on solemn matters of real life, elevated to Lord and addressing his peers, “here it exterminated him. The effort to ridicule is to kill. Men’s laughter sometimes exerts all its power to murder” (VII 610–11).

Zarathustra’s disciples interpret a dream of his. They put it to him this way: “‘Like thousandfold children’s laughter Zarathustra comes into all burial chambers, laughing at these night watchmen and grave guardians, and whoever else rattles about with dingy keys. / You will frighten and lay them low with your laughter . . . . / And even if the long twilight comes and the weariness unto death, you will not set in our sky, you advocate of life! / You allowed us to see new stars and new splendors of the night; indeed, you spanned laughter itself above us like a tent’” (Z II “The Soothsayer”). The grave guardians of whom Zarathustra’s disciples speak are they who have renounced life.

We have seen that Kira counter poses belief in God to belief in life. Similarly, Roark counter poses belief in God to love of the earth (PK III 45). This much Rand coincides with Nietzsche. “My brothers, remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak of extraterrestrial hopes! . . . / They are despisers of life . . . .” (Z I “Zarathustra’s Prologue” 3).

We learn eventually that Zarathustra’s disciples had gotten his place in real life wrong in their dream interpretation. The sun that he heralds also sets. He is herald of no everlasting ascent from the spirit of gravity and no everlasting ascent from the human to the overman. He reports what he has seen in a vision. In a “cadaver-colored twilight,” he climbed a hard mountain, forcing his foot upward, upward “in defiance against the spirit that pulled him downward, the spirit of gravity, my devil and arch-enemy” (Z III “On the Vision and the Riddle” 1). On his shoulder sat a dwarf monster murmuring in his ear “‘You stone of wisdom! You hurled yourself high, but every stone must fall!’” (ibid.).

Zarathustra lightens the load by stopping the climb, having the little monster off his shoulder, and spelling out what is the deep abyss drawing down his spirit: The present moment, and every present moment, is connected to an infinite past and an infinite future. Whatever occurs now must have occurred before in such an infinite past and must occur again in such an infinite future. Over and over, it goes (Z II “On the Vision and the Riddle” 2). “The knot of causes in which I am entangled recurs—it will create me again! I myself belong to the causes of the eternal recurrence. / I will return . . . not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: / —I will return to this same and selfsame life, in what is greatest as well as what is smallest . . . . / . . . / to once again teach the eternal recurrence of all things” (Z III “The Convalescent” 1).

Zarathustra is teacher of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence (GS 341). This idea is false if taken literally (and I suppose Nietzsche took it literally; contra Williams 2001, xvi) because not all infinities are equally large. The fire in the fireplace yesterday is one among an infinite potential of particular fires-for-a-day. That infinity is larger than the infinity of infinite time. That fire need never occur again, even in an eternity. Indeed the chance of it is nil. But Nietzsche is under the gripping spell of the eternal recurrence. Let us follow his thought under this spell.

In Zarathustra laughter is not only emblematic of Nietzsche’s general campaign against the spirit of gravity. It is emblematic more particularly of reconciliation with the chains of determinism and more particularly still with eternal self-returning determinism. There is a laughter to be longed for, the laughter of one “no longer human,” a being “transformed, illuminated . . . . / Never yet on earth had I heard a human being laugh as he laughed!” (Z III “On the Vision and the Riddle” 2; contrast my treatment of this passage in relation to Roark with the treatment in Milgram 2007, 31–32.) That laughter was only in a vision, in which a shepherd in the field wakes to find a snake has entered his mouth and lodged its bite in the his throat. The shepherd bites off the head of the snake, spits it away, and laughs the laugh beyond the human, the laugh so much to be hoped for.

It was the laugh of a character in a vision, not the laugh of an actual overman. It was not Zarathustra’s laugh either. The abysmal thought of the eternal return continues to gnaw at him. “I have not been strong enough for the lion’s final overreaching and cheeky mischief. / [Abysmal thought,] your gravity alone was always terrible enough for me; but one day I shall yet find the strength and the lion’s voice to summon you up!” (Z III “On Unwilling Bliss;” further, Z IV “The Sleepwalker’s Song” and “The Sign”).

In a still hour before sleep, Zarathustra has been told, by the clock of his life, when it drew a breath, that the one who is needed most by everyone is “‘the one who commands great things.’ / And I answered ‘I lack the lion’s voice for all commanding’. / Then it spoke to me again like a whispering: ‘The stillest words are those that bring the storm. Thoughts that come on the feet of doves steer the world’” (Z II “The Stillest Hour”). Later in the adventure, Zarathustra: “Here I sit and wait, old broken tablets around me and also new tablets only partially written upon. When will my hour come? / . . . / This is what I wait for now; signs must come to me first that it is my hour—namely the laughing lion and the swarm of doves” (Z III “On Old and New Tablets” 1).

At the close of Zarathustra, his higher men have begun to learn to laugh against the spirit of gravity, and he has given them his song “One More Time.” His hour has come. His midnight of joy deeper than the deep pain of the world wants it all again, wants deep, deep eternity.

Zarathustra lastly rises glowing and strong in the morning. His signs have come. His doves are a cloud of love about his head. His lion has come and chased off the higher men. Zarathustra’s last sin, his pity for the higher men, is gone. His lion is near to him. His day and work begin.

The ringed determinism binding the human will is a very hard one in Nietzsche’s understanding. “If ever a breath came to me of creative breath and of heavenly necessity that forces even accident to dance astral rounds: / If ever I laughed with the laugh of creative lightning that follows rumbling but obediently the long thunder of the deed: / . . . / Oh how then could I not lust for eternity and for the mystical ring of rings—the ring of recurrence! / . . . / For I love you, oh eternity!” (Z III “The Other Dance Song” 3; see also I “On the Three Metamorphoses;” II “On Redemption.”) Nietzsche, loving life and the world, reaches yet for joy even with all the pain and heavy chains of necessity (Z IV “The Sleepwalker’s Song” 8–10; cf. BGE 9).

When Howard Roark laughs at the opening of The Fountainhead, shall we say determinism—determinism binding his life course by nature and his body—is among the objects of his laughter? Does the author see a need for her hero, by his laugh, to be biting off the head of that snake?

It is likely Rand had always rejected the Marxist doctrine of economic determinism (Milgram 2004, 12; Ridpath 2004, 91). “The mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence determines their consciousness” (Marx 1897 [1859]). In Fountainhead, Rand gave to Toohey the proclamation “there was no such thing as free will, since men’s creative impulses were determined, as all else, by the economic structure of the epoch in which they lived” (PK VI 77).  To the villains, too, goes proclamation of the type of determinism accepted by Nietzsche. Toohey says “‘we are merely the creatures of our chemical metabolism and of the economic factors of our background . . . . There are, of course, apparent exceptions. Merely apparent. When circumstances delude us into thinking that free action is indicated’” (HR VII 615).

A writer in Toohey’s circle writes a novel whose point is that there is no such thing as free will (GW I 421). A distinguished critic in Toohey’s circle remarks “‘talent is only a glandular accident” (GW VI 503). Nietzsche, of course, would not make small of the creative individual. He would elevate in spite of the chains of determinism.

I suggest that Rand’s stress on the untouchable healthiness of Roark’s body is a matter of conferring an esthetic integrity on him and a way of saying that the base of life given to man by the earth is good. Roark is one who keeps that goodness. So do other Fountainhead characters, such as Heller or Lansing, so far as we are told. The character Roark is styled to reflect innocence never lost. After viewing Roark’s drawing for the Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit, the conversation includes Mallory saying to Roark: “‘Do you know what your secret is? It’s your terrible innocence’. / Roark laughed aloud, looking at the boyish face. / ‘No’, said Mallory, ‘it’s not funny. . . . It’s because of that absolute health of yours. You’re so healthy that you can’t conceive of disease. You know of it. But you don’t really believe it’” (ET XI 352).


Hugo, V. 1869. The Man Who Laughs.  Translator unknown. 2006. Norilana.

Marx, K. 1997 [1859]. Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. N.I. Stone, translator. 1904. Charles H. Kerr.

Mayhew, R., editor, 2004. Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living. Lexington.

——. 2007a. Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Lexington.

——. 2007b. Humor in The Fountainhead. In Mayhew 2007a.

Milgram, S. 2004. From Airtight to We the Living: The Drafts of Ayn Rand’s First Novel. In Mayhew 2004.

——. 2007. The Fountainhead from Notebook to Novel: The Composition of Ayn Rand’s First Ideal Man. In Mayhew 2007a.

Nietzsche, F. 1882 & 1887. The Gay Science I–IV & V. J. Nauckhoff, trans. 2001. Cambridge.

——. 1883–85. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A. Del Caro, trans. 2006. Cambridge.

——. 1886. Beyond Good and Evil. J. Norman, trans. 2002. Cambridge.

Ridpath, J. 2004. Russian Revolutionary Ideology and We the Living. In Mayhew 2004.

Rand, A. 1959 (1936). We the Living. Signet.

——. 1943. The Fountainhead. Bobbs-Merrill.

Williams, B. 2001. Introduction to The Gay Science. Cambridge.


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