Sunday, December 5, 2010

How Ayn Rand Earned The Fountainhead's Happy Ending

A personal favorite paragraph of mine in The Fountainhead did not start out that way. The first few times I read The Fountainhead, I read this paragraph without giving it any particular notice or attention. But after having studied Objectivism for a long time, and thereby coming to know its author almost like a personal friend, one aspect of this paragraph was puzzling, and piqued my interest.

Twelve men sat in the jury box. They listened, their faces attentive and emotionless. People had whispered that it was a tough-looking jury. There were two executives of industrial concerns, two engineers, a mathematician, a truck driver, a bricklayer, an electrician, a gardener, and three factory workers. The impaneling of the jury had taken some time. Roark had challenged many talesmen. He had picked these twelve. The prosecutor had agreed, telling himself that this was what happened when an amateur undertook to handle his own defense; a lawyer would have chosen thegentlest types, those most likely to respond to an appeal for mercy; Roark had chosen the hardest faces.
The aspect that first stood out to me was the prosecutor’s statement “this is what happened when an amateur undertook to handle his own defense”. I wondered why Ayn Rand would be against the advice to have an attorney when going to trial? The prosecutor is basically a negative character -- he is against Roark and for altruism; and he is a loser, in the sense that he lost the trial. When a negative character states a bromide, the reader's natural inference is that the author is intending to make a crack against it. But why would Ayn Rand make a crack against perfectly good advice?

More broadly, why would the author of The Fountainhead be concerned enough with such an issue to mention it at all? The advice to have an attorney when going to trial is certainly valid, but it is advice on the order of the importance of getting a good nights sleep, or spending money wisely, or changing the oil in one’s automobile at proper mileage intervals. Ayn Rand is far too profound and economical an author to clutter her novel with concern for such a commonplace issue, unless it is not actually clutter, unless there is some wider purpose.

But what is that purpose? Why does Ayn Rand bother herself to deal with such a standard, bromidic issue as the advice to have an attorney when faced with a court trial? On the face of it, this doesn't make sense.

We can find the answer if consider what it is that the prosecutor is intended to be: the embodiment and symbol of conventional altruism.

In his address to the jury, his voice "practiced and confident", the prosecutor said that Roark was "... a ruthless, arrogant egotist who wished to have his own way at any price....his [selfish] motive blasted all humanity out of his soul....had it been a plutocrat's mansion, but a housing project, gentleman of the jury, a housing project!....We are dealing with the most vicious explosive on earth -- the egotist!"

The faces filling the courtroom heard these words as the bromides that they are: "they listened with the response they granted to a good weekday dinner: satisfying and to be forgotten within an hour. They agreed with every sentence; they had heard it before, they had always heard it, this was what the world lived by; it was self-evident -- like a puddle before one's feet."

The attorney represents not altruism as a calculated evil, ala Toohey, but the everyday, mainstream altruism of a milquetoast clergy or the man on the street. What Ayn Rand needed in the character of the attorney was altruism-as-the-establishment, altruism-as-accepted-wisdom, altruism-as-common-sense; so it makes sense for the attorney to be the type of man who thinks in terms of common sense bromides. When Ayn Rand has the attorney tell himself "that this was what happened when an amateur undertook to handle his own defense", she is not cluttering her novel with a pointless crack, she is establishing a character.

But what purpose does this character serve? Why have a character who personifies two thousand years of mainstream altruism? Answer: so that the mainstream altruist view of life can be contrasted with Roark's view of life in a single concrete event: the selection of the jury.

People had whispered that it was a tough looking jury...Roark chose the hardest faces...the lawyer had agreed...[he thought any competent defense attorney would have] chosen the gentlest types, those most likely to respond to an appeal for mercy.
Although Roark and the prosecutor represent diametrically opposite views of the world, they both agree on the selection of the jury. In Roark's view of the world, the dynamiting of Courtland Homes was an act of justice. Therefore, in order to get a verdict of not guilty, Roark wants a stern, unsympathetic jury. In the prosecutor’s view of the world, the dynamiting of Cortland Homes was an act of self-evident evil which could only be defended by an appeal for mercy. Therefore, in order to get a verdict of guilty, the attorney is very happy to let Roark choose a stern, unsympathetic jury.

Keep in mind that jury selection is a matter of the prosecutor’s and the defendant’s private prerogative. Their choice of which talesmen to accept or reject is a simple one: they do not have to publicly discuss or defend their reasons. Their selection choices have the "honesty of the voting booth": all public statements and justifications are left behind, and all that remains is the question: what do I really believe? The prosecutor accepted an unsympathetic jury because he wholeheartedly believed in altruism in the privacy of his own mind; if he had doubted the altruistic world view, he would have fought Roark's choice of jury.

By grace of the author's economical characterization, the reader experiences the prosecuting attorney as a concrete condensation of the altruist view of life. By grace of the entire novel, the reader experiences Howard Roark as a condensation of the Aristotelian-Objectivist view of life. The contest between the two men is a contest between two world views. Roark chose the hardest faces; the prosecuting attorney agrees. The question of the jury selection comes down to: which view of the world is correct, conventional altruism or Roark’s?

When the jury foreman returns with the results, the prosecuting attorney is stunned, but it strikes the reader as the most natural, logical thing in the world. Roark wins because his view of life is true; the reader experiences the altruist world view, Roark's world view, and the knowledge of which is true in a single phrase: "Not guilty."

That is great writing. It's wonderful that Ayn Rand found a way to work this gem of dramatization into the novel.

Except that she didn't work it in. This scene is not an optional part of The Fountainhead included for its own sake, but a necessary part of the novel's theme and plot structure. To see this point, we need to step back and look at the the novel as a whole.

Roark represents the this-worldly, rational, man-worshiping, Greek view of life. Yet the society he lives in is dominated by the anti-worldly, anti-rational, self-sacrificial, Christian view of life.

Roark is in moral-philosophical conflict with his society. If society defeats him, the novel becomes a Byronic tragedy, and therefore fails to execute Ayn Rand's theme: she does not view man as a noble but doomed hero. But if Roark's victory at trial is not part of a progression of logically connected events, if Roark wins his trial due to some non-essential detail, such as a legal technicality, an incompetent prosecutor, or some other stroke of luck, the novel becomes merely a nice story with a happy ending. It ceases to be great literature for the lack of a plot. Roark must win the trial because of who he is and what the world is.

But how?

Roark committed the crime openly; he allowed himself to be found at the scene of the crime by the police; he never denies dynamiting the building. Roark is not an attorney, amateur, professional, or anything in between. Without introducing some element of chance, how could Roark possibly win that trial? On the face of it, there is no solution. This issue would be an incredibly hard problem for any writer to solve. For any lesser writer, the question of how Roark wins the trial would be an issue to minimize, a rough spot, a strained seam, a point in the story to be glossed over quickly.

But not for Ayn Rand. Her solution is devastatingly logical. At the very stress point of the novel’s entire plot structure, the reader never experiences the slightest hint of strain; all the reader experiences is an elegant, natural, sparkling dramatization of the novels theme, a piece of writing so beautiful that one could easily think that it was an optional element of the story included for the sake of its own beauty, even though it wasn’t.

A novel by Ayn Rand is like a building by Howard Roark: the load bearing element is its own ornament.

If that is not literary genius of the highest order, what would be?

1 comment:

  1. I had never thought of this aspect of the plot before. Thanks for articulating it!