Dry humor

I began reading The Fountainhead a couple of weeks back and will probably finish it in a day or two – a hundred-odd pages to go. The climax is near and Rand’s describing the pitiable state of Keating’s firm; the tone is serious, as it has been over the past few hundred pages, with rare exceptions. And then she writes this, and moves on, without pause-

They had made the buildings modern, more modern than anything ever seen, more modern than the show windows of Slottern’s Department Store. He did not think that the buildings looked like “coils of toothpaste when somebody steps on the tube or stylized versions of the lower intestine,” as one critic had said.

But the public seemed to think it, if the public thought at all. He couldn’t tell. He knew only that tickets to “The March of the Centuries” were being palmed off at Screeno games in theaters, and that the sensation of the exposition, the financial savior, was somebody named Juanita Fay who danced with a live peacock as sole garment.

I simply imagined the scene, and burst out laughing.

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  • Lightonsun  On April 22, 2009 at 4:07 pm


    Inadvertently saw Fountain Head the film a couple of days ago…..one of the worst adaptations ever…everyone is just stiff…and dont know why having read that Roark’s court scene quite a few times…in the movie it felt silly…and once during a rough patch having lost my copy went and bought another one and just couldn’t get past that 100 pg mark…I threw it away…thats when I came out of Ms.Rand’s hangover…She was passionate but illogical at times….anyways good luck finishing the book

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 22, 2009 at 9:09 pm

      The film is good, not great. Further, from what I recollect, it doesn’t stand on its own. You can’t make the book into a film that runs for 2+ hours. It needed the David Lean treatment – it should have been mounted on a vast canvas and spread over 4 hours – but didn’t get it. Maybe someone has the sense, and the ability, to remake it in all its grandeur sometime the future.

      As for the book, there is a problem with Rand, and the people who read her.

      I came across Atlas Shrugged when I was 12 at a friend’s place, and didn’t touch it; I didn’t read novels those days. I read it when I was about 16-17, and the main reason it made an impact was because it held a mirror to the world. I saw in it all that I had been experiencing in my life, including an event that occurred when I was five – a rebuke I received from an elder in a conversation about money – a “your money, my money” conversation. A year later, I read The Fountainhead. The first thing I noticed was Howard Roark being more Hank Rearden than John Galt. I didn’t find it as interesting as AS because it wasn’t a novel experience, an eyeopener like AS, but my views have changed over time. Its, in a sense, better than AS.

      The problem with Rand is this – she was a writer with a philosophical bent of mind, and an obstinate personality. She didn’t do “subtle” and didn’t care what others thought of it. And you will find that in her books. I have noticed this trait in many intelligent people, including most philosophers. Take your pick – Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Voltaire. Even von Mises has been called “obnoxious.”

      The problem with the readers – I don’t claim to speak for all – is, like me, most of them discover her in the teens. Its their first brush with moral philosophy and most of them don’t know what philosophy is or what a “world view” refers to (I didn’t till I read about other philosophers – early twenties). They will grab the form – the “attitude” and the mannerisms from the book and miss the substance. They will assume that they are “supermen” like Roark or Galt or even Rearden and that people need to treat them like that, which of course doesn’t happen. Once they find that they are not in the league of the “supermen” they will forget the books, and Rand, and her ideas. But her books are not about the “supermen” – it about selfishness and productiveness. Its about saying no to sacrifice and living life, working to the best of your ability. A “Mike” is not a “Roark.” He’s a plain old electrician. But he’s able and selfish. That’s what its all about.

      I don’t know what you find illogical there. I consider her primarily a moral philosopher, and for sometime was pissed off with her for not doing more – showing the way to a better world. Maybe you find some problems with her political philosophy. If that’s the case, I would agree to some extent now that I have some exposure to Rothbard and the like. But it was the morality tale in her books that first attracted me, and I don’t find anything “illogical” in that. So I don’t know what you are talking about there.

      About Rand, I think this passage from The Fountainhead applies-

      [T]oohey is like a testing stone for people. You can learn about them by the way they take him.

      Simply replace “Toohey” with “Rand.” Anyone who’s read Rand and has any respect for individualism will never write her off.

  • Lightonsun  On April 23, 2009 at 1:02 am

    The Book – I read it after I dropped out of college around 20-21 by 22-23 I finished Atlas Shrugged, We the Living and parts of Romantic Manifesto and Virtue of Selfishness,so by then the “super men” stage has passed for me or I am a late bloomer,I don’t know.The more I read of her,during a time when I started seeing the real world which wasn’t so black and white,the less I liked her primarily cos of her convenient usage of the dichotomy – to each his own, may be.While I respect her for some of the wonderful things that she speaks about and especially for her stubborn yet sound reasoning(most of the times), I hate her for overtly romanticizing Roark/Galt,sounding pretentious at times and call her illogical for not accepting that there is nothing like an ideal human being, there are just better human beings – morals,intelligence and all other factors if any, taken into consideration.
    The film – An epic which does not capture the essence of the book and merely reproduces chapter by chapter still qualifies as a bad adaptation, my point on the current version was precisely this.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 23, 2009 at 1:43 am

      Its not that black and white don’t exist – the problem is that taking a shortcut is easier than following the correct path. Yes, most people you meet are neither completely good nor completely bad; they compromise, the reasons may be many. But look what Rand says – you “know” what is good; you “know” what is bad; and yet you say that there are only grays. What does that mean? That you are willing to compromise on your beliefs and ideas, willing to embrace the bad fully aware of the fact that it is bad. And that “is” what people do.

      It is possible to live a “white” life – but it would be a incredibly difficult step because we are so used to shortcuts, and still take them fully aware of the consequences. “That” is the problem, not the conception of the “ideal man.” The philosopher Schopenhauer tried to make things easier for the “gray” man. He said the “will” is superior to “reason” in the sense that what we “will,” we do dismissing whatever “reason” tells us. But “reason” is all powerful. If only we listened to what it says – that would be a “white” life.

      The romanticizing – its because of her objective of writing a book wherein she would present man as he ought to be. I think you wouldn’t have a similar complaint with, say, Rama in the Ramayana. The books are fiction, but powerful fiction. As I said before – a morality tale, which, probably for the first time, proclaimed that the individual is not some clog in society’s machine, or a puppet in God’s hands, or free but burdened with “original sins,” but a heroic being – one with the “capacity” for good. That’s what one should take from her books.

      The film, I wouldn’t call it bad. Dry maybe, short yes, but not bad. You can’t fit a 600+ page book in a 2+ hour film without cutting substantial portions. I think a better film can still be made out of it.

      • Lightonsun  On April 24, 2009 at 12:44 pm

        ” But look what Rand says – you “know” what is good; you “know” what is bad; and yet you say that there are only grays. What does that mean? That you are willing to compromise on your beliefs and ideas, willing to embrace the bad fully aware of the fact that it is bad. And that “is” what people do” – You assume a lot!

        “The romanticizing – its because of her objective of writing a book wherein she would present man as he ought to be. I think you wouldn’t have a similar complaint with, say, Rama in the Ramayana” – I do

        • Aristotle The Geek  On April 24, 2009 at 11:18 pm

          If you are referring to the instances of “you,” I tend to use “you,” “we” and “me” instead of “one” while writing, hoping that the reader distinguishes between you and “you.” It has nothing to do with the actual “you” and “we.”

          “One” reminds me of Bicentennial Man. That’s all I can say about it.

          As for romanticizing, I don’t see anything wrong in it. Realism can sometimes be carried too far. The films and books I can pick up without feeling – “its a good one, but it’s exhausting” – are generally not “realistic.” Which films can you watch multiple times – a Sound of Music, Golmaal etc, or a Parzania and Black Friday?

          • Lightonsun  On April 25, 2009 at 12:58 am

            “As for romanticizing, I don’t see anything wrong in it. Realism can sometimes be carried too far.” – Same thing goes for too much of romanticizing.

            Black Friday yes but Parzania no.
            Some others that come to mind for the “not multiple times” list though most are not in the “Realism” category but are quite exhaustive – Requiem for a Dream,Zodiac,All the President’s Men,Blow Up,Magnolia and the list goes on…

  • Varuna  On April 23, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    I read The Virtue of Selfishness and was enormously impressed by it. But I really do think Rand is a terrible novelist. I tried to read Fountainhead as an adult (I had earlier read it as a school girl), I struggled through it, but finally gave up in disgust. Some of the scenes are more trashy than the worst Mills and Boon. How can an intelligent writer write that kind of stuff? And how can any intelligent person read it?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 24, 2009 at 2:38 am

      I think you are referring to the sex scenes. Let me say this – I have read hundreds of novels over the years and haven’t found a single author who’s handled them aesthetically – some are extremely bad at it. Rand does it however, as long as you read it in the context of the whole story, especially the “dry” conversations, and jousting – sparring.

      I have already commented on a Nietzschean influence on Rand. Prof. Lester Hunt writes about submission and conflict

      Throughout the novel, relations between the positive characters are full of tension and conflict, both in terms of the passions they elicit and in terms of the ways in which the friends and lovers act toward one another. The most extreme example of this is of course the notorious “rape” scene of Part II Chapter 2, but in fact sexual relations are persistently described in conflict-laden terms: “a surrender made more complete by the force of their resistance,” … “a force that fed on resistance,” … “tense as water made into power by the restraining violence of a dam,” and so forth ( all from 301). In The Fountainhead, as in Nietzsche’s writings, conflict is not depicted merely as a regrettable side effect of things that are otherwise good: certain forms of conflict are treated as a constitutive element of the good itself.

      Then you don’t have to dig too deep to notice an undercurrent of masochism – not purely in the sexual sense – that runs throughout the story, and that comes out during some of those scenes. The whole Dominique-Roark relation has to be looked at in this context.

      You must also consider Rand’s views on women. “For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship—the desire to look up to man,” she said. The “act” had great philosophical significance as far as she was concerned. Remember the conversation between Hank and Dagny in AS after building the “John Galt Line,” as well as Lillian and Hank (in the end) when she says she’s slept with Jim, and Hank walks away in disgust?

      I don’t consider her to be a terrible novelist but a brilliant one. Some do, however – they call her writing “sophomoric” – but its a matter of aesthetics.

      An interesting Reason article on Rand at 100 that tackles all these topics and more.

      • Varuna  On April 24, 2009 at 8:29 am

        I think we’ll just agree to disagree, as they say. I love the imaginative world of the good novel. And any great novel offers deep insights into human nature – with all its flaws. Rand deals with stereotypes – the only way she can make her characters stand out is by making ALL of humanity stupid, mediocre and so on. Actually, I think Fountainhead might have succeeded if she had made her characters live in the REAL world. Don’t forget that it’s one’s emotions that respond to a good novel, unlike nonfiction. Cold reason has its place, but not in the imaginative world which offers its own reasoning. However, we seem to be on different sides as far as this issue goes.

        • Aristotle The Geek  On April 25, 2009 at 2:46 am

          She surely doesn’t make “ALL of humanity stupid, mediocre and so on.” Take a few characters from the book. Peter Keating, Guy Francon etc are not mediocre or stupid. They compromise on their principles, and end up unhappy as a result. Keating, specially, wanted to be an artist. He let his mother dictate terms. Francon, Rand doesn’t write much about him, but in the end, he does redeem himself by supporting his daughter, by understanding the “why.” Take Katie. She’s a good girl who allows her uncle to dictate her life. She knows something is wrong, but suppresses that line of thought. And ends up unhappy.

          Roark says in a conversation with Wynand-

          I think the only cardinal evil on earth is that of placing your prime concern within other men. I’ve always demanded a certain quality in the people I liked. I’ve always recognized it at once—and its the only quality I respect in men. I choose my friends by that. A self-sufficient ego. Nothing else matters.

          That’s what Keating, Guy and Katie did. They sought their happiness in the thoughts of others, not in themselves or their work.

          About the real world, I don’t know if you have read Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto, but if you haven’t you might want to do that. Rand is a disciple of Aristotle when it comes to metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics. Doesn’t mean she borrowed everything wholesale, only that she built upon Aristotle’s works and ideas. In his Poetics, Aristotle writes-

          It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen – what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is – for example – what Alcibiades did or suffered.

          Rand says-

          The most important principle of esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because “history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.”

          She called her aesthetics “romantic realism.” The “real” exists, but the people who inhabit the “real” are not your average beggars, alcoholics, rapists, murderers, thieves etc but good people, virtuous people, man as man “ought” to be. And the story is mainly about them.

          She wouldn’t agree with your view that the “imaginative world offers its own reasoning.” Emotions are not divorced from rationality. When you get a lump in your throat on seeing a tragedy, or become angry on seeing an act of injustice, your emotions are responding to your sense of life and sense of justice. These are values you hold. And that’s why you feel what you feel. If you didn’t believe that injustice is bad, you wouldn’t respond emotionally to an act of injustice – in real life, or on screen.

          Art is not a brainless activity. “Art is the technology of the soul,” Rand wrote and that “art [was] the selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” If the artist believes that the world is an irrational place, he will follow absurdism and Kafkaesque surrealism; if he believes humanity is doomed or that humans are nothing more than animals, his work will reflect that. Rand’s works thus reflect her world view, sense of life, and sense of justice.

      • Lightonsun  On April 24, 2009 at 1:03 pm

        I think there should be a post on “Ayn Rand and BDSM”

        • Aristotle The Geek  On April 24, 2009 at 11:21 pm

          Rand has nothing to do with BDSM. Its just that her books, particularly The Fountainhead are full of emotional wrecks bordering on misanthropy who enjoy emotional power games.

          Edit: To avoid any misinterpretation, I am referring specially to two people Dominique and Wynand. Roark wouldn’t qualify as a wreck or misanthrope – he’s too detached for that. He does qualify for the “power games” though.

          • Lightonsun  On April 25, 2009 at 12:37 am

            Oh common…was just kidding there…anyways try reading Ecstasy by Irvine Welsh…there are some of the bawdiest and insanely funny paragraphs

  • Varuna  On April 24, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Also, though i think a novel can explore an idea, I don’t think it works when it is used as a crude vehicle for propaganda. Such a novel, in fact, diminishes the very power of the ideas it is trying to convey.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 25, 2009 at 3:00 am

      On “propaganda,” read this.

      Are you making the same complaint that many film critics do – that her novels are “preachy?” But how can you write a book without taking a stand? A book is what you think it should be. If Rand didn’t say that individualism is good, and therefore freedom, and capitalism, her books would merely be descriptive in nature – without a soul. X did this. X did that. The end. You can leave the finer points to the reader’s judgment – for him to analyze, but the theme of any novel has to be pretty clear. Otherwise, there is no point writing one. That would be like staring at a piece of “abstract art.”

  • Abhishek  On April 26, 2009 at 1:56 am

    Actually I *love* the sex scenes in the Fountainhead as well as all dialogues of Dominique.

    I won’t say Rand is for everyone; I really do think you need to have certain personality traits in order for Rand’s fiction to really speak to you. This is especially true of the way she depicts the sexual and emotional aspects of her characters.

    As I once wrote in my blog, it is easy to distinguish good art; beyond that, things get very personal. The truly special works of art are those with qualities that talk to you, touch you, in ways that separate them fundamentally from others. Obviously, this aspect is highly subjective; this is why people usually disagree on their favourite movie or piece of music even when they mostly agree on which
    movie or music is good.

    So, I can see why The Fountainhead does not appeal to a lot of people, including many who really value individualism. As for me, I read it in my late teens and have re-read it since. I love it, and that’s an understatement.

    Actually Ayn Rand is *not* my favourite moral philosopher; she does not even come close. There are several fundamental logical flaws in the way she treats the topics of rationality and first principles. But The Fountainhead is a different matter; it distills just the right aspects of her philosophy, perhaps by accident, but nevertheless.

    There are a lot of things I dream of doing with my life and none of them have much to do with Rand or objectivism.

    But if you ask me the name of just one book, *any* book from *any era*, that I wish *I* had written…. it would be the Fountainhead.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 26, 2009 at 3:09 am

      # “it is easy to distinguish good art”
      What you said about Rand – she is not for everyone, and that one needs to have certain personality traits… – also applies to appreciation of art. Two different people can hold two different opinions on a piece of art – good vs. bad. Its only those people who are on a similar, if not same, wavelength as far as aesthetics goes who can agree on the good and the bad. For e.g. some people hate Shawshank, Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia etc, some love them all. The question that has to be asked is – “why do you like (or hate) X?” Favorites, of course, are a different matter.

      # “it distills just the right aspects of her philosophy, perhaps by accident, but nevertheless.”
      I think that her philosophy was not yet fully developed when she wrote The Fountainhead. She was still working inside the realm of ethics (Atlas Shrugged is the complete package which includes politics) – individualism – egoism. And her hero doesn’t care about the world (“But I don’t think of you.”) unlike AS. Its only in AS – the speech especially – where you see it put into so many words. I think Reason has hit the nail on the head with this-

      There can be no question that Rand was a highly talented writer with a great gift for plot, description, and yes, characterization. The Fountainhead is a brilliant book, and so is Rand’s often underappreciated first novel, We the Living, a richly textured, passionate, moving story of life in post-revolutionary Russia.

      But in these novels Rand’s philosophy has not yet petrified into dogma. Even the larger-than-life romantic heroes have recognizable human emotions. (Rand’s detractors often claim that Roark is a robotically unfeeling superman, but consider this passage, when Dominique tells him of her marriage to Peter Keating: “It would have been easy, if she had seen a man distorting his mouth to bite off sound, closing his fists and twisting them in defense against himself. But it was not easy, because she did not see him doing this, yet knew that this was being done, without the relief of a physical gesture.”) Rand’s moral scale in The Fountainhead still allows for shades of gray. The power-seeking Gail Wynand is a tragic figure whom Roark loves despite the error of his ways; Dominique’s father, Guy Francon, is basically a good guy despite exemplifying none of the Randian virtues; even the despicable Peter Keating merits some sympathy, and his failed romance with his true love, Katie, has some dignity and poignancy.

      But in Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s final novel, the ideologue crushes the writer almost completely…

      • Abhishek  On April 26, 2009 at 4:21 am

        “What you said about Rand – she is not for everyone, and that one needs to have certain personality traits… – also applies to appreciation of art. Two different people can hold two different opinions on a piece of art – good vs. bad.”

        Strictly speaking, you are right; however there seems to be much less variation in definitions of ‘good’ aesthetics (defined in a moral–neutral manner) than in people’s estimation of qualities that actually touch them in some manner(this is most certainly dependent on ones moral beliefs as well as past experiences and associations).

        But I agree, it is a matter of degree. Thus we occasionally do see intelligent people disagreeing on their aesthetic definitions substantially enough so as to lead one of them to call a work of art terrible while the other thinks it is great.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On May 3, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Another Rand@100 article I read a long time back. This one from Cato

    “The first aim of our organization will be intellectual and philosophical—not merely political and economic,” Rand wrote to Pollock. “We will give people a faith—a positive, clear and consistent system of belief. Who has done that? Certainly not the N.A.M. They… are merely fighting for the system of private enterprise and their entire method consists of teaching and clarifying the nature of that system. It is good work, but it is not enough…. We want to teach people, not what the system of private enterprise is, but why we should believe in it and fight for it. We want to provide a spiritual, ethical, philosophical groundwork for the belief in the system of private enterprise.”

    Although the later Rand would doubtless bridle at the word “faith,” she already recognized her task: establishing a defense of individualism and capitalism that went deeper, more to the roots—more radical in the true sense—than any then existing. While still a struggling novelist, she saw herself as a “radical for capitalism.”

    That planned organization never got off the ground. But something more important did—her 1943 novel and first major success, The Fountainhead, in which she made her points not through a manifesto but through the imaginative creation of men who lived out dramatically the struggle of ideas and spirit that Rand wanted to win. The plot revolved around the intertwined careers and struggles of two architects, the individualist and heroic Howard Roark and the glad-handing, uncreative, craven Peter Keating.

    Critics often condemn Rand’s characters as unrealistic. In the literal sense, that is true; they are romantic, living evocations of ideas. She romanticizes not just her heroes but also her villain, the modern collectivist intellectual in the person of Ellsworth Toohey, a witty, intelligent, and highly influential architectural and social critic who realized that disarming the human soul through unrelenting attacks on the great and elevation of the mediocre left men open for manipulation by the likes of him.

    That the collectivist villain is a critic rather than a politician gives telling insight into Rand’s concerns. She realized that the enemies of individual liberty were not just those who openly advocated tyranny but anyone who chipped away at the foundation of individual greatness. She always contended that evil was inherently powerless and that it won only with the acquiescence of the potentially good. Toohey, the great villain of The Fountainhead, and Roark, its hero, meet only once, and anti-climactically. Toohey, eager with curiosity, asks Roark what he, Roark, thinks of him. Roark replies, before walking away, “But I don’t think of you.”

    • Lightonsun  On May 4, 2009 at 1:26 am

      “they are romantic, living evocations of ideas” – You are bang on,that was my point.Roark, Toohey both were amalgamation of ideas that are quite opposite.For me, life proves otherwise…and as for a moral philosopher at some point I think I’ve just decided to live without taking any references whatsoever…I mean finding out things on my own you see,may be this is taking individualism a bit too far but again no aversion to ideas I just don’t like anchoring on to something…..hate self help bullshit,the term itself is contradictory…..Am I still hanging on to something?
      “But I don’t think of you.” – One of my fav lines from the book.

      • Aristotle The Geek  On May 4, 2009 at 4:25 am

        Individualism comes in many forms. Psychologically speaking, I think of it as a line the two ends of which are principled individualism and unprincipled individualism (it might be wrong to call it that; Rand has a term that describes it – “selfishness without a self”) – the white and the black. Most people find themselves to the left of center of the line, more white than black, “light gray.”

  • Lightonsun  On May 4, 2009 at 1:32 am

    Oh my God…what I wrote might sound like I am into spirituality or “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires” kinda stuff…as far as that goes I am not in the same planet.
    In fact I have a funny take on the quoted lines – ever heard of Melissa.P or her book – that’s my Alchemist

  • you12  On May 11, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Well heres some humor.Simpsons recently did a parody of TFH. Pretty close to the novel as well.

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