Annotations: The Fountainhead

Thoughts.

All of my favorite novels are beautiful works of art. Their impact, for me, is on an emotional register produced by intimacy with characters, appreciation of language, persistent imagery, inescapable atmosphere. With The Fountainhead, it isn’t like that. The characters are well built (Howard Roark and Ellsworth Toohey, in particular, are singular creations), the language is sufficient, and the imagery and atmosphere do not detract from the story—all statements that I suspect Ayn Rand would consider complimentary. That said, I do not feel that The Fountainhead is beautiful. In fact, I do not especially “feel” anything about The Fountainhead, at least, not in the emotional sense in which that word is traditionally used. The Fountainhead didn’t touch my heart. It did something different, and unusual, and, arguably, harder. It touched my mind.

On the first pages of the novel, Rand writes: “Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail.” The Fountainhead is not a story told for the sake of telling a story—it’s a story told in pursuit of an idea, and that idea sets its every detail.

I can’t comment on Rand’s broader politics, they seem largely at odds with the things I believe, but within the confines of The Fountainhead, I found ideas that resonated. Roark worships work but not money, beauty but only if it’s functional, integrity over kindness. The Fountainhead asks questions like:

  • “Why is it so important—what others have done? Why does it become sacred by the mere fact of not being your own? Why is anyone and everyone right—so long as it’s not yourself? Why does the number of those others take the place of truth? Why is truth made a matter of arithmetic?”
  • “Do you always have to have a purpose? … Can’t you ever be comfortable—and unimportant?”
  • “What is kinder—to believe the best of people and burden them with a nobility beyond their endurance—or to see them as they are, and accept it because it makes them comfortable?”
  • “Reason can be fought with reason. How are you going to fight the unreasonable?”
  • “What is the use of building for a world that does not exist?”

I would give this book 6 stars if I could.

Favorite words.

His face was like a law of nature—a thing one could not question, alter or implore. It had high cheekbones over gaunt, hollow cheeks; gray eyes, cold and steady; a contemptuous mouth, shut tight, the mouth of an executioner or a saint.

There will be days when you’ll stand in the corner of a hall and listen to a creature on a platform talking about buildings, about that work which you love, and the things he’ll say will make you wait for somebody to rise and crack him open between two thumbnails; and then you’ll hear the people applauding him, and you’ll want to scream, because you won’t know whether they’re real or you are, whether you’re in a room full of gored skulls, or whether someone has just emptied your own head, and you’ll say nothing, because the sounds you could make—they’re not in a language in that room any longer …


“Howard, why do you hate me?

“I don’t hate you.”

“Well, that’s it! Why don’t you hate me at least?”

“Why should I?”

“Just to give me something. I know you can’t like me. You can’t like anybody. So it would be kinder to acknowledge people’s existence by hating them.”

“I’m not kind, Peter.”


He worshipped expertness of any kind. He loved his work passionately and had no tolerance for anything save for other single-track devotions. He was a master in his own field and he felt no sympathy except for mastery. His view of the world was simple: there were the able and there were the incompetent; he was not concerned with the latter.

You know, it’s such a peculiar thing—our idea of mankind in general. We all have a sort of vague, glowing picture when we say that, something solemn, big and important. But actually all we know of it is the people we meet in our lifetime. Look at them. Do you know any you’d feel big and solemn about? There’s nothing but housewives haggling at pushcarts, drooling brats who write dirty words on sidewalks, and drunken debutantes. Or their spiritual equivalents. As a matter of fact, one can feel some respect for people when they suffer. They have a certain dignity. But have you ever looked at them when they’re enjoying themselves? That’s when you see the truth. Look at those who spend the money they’ve slaved for—at amusement parks and side shows. Look at those who’re rich and have the whole world open to them. Observe what they pick out for enjoyment. Watch them in the smarter speak-easies. That’s your mankind in general.

Dominique had spent so many summers and winters, surrounding herself with people in order to feel alone, that the experiment of actual solitude was an enchantment to her and a betrayal into a weakness she had never allowed herself: the weakness of enjoying it.

… Dominique realized that what she saw in his face, what made it the face of a god to her, was not seen by others; that it could leave them indifferent; that what she had thought to be the most obvious, inconsequential remark [on his appearance] was, instead, a confession of something within her, some quality not shared by others.

He did not smile at his employees, he did not take them out for drinks, he never inquired about their families, their love lives or their church attendance. He responded only to the essence of a man: to his creative capacity. In this office one had to be competent. There were no alternatives, no mitigating considerations. But if a man worked well, he needed nothing else to win his employer’s benevolence: it was granted, not as a gift, but as a debt. It was granted, not as affection, but as recognition. It bred an immense feeling of self-respect within every man in that office.

“Do you think integrity is the monopoly of the artist? And what, incidentally, do you think integrity is? The ability not to pick a watch out of your neighbor’s pocket? No, it’s not as easy as that. If that were all, I’d say ninety-five percent of humanity were honest, upright men. Only, as you can see, they aren’t. Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea. That presupposes the ability to think. Thinking is something one doesn’t borrow or pawn.”


“You said something yesterday about a first law. A law demanding that man seek the best. … It was funny …. The unrecognized genius—that’s an old story. Have you ever thought of a much worse one—the genius recognized too well? … That a great many men are poor fools who can’t see the best—that’s nothing. One can’t get angry at that. But do you understand about the men who see it and don’t want it?”

“No.”

“No. You wouldn’t. I spent all night thinking about you. I didn’t sleep at all. Do you know what your secret is? It’s your terrible innocence.”

Roark laughed aloud, looking at his boyish face.

“No,” said Mallory, “it’s not funny. I know what I’m talking about—and you don’t. You can’t know. It’s because of that absolute health of yours. You’re so healthy that you can’t conceive of disease. You know of it. But you don’t really believe it. I do. I’m wiser than you are about some things, because I’m weaker. I understand—the other side. …”


The publishers of his time took pride in stamping their individual personalities upon their newspapers. Gail Wynand delivered his paper, body and soul, to the mob. The Banner assumed the appearance of a circus poster in body, of a circus performance in soul. It accepted the same goal—to stun, to amuse, to collect admission. It bore the imprint, not of one, but of a million men. “Men differ in their virtues,” said Gail Wynand, explaining his policy, “but they are alike in their vices.” He added, looking straight into the questioner’s eyes: “I am serving that which exists on this earth in greatest quantity. I am representing the majority—surely an act of virtue?”

“It’s said that the worst thing one can do to a man is to kill his self-respect. But that’s not true. Self-respect is something that can’t be killed. The worst thing is to kill a man’s pretense at it.”

“One can’t love man without hating most of the creatures who pretend to bear his name.”

“Those who speak of love most promiscuously are the ones who’ve never felt it.”

“I often think that he’s the only one of us who’s achieved immortality. I don’t mean in the sense of fame and I don’t mean that he won’t die someday. But he’s living it. I think he is what the conception really means. You know how people long to be eternal. But they die with every day that passes. When you meet them, they’re not what you last met. In any given hour, they kill some part of themselves. They change, the deny, they contradict—and they call it growth. At the end there’s nothing left, nothing unreversed or unbetrayed; as if there had never been any entity, only a succession of adjectives fading in and out on an unformed mass. How do they expect permanence which they have never held for a single moment? But Howard—one can imagine him existing forever.”

“Most people build as they live—as a matter of routine and senseless accident. But a few understand that building is a great symbol. We live in our minds, and existence is the attempt to bring that life into physical reality, to state it in gesture and form. For the man who understands this, a house he owns is a statement of his life. If he doesn’t build, when he has the means, it’s because his life has not been what he wanted.”

“I never meet the men whose work I love. The work means too much to me. I don’t want the men to spoil it. They usually do. They’re an anticlimax to their own talent.”

“There’s so much nonsense about human inconstancy and the transience of all emotions,” said Wynand. “I’ve always thought that a feeling which changes never existed in the first place. There are books I liked at the age of sixteen. I still like them.”

“… Bricks and steel are not my motive. Neither are the clients. Both are only the means of my work. Peter, before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. Your own action, no any possible object of your charity. I’ll be glad if people who need it find a better manner of living in a house I designed. But that’s not the motive of my work. Nor my reason. Nor my reward.”

“… why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world—to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want. As I wanted to marry you. Not as I want to sleep with some woman or get drunk or get my name in the papers. Those things—they’re not even desires—they’re things people do to escape from desires—because it’s such a big responsibility, really to want something.”

“Motives never alter facts.”

“… A truly selfish man cannot be affected by the approval of others. He doesn’t need it. … It’s so easy to run to others. It’s so hard to stand on one’s own record. You can fake virtue for an audience. You can’t fake it in your own eyes. Your ego is your strictest judge. They run from it. They spend their lives running. It’s easier to donate a few thousands to charity and think oneself noble than to base self-respect on personal standards of personal achievement. It’s simple to seek substitutes for competence—such easy substitutes: love, charm, kindness, charity. But there is no substitute for competence.”

“Every form of happiness is private.”

“… Yet the test should be so simple: just listen to any prophet and if you hear him speak of sacrifice—run. Run faster than from a plague. It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master. But if ever you hear a man telling you that you must be happy, that it’s your natural right, that your first duty is to yourself—that will be the man who’s not after your soul.”

He thought—while his hand moved rapidly—what a power there was in words; later, for those who heard them, but first for the one who found them; a healing power, a solution, like the breaking of a barrier. He thought, perhaps the basic secret the scientists have never discovered, the first fount of life, is that which happens when a thought takes shape in words.

… she knew that even pain can be confessed, but to confess happiness is to stand naked …

“The creator lives for his work. He needs no other men. His primary goal is within himself. The parasite lives second-hand. He needs others. Others become his prime motive. The basic need of the creator is independence. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed or subordinated to any consideration whatsoever. It demands total independence in function and in motive. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary.”

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