Friday, January 7, 2011

My first exposure to the philosophy of Objectivism, or "Nobody puts Ayn Rand in a corner!"

My roommate recently let me borrow a copy of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand. A name I had heard revered by conservative talk show hosts for her philosophy of self-reliance and individualism, and equally derided by liberals as a mediocre novelist with delusions of being a philosopher. I have been rather interested in reading her works to see what the hullabaloo is all about. And now that I have been exposed, I have many thoughts I wish to share, the foremost of them being:

Whoever wrote the movie Dirty Dancing never actually read The Fountainhead.

Thanks to the wonder of cable TV, Dirty Dancing became a guilty pleasure of mine in the late 80s. After all, the success of the movie has always been attributed to multiple viewings by pubescent females, something I could never be accused of being. There is a scene in the movie when Baby goes to Robbie Gould to persuade him to help Penny, the dancer he got pregnant, get an abortion. Robbie refuses, saying, "Some people count, some don't.", and proceeds to persuade Baby to his way of thinking by trying to loan his old, dog-eared copy of The Fountainhead.

Now, the book takes place in the world of architecture, and centers around four characters. This book is the first expression of Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. In a nutshell, Objectivism puts forth the idea that acts of creativity and industry are individual efforts, and that the only people whose motives are strictly based on self are truly ethical. This is opposed to Collectivism, where the acts of people should be entirely selfless and altruistic. It is essentially Free Market Capitalism vs. Communism, at least in their ideal expressions. This philosophy often gets shortened by Rand's detractors to, "No one should help anyone else". This could not be further from the truth, yet it is obviously what Eleanor Bergstein had in mind when she had Robbie pull that particular book out of his back pocket.

The protagonist of the book is a young architect named Howard Roark. He has a vision and philosophy regarding how buildings should be made, and is uncompromising in his beliefs, to the point of putting his livelihood in jeopardy on several occasions. His modernistic designs run counter to the architectural artistry practiced at the time (the novel takes place in the 20s and 30s). While Roark's motives are portrayed as "selfish", it is not selfish in the sense that he thinks of his desires in exclusion of any benefit to others. Rather, his character is indifferent to whatever benefits his actions may have. He builds his buildings his way because that's what he wants to do. At no point in the novel does he ever use anybody, and only once does he ever ask anyone for help.

Contrast this with the Robbie Gould character in Dirty Dancing. All he ever does throughout the entire movie is use people. He uses them for sex, for money, and for social advancement. He is the antithesis of Rand's "ideal man". If anything, Robbie is more reminiscent of Peter Keating, a rival of Roark's who uses manipulation to achieve his goals.

I don't completely agree with Rand's philosophy. While I agree that creativity is mostly an individual expression, I think that a person can have motives that satsify both self AND society; it's not a dichotomy of one vs. the other. But, considering Rand had first hand knowledge of how fun it was to live in a Communist society, I think I can forgive her this.

But to those who mischaracterize her without reading her in the first place, I cannot.


  1. Did you ever think that when they were making the movie, the Director needed a book for that particular scene, and maybe not having had a exact book in mind, asked the cast and crew if they had book on hand that fit the description needed for the scene. Then, promptly scanned the book and pulled a line from the book, thus getting the exact quote to fit the scene?
    Naw, I'm probably wrong, but I can imagine it.
    Nice blog, keep going Dave.

  2. Karen, while I don't know exactly how that book was chosen, I'm fairly well certain that particular novel was intentionally chosen by the writer.

    I'm glad you like the blog! You should get back to doing yours.


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