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A Philosopher Reads Fiction

A Philosopher Reads Fiction

January 25, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Fountainhead: An American Novel, by Douglas J. Den Uyl. (New York: Twayne, Twayne's Masterwork Studies, No. 169, 1999, 123 pp.)

May, 2000 -- Douglas Den Uyl's new "reader's companion" to The Fountainhead is a curiosity, for it is a work of literary criticism focused on arguments, evidence, and coherence rather than imagery, plot, or use of language. It is a philosopher's study of a novel of ideas. The thesis of The Fountainhead: An American Novel (hereafter FAAN) is that Rand's breakthrough novel is "the quintessential presentation of American individualism, American optimism, and the promise that is America." (14) Let there be no doubt: the author of FAAN is a fan, of Rand, of individuals, and of America.

FAAN is a contribution to "Twayne's Masterwork Studies," a series of volumes directed at high-school and college students, featuring a "critical reading of a single classic text." Following the rubric of the series, Den Uyl has composed FAAN in two parts: the first is a discussion of the "literary and historical context" of The Fountainhead (3-28) and the second is "a reading" (29-108), that is, an interpretation and analysis of the novel.


Den Uyl opens by taking his reader back to the period from Rand's birth to 1945, prudently reminding his high-school and college audience that in this epoch "the most significant political and social events of the twentieth century took place." This allows the reader to understand Rand's opposition to collectivism and her idealistic attachment to capitalism and American individualism. Den Uyl then skims through Rand's early life, drawing an analogy between her life in the '30s and '40s and Roark's fictional struggle, and emphasizing her importance to the revival of classical liberalism later in the century (11).

Philosophers tend to be interested in problems and puzzles, and Den Uyl turns over several. To an artist who "believed that her novels transcended history" (11), how important can the historical context be? Den Uyl concludes, unremarkably, that all art is informed by its context, if only subconsciously. He has greater success with the "central" issue of how to assess The Fountainhead independently from Atlas Shrugged. He points out that although Atlas "is the more necessary of the two in understanding Rand's overall thought," it "bears a utopian quality that looks at [a ruined] America from the outside." In contrast, The Fountainhead "calls America to its own inherent principles" and is an ode to America's potential. Den Uyl astutely offers some citations to introduce his readers to the tradition to which Rand was appealing. He emphasizes, however, that "Rand's individualism goes beyond any previous defense" (14-15).

The section on literary and historical context concludes with a chapter (17-25) on the critical reception Rand's work has received. Den Uyl's tone throughout the book is genial and articulate, and he uses it to great effect here in chiding scholars for not taking Rand seriously: "Most independent critics have not made the effort to look at Rand's work with some real understanding of her philosophy." (20) Unfortunately, this is a perspective it is natural to demand of philosophers, but not of literary critics. Den Uyl's inattention to the terms, methods, and questions of literary criticism weakens the potential impact of these comments.

His goal of isolating The Foutainhead from Atlas is somewhat undermined in this chapter, as he finds it most fruitful -or perhaps congenial- to discuss writings that assess Rand's work overall, especially Atlas and her non-fiction philosophic thought. He includes a short discussion of Rand's conception of egoism, correctly emphasizing its non-sacrificial character and the fact that "for her individualism is a life-centered idea" (25). Having examined the literary and historical context, Den Uyl states the purpose of the remainder of the book: to examine "how Rand's philosophy figures into her art" (25). He concludes by affirming that "Ayn Rand deserves to be ranked among the top 10 women of the twentieth century. It is quite possible that The Fountainhead should be counted among this century's greatest novels." (25)


The bulk of Den Uyl's study is an interpretive reading. (29-108) He raises two general points that serve as foci for his discussion. First, "The Fountainhead is a novel about ideas," not architecture. (29) He points out that Rand chose the architectural profession as her setting because of its power as a vehicle for treating ideas. "Architecture simultaneously incorporates the creative, innovative, and knowledge-based aspects of human life" and is "very public," making the characters' ideas and actions stand out. (30) "Character drives the action, not the reverse" (32) and ideas drive the characters-and not just any ideas, but ideas Den Uyl clearly finds important, even exciting. He reports that Rand's individualism is not simply tough-guy "independence and fortitude" but is about "excellence and integrity." "Personal integrity is . . . the basis for explaining both independence and excellence," because in the novel both the pursuit of excellence and real independence -as opposed to mere nonconformity-come from living up to one's own standards. (33) Implicitly, Den Uyl is telling his readers that there is a wealth of subtlety in Rand for those who know where to look.

Rand's subtlety is implied again in his second general point, which is that Rand's "Romantic" aesthetics flows from her "socratic" philosophy. Taking a detour into classical philosophy, Den Uyl characterizes "socratic" philosophy (the tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) as "a discipline that reveals principles for human living." It is practical and normative, unlike the "intellectual game" in which most philosophers engage. (36). Socratic philosophers prize excellence, objectivity, and hold to a kind of benevolent universe premise, since perfection is conductive to human well-being. Contrasts (such as we see in Rand) between extremes of good and evil, and of excellence and mediocrity, are essential to expressing such an outlook.

In a brief, clear summary of Rand's basic aesthetics, Den Uyl distinguishes her "Romanticism" from the historical movement of "Romanticism." "It is [Randian] romanticism's inherent identification with potential and moral choice that links it so centrally to the socratic philosophy." (42) Rand's fiction is "radically normative -for better or worse." (44) This is because for Rand the essential function of art is allow us to contemplate philosophic abstractions in the concrete, and no philosophic abstraction is more vitally important or worthy of portrayal than a moral ideal. So, Den Uyl argues, Rand's premises require the portrayal of nobility versus baseness and the possibility of perfection in life. Thus, to criticize Rand's novel as propaganda or to attack the "realism" of its characters may be beside the point. At any rate, those critiques require at least an argument that appreciates Rand's orientation.

As a thesis about her thought and her art, Den Uyl's identification of Rand with the classical Socratics is suggestive and shows a solid grasp of Objectivism. However, it calls out for further development outside of this introductory volume. In the context of FAAN, it suggests reading The Fountainhead as a latter-day Plato's Republic and implies that Den Uyl may be insensitive to the division between an elegant philosophical narrative and a skillful novel. One might say that the difference between philosophic writing and fiction lies in their respective views of the characters: as elements of an argument for the philosopher, or, for the artist, as integral and important in themselves. Den Uyl holds that The Fountainhead partakes of and integrates both views, that it is both philosophy and art. Yet he seems indifferent to or incapable of convincingly addressing Rand's success or failure as an artist. This is a crucial shortcoming in a study that praises a work of art in the face of critical contempt.


Den Uyl's relative indifference to aesthetic concerns is evident as his reading continues. In Chapter 5 (46-61) he examines the function of "characters as ideas" in The Fountainhead, focusing on the four male characters whose names head the sections: Peter Keating, Ellsworth Toohey, Gail Wynand, and Howard Roark. (46) His interest is in the logic of the characters' actions and in their philosophical significance. This is necessarily an incomplete reading. Nevertheless, it should prove very helpful to those seeking an introduction to such an idiosyncratic novel. Den Uyl explains, for example, that Toohey must follow Keating in the book's order, because he is "of a vastly more complex and superior order" of vice than Keating. (47) So Keating is presented as a kind of everyman, "[whose] corruption is our possible corruption." (48) His "cutting corners" compromises his integrity and makes a mediocrity out of man who, if we examine his description in the novel, is in fact talented by nature.

The section on Toohey becomes a venue for discussing Rand's view of altruism. One aesthetic point creeps in disguised as philosophy: the "problem of evil" in Rand. Den Uyl notes that, according to Objectivism, evil is powerless in itself. Yet Toohey comes across to him as Rand's most striking character, with an almost inhuman integrity of evil and posing an omnipresent threat to the good (symbolized by the fact that for Toohey the novel's events constitute a setback, not a final defeat) [57]. Den Uyl sees this as a philosophic problem, when in fact it implies aesthetic praise. He seems unaware that for Rand the enormity of Toohey's threat has a simple philosophical explanation: evil will be powerful as long as others offer their effort and rationality in its cause. There is no suggestion in The Fountainhead that Roark's victory has fundamentally changed the culture at large or eliminated any source of power to Toohey besides the New York Banner.

Den Uyl draws a nice contrast in discussing Wynand: While "people's vices support Toohey," "Wynand supports people's vices," by pandering to cultural altruism as a means to achieving his own values (58). His destruction represents "the effect on oneself of power." But his discussion of Wynand is incomplete, even banal, concluding: "we must see Wynand as a complicated figure with some good in him" (59).

Roark, by contrast, is "the embodiment of the correct theory of human progress," the theory that "ideas are what move the world, and, while they can be shared, they originate [sic] and are advanced by individuals" (61). In an assessment that demands further explanation, Den Uyl writes "there is little else to [Roark] but the particularization of certain general theories or values. But Roark is not thereby uninteresting to the reader" (60). The initial premise is untrue, since Roark's characteristics to a large extent reflect Ayn Rand's personal preferences (for an arrogant manner, slender men, casual grace, Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, and so on), and not simply the general principles she wished to concretize.


Chapter 6 (63-73) is devoted to the fifth important character, Dominique Francon. Here Den Uyl advances his most controversial hypothesis: she is "really the central character of this novel" (63). The basis for this claim is that "Dominique is the only major character who learns anything and grows because of it! In this respect . . . she is much like the reader" (66). She "pervades" the four sections of the novel (63), discovering the four main male characters on the reader's behalf. This is a claim, made also by Ronald Merrill in his The Ideas of Ayn Rand, that would require a developed literary analysis for its proof. We would need to examine, scene-by-scene, the way in which Dominique provides the locus of the novel. But Den Uyl does not go into such detail. Speaking in a general way, he argues that Dominique's progress through the novel is a quest for the truth. The reader is "made whole in the end . . . we feel that wholeness through Dominique," as she learns not to despair of the world as it is.

One criticism of this view is that Dominique lacks the heft of a central character. Den Uyl seems to recognize this, writing that "the problem is . . . that when compared . . . to Dagny Taggart of Atlas Shrugged, she is little else . . . than Roark's lover and destroyer" (72). In other words, Dominique does nothing other than socialize, marry, and divorce. The meaning of Den Uyl's remark is cryptic, however, since it either implies that fullness of characterization is unimportant, or that The Fountainhead is a deeply flawed novel.

In fact, it is hard to see Dominique Francon as the intuitive center for the novel and the plot as a quest, like Dagny Taggart's, for fundamental answers. Dominique enters the novel quite late. When she does appear, we see her from the outside, through the eyes of Peter Keating. Even when we do learn how she thinks, in the passages leading up the "rape" scene, we are not offered positive values we can automatically identify with, but see in her perverse contradictions, alienation, and confusion. This is all quite different from how we learn about Dagny Taggart. Furthermore, we are introduced to Howard Roark, and to the nature of this thought, at the very beginning of the novel. And it is clearly his quest, and his choices, that form the backbone of the plot and carry us forward. What is true in Den Uyl's analysis is that Dominique Francon interacts extensively with all the main and many of the minor characters, and her response to them corresponds to Rand's own. Howard Roark is too indifferent to society to notice its many dimensions of virtue and vice; in the universality of her experience and the intensity of her reactions to people and events, Dominique provides the reader with a connection to Rand's view of society and of the characters.

In the chapter that follows (74-87), Den Uyl wonders to what extent Rand is a writer who engenders sympathy in her readers. He notes that although Rand does not pander to traditional values, her status as a bestselling author is prima facie evidence of something attractive. In his discussion, he notes values in the novel that are likely to appeal to the public automatically-for example, the struggle of the underdog; admiration for competence, integrity, and idealism; a passion for justice. He discusses Rand's technique of inverting the value significance or supposed meaning of common terms, including sympathy itself, which, exemplified by Toohey's "kindness," becomes a symptom of profound evil. In two areas he finds Rand to be idiosyncratic and less successful: casting humor as contempt and sex as violence. He concludes by noting that, rather than allowing us the "connective" sympathy of the familiar, Rand's characters engender an "aspirational" sympathy: They call us to emulate them (82).

This raises an interesting conundrum for Rand's theory of art. Den Uyl points out that, on Rand's theory, the reader responds to a novel at the level of his sense of life. But if the work, like Rand's, expresses new and unconventional philosophic ideas, Den Uyl argues that few would possess the sense of life required to appreciate it. Den Uyl earlier proposes that "Rand supposes the reader shares her basic values." (70) Here, strangely, he does not discuss this, but rather infers that Rand's reader is very unlikely to partake of the author's viewpoint. Den Uyl proposes that the key in such cases is to offer characters who develop, moving from the reader's context to the author's, drawing the reader along. Without such development, "[the] heroes stand high above us on a platform-with the ladder pulled up." (86) In effect, he holds that Rand is challenging the reader to make the connection, offering not perceptual guides but abstract arguments-the speeches in the novels-to help her readers bridge the gap.

Den Uyl assumes that Rand's moral ideal is likely to be so alien to her readers that they cannot identify with the plot or characters on the level of sense of life. Yet this is just what most readers who enjoy Rand do, and many find themselves connecting intuitively with the story long before they grasp her philosophy -if indeed they ever do. Den Uyl might have noted that the sympathetic elements in the novel may provide the handles that readers grasp hold of until they become more familiar with her context. Though Den Uyl's hypothesis is provocative, it is insufficiently integrated with the points he has developed earlier.

The penultimate chapter (88-103) returns to the theme of individualism, about which Den Uyl appears to care deeply. He analyzes Rand's view of negative emotions and their effects: to be "innocent of fear," as Roark is, is to not yield one's independence. Fear and hatred are destructive because they "undermine self-sufficiency and active living" (90). Den Uyl affirms that "the principle here is the internal triadic connection between activity, life, and independence. It is opposed to . . . passivity, death, and subservience" (91). He analyzes the nature of Rand's "optimism" about the individualist's potential for success in life (93), noting that the creative, independent individual of integrity is both necessary to others and sufficient unto himself.

In the conclusion (104-108), Den Uyl proposes that The Fountainhead is "the great American novel," because it goes to the essence of what America is and should be. He finds that Rand is not "reimagining America"-in Stephen Cox's phrase-but reaffirming it. After all, "America was built on the principle of individualism" (105), and Roark, in his speech, does not propose the rejection of America to the jurors. Instead, "the speech is successful because it asks the jurors to rediscover their own Americanness" (106). His study closes, like the novel itself, with the image of Roark standing above everything else. This is a symbol of the "unlimited spaces" open to independent creators in America. It is an appeal to aspiration, not tradition.

FAAN is largely successful in its primary task, which is to serve as competent guide to the novel. Certainly, no one could read it and come away confused about the theme, the significance of the primary characters, or with the impression that Rand endorses rape. It is informed by a genuine appreciation of The Fountainhead and by a firm grasp of Rand's philosophic thought. In this respect, it will provide a sound introduction to individualism and many of the basics of Objectivism. It also includes a bibliography that can help its readers learn more about Rand and her philosophy. But Den Uyl's emphasis on philosophy gives FAAN a peculiar cast among literary studies, since on many crucial issues of aesthetic evaluation, Den Uyl has little to say. For fans of Rand's ideas, this should prove an enjoyable, light book, one that suggests more than it can deliver, yet provides a satisfactory meditation nevertheless.

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