The Fountainhead

Some thoughts after reading Ayn Rand’s modern classic. [no spoilers]

I’ve just finish reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The book was excellent and has made me think deeply about issues surrounding politics, philosophy and creativity.

In the book, Rand outlines her philosophy of objectivism — in which individuals work in pursuit of rational self-interest — and can be seen as a reaction against both communism and forms of centralised political control. The enemies are alturism and collectivism — the virtue of doing things for other people and creating only as a larger social unit.

I first heard about Rand’s philosophies after watching All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a documentary by Adam Curtis, which was shown on BBC2 in 2011, and The Fountainhead has been on my reading list ever since.

I wasn’t expecting to agree with Rand’s point of view, but was keen to find out what elements of the story were so inspiring to many. I found that I agreed in some regards: that collectivism was stifling to creativity and that the celebration of the past successes is counter-productive to disruptive innovation. However, I did not agree that personal endeavours should never seek to help others and I do believe that there are times when one should look to past solutions to borrow from and build upon, rather than constantly seeking to re-invent the wheel.

Using the example of typography, I see collectivism as the adoption of Helvetica, objectism as the creation of a bespoke typeface. By using Helvetica, one is borrowing from a past successful creation; using something that is known to work well in a wide variety of situations; unlikely to offend. Creating something new relies on understanding the unique application and a degree of creativity in the individual. But it comes with a risk and requires time and money, which would not always be well spent in the majority of applications.

The following passage interested me:

“[…] Look at our so-called cultural endeavours. A lecturer who spouts some borrowed re-hash of nothing at all that means nothing at all to him—and the people who listen and don’t give a damn, but sit there in order to tell their friends, that they have attended a lecture by a famous name […]”
“[…] aren’t you making out a case against selfishness? Aren’t they all taking on a selfish motive—to be noticed, liked, admired?”
“—by others. At the price of their own self-respect […] they place others above self, in the exact manner which alturism demands. A truly selfish man cannot be affected by the approval of others. He doesn’t need it.”

Rand argues that our desire to be admired is not driven by selfish desires, but by our succumbing to the idea that we need to contribute to others’ lives. She also argues that the idea of alturism is used by those in power to control the proletariat by encouraging them to give up their free will in the hope of contributing to a humanitarian cause.

The documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace refers to Carmen Hermosillo, who wrote an essay: Pandora’s Vox On Community in Cyberspace. In which, she suggests that the Internet, rather than providing a tool for democratisation, commoditises the user’s output, transferring power and information to controlling companies.

Both of the above make me think that when we use Facebook, Instagram and the like, we are not creating content for ourselves, but seeking the approval of others, and in doing so providing a commodity to these corporations to be sold back to us in the form of entertainment. Rand would have us seek to create something truly original, and to sell it ourselves as entrepreneurs. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree that everyone needs to become an entrepreneur, it is worth considering the increasing time we seem to spend recording and projecting our lives, and whether we, as individuals, benefit from it.