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Can a liberal like The Fountainhead?

 I’m in Colorado producing a seven hour documentary series for National Geographic – which is why you haven’t heard much from me lately.  Medical Marijuana is an enormous and complicated subject and it’s taken all of me and the team’s time and energy to start to wrap our heads around it.

The other night at dinner at The Buckhorn Exchange – a Denver restaurant so awesome and old that Buffalo Bill ate there frequently and Sitting Bull’s nephew gave the owner’s family General Custer’s sword after he was vanquished (and they make a damn good steak for four) – my friend Isaac’s girlfriend Meredith mentioned that she was struggling her way through Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a novel that had confounded me as well. “Ah, but have you read The Fountainhead,” I asked, having been blown away five years ago by how incredibly readable and inspiring Ayn’s second novel was.

Meredith had in fact read and liked The Fountainhead, and my friend Drew mentioned that his wife Ana had read it and loved it as well, not surprising given that she is a Russian immigrant who studies architecture.  We were all amazed at how much of a page-turner potboiler romance it is, complete with romantic intrigues, secrets, and even violent sex (a scene Rand herself later described as “rape by engraved invitation”).  Not at all what I feared/expected when told over the years by many how much I would enjoy this 700-page novel that is normally described as a work of philosophy. But even more than that, I was surprised by how much I like the book, given how much it is hated by many people who I respect and generally agree with.

Here’s the thirty-second version for those of you who haven’t read it: The Fountainhead is Rand’s second novel, and follows a brazen young architect named Howard Roark as he refuses over and over again to compromise his creative vision for his clients or society at large.  Dominique, his love interest, is the daughter of the owner of a crowd-pleasing traditional architecture firm that also employs Roark’s college buddy Peter Keating.  As Peter, Dominique, and Howard tussle over art, power, love, and vision, a slimey muck-racking columnist named Ellsworth Toohey tries to destroy Howard, calling him an enemy of the people for having “superior” artistic ideals. Toohey’s employer, newspaper magnate Gail Wynand, also gets involved in the romantic and artistic going-ons, at one point even taking Dominique as his own.  Buildings are erected, modified, re-built, and destroyed.  Businesses are built and ruined, as are reputations.  Marriages, divorces, lawsuits, trysts, and secret identities all make an appearance, and yet in the end the individual spirit of Roark’s creativity triumphs.

Written in response to Rand’s disdain for collectivism – the philosophy that man should dedicate his efforts to the goals of a group, rather than his own individual needs – it is a book that celebrates individualism, the idea that man should hold no mind sovereign over his actions other than his own. Indvidualism celebrates individual rights and the pursuit of one’s own happiness. Collectivism demands that the desires or needs of the group are paramount to the needs or desires of the individual, in service of a greater group ideal.

While it would seem on the surface that collectivism would lead to greater group happiness, collectivism’s demand that the individual subordinate themselves for the higher good runs into two main problems. One, it anthropomorphizes the “group” into a organism with a real identity, when in fact all groups are just made up of people and have no actual identity themselves. And two, it is human nature to want to pursue one’s own happiness.  One’s own tiny pleasure will always feel a thousand times more real to an individual than the greatest “group happiness” that could ever be possible, because it is one’s own.

Paradoxically, as I’ve discovered through deepening my own Buddhist practice of non-violence against myself (self-love, self-compassion, self-interest), the more interested I am in my own happiness – individualism – the more compassionate I am towards those around me, because it is inevitable that as you become deeply interested in yourself (through reflection and practice and dedication to truth and high ideals, not narcissism) you recognize your own flaws, hurts, brilliance, and humanity in those around you.

In The Fountainhead, Dominique rejects the world as she wants it to be (Howard) in favor of the world as it wants her to be (Peter), but in the end, her own need to simply love, create, and live proves more important than the externally imposed desire of the community for her to reject her own passions.  Dominique’s journey is the triumph of individualism over collectivism, and it is no accident that the gateway to her contentment was sign-posted by Rand with her embracing of art, love, and the rejection of authoritarian thinking.

Yet, I know many liberals who absolutely revile The Fountainhead, who think that it is a work that suggests that men should be free to do whatever they want regardless of whether it hurts other people.  The implication of this is that man, left to pursue his own happiness, is a selfish actor who cannot be trusted to watch out for his fellow men.  The deeper implication is that compassion needs to be enforced by society, by regulation, by force.  It may be true that some men and women are narcissists or sociopaths, but the cast majority of people I know freely form bonds with friends and family and community that are deeply compassionate and concerned with each others welfare, without the need of a collectivist enforcement to make them do so.

Isaac asked me at dinner if it was strange that we consider ourselves liberals yet love The Fountainhead.  I responded (not entirely sarcastically) that if you love The Fountainhead, you’re not a liberal, you’re a libertarian – a political view that I find much more encompassing of my own than the mush-mess that people refer to as liberalism.

When I read The Fountainhead, I found Roark’s commitment to his vision of his life to be inspiring.  Not that I necessarily agree with everything he did, but the mere act of knowing what his personal vision is and committing to it no matter the cost without causing harm to other individuals, is a brave antidote to the vague acceptance of dimly defined personal missions and visions that most people live from (if they bother defining them at all).  The Fountainhead inspired me to develop my own personal mission statement, and also was a major catalyst for committing to a regular practice of sitting meditation and my involvement with the Buddhist sangha at The Interdependence Project.

While it might seem obvious that collectivism – expressly and explicitly acting for the common good – is more likely to achieve success for a liberal (or Buddhist) approach to society, I think that’s wrong.  Individualism – recognizing that one deserves to be happy, that there is a way to be happy, and rejecting authoritarian thinking in favor of one’s own mind – is, for me, far more aligned with the Buddha’s teachings, and far more likely to engender true compassion and actions on behalf of the common good.

In the end, though many of my liberal friends reject The Fountainhead for it’s overtly individual message, for me it comes back down to this realization I had sitting on my cushion about a year ago: if I’m going to practice non-violence and compassion and help other’s to end their suffering, I better start by practicing non-violence, compassion, and happiness with myself first.

Jerry also writes at www.JerryKolber.com.

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individualism vs. collectivsm

The tension between individualism and collectivism is that of any extremes. Aligning the dharma with one extreme or another is a mistake. The lynchpin in this debate is human nature. Is it basically good or basically bad? But that is a question that is flawed, since human begins, perhaps all sentient beings, display goodness or badness dependent on circumstances.

The most important circumstance is that of education, of which religion is a type. Another salient circumstance is the organization of society, which promotes certain modes of being and suppresses others. Any mode of being to be suppressed or promoted can only be inherent in humanity. There is good reason to believe that society is the result of the three poisons, as David Loy has pointed out, and before him, Pierre Hadot. That can be interpreted in either direction; society is to blame for the individual's suffering, OR the massing together of many individuals' delusion institutionalizes such delusion. Both is the answer, but probably more the latter. It has become cyclical - samsaric.

Another point this article ignores is that individual happiness, while being desirable and beneficial to the collective, is only achievable in relationship with others and the world, actually the whole of reality (think of Buddha's definition of 'wholesome actions').

I've seen this before

Several of my progressive liberal friends (big fans of Obama) also love the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I think you hit the nail on the head. They love the main characters' independence, living life by their own code. I suppose when they get to the speeches, they appreciate some points and write off the rest as just the character's point of view. (And they skip Galt's speech.)

I'm not sure how this article

I'm not sure how this article relates to interdependence or Buddhism.

I'm not sure how this article

I'm not sure how this article relates to interdependence or Buddhism.

You're definitely not alone

I loved the perspective outlined in this article could not agree more that "Individualism – recognizing that one deserves to be happy, that there is a way to be happy, and rejecting authoritarian thinking in favor of one’s own mind – is, for me, far more aligned with the Buddha’s teachings, and far more likely to engender true compassion and actions on behalf of the common good."

As it happens, there are more than a few of us who recognize this dynamic harmony between personal liberation and political freedom, including the connection between Ayn Rand's writings and certain consciousness-raising practices like yoga and meditation.

Several years ago we started a discussion forum for those who share our perspective. Today it has grown to 27 members and our discussions, while generally low volume, can be uniquely interesting, because of our shared frame of reference.

We call our group Mudita Forum, since many of our participants are readers of www.MuditaJournal.com, and more information is available here:


Utopian, But Illiberal

If The Fountainhead I read was the same one you describe here, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it, either. My view of the book, however, is somewhat different. For example, you describe Roark as someone who is committed to his life-vision "no matter the cost without causing harm to other individuals." That's an important qualifier and not one that's really borne out in the text. As it turned out, Roark's bombing of the development didn't result in any injury or loss of life but that is mostly a happy accident. It seems to me that Roark's "statement" is, in fact, similar to Timothy McVeigh's in Oklahoma City and would likely have yielded similar results. Also, recall that's Roark's "seduction" of Dominique was essentially a rape. In short, this is not a guy who was overly concerned with not harming others. Rather, Roark's behavior was more like that of a sociopath.

It seems to me that your construction of individualism translated into collective good depends on good will, restraint, and compassion on the part of all the actors involved, a utopian but unlikely scenario. As a liberal, I am more inclined towards political and societal structures that reflect the concept of a common good and attempt to support it.

Great criticisms — of a different novel

Roark's bombing resulted in no loss of life not because of "a happy accident" but because he went out of his way to make sure no one was killed.

When it comes to the "rape" scene, Ayn Rand liked to point out that "If it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation."

One of the benefits of writing fiction is that you get to tell your own story. If you take Rand's novel on its own terms — rather than shoe-horning it to fit into preconceived narratives about terrorist bombings or gender relations — it can be quite illuminating, as well as entertaining.

One of the benefits of

One of the benefits of reading fiction (as well as a non-fiction) is that the reader is invited by the occasion—though not necessarily by the writer—to exercise her critical faculties (or "one's own mind" as Randian's like to slavishly repeat). The author loses his or her authority over the text the moment it enters the hand of a thoughtful reader.

If you take Rand's novel on its own terms — rather than shoe-horning it to fit into preconceived narratives about terrorist bombings or gender relations — it can be quite illuminating, as well as entertaining.

This, it seems to me, is the fundamental dichotomy determining the embarrassingly dichotomous thought of Rand's followers: think freely and you will agree with us; otherwise you are a victim of group-think. This "logic" is evident in Rand's inability to engage the Western philosophical tradition in her "philosophical" writings.

I must say that I stunned to see on this website someone (two people, if we include Jerry Kolber) defending a (fictional) act of rape on the grounds that, as the author asserts, the victim secretly wanted it. The paucity of thought involved in the acceptance of such a claim is truly breathtaking, but then that is all too familiar among self-proclaimed free-thinkers.

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