Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Book: The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand (1943)

The New York Times recently described Christopher Cox, the California congressman nominated to the Securities and Exchange Commission by President Bush, as “a devoted student” of Ayn Rand. Raising the prospect that fifty years from now, one of President (Chelsea) Clinton’s nominees might be “a devoted student” of Dan Brown.

Later, George Will claimed Cox’s enthusiasm for Rand was overstated. The Rand Institute said that Cox’s first act should be to abolish the commission he’s been named to lead.

Rand has always seemed like something you should read at an impressionable age, like Tolkien or INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. I never got to those. Saw the movies, though.

Over the years I’ve picked up a little about Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Most of what I know about her I learned from a guy who lived in my freshman dorm. Over Christmas break, he read both THE FOUNTAINHEAD and ATLAS SHRUGGED and came back to school a changed man. I can still remember him striding down the hall upon his return, arms spread messianically wide. When he reached his room, he pulled a marker out of his coat and wrote EGO in huge letters on the door. Only then did he enter, smoke a few Winstons and doze off.

What made an impression on me was the fact that he’d carried the pen with him. No stopping to search through luggage for him. I respect anyone who inspires others to feats of showmanship, and vowed to read one of Rand’s novels.

What can I say? The last few years have been a little busy.

First, as a work of fiction: The only character who behaves in a remotely human fashion is the one Rand holds up to ridicule. In a book purportedly about architecture, her descriptions of the craft make no sense. The ending is ludicrous. Her style is turgid.

But I couldn’t stop reading. Rand’s tale spans decades and includes epic grudges, thwarted passions, dizzying rises and falls. She wrote in an era when authors strove to tell big stories, and the force of her narrative carries the day.

As a philosophical work, things get a tad muddled. But the core ideas – the power of the individual, the dangers of groupthink – resonated with me. It’s easy to see how they could be misinterpreted or misapplied. There’s a section on discrediting someone through false charges (“Reason can be fought with reason. How are you going to fight the unreasonable?”) that seems to have been grafted directly into contemporary political playbooks. I’d wager that free-market conservatives like Cox respond to Rand’s notion that there’s nothing evil about the desire to make money or even spending it to enjoy luxury. But they probably miss her larger point that money is only a means to an end, and that personal luxury eventually becomes a wasted effort to impress others.

I’m still immature enough to feel pride at finishing a book that’s over 700 pages long and doesn’t feature a boy wizard. Eventually I’ll tackle ATLAS SHRUGGED. I have to rest my arms first.