Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book Review

"The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand
My grade: A-

This is one large project of a book, just to read, nevermind to write. If you don't love literature, don't even attempt to read this novel; you will not succeed. It is incredibly dense and complex, and probably some of the best writing I have ever seen - or, at least, comparable to the best. My only criticism of the writing itself is in the rather predictable and sappy ending, when plot definitely kept me on my toes.

Ayn Rand presents here her unique philosophy, objectivism. She introduces her concept of the ideal man. She has not convinced me of either. Firstly, I would argue that the ideal man is feasible to Rand only because he doesn't actually exist and in her world, there is only one such man. If the world were infested with Howard Roarks, Rand's main man, they would no longer seem all that ideal. In fact, I think most would agree that such a world is not possible. Rand's argument would have been more convincing if she placed Roark in a society full of others just like him and shown how well, if at all, such a society would function, and if a set of each-man-for-himselfs could even be labeled as a society.

Secondly, I believe Rand's argument flies out the window if one is to consider parenthood seriously. I think the majority of people who have children have felt at one point or another what it is like to put him/herself second. It comes as no surprise to me that Rand herself didn't have any children. To proclaim that the proper life philosophy is to pursue one's own happiness at any cost and to serve one's own ego goes against the basic animal instinct to reproduce, an instinct Rand seems to have been missing (ignoring?).

Having said that, I have to admit that I agree with Rand on a number of things. I, too, believe that each man should have the capacity to think for himself and not be led by the opinion of other people, but what to do with people who are lacking in this capacity? Likewise, I agree with her concept of personal integrity, and being able to face yourself in the mirror, although she is far from the first or last writer to focus on this subject.

In general, I believe Rand was a genius of a kind. Were she not, she would have been unable to write this novel, speaking from a literary perspective. I'm not sure how good she is at philosophizing though, mostly because I don't think her theory could hold in the real world.


  1. Inna,

    "It is incredibly dense and complex, and probably some of the best writing I have ever seen"

    And so is her philosophy. Nowhere else will you find such a comprehensive and consistent system of ideas about how a human being should deal with himself and the universe in which he exists. Nowhere else will such ideas be presented in such efficient, concise and clear terminology.

    Furthermore her ideas turn the culture in which we were nurtured on its head, and so it is not wise to leap to conclusions using its cliched judgments to craft your false assumptions. To wit:

    Rand's perfect man is one who fulfills the potential of his own human nature to the best of his ability and the resources available to him. A world full of those would itself become ideal. Her politics enforces only one rule: no use of physical force to gain, withhold, or destroy the values of another. Whether ideal or not human beings in such a society must interact voluntarily. They can only acquire values by creating them, producing them, or trading for them. It is the most benevolent society ever conceived.

    Parenthood does not inherently necessitate sacrifice of self. Rather it entails the fulfillment of a chosen obligation to raise the helpless child one has created to self-sufficiency. That child owes the parent nothing but to behave and cooperate in the task of that education and training. Beyond that, all love and admiration between or among them must be earned as it is from anyone else. That is the base of healthy family relationships. At its core is Rand's identification of the principle that there may be no unchosen obligations among men.

    No compromise is necessitated with egoism or the quest for personal happiness, The potential values to be gained from choosing to have children when one can afford to fulfill the accompanying obligations are unquestioned. And it is a matter of choice. Reproduction is not an instinct in human beings, because we do not have instincts. Man is inherently volitional.

    If you pursue an understanding of Rand's unique philosophy, you will be surprised at how efficacious it is in "the real world."

    Here are excerpts from her books on over 200 topics:

    Her essay,"The Objectivist Ethics":

    Her essay, "Man's Rights":

  2. Michael,

    I can certainly appreciate your stance and your views of Rand's philosophy. I would like to clarify a couple of things though. Firstly, I approached Rand much more from a literary perspective rather than a philosophical one. You may perhaps argue that this in itself is wrong, but even Rand has said that once a piece of art is produced, it belongs to every man who sees and interprets that work, and can make of it what he will. Having allowed myself this freedom, I didn't research Rand prior to reading her work nor did I know much about her. I had no preconceived notions of her or her philosophies. I let her speak for herself. Therefore, it is somewhat out-of-place to say that my comments are "cliched judgements"; I have no knowledge of what critics are saying about her.

    Secondly, what you label as my "false assumptions" are in fact only my opinions, nothing more. I won't argue with your views on life, or Rand's; some of them I agree with, the majority not. But I wouldn't go as far as to say that you are dispelling some kind of truths that the rest of us are oblivious to. It is simply the way you choose to perceive the realities of life.

    I have to also mention something else here: it seems funny to me that Rand has such a strong (and to some extent blind) following, when she placed such value on each man being able to think for himself and formulate his own opinions. What place do the masses hold in her philosophy?

  3. Inna,

    I did not criticize your review of her literature — only your premature choice to draw conclusions about its philosophical implications without even a cursory investigation if the philosophy's relevant content: "... Rand's argument flies out the window..." and "I don't think her theory could hold in the real world." Where are the one or two facts that might indicate why such conclusions might be justified?

    The "cliched judgments" referenced are those of the culture regarding selfishness and romanticism in general, not just of her critics. Even the most basic search would have led you to the lexicon where you could have compared your assumptions in minutes with her substance on the few issues you addressed.

    Your assumptions are in fact opinions that can be called gratuitous precisely because you are attempting to argue with Rand's views without having to be responsible for them and their implications. But, as she often said, you can't have your cake and eat it too.

    And I offer these criticisms not to belittle you but to share what I learned from her about my own faults many years ago. Contrary to your statement, Rand has left us truths most are oblivious to. Primarily, you should be less concerned with opinions and more concerned with the substantiations that can or cannot support them. Ultimately only ideas matter, and only those consistent with fact.

    And that gives lie to your last false assumption that Rand's followers are "to some extent blind". Even if you have encountered some you think are engaging in faith, how would you really know if you do not know anything about what they are believing and why. You are way to quick to judge on superficial appearances.

    I know from my own experience what it takes to renovate one's whole personal philosophy by systematically validating each and every principle she formulated one at a time ... developing over years, the ability to not just quote her, but to think with those ideas and to put into one's own words in the natural flow of one's own dialogues her definitions that are so efficiently reduced to the fundamental essentials. During those years one expands into arguments with nothing more than her words in mind and to others that appears to be "blind" faith. It isn't though. It is rather one's first experimentation — thinking on the fly — testing one's own grasp of an issue previously not considered.

    It is a long and occasionally difficult process carried out alongside your whole life. If you are not a professional philosopher, some issues may not be resolved over decades of your life. But every second of that process is productive and expands the efficacy of your own mind. Underestimate her at your own peril. But do not shrink from critically analyzing her writings. Healthy debate, both with others and with yourself, is the best teacher of all.

  4. Michael, I have to ask you something, just out of curiosity (sorry for intruding on the discussion that you two are having)

    how did you find this blog and this particular post?

  5. Michael,

    I definitely agree with you on one point: healthy argument is definitely beneficial to all parties involved, or at least amusing :)

    But here's my overall stance: my knowledge of Rand and her philosophy is limited almost entirely to "The Fountainhead" and whatever was written about her and her philosophy in my print of the book. I checked up one fact on the world wide web, of which I already had a notion, and one fact only: whether Rand had children.

    In my print of the book, there is a quote from Rand: "I had to originate a philosophical framework of my own, because my basic view of man and of existence was in conflict with most of the existing philosophical theories." I, personally, have no such conflicts. While philosophy is occasionally a topic of interest to me, it is definitely not a subject of inner conflict or something that I give too much thought to. There are subjects that spark debate within me, questions that I seek answers to, concepts that I am not in agreement with and do not swallow preconceived notions that are fed to me, but they are not within the realm of philosophy, as such.

    I do not turn to Rand to solve any problem for me, as she does not address any of my personal problems. I do not care to research more about her philosophy, because it doesn't captivate me enough. The little, I'll give you that, that I do know about her and what she has shown through her work does not convince me at all of her philosophies. It is not strong enough to evoke a deeper interest, much less a following.

    I do plan to read "Atlas Shrugged" though, at some point in the near future; it is on my list. I do not think my opinion will change, although I never say never.

  6. Sasha,

    If you go to you can register any keyword or phrase and Google will email you a notification of every blog (or news story or other instances) in which it appears with hours of publication.

    I receive a dozen or so notices every day, some citing multiple blogs, that contain the keywords "Ayn Rand", Objectivism or Objectivist. This gives me an up-to-the-minute comprehensive overview of the worldwide discussion of the philosophy.

    It is also of immeasurable value in my own continuing challenging of my own understanding and my own ability to present it to others efficiently. I highly recommend it.

  7. thank you, i did not know of such a service.

  8. Inna,
    I read The Fountainhead more than 25 years ago. At that age I never considered viewing Rand's "ideal man" through the perspective of parenthood. You've added a new lens to my analyses of this novel; thank you!
    You make the point, too, about considering what the world would be if everyone were Roark and the problematic outcomes that could/would ensue. I agree.
    I won't speak for Rand, but thinking back to what I read two and a half decades ago, I saw her ideal man as an archetype nested among other archetypes: the physically weak consummate critic (Ellsworth Toohey), the man of potential who sold out (Gail Wynand), the man who sold out from the get-go (Peter Keating). The world takes all kinds. So do works of fiction.
    I agree wholly with your assessment of the artistry of Rand's writing. It's some of the best writing out there.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful review with your loyal readers. As always, your expressions and impressions are honest, forthright and well-considered.

  9. Mohamed,

    Thanks you for being a loyal reader! :)

    One thing is definitely true - my opinions are always honest. I completely second (!!!) your opinion on Rand's use of archetypal figures; in fact, it was my criticism of the novel in the first few hundred pages. I felt Rand was relying too heavily upon them to gain the reader's trust and... obedience? Following? ... approval? But you are right - the world most certainly does take all kinds, and thank God, so does fiction!!!

    Again, I wish to stress that I am no expert in the field of philosophy, nor do I have any intention (or desire) to become one. I do intend to read, though, as previously mentioned, other works of Rand, although they will have to wait their turn in a somewhat-long and ambitious waiting list. It's simply not to be denied, though: it really is some of the best writing out there!