FH: The War on Bore

The Fountainhead, p29-41

Now is where things start to actually, you know, what’s that word…happen. We just spent 20 pages on one day.

Peter Keating looked at the streets of New York. The people, he noted, were extremely well dressed.

Our friend Peter is in New York because that’s where Francon and Heyer have their offices. We get multiple paragraphs describing the building – a door that’s a Doric portico scaled to precise Greek proportions, an elevator covered in gilt and lacquer, a reception room that blends a Colonial mansion with the Parthenon, with a Florentine balcony in front of the telephone switchboard. I know this is supposed to be goofily over-the-top, and it kind of is, but I just contrast it with the “bare walls of grey limestone with long bands of glass” described ten pages ago and think hell yeah Francon & Heyer. Their stuff may be goofy and over-the-top, but I would rather be amused than bored any day, and the style Rand is arguing in favour of hasn’t been detailed enough to be anything other than bland and utterly, utterly forgettable.

(I do hate to admit it, but what we’ve gotten so far of Roark’s designs does make them very good art. They’re soulless, boring, obnoxious, and totally devoid of warmth and humanity. They’re very much like Roark, in fact. The only problem is that all of these are portrayed positively despite that being a terrible thing to inflict upon us.)

Now, an amusing quirk of Rand’s writing seems to be developing, and it’ll be interesting to see how far it goes. In general, buildings with traits she didn’t like tend to get a lot more description than buildings that she did. This is mainly because the buildings she doesn’t like are, not to put too fine a point on it, interesting, while there are only so many ways to say “austere” and “simple” and “boring”. It’s actually somewhat hilarious that Rand’s assertions that all buildings should be individual are piggybacked on extremely generic and fundamentally dull descriptions of so-called “unique” buildings, while the buildings that stand in contradiction to this, which must therefore be clones, are as varied as a medieval crack trip and a thirtieth-floor office encrusted in urns, balustrades and pillars. I mean it’s loopy, but at least it’s uniquely and interestingly loopy.

After half a page describing Keating putting on a smock, we pause for Keating to be made more unsympathetic to make Roark appear slightly more palatable. (It fails. Sweet powers of Chaos does it fail.)

He glanced about him, cautiously at first, then with curiosity, then with pleasure, then with contempt. When he reached this last, Peter Keating became himself again. He noticed sallow cheeks, a funny nose, a wart on a receding chin, a stomach squashed against the edge of a table. He loved these sights. What these could do, he could do better. He smiled. Peter Keating needed his fellow-men.

Rand had this uncanny ability to introduce relatable characters, then add flaws to their characters until they ended up nearly as unlikeable as this book’s ostensible, indefensible hero.

We then learn that Guy Francon hasn’t actually designed anything in years and someone named Stengel is actually the main man when it comes to production, with Francon mainly critiquing designs and engaging in a spot of public speaking. His office is described as being incredibly shiny and reflective, decorated with Jacobean chairs, a Louis XV mantelpiece, and photos of the Parthenon, Rheims Cathedral, Versailles and the Frink National Bank Building. Again, this is over-the-top but fun.

Francon is your standard Mk I jovially insensitive boss. Case in point, he refers to Keating fairly consistently as “Kittredge” for more than a page before getting corrected, and gives advice on ordering wine when taking clients out to dinner. Keating learns rapidly to steer his boss, and then we get reminded that everyone in Randworld is psychic – virtually everyone is capable of telepathically reading what Roark actually means, or sensing the degree to which an employee is grovelling for a client based on a single action.

Hard cut to a discussion of architecture. We get a description of the Frink National Bank Building, complete with a truly absurd artistic orgasm of Roman elements, and how its white marble is responding poorly to the smoke and grime of the big city.

This is, once again, Rand’s problem: she never bothered to actually understand a position before disagreeing with it. As a result, the building is described as being judged based on its ludicrous profusion of Classical elements rather than it, y’know, looking good. Classical-focused architects in Randworld are just generally unable to design a building with any subtlety or control, preferring to simply throw on urns and columns until you need a wrecking ball to get in or out.

I’ve encountered political, religious, scientific and philosophical strawmen in my time, but this is the only book I’ve ever read which included strawman architects.

We move to the Dana Building:

Its lines were hard and simple, revealing, emphasizing the harmony of the steel skeleton within, as a body reveals the perfection of its bones. It had no other ornament to offer. It displayed nothing but the precision of its sharp angles, the modelling of its planes, the long streaks of its windows like streams of ice running down from the roof to the pavements…The tenants of the Dana Building said that they would not exchange it for any structure on earth; they said they appreciated the light, the air, the beautiful logic of the plan in their halls and offices. But the tenants of the Dana Building were not numerous; no prominent man wished his business to be located in a building that looked “like a warehouse.”

The Dana Building had been designed by Henry Cameron.

I love the way that Rand’s narrator voice seems to think that the true face of great architecture is boredom.

Seriously. The Dana Building is a huge metal block with a lot of windows. I’m sure this was very impressive in 1920, but here’s the thing: we have had ninety years of huge metal blocks with lots of windows. We have entire city centres and commercial districts filled primarily with huge metal blocks with lots of windows. Our default image of a skyscraper is a huge metal block with lots of windows. So by around the late 1980s this description really stopped being “elegant and austere” and became “boring and samey”. This isn’t really Rand’s fault, except that this is exactly what she was agitating for by praising this design and consistently pouring scorn and contempt upon Classical styles.

Heh. “She glanced about her, cautiously at first, then with curiosity, then with pleasure, then with contempt. When she felt this last, Ayn Rand became herself again…” Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

We are then treated to a description of Cameron’s rise to glory, reaching the top spot because he was the first to exult in steel rather than try to hide it.

While architects drew friezes and pediments, Henry Cameron decided that the skyscraper must not copy the Greeks. Henry Cameron decided that no building must copy any other.

Now hang on. This is ringing a bell. Let me just dig up two things from a few pages back:

“Rules? Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape…A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it.”

“I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”

So Howard Roark inherits no tradition, except that of Henry Cameron. His buildings are described in the same way as Cameron’s. His philosophy of design is inspired by Cameron’s, complete with having the exact same central tenet. He even bullies Cameron into taking him on as an apprentice, even though Cameron could barely afford a roof over his own head.

This is rank hypocrisy.

And speaking of rank hypocrisy, here’s a little quote for you. Record this one somewhere. I will be bringing it back later.

 “Everyone has the right to make decisions, but none has the right to force his decisions on others.” – Ayn Rand

Now that you have that in mind, read this part. (Then look up some of the things Ayn Rand did, like endorsing Presidential candidates so they could make the decisions she wanted and force them on everyone, and I remember reading something about her kicking people out of her little cult of personality for disagreeing with her about music, although that one wasn’t exactly from a reliable source.)

The Columbian Exposition of Chicago opened inn the year 1893.

The Rome of two thousand years ago rose on the shores of Lake Michigan, a Rome improved by pieces of France, Spain, Athens and every style that followed. It was a “Dream City” of columns, triumphal arches, blue lagoons, crystal fountains and popcorn. Its architects competed on who could steal best, from the oldest source and from the most sources at once. It spread before the eyes of a new country every structural crime ever committed in all the old ones. It was white as a plague, and it spread as such.

People came, looked, were astounded, and carried away with them, to the cities of America, the seeds of what they had seen. The seeds sprouted into weeds; into shingled post offices with Doric porticoes, brick mansions with iron pediments, lofts made of twelve Parthenons piled on top of one another. The weeds grew and choked everything else.

You may be wondering how the belief that nobody can tell you what to do or think can be reconciled with the belief that only Ayn Rand’s opinions have any value.


Well, goodnight!

All joking aside, this is why I hate this book. The subject matter, the hypocrisy, the psychopath we have for a hero, even the way it beats you half to death with the moral and then finishes you off with an eight-page lecture to the head – those pale in consideration to this flaw: the narrative voice doesn’t care what we think. Rand herself did not care about the opinions of anyone other than Rand. I think that’s blatantly obvious from every part in this book that discusses philosophy, politics, or aesthetics.

Let’s face it. Her argument against Classical architecture is not “it’s overdone” or “it’s boring” or “I don’t like it”. It is formulated as Classical architecture being bad and wrong and evil and a crime against art and blah blah blah you get the idea – all of which, incidentally, is simply asserted and backed up by “evidence” consisting of dimwitted strawmen who crash through suspension of disbelief with a zeal that makes Iron Man going through a wall at maximum speed look relatively tame. This isn’t the argument of someone who understands the idea of live-and-let-live. This is the argument of someone who doesn’t accept that people can legitimately disagree with them, even about such minor things as how their houses look.

I can’t respect this philosophy. It’s not that I haven’t tried, but the sheer contempt Rand expresses throughout this book for people who disagree with her is a massive turnoff. If you can’t give respect to anything else, you don’t deserve to be respected in turn, and Rand is famous for proclaiming that anyone standing for compromise, acceptance and mutual respect is an evil scumbag of no value. It’s kind of like reading that priestess from A Song of Ice and Fire, only portrayed as unquestionably right.

(I will admit that the part about the Classical rut suppressing innovation is genuinely believable. Its presence in this passage feels rather like finding a gold ring in a cowpat.)

It only gets dumber from here.

Men hate passion, any great passion. Henry Cameron made a mistake: he loved his work. That was why he fought. That was why he lost.

Aaaaargh. Dealing with the elitist bullshit in this book is like having ten root canals in the hope of sprouting new super-teeth.

You will note that claims like this tend to be simply asserted, then taken as self-evident, rather than ever actually showing evidence. This makes them entirely consistent with Rand’s general argumentation technique, in which reference to any reality outside the contents of her own head is considered to be, at best, Communist propaganda.

We then get a description of Henry Cameron’s fall from grace, when the man who helped to calm down his clients died. Then Roark turns up.

Roark proceeds to essentially bully Cameron into hiring him. We get lip service to the idea that Roark’s art has flaws that Cameron needs to teach him to avoid, but since we get no descriptions of the buildings whatsoever, and we’re expected to view this as minor technical errors with the idea behind them being brilliant, I’m going to have to view this as pointless.

Roark also plays a bit fast and loose with the truth by claiming he was thrown out for his designs. You may want to remember that he was thrown out for presenting his designs when asked for something completely different. That’s like claiming you were thrown out of college for being male when you decided to prove this by showing up naked to every class.

We then get some more stupidity as Roark explains why he decided to become an architect:

“…it’s because I’ve never believed in God…Because I love this earth. That’s all I love. I don’t like the shape of things on this earth. I want to change them…For myself.”

This is actually making me feel guilt by association. Seriously. This actually makes me feel worse about being an atheist.

Cameron then gets some lines that make me actually genuinely like him.

“I don’t want to see you. I don’t like you. I don’t like your face. You look like an insufferable egotist. You’re impertinent. You’re too sure of yourself. Twenty years ago I’d have punched your face with the greatest of pleasure.”

I’d hold your coat. Perhaps even buy you some boxing gloves to use. My price would be that you did it more than once.

Seriously, this just summarised half the reasons Roark makes a bad hero in one paragraph. (The other half tend to be heavily focused on phrases “boring, self-righteous, immature, megalomaniacal, charmless, obnoxious, hypocritical little sociopath”.) I’d chalk this up to self-awareness, but virtually everything else involving Roark goes out of its way to exult in his boring, arrogant hypocrisy and behave as though his total disinterest in whether anyone he doesn’t know by name lives or dies is in some way laudable or virtuous.

This brings us to another of the many, many problems with this book: only people Roark knows by name are treated as being relevant, significant, or of any merit at all. When Roark scorns public housing because people who make $40 should not be penalised in favour of those who make $15 because they are obviously* more competent, he doesn’t mean himself – he sublimely believes himself more competent than his instructors at the Institute, even though at the time he was making no money at all from his art and held down jobs on building sites to pay his room and board. He only means people he doesn’t know. The people who are making $15 a week who he doesn’t know personally are treated as interchangeable faceless robots without hopes or dreams of their own, who can provide him with no benefit and who therefore do not exist for him beyond an abstract statistic. The people who are making $40 a week are also interchangeable faceless robots without hopes or dreams of their own, but they’re clearly* better faceless robots, because they’re paid more than the first set of faceless robots. This would all be fine if we were supposed to hate the character, but I’m assured that this was not Rand’s intention, even though despite this she succeeds phenomenally well at making him hateable.

Sadly, Cameron then goes against all sense and hires the bastard for $15 a week and sadly does not punch him even a little. And he was doing so well, too.

Next week: bad arguments and worse men.

–       OSM out


*a colloquialism meaning “there is a crack in this argument you could drive a truck through”.


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