Posted on | July 5, 2012 | 3 Comments
The fourteenth re-read. In thirteen years. That’s how much I love this book, and how much I’m totally and completely in love with the protagonist, Howard Roark. For years, I’ve longed for a world of Roarks, and all I’ve seen around me is a world of Keatings and Wynands. And at that point, I can’t help but quote Wordsworth’s Lines Written In Early Spring:
Have I not reason to lament,
What man has made of man?
This post is destined to be a ramble. Me writing about this book without gushing is much like the weather in London not being totally whimsical, i.e. extremely unlikely. Therefore, I attribute the nature of this post to the stream of consciousness style, and derive significant comfort from the fact that I’m able to use a classic literary device in order to justify gushing. I apologise, but it can’t be helped. It is inevitable.
You see, when I was fourteen, and read this book for the first time, I was an idealist to the core; naive, innocent and untainted. The eventual triumph of Roark, of “selfishness” as Rand sees it, was almost like a fairytale to me – a fairytale I clung to from that moment on. As long as you stick by what you believe in, as long as you try to do the right thing, as long as you don’t compromise on your ideals, the world is guaranteed to be yours. So basically, I spent the latter half of my teenage life – my formative years, if you will – with Kipling’s If and Rand’s philosophies ingrained in my tiny brain. That probably explains why I am the way I am to a large extent.
“Howard Roark laughed.”
That is the opening line of the novel, and in this chapter, the reader discovers that Roark has been expelled from Stanton for refusing to submit works that were in line with traditional architecture. Instead, his complete disregard for architecture through history, coupled with his bold modernist designs means that he stands apart from the herd, and consequently, his works aren’t appreciated.
“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”
In parallel, we’re introduced to the ingratiating Peter Keating – the pompous popular student who has graduated from Stanton with honours.
While Roark seeks tutelage under Henry Cameron in New York, a once popular architect who has since fallen from grace, Keating is hired by a leading architectural firm, Francon & Heyer (also in New York), where he quickly tries to eliminate the competition, and brown-noses the partners. As the book proceeds, Keating’s character becomes increasingly insufferable. He lacks original thought, plays the corporate game, and for every big contract that lands on his lap, he goes to Roark for help. Yet, unsurprisingly, despite his success and fame, he never reveals Roark’s contribution to his works, or gives him any credit. He eventually makes partner at the firm.
Roark, on the other hand, doesn’t land very many contracts while working with Cameron. The two work hard, they stick by their ideals, by what they believe architecture is meant to be, but to no avail. Upon Cameron’s retirement, Roark drifts between architectural firms, never really managing to stick around for long enough in any, due to his absolute refusal to compromise on his ideals.
When all else fails, he goes to work in a quarry in Connecticut, where he meets the main female protagonist of the book: Dominique Francon, the estranged daughter of Keating’s partner in the firm. Dominique is probably the most intriguing and compelling character in the book – dare I say, more so than Roark. She is intelligent beyond belief, wary of a world where mediocrity is lauded, and petrified of society reducing greatness to nothing. A long time ago, I recall reading that the inspiration for her character wasn’t anyone from the real world, but simply a “Romantic” creation by Rand, who in some biography does say that Dominique is Rand herself – in a bad mood!
The chemistry between Roark and Dominique is evident from the time they first meet, but considering the personalities of both, a regular courtship isn’t on the cards. Instead, it’s a battle of wits, which eventually results in a sexual encounter, that, at a later point in the book, Dominique calls rape. Roark leaves Connecticut for New York, when he gets a surprising commission, and much before Dominique knows his name. The connection between the two is so incredibly strong though, that it’s almost as though they are simply an extension of one another.
“She thought how strange it would be if she ever said ‘Hello’ to him. One did not greet oneself each morning.”
Yet, when Dominique discovers that Roark isn’t just a quarryman, but an architect, and not just any architect, but an architect whose work she genuinely admires, she sets out to destroy him. To ensure that he gets no work. That any commission that he’s being considered for goes to Peter Keating, the anti-Roark. It’s not out of spite, but out of love, for she thinks that Roark’s work is pure and unadulterated, and the world will ruin it, debase it, and eventually destroy it and consequently, do the same to the man she is in love with. The world, in her opinion, does not deserve Roark.
She seeks help from Toohey, who is by far the most despicable character in the book. Possibly the most despicable character in literature. Unsurprisingly, Dominique shares that sentiment, but uses him to reach her end goal. She also marries Peter Keating, who is completely smitten with her, but way before she proposes to him, she does tell him:
“Peter, if I ever want to punish myself for something terrible, if I ever want to punish myself disgustingly— I’ll marry you.”
I will not start with the whole consequentialism vs. deontologism debate here. This goes way deeper, way beyond that. The philosophy here isn’t quite so simple, it’s not quite so naive. She marries Keating simply because she doesn’t want to live in a world where she sees Roark getting crushed as the evil forces of the world gang up on him, she can’t bear to see him lose. So, she goes to the other extreme – to live in the ugly world which will always prevail over the beautiful. Yes, the mind boggles. Dominique gives up on her own happiness to ensure that in the long term, there is no chance of her getting hurt. Well, I can kind-of relate, and empathise.
But, back to the despicable Toohey – Toohey represents everything that is wrong with the world. He creates the monsters, he encourages mediocrity, he champions the untalented, but fears the likes of Roark – people with the character and the strength to make a difference, to influence society in a positive way. Toohey’s column in the New York Banner initially refuses to acknowledge Roark, and eventually when he can’t ignore the architect, he undermines him and mocks him. Honest to god, the future that Toohey envisages is the kind that would make a great dystopian novel. The sad truth of the matter: there are more Tooheys around us than one would like to believe.
“If you learn how to rule one single man’s soul, you can get the rest of mankind. It’s the soul, Peter, the soul. Not whips or swords or fire or guns. That’s why the Caesars, the Attilas, the Napoleons were fools and did not last. We will. The soul, Peter, is that which can’t be ruled. It must be broken. Drive a wedge in, get your fingers on it–and the man is yours.”
Sad but true, society laps up what the media sells. If a journalist raves about a play, the public who view it will shy away from admitting that they didn’t “get it” lest they appear to be philistines. The power of media, specially in today’s day and age, is second to none, and society is so malleable, so easy to influence, so easy to taint, that if one media tycoon decides to sell something, it will sell, even if it is drivel. Toohey recognised that, built his group of followers, who didn’t know better, and through them focused on becoming omnipotent. He almost prevailed. This is the world we live in. This is what man has made of man.
And then you have Gail Wynand – the media tycoon, inspired by Hearst – who has deliberately chosen to propagate mediocrity and sensationalism, being an egregious panderer. Wynand, in fact, is the owner of the Banner, and despite some of the truly shocking stances his newspaper takes, he never gets involved, even if he does disagree with the stories at a personal level. What is incredibly interesting is just quite how similar Wynand and Roark are, in terms of their socio-economic backgrounds. What stands out, of course, is how Wynand exemplifies Nietzsche’s will to power, whereas Roark’s epitomises Rand’s selfishness, and at the end, only one wins. And considering I called this book a fairytale, no prizes for guessing the winner.
It really is gratifying to see conformity and collectivism (for the sake of collectivism) losing out to integrity and idealism. A man sticking by what he believes in, irrespective of the hurdles in his way, and refusing to compromise on his core beliefs, no matter what the cost – that’s something. I don’t need to dwell on the negative connotations of the word selfishness, but the true definition remains “concern with one’s own interests”. Take away the moral dilemma one faces each time they are called “selfish”, for, let’s face it – no one, absolutely no one, thinks there’s a compliment hidden there, anywhere. If, at my very core, I am not driven by evil but by a considerably more positive force, is me being selfish a bad thing?
We live in a world where money and power can get you anywhere, where those two evils tempt you beyond belief, where the mere suggestion of either or both makes people do things that they know are morally wrong. You see it everywhere – people compromise, people discard their beliefs, people shrug off their morals, people give in to temptation, simply because they believe that the end justifies the means. Consequentialism.
“To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul – would you understand why that’s much harder?”
I don’t see anything evil in a desire to make money. But money is only a means to some end. If a man wants it for a personal purpose—to invest in his industry, to create, to study, to travel, to enjoy luxury—he’s completely moral. But the men who place money first go much beyond that. Personal luxury is a limited endeavor. What they want is ostentation: to show, to stun, to entertain, to impress others. They’re second-handers.
At the age of fourteen, when I first read this book, Roark immediately became the first person I fell in love with – yes, he is fictional, but I had faith, that if such a character can exist in a book, surely he can exist in the real world. And well, I started holding myself to that standard.
“I hate incompetence. I think it’s probably the only thing I do hate. But it didn’t make me want to rule people. Nor to teach them anything. It made me want to do my own work in my own way and let myself be torn to pieces if necessary”
This time when I pulled the book off the shelf though, I was looking for something much more than the annual re-read of one of my all-time favourite books – a book I learn from each time I read it; a book I get something from each time I read it. Through time, my attitude towards the book has remained the same. Roark’s shown me the path I need to walk on. It’s as simple as that.
But – and pardo the repetition, please – this time, I was looking for something much more. I don’t second guess the person I am normally. I don’t question whether what I’m doing is morally right or wrong. If in doubt, don’t do it. Shades of grey don’t really exist in my world.
“Ask anything of men. Ask them to achieve wealth, fame, love, brutality, murder, self-sacrifice. But don’t ask them to achieve self-respect. They will hate your soul.”
What was I looking for? Reassurance, I guess. I’m no longer the idealist I was when I was fourteen. I’m more cynical than I should be. Excuse the comparison, but I find myself becoming more Dominique and less Howard. I don’t want to give up my fairytale, nor do I want to give up the person I’ve spent just under half my life trying to be. I liked being an idealist. Being a cynic, on the other hand, not so much. Specially as the idealist in me hasn’t actually died – it’s just in a never-ending battle with the cynic. Yet, when I look at the world around me… and here – here I quote Wordsworth again: Not without hope, we suffer and we mourn. I don’t know. Is it still safe to say that idealism will triumph over all else? Is it still enough to say that as long as I am selfish and stick by my convictions, there will be happily ever after? Is it still accurate to believe that it’s the Roarks that prevail and the Keatings and Wynands that will give up and give in? For, fair’s fair.