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Reading Ayn Rand

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Originally posted by Felipe from d'Anconia Online,

In The Fountainhead, we learn a lot about the main character Howard Roark through his interactions with other people. Ayn Rand is an evokative writer of great power. So much so that the wildest of positions can be conjured with the help of taking her writing out of context. I've come to realize this more so in rereading FH. Here are two pertinent examples:

1. Howard Roark's first commission as an independent architect is a house for a man named Austin Heller. From FH:

Within a week [of first meeting Roark], Heller knew that he had found the best friend he would ever have; and he knew that the friendship came from Roark's fundamental indifference. In the deeper reality of Roark's existence there was no consciousness of Heller, no need for Heller, no appeal, no demand. Heller felt a line drawn, which for Heller, no appeal, no demand. Heller felt a line drawn, which he could not touch; beyond that line, Roark asked nothing of him and granted him nothing.

Taken literally, this could be interepreted as an advocacy of indifference, of a "go it alone I don't need anyone" type of existence. What would be the consequences of such a view, morally? Well, for one, it would be wrong to be lonely. It would be a sign of "second-handedness." This, of course, is insane.

Let me add one contextual detail that will make it evident that this is a false interpretation. Earlier in the book, Roark interacts with Peter Keating, a fellow he lived with and went to school with. Additionally, Roark also interacts with a construction worker, Mike, who admirers Roark for his exceptional skill at working at job sites (he comments something to the extent that most architects are desk jokeys).

At different points in the story, both Keating and Mike end up inviting Roark to a drink--they extend him an invitation to friendship. Roark turns down Keating but drinks with Mike. While having the drink, they learn that they both admire the work of an old architect, whom Roark had worked for. This connection, Ayn Rand says, "sealed the friendship."

So what difference does this make? Obviously this "line" Rand speaks of with regard to Roark doesn't encompass 99% of him, or 80%--it doesn't seal off Roark to the point that his indifference is complete. It is a fundamental indifference, one that can best be described as the absence of some need to replace one's own self-esteem with that of others. Roark's indifference is a consequence of his honesty, a consequence of his natural method of trading: value for value. He doesn't deal in favors or need or pity.

How one interprets this passage, through reading the book, can be indicative of their own approach to friendship. That is, if this passage doesn't resonate with one, if this passage strikes one as cruel or harsh or antisocial, then perhaps one doesn't possess this fundamental indifference. Either way, my point here is that Roark's fundamental indifference, as mentioned in this passage alone, can be twisted to mean that desiring friendship is wrong. This would be done with the premise that all friendships are a form of dependence, that there is no such thing as honest friendship.

2. In the same exchange between Roark and Heller as in 1 above, Roark's philosophy of architectural design becomes apparent. Here Heller is discussing the design of his house with Roark. From FH:

[Heller says:] "And, incidentally, thank you for all the thought you seem to have taken about my comfort. There are so many things I notice that had never occurred to me before, but you've planned them as if you knew all my needs. For instance, my study is the room I'll need most and you've given it the dominant spot--and, incidentally, I see where you've made it the dominant mass from the outside, too. And then the way it connects with the library, and the living room well out of my way, and the guest rooms where I won't hear too much of them--and all that. You were very considerate of me."

"You know," said Roark. "I haven't thought of you at all. I thought of the house." He added: "Perhaps that's why I knew how to be considerate of you."

Taken out of context, this could mean that Roark, in designing his structures, gives no consideration to what his customers whish the building to do for them. That is, Roark builds whatever he wants, without any input from his customers. What would this lead to in morality? Well, this would make it "wrong" to design a pickup truck with suicide doors, so that the owner can have better access to his extended cab section (as I do in my truck). This would make all sorts of things wrong. But was this really what Ayn Rand was advocating?

Earlier in this exchange, Roark explicitly describes his design philosophy:

"A house can have integrity, just like a person," said Roark, "and just as seldom."

"In what way?"

"Well, look at it. Every piece of it is there because the house needs it--and for not other reason. You see it from here as it is inside. The rooms in which you'll live made the shape. The relation of masses was determined by the distribution of space within. The ornament was determined by the method of construction, an emphasis of the principle that makes it stand. You can see each stress, each support that meets it. Your own eyes go through a structural process when you look at the house, you can follow each step, you see it rise, you know what made it and why it stands. But you've seen buildings with columns that support nothing, with purposeless cornices, with pilasters, moldings, false arches, false windows. You've seen buildings that look as if they contained a single large hall, they have solid columns and single, solid windows six floors high. But you enter and find six stories inside. Or buildings that contain a single hall, but with a facade cut up into floor lines, band courses, tiers of windows. Do you understand the difference? Your house is made by its own needs. Those others are made by the need to impress. The determining motive of your house is in the house. The determining motive of the others is in the audience."

So clearly there is input from a customer, but it's not "I want columns or this or this," it's "I want a house that serves this and that purpose." That is, Roark only takes in the basic, fundamental purpose for the building from the customer, the rest is determined by the things he spoke of above guided by the principle "form follows function."

Interesting how context is so important.

Edited by softwareNerd
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