Howard Roark was Ayn Rand’s first representation of the ideal man. She defined his uncompromising, irrepressible, larger-than-life spirit with such striking clarity that he became the final answer for the word ‘heroic.’ Actually, few characters in literature have had such great power to inspire. And a major part of the reason for this is that his creator was no escapist. She did not place him in a world of fantasy or ancient history. She placed him right in the center of the word that she lived in, as she saw it – a world capitulating because people were enslaved to the opinions of others and the weight of tradition, and lived in chronic terror of independent thoughts and values. In this orgy of second-handedness, he is shown as a fountain of creativity, a man who accepts no authority higher than the judgment of his own mind. He is not concerned with opinions about his life and his work, just because others have them. The evidence of reality is his only standard of truth, and his self-esteem is inviolate. He lives for the sole purpose of his own pleasure, and dedicating his life to his productive purpose – architecture – is his way of attaining pleasure. He is the man who will never compromise, because he holds no value higher than the sacred fire that is his own independent spirit. His life, as Ayn Rand shows us all along the course of the book, is a fountain of joy.
When I confronted Howard Roark’s heroism for the first time, I was struck. It offered me a fresh perspective on what my life could and should be, and it infused me with courage and self-confidence. Reading his story is fuel for the spirit, fuel that is potent enough to spur the power within you to defy whatever obstacles, burdens or pressures that are sucking the fire out of your life, and give your own ideas a chance, no matter what it takes. Whether it means standing up against peer pressure in your teen years, countering your family to marry the person you love or daring to give up the comforts of a plush job to give that career you had always dreamt of a chance, it makes you think about the important decisions hovering over you, and it makes you take stands. Furthermore, if you believe, like I do, that the effect of reading The Fountainhead is not something that should wear off over the course of time, that in creating Howard Roark, the ideal that Ayn Rand concretized is too precious to ever let go, you will need to ask yourself an important question. And that question is:
‘In the context of my own life, actions and relationships, what does it take to attain the spiritual grandeur that Roark represents?’
The answer is there, all through The Fountainhead. It is implicit in the course of Roark’s life. However, to achieve the kind of spirit that Roark has, you need to identify and understand it explicitly. Unfortunately though, that is not something that is done very well by a lot of people who read The Fountainhead and treasure Roark. I myself took a long time understanding the exact implications of this question and answering it.
Some people believe that to be like Howard Roark, one must work towards being a productive genius. Yes, one must work towards being a productive genius or the best that one can possibly be, and that is a part of the answer, but that is not the right scale to measure one’s spiritual stature either. The fact that Roark is a productive genius is a manifestation of his spirit, not its essential quality. There are others in The Fountainhead like Austen Heller, Roger Enright, Mike, Steven Mallory and Dominique who don’t necessarily have a central purpose as powerful or compelling or original as Roark’s love for architecture, yet they are his spiritual allies.
People who have more experience with Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophical system, sometimes offer a different answer. They know that the value central to a properly lived human life is reason. It is, in fact, no less than man’s means of survival. This means that applying a process of reason, in short, thinking rationally, is the only way one can gain the knowledge one needs in order to deal with whatever issues or problems that confront one’s life. In other words, it is the only method to live successfully. Every hero that Ayn Rand created is a rational human being, who lives such a life earnestly and consistently. Since reason is their means of knowledge, it is reality that is their only standard of knowledge and judgment. They don’t surrender themselves to the beliefs that others happen to profess. It is by means of his independent mind that Roark deciphers the principles of architecture, approaches its problems, learns its nuances from Cameron and deals with any other intellectual concern facing him. The answer, then, that some serious students of objectivism offer is, ‘in order to be Howard Roark, all one has to do is think.’ However, just like the explanation that being like Howard Roark simply involves taking courageous stands, this too is a limited explanation.
The limitations of this answer lie in the fact that one simply does not spend all of one’s waking hours thinking. In fact, it would be absurd to suggest that Roark’s heroism is limited only to those moments in which he is thinking or problem-solving. He is heroic every moment of his life – even in his feelings and reactions towards people, in his emotions, in the moments when he is relaxing, in the moments when he is having fun with his friends, in the kind of language he uses and the things he chooses to talk about. In fact, the very first scene in the book leaves you with an impression of his heroism, by presenting a man of resolute will and fearless spirit. Yet, it says nothing about his thinking mind (even though it conveys his vision of ‘building’). Then there are his days in the granite quarry, when his vision and the immense potential of his mind are brought down to the end of a drill cutting into rock. His life is reduced to sensations, and that too mostly pain. Yet, there is a sensual quality about his days of hard labor. He is still heroic.
Even though these are not moments governed by rational thinking, they are profoundly revealing, as far as his character is concerned. They allow the reader to evaluate his heroism, by bringing forth two distinct and crucial aspects of his personality: his sense-of-life and his psychology.
Observe that moment at the very beginning of the book, when Roark is walking back from his swim in frayed, casually worn clothes, and Ayn Rand writes that he could walk naked down the street without a concern in the world. He has no awareness of who is looking at him and what they may be thinking about him. The people he bypasses are not a part of his world; his concerns are devoted to his own life and what he’s going to do next. He is a man conscious of his own self, his goals and the earth; and the sense you get of his being alive is unmistakably powerful. There is also the moment when Peter Keating, after being honored at Stanton with the top award, comes to Roark, who is sitting alone in the darkness. It’s a moment of contrast: Keating’s been honored, and Roark’s been expelled, on the same day. However the contrast doesn’t bother Roark in the least bit. He is neither embarrassed, nor defiant nor uncomfortable. The concept of considering his own life in comparison to someone else’s just does not exist for him. These two examples (and several others in the book) speak eloquently about his psychology, just as what he does with the Stoddard Temple, speaks eloquently about his sense of life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider a feeling that is diametrically opposite to what Roark might have ever experienced: envy. Ayn Rand identified ‘envy’ as one of the predominant feelings of the cultural atmosphere of her times. Now, envy is not a feeling that generally follows someone’s conscious evaluation either. It is felt spontaneously. You see someone succeeding at an action that you failed, and you suddenly feel envious. It takes form before you have the time to think and evaluate the scenario. However, there is a philosophical premise that lies at the base of this feeling, and that is, in Ayn Rand’s words, ‘hatred of the good for being the good.’ A corollary to the feeling of envy is the relief someone may feel at the failure of others. For example, in a classroom the teacher calls your name and says that you have failed an exam. You feel deeply embarrassed and disappointed. But then you discover that the six people after you have also failed. Suddenly you are more relaxed and relieved. And then you find out that a very bright student has failed too. And now you are perfectly delighted. This is the way in which those who feel envy, also know what it means to seek confidence from the failure of others. The two feelings are based on a similar conviction. The fact implied is that one is not predominantly concerned about one’s actual capabilities to achieve something and where one has failed and why; rather, it is more important to know where others stand. That becomes the predominant source of confidence or disappointment. When one replaces a concern for one’s actual performance, with a concern for a comparison with others, that is second-handedness. That is Peter Keating.
It is not impossible to imagine a person who thinks rationally when thinking is demanded, who admires Ayn Rand and Howard Roark, but who has had moments when he or she has subscribed to the kind of envy described above.
This example demonstrates that values need to be applied at a fundamental level. Their applicability is not just in what you profess and in those actions that are backed by conscious, rational thought. You need to begin by examining and questioning your deepest values, and then retaining those that are life-affirming, and disciplining yourself against those that are irrational, if there are any such.
Howard Roark’s is ‘a solitary and independent consciousness, not pressurized, threatened or corrupted in any way whatsoever by the existence of anyone else.’
A consciousness that is solitary within itself, and independent in its own awareness, sees no barrier between itself and the reality it confronts. Howard Roark’s predominant concern in life was to progress upon the path he had set for himself, towards the goal that was of greatest value to him. He could feel himself grow constantly in capability, achievement and stature. If he failed, his only concern was why and what he needed to do in order to succeed. Other people were secondary. There were certainly those who were important to him, and there were those from whom he may have learnt a great deal, but they didn’t exert a primary influence on his goal, his motivation to follow a certain path and his belief in his own competence. Those were just his own. As he grew, he continued to realize the immense potential for knowledge and eagerness and joy that is possible to an independent consciousness placed in a world of limitless possibilities.
In the context of the kind of world it is today, one could easily ask a few questions: ‘how did he justify his independence to himself?’, ‘how did he never fear this immense self-reliance?’ and ‘how did he resist surrendering his consciousness to others?’ The fact is that these questions would never have occurred to him. He was incapable of a chronic sense of incompetence, and a consequent sense of fear regarding his self-reliance. And the assertion that others could exert a power over him wouldn’t have achieved the slightest influence over him. He always knew, implicitly, if not explicitly, that he is solely responsible for his own life; that by virtue of having a human mind and consciousness, he has the competence to deal with reality; that he must utilize this competence by gaining knowledge and exercising his judgment, since it is only his own knowledge and his own judgment that can drive the course of his life; and that knowledge, in order to count as knowledge, must be validated by reality – since knowledge pertains to nothing else – and unquestioning faith in the claims of others is not knowledge but the destruction of one’s own mind. He never felt that there were any others who were infallible or irresistible, no matter what their numbers, or that they had some mysterious grip over reality that he lacked. He never felt ‘tied to his brothers’ in any way. His every action began from and validated that one fundamental principle at the base of his consciousness. Explaining the reasons for his independent perspective on architecture to his dean, he says, “can you see the campus and the town? Do you see how many men are walking and living down there? Well, I don’t give a damn what any or all of them think about architecture – or about anything else, for that matter.”
This kind of a feeling has significant psychological implications. It means that he would never feel small and insignificant, as a lot of people claim they do, when they are confronted by an experience of immense scale and proportion (his mind is incapable of a feeling of its own insignificance); he would never mock himself or apologize for his own ideas as a key to get into people’s good books, because of the profound respect he has for the sacred gift of his own life; he would never feel his self-respect desert him; he would never allow his feelings to declare war against reality, or against his own thinking mind. It also means that he would not uncritically follow patterns of behavior dictated by his society, whether it be at a party, with a client or with a woman he professes to love. Saying or doing ‘the done thing’ would mean acting on convention, in spite of his own convictions. However, Howard Roark cannot live in spite of his own convictions. His life is simply too precious to him.
Here is an example of how this kind of a psychology effects his conversation: this is an excerpt from his conversation with the dean regarding the matter of him being expelled.
“You know,” he (the Dean) said, “you would sound much more convincing if you spoke as if you cared whether I agreed with you or not.”
Roark’s reply: “That’s true, I don’t care whether you agree with me or not.”
Bear in mind that that is the dean of The Stanton School of Architecture talking to Roark. He is an important and revered man in American architecture. Roark, if he was like anyone else, would probably have said, “well, that’s not really true. I do care for what you think, I’m just trying to make you see my point…” or something to the effect. Roark does not see the reason to lie and take a soft stand. He does not care for the Dean’s position in the eyes of others. He does not see why he should waste words to express feelings he does not have. He will never betray his own ideas, which, in this case, is his actual appraisal of whether he cares for the Dean’s agreement, which he does not. He will never grovel or shift uncomfortably before another man – he is incapable of it.
Another example, in another context, would demonstrate a similar point. This excerpt is from the first party Roark ever goes to as an architect. The hostess is trying to make conversation with him.
She says: “Oh, I adore your Enright House! Of course, I can’t say that it represents my own esthetic convictions, but people of culture must keep their minds open to anything, I mean, to include any viewpoint in creative art, we must be broad minded above all, don’t you think so?”
“I don’t know,” said Roark. “I’ve never been broad minded.”
Notice how Roark does not respond to the compliment – because he does not care for it – and his answer is no more and no less than an honest one. He does not continue the conversation for her sake, neither does he diverge from his honest ideas and fill in some lines for the sake of social convention.
Howard Roark’s actions reveal the deep respect he has for himself. This respect reflects in what he finds appealing too – in other words, in his sense-of-life. The best example of that is the Stoddard Temple. Commissioned to construct a temple to the human spirit, he could not have conceived of anything less than the Stoddard temple, because he could not imagine how the object of one’s own reverence could lie beyond one’s own spirit, and an exalted state of awareness beyond one’s reach. Dominique, while testifying against Roark during the Stoddard trial, explained very coherently, why Roark’s ‘temple of the human spirit’ was the way it was:
“Howard Roark built a temple to the human spirit. He saw man as strong, proud, clean, wise and fearless. He saw man as a heroic being. And he built a temple to that. A temple is a place where man is to experience exaltation. He thought that exaltation comes from the consciousness of being guiltless, of seeing the truth and achieving it, of living up to one’s highest possibility, of knowing no shame and having no cause for shame, of being able to stand naked in full sunlight. He thought that exaltation means joy and that joy is man’s birthright.”
Howard Roark is the man of exalted spirit, every moment of the way.
For me, reading the Fountainhead was a revelation in the real sense of the word: I was not practicing what I grew to admire about that book and its hero. However, I never believed that just because I was not living my life by those ideals, I was incapable of them. I had to certainly ask myself, ‘what is it that I must do in order to attain what Roark represents?’ It was in the process of answering that question, that I discovered the fundamental principle about the consciousness of Howard Roark and the other heroes created by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged. But now that I know it, as do you, who’s reading this, what’s next?
Remembering it. Remembering it actively and consciously. There is no reason for you to surrender your confidence in your own ability or your values on anyone else’s account. You must not abuse or insult or mock the sacred gift that is your own consciousness to placate anyone, convince anyone of anything, or win their favor. You must remember that if winning someone’s approval requires you to surrender that which is sacred to you – whether it is friends or family or business partners on the other end – that relationship is not worth it. It may take resolute discipline and conscious conviction, depending on how you have lived your life, but you must realize that the battle is worth it, because it is the fate of your own life that rests on it. The people around you, at the end of it, if not too many, will be only those who don’t expect you to devalue your sacred spirit.
Looking at it another way, it is a choice that you have to make. In fact, it is simple enough when put in words: do you want to insult or injure your own independent consciousness, which is your only true gift, or will you hold it beyond reproach, question or doubt?
The irony is that there is one answer which probably no one will choose, and yet, it is the other answer which hardly anyone consistently practices. The choice, though, rests only in your own hands.
Enakshi is a masters level student at Ambedkar University studying creative writing, who has also written for other small journals and magazines, like Kashmir Walla. She has a political science background, with philosophical interests.