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The Fountainhead (Written for an Essay Contest)

Notoman 20 / 419  
Jul 17, 2009   #1
An essay contest that I don't have a snowball's chance of winning. I didn't enter. I had a seizure that landed me in the hospital a couple of days before the deadline and I missed the date.

This particular contest has *236* winners. Even though it is highly competitive, I figured that my chances were significantly improved by the sheer number of winners. I don't know how much time I spent reading the book and writing the essay (the audiobook is 32 hours). At least I was able to talk my English teacher into giving me some extra credit points for my effort (extra credit points that I sorely needed after my absences). The rules specify that the essay should be between 800 and 1600 words. This stands at 1597 words. I like to live on the edge.

I want to give it a shot next year. Posting this year's essay and getting feedback will be invaluable to improving my odds the next go round. Thanks!

In asking Roark to design Cortlandt, Keating says he would sell his soul for Roark's help. Roark replies, "To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That's what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul-would you understand why that's much harder?"

In her 1943 novel, The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand illustrates her philosophy of Objectivism through the stark contrast of the protagonist Howard Roark and the middling figure of Peter Keating. Roark's steadfast adherence to his principals, even when the stakes are high, testifies to his character as a man. Peter Keating, on the other hand, changes his colors to fit the environment, rides others' coattails, and manipulates his way to the top of his field. The dichotomy between the characters is illustrated when Keating asks Roark to help him with plans for a cost-efficient housing project. Keating grovels and pleads with Roark saying that he'd do anything-even sell his soul-for Roark's assistance. Roark answers, "To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That's what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul-would you understand why that's much harder?" (578). Rand explains the human soul or spirit as " . . . your consciousness, and that which you call 'free will' is your mind's freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom. This is the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and character" (The New Intellectual, 127). Howard Roark is a man who holds tight to his dignity in an uncompromising quest to defend against the disintegration of his soul. Peter Keating's choices, on the other hand, degrade his soul, piece by piece, to attain his desires.

When the reader first meets Howard Roark and Peter Keating, they are studying architecture at the same university. Peter is "star student of Stanton, president of the student body, captain of the track team, member of the most important fraternity, voted most popular man on campus" (29). Keating is adept at emulating the styles that the school is teaching and at pleasing instructors, but he is not the luminary that he appears to be on the surface. When he is asked to speak at graduation, he has "nothing to say about architecture" (31). Keating relies on Roark to help him with the technical aspects of his assignments. As Keating is graduating at the top of his class, Roark is expelled. He is brilliant in his engineering sciences courses, but designs his projects in the way that he sees fit instead of adhering to the dictates of the assignments. The Dean asks Roark to explain why he designs modern buildings regardless of the assigned task. Roark answers, "I want to be an architect, not an archeologist" (22).

Roark and Keating embark on careers in New York City, taking very divergent tacks. Roark seeks out Henry Cameron, a visionary architect without many commissions, because he admires his work. Keating accepts a position at Francon & Heyer solely for the cachet the name offers. Roark opens his own office and struggles financially, but refuses to compromise his designs to please clients. Keating is a master at pleasing people and using social ties to win contracts. Keating has "always known how to become a part of any place he entered; he came soft and bright as a sponge to be filled, unresisting, with the air and mood of the place" (53). Roark, conversely, is as steady as the rock he builds with, and doesn't care to be anything other than himself. Roark rhetorically asks, "What can I tell people in order to get commissions? I can only show my work. If they don't hear that, they won't hear anything I say. I'm nothing to them, but my work-my work is all we have in common" (160). When a client asks Roark to play badminton with him, Roark declines. Keating cannot comprehend this approach. "You know what I would have done?" Keating says. "I would have sworn I'd played badminton since I was two years old and how it's the game of kings and earls and it takes a soul of rare distinction to appreciate it and by the time he'd put me to the test I'd have made it my business to play like an earl, too" (262).

Roark allows his sense of morality to be his guide in all decisions that he makes, with financial success being secondary to upholding his principles. Roark has drawn plans for a skyscraper, but the client wants to add a Doric portico and a cornice. Roark walks away from the commission because he cannot maintain the integrity of his design and meet the client's requests. The client chastises Roark saying, "Don't you know how big a commission this is? You're a young man, you won't get another chance like this. And . . . all right, damn it all, I'll say it! You need this! I know how badly you need it!" As Roark is walking away, the client accuses him of being fanatical and selfless. Roark retorts, "That was the most selfish thing you've ever seen a man do" (197-198). Loosing this commission means that Roark must close his architectural office and take work at a granite quarry. This fate is more palatable to him than erecting a building that looks "like a Renaissance palace made of rubber and stretched to the height of forty stories" (173).

Keating lacks a moral compass. He crushes those ahead of him to move up the ladder at the architectural firm. Keating blackmails the firm's partner, Lucius Heyer, in an attempt to force his retirement. Under the stress of Keating's confrontation, Heyer suffers a fatal stroke. Keating feels no guilt over Heyer's death. Even though Keating had relied on "the shock and the terror" of his actions to cause a "second stroke which would send Heyer to the hospital for the rest of his days" (186), he justifies his course by telling himself "that he had nothing to regret; he had done what anyone else would have done" (187). Keating later sells his wife Dominique to Gail Wynand in exchange for a building contract saying, "I'll use you both and I'll get what I can out of it-and that's all I care (450).

Roark trusts his instincts when it comes to architecture. Howard Roark "didn't care what the clients thought or wished, what anyone in the world thought or wished. He didn't even understand how other architects could care" (352). The other architects thought of Roark as conceited and took his failure to work with a group as a personal affront. Roark answered them succinctly with, "I don't work with collectives. I don't consult, I don't cooperate, I don't collaborate" (514). It is because Roark understands and appreciates the quality of his own work that he adamantly adheres to his designs.

Keating reveals his uncertainty in his abilities when he says, "I'm never sure of myself. I don't know whether I'm as good as they all tell me I am" (33). All his life Peter Keating has subjugated his own desires and accepted the direction that others have pushed him in. As a young man, he had wanted to be an artist, but his mother thought that architecture was a more dignified career. Keating would have married his sweetheart, Katie, long ago if it hadn't been for her plain appearance and the fact that his mother calls Katie a "guttersnipe" (155). When it comes to assessing his own stature as an architect, Keating "didn't want to be great, but to be thought great. He didn't want to build, but to be admired as a builder" (606).

Keating realizes that he is in over his head. He tells Roark, "Howard, I'm a parasite. I've been a parasite all my life. . . . I have fed on you and all the men like you who lived before we were born (576). Roark knows that he has done no favors for Peter when he has helped him with his work. Roark apologizes by saying, "It's I who've destroyed you, Peter. From the beginning. By helping you. There are matters in which one must not ask for help nor give it. I shouldn't have done your projects at Stanton. I shouldn't have done the Cosmo-Slotnick Building. Nor Cortlandt. I loaded you with more than you can carry (612-613). Despite this, Roark helps Keating design one more building-a housing project named Cortlandt, but only on the condition that there are no changes to Roark's plan. Roark allows Keating to profit from the commission and take all the credit because he wants to see his concept for the building erected. Peter is helpless when committee members change Roark's vision for Cortlandt. When Roark discovers the alterations, he conspires to demolish the structure, even knowing that he could go to prison for the deed. Howard Roark does this because of his unmitigated devotion to his ideals.

At his trial, Roark tells those assembled that "Men have been taught that it is a virtue to swim with the current. But the creator is the man who goes against the current" (682). We live in a society that inculcates altruism, but Roark stands against society and extols the virtue of the individual. Roark understands that "A man's spirit, however, is his self. That entity which is his consciousness. To think, to feel, to judge, to act are functions of the ego" (680). Keating sits in the courtroom as a broken man who has sold his soul long ago. Roark has resolutely retained his soul and the aspects that comprise his human essence. Roark may not have enjoyed financial success or accolades from his contemporaries, but he is secure in the knowledge that he has not wavered in his principals.
EF_Simone 2 / 1,986  
Jul 17, 2009   #2
Noto, I'd not have thought you to be an Ayn Rand fan.

I'm not sure how to critique this essay. If you're submitting in for the contest, you've got to write as though you embrace the philosophy in the book and refrain from critiquing it in the way you might if you were writing for another purpose.

It does seem to me that, to win such a contest, you need to say something other than what is usually said about the book while at the same time keeping in mind the fact that the judges probably will be looking for essays that conform to Rand's philosophy.
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Jul 17, 2009   #3
I have mixed feelings on Ayn Rand. I haven't totally figured out my political beliefs yet, but I think I lean toward Libertarianism. Jefferson is my political hero. If he were alive today, not only would he be very old, but I think he'd be a Libertarian.

I tried to write the essay to withstand the judging process . . . praise Rand and her heroes. I can't enter this year's contest, but I want to learn so I can have a chance at next year's contest. The prize money is HUGE . . . first place is $10,000. There are 10 third prizes worth a grand each. Critique it as if you were an employee of the Rand Institute and on the judging panel, *grin*

You're right in that I didn't go too far out of the box. I read the last five years or so worth of winning essay and scoured the Rand Institute's website. I kept my writing in line with what I read there, but it is a little sanitized.

In what areas do you think I could improve writing of this nature?

EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Jul 17, 2009   #4
Pity the essay was on The Fountainhead -- I always much preferred Atlas Shrugged myself.

The essay reads too much like a book report. And by no means should you write merely to please the judges, which would be utterly against the book's main message. You might start, as I often recommend, by defining key terms. In this case, what might an objectivist understand by the term "soul," especially given that Rand was an inveterate atheist? And if Roark is supposed to be a purely selfish hero, in a Randian sense, why does he help Keating out in the first place?

Beyond that, you might look at how even an objectivist might take issue with some of Roark's views. Is Roark right to refuse to follow his professor's instructions? Surely the whole point of taking courses is to master certain design principles and to show that you have mastered them by following the assignment criteria. How is his obstinate refusal to be open-minded and try new design techniques according to the assignment criteria heroic? Also, you say he prefers to work in a quarry rather than to modify his designs. But surely, in that job, he cuts stone from where he is told by his employer, takes it where his employer has designated, and so on. As an architect, his job is to design buildings for his clients. They are commissioning him to design a building to their specifications. Cooperating and collaborating with them wouldn't therefore be an altruistic act of soul-selling, any more than following his employers' instructions at the quarry was. Or, if you disagree, on what grounds would you defend Roark?

And two digressions:

A) I think it is interesting that, by and large, the West over the past century or so has tended to become more libertarian, even though almost no one votes that way. Fiscal conservatism has been very popular since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with many of the leaders of the "left," from Tony Blair, to Jean Cretin, to Bill Clinton adopting it as policy. In contrast, the left has tended to make progress on social issues such as gay marriage, legalized euthanasia, and, with the exception of the U.S., the decriminalization of drugs, all of which a libertarian would support.

B) What do you think of the claim that Ayn Rand was a strong philosopher, but a poor psychologist?
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Jul 18, 2009   #5
Pity the essay was on The Fountainhead -- I always much preferred Atlas Shrugged myself.

There are different contests depending on your grade level. 8th, 9th, and 10th grade write about Anthem (my brother entered this one and I really think he'll earn one of the prizes), 11th and 12th grades write about The Fountainhead, 12th grade and college write about Atlas Shrugged. Are you still in school? Even grad school folks can enter the Atlas Shrugged contest . . . the deadline isn't until September. The Atlas Shrugged contest only has 49 winners. I could probably enter the Atlas Shrugged contest as well because I will be in 12th grade by September. The competition is sure to be *much* stiffer though! Not only would I be competing against college students, but there are a lot less prizes.

The essay reads too much like a book report.

Yes, it does. I reread it and man, it is BORING. I don't have a lot of experience with creative writing. I tend to follow the prompt to a T and not stray too far from the directive (how very un-Roark of me!). I also get bogged down in word choice and grammar and fail to see the forest for the trees. I feel like I am a decent writer, but I want to be a great writer. I still have a lot to learn. I love your suggestions for tacks to take. It certainly would make a more interesting essay!

Libertarianism . . . you hit the nail on the head! It is interesting how people talk about fiscal conservationism in the US, but NO ONE votes that way. Our two-party system seems to be set up to see which party can garner the most pork barrel for their supporters with little concern for the big picture. It is also interesting how "socialism" is a bad word in the US, but many politicians unabashedly embrace the tenets of socialism (look at the recent governmental acquisition of GM and reallocation of stock shares to the union for an example). I by no means espouse all of the Libertarian Party's beliefs . . . some governmental regulation and even censorship is a good thing, nor would I want to see all taxes abolished. The Libertarians have a funky stand on education as well. I don't agree with Obama's idea that every American needs a taxpayer-funded higher education, but I wouldn't want to change the K-12 public system too much. What I really want from my government is fiscal responsibility. Is that too much to ask? Are you supposed to use question marks with rhetorical questions?

Hmmmm . . . Ayn Rand as a strong philosopher, but a poor psychologist. I will have to think about that. I could see her saying something like, "I think, therefore I am better than all of you other peons!" I do see her philosophy of Objectivism as a valuable contribution to the field of philosophy (something I have never studied, btw). Does the statement imply that she'd be a poor psychologist because she lacks all empathy, she doesn't understand human nature, or both? Personally, I don't think that she was the best writer. Her books are unnecessarily long and repetitive. She could have benefited from a having a ruthless editor unafraid of paring down extraneous verbiage.
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Jul 18, 2009   #6
Alas, I graduated a fair while back, now, and so cannot enter. I seem to remember taking a shot at the Anthem one, back when I was still eligible for it, though.

I by no means espouse all of the Libertarian Party's beliefs . . . some governmental regulation and even censorship is a good thing, nor would I want to see all taxes abolished.

Personally, I subscribe to what I think of as enlightened libertarianism. It is possible to embrace libertarianism's core principles, and still support some social programs. The government's main purpose, libertarians agree, is to defend the country from outside military threats, and to uphold individual rights within the state, by, among other things, upholding law and order. Now, I see no reason why the latter goal can only be pursued through policing. The level of education in society has been shown to be inversely proportional to the level of crime in society. That is, the better educated the populace on average, the lower the violent crime rates. Given that, it seems to me a system of education might be a cheaper and more effective way of keeping crime rates down than simply funding more police officers and building more prisons, especially as the former prevents crime, whereas the latter can only ever punish it. Moreover, surely an educated populace is as vital to the preservation of a democratic state as a well-armed one. Finally, an educated populace tends to earn more, and so generate more tax revenue at lower tax rates, than an uneducated one, so that a public system of education at least partially pays for itself. I see no contradiction, then, between being a libertarian (in the sense of holding core libertarian, or even objectivist, beliefs) and supporting public education.

Similar arguments can be made for many other social services many libertarians would reflexively oppose. The key is to support them for the right reasons. One does not support them because one believes that everyone has a right to material equality, or because one believes one has a duty to the less fortunate, but because one recognizes that having a social safety net of a certain size and scope is likely a more cost-effective and humane way of upholding the government's core purposes than not having one. This also provides, at least in theory, a way to limit the size of any given program through an attempt at cost-benefit analysis, something that a program meant to blindly provide "universal" coverage of some social good simply because one thinks everyone deserves such coverage must inevitably lack.

Does the statement imply that she'd be a poor psychologist because she lacks all empathy, she doesn't understand human nature, or both?

Well, as a philosopher, Rand was very good. It is difficult to argue against her description of how we gain knowledge, or of her defense of capitalism or our natural right to liberty. As a psychologist, though -- well, I don't know that her conception of romance, or even regular friendship, would resonate with very many people. Furthermore, most people would recognize that a certain amount of social skill is in and of itself a valuable asset, and that attempts to put others at ease and to build common interests with them is not dishonest soul-selling so much as a concession to the deeply social part of our nature.
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Jul 19, 2009   #7
Alas, I graduated a fair while back

I thought that might be the case, but I know so little about your personal life. "Sean," in my mind, is a young name. The only older Seans I can think of are Sean Connery and Sean Penn. I think of Kevin as a young name as well (probably in part because that is my younger brother's name).

I subscribe to what I think of as enlightened libertarianism

I like that! I might have to adopt similar terminology to describe my own political beliefs. Politics is a vast and complicated subject. I have not fully fleshed out my personal political philosophy, but I am working on it.

I've spent the morning reading more about Ayn Rand's personal life. What a mess! Could you imagine having her as a mother? Not that she ever wanted kids. I was under the impression that she had a romantic relationship with Alan Greenspan, but I didn't find anything authoritative confirming that. Her relationship with Nathanial Branden was unusual enough. Interestingly, he became a psychologist and authored several books on self-esteem. I would have to agree that Ayn Rand was a strong philosopher, but a poor psychologist!

I appreciate the conversation, Sean. I could never say to my peers, "So, do you think that Ayn Rand controlled the Federal Reserve from Alan Greenspan's bed?" They'd look at me funny, steal my lunch money, and then stuff me into a locker.
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Jul 19, 2009   #8
I thought that might be the case, but I know so little about your personal life.

Its true, these forums tend to be conducted mostly anonymously. We might know names (though these could easily be fake) and a couple of personal details might leak out here and there, but by and large, these forums constitute an interesting virtual world, one in which only ideas really matter.

"Sean," in my mind, is a young name

I have noticed before that I tend to associate names with the characteristics of people I have known who have those names. So, for instance, I expect any Paul I meet to be open and easy-going, because that is how most of the Pauls I have met have been in the past. Of course, this is ridiculous, as is assuming that Seans will tend to be young, but I suspect a tendency to perform inductive reasoning is an innate part of human nature.

I have not fully fleshed out my personal political philosophy, but I am working on it.

And probably will do, for the rest of your life. I don't think anyone ever really finishes fleshing out their political philosophy, or any other type of personal philosophy either, for that matter. We are constantly having new experiences that give us reasons to modify our beliefs. I've always liked John Locke's notion that "Every step the mind takes in its progress towards Knowledge makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least."

I've spent the morning reading more about Ayn Rand's personal life

Have you read about the history of her books? They still aren't studied seriously in most of academia, either as philosophical or as literary texts, and they rarely garnered positive reviews from formal critics, with one or two notable exceptions. Yet, her works became very popular, mostly through word of mouth, and continue to be bestsellers, with Atlas Shrugged alone selling anywhere between 150,000-200,000 copies annually. Not bad for a book that was written over 50 years ago. I suspect that puts it ahead of most of the "classics" from that time period, especially if you don't count the sales of those books that arise entirely from students buying them because they have to study them. Her works in that sense form their own proof of the philosophy they discuss.

I could never say to my peers, "So, do you think that Ayn Rand controlled the Federal Reserve from Alan Greenspan's bed?" They'd look at me funny, steal my lunch money, and then stuff me into a locker.

Then you need to find better peers. Simply moving from high school to university will help immensely in that respect, as you immediately have the below 70 crowd weeded out for you. Unfortunately, intelligent doesn't always translate into intellectual, so you'll still have to seek out like-minded people, but at least you'll be working with a more promising group of people. Also, university, being voluntary, is a much better social environment than school, which, being compulsory, has much of the prison about it.

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