Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

The Lost Book Club: The Fountainhead

Sorry, George, I know you tried to save me, but I had to do it. In fact I had already finished Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

And I liked it.

I’ve long been suspicious of Rand’s books, but curious as well. Perhaps it was all the years spent training high school debaters how to beat back Randian Objectivist arguments, which seem more than anything an especially culty take on libertarianism (I know, I know Rand disavowed Libertarianism). But we’re not here to talk philosophy, though perhaps we should: Lost is, let’s not forget, a show with a cast of characters named for philosophers (John Locke, Desmond David Hume, Rousseau, etc.), but I digress.

Once you put aside the fact that The Fountainhead is clearly a philosophical manifesto written as fiction, it’s hard to get around the fact that it’s a hell of a story. Architect Howard Roark is a brilliant artist. He fights for a new modern aesthetic that rejects the slavish devotion to the past, a past all but worshipped by the New York architectural establishment. He is misunderstood and society does everything it can to destroy him.

Roark cares only for his work and nothing for fame or riches. He is committed to his art and would rather live in poverty breaking rocks in a quarry than compromise his artistic vision. Rand clearly believes that a man is a failure only if he compromises his beliefs, ideals and vision.

Rand contrasts Roark with a fellow architect who only lives to please the establishment, a socialist who manipulates unions and other weak-minded collectivists to build his own power, and a media tycoon who could have been an ideal man like Roark but sold out his principles. Roark must face each of these people who would destroy him by forcing him to sell himself out.

The Fountainhead can be read several ways. As a statment of artistic principles and the importance of an artist adhering to his vision despite opposition from those who don’t get it, I really liked and identified with The Fountainhead. Rand is right that when an artist compromises his vision to satisfy the almighty dollar and win the accolades of an indifferent public, he sacrifices a piece of his soul. The title itself comes from Rand’s belief that “man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.”

It is also a statement of political philosophy that argues that self-interest and enlightened selfishness are the best values upon which men should base their lives. Government regulation and unions are tools of oppression that destroy freedom. Many conservatives of the libertarian stripe consider Rand a genius among political philosophers. The notion that natural resources are meant to be exploited and the environment is not perfected until man has worked his will on it especially rankled. I kept hearing Saruman chuckling about how Fangorn Forest would “burn in the fires of industry.”

Still, it’s an incredibly gripping read. I expected to hate it, but I couldn’t put it down. The characters aren’t realistic – they are all archetypes and ideals. The situations, particularly the romantic (lowercase r) relations are especially strange, but the fact that the whole thing is just a bubble off from reality, that it is so deeply and passionately felt gives it a cool Romantic (yes, uppercase now) vibe that adds to its celebration of the artistic spirit.

What I really liked, though, is the way Rand evokes the skyscrapers and streets of a New York that for me exists only in black-and-white photos, smoky jazz solos, and images of taxi cabs and rain soaked streets. I felt as if I had seen The Fountainhead rather than read it, and throughout the lengthy book, her descriptions of the city at all times reinforce the mood of her characters in much the same way that filters and lighting are used to adjust the lanscapes of film to evoke internal states.

Having lived through the Bolshevik revolution and escaped to America, I can understand Rand’s profound pro-capitalist outlook and rejection of any idea that bears a hint of socialism. The book was published in 1943, and I kept wondering what would become of a comitted individualist such as Roark when the US entered World War II. The novel stops before the US entry into the war, but a part of me imagined him getting drafted and forced to suffer what for him would be the ultimate degradation: taking orders from another man. Despite the book’s triumphalist ending, I kept picturing Roark winding up getting court martialed and sent to Leavnworth for insubordination. And now, I’m off on a tangent…

Hands down, The Fountainhead is the most interesting book I’ve read this year.

So, how does it fit in with Lost?

The Fountainhead appears in the Season 3 episode “Par Avion.” It is one of the many books that we see Sawyer reading on the beach over the course of the series, so presumably he found it in the wreckage of Oceanic 815. I bet he loved it too.

If there is any character on Lost who would hold to an objectivist philosphy of rational self-interest it is Sawyer. He only acts for his own benefit, which as in the case of Roark often happens to correspond with the greater good, but for Sawyer that is purely secondary. Like Roark, Sawyer is an individualist who sees no need to take orders from others nor to act for them. Placing The Fountainhead in his hands is a subtle reminder of the internal conflict Sawyer experiences on the island as he learns to be part of a community, balancing his self-inerested ego-driven nature with his desire to belong.

But, “Par Avion” isn’t about Sawyer. In fact, his role in this episode is practically just a cameo. It’s a Claire-centric episode in which she comes up with a plan for rescue: By capturing a migrating seabird and attaching a message to it, perhaps the message will be found when the birds migrate to a civilized area. It’s farfetched and Charlie and others aren’t shy in pointing that out, but like Roark, Claire sticks to her vision and by singlemindedly pursing her goal, she is able to make it happen.

An index of all my Lost Book Club posts can be found here.

4 Comments

  1. OK, I will admit I’ve never tried to read Rand. But I couldn’t even get through the movie of The Fountainhead and I’m a big Gary Cooper fan.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s a great story, the philosophy notwithstanding.

    FWIW, The Fountainhead was the last book I read before I moved away from Austin, some 20 years ago. I haven’t forgotten it. (The book, I mean; Austin I probably wouldn’t recognize.)

  3. KathyF, I think the aversion that many people have to her philosophy pushes them away from giving her fiction a chance. It did for me.

    I got to Austin 19 years ago. I barely recognize it anymore.

  4. George, I didn’t even know there was a movie. I’ll take your advice on staying away from it though.

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