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The Fountainhead, part 3, chapter 8

Dominique and Gail Wynand are married, more or less happily. He keeps her in his penthouse apartment like a princess in a tower, as if she were a treasure too precious to be shared with the world. He doesn’t limit her movements or threaten her, but he tries to deprive her of any reason to go out. Everything she might need or want, he has brought to her.

For the first few months she obeys his wishes, but when she wants to rejoin public life, he assents. However, the one stance he refuses to budge on is that he won’t let the Banner cover her. While other tabloids are buzzing with gossip, he won’t let his own paper write stories about their marriage or even print a picture of her. In all other respects he accepts that he’s sold his soul, but he considers her the one thing in his life that isn’t for sale.

Nevertheless, he refuses to apologize for his work, as Dominique finds out when she complains to him about a particularly sordid story:

“I’ve never apologized for the Banner. I never will.”

“But this is really awful, Gail.”

… “What I like or dislike doesn’t concern you. Don’t expect me to change the Banner or sacrifice it. I wouldn’t do that for anyone on earth.”

That spring, he returns from a publishers’ convention, and she tells him that they’re going to a play. It’s called No Skin Off Your Nose, it’s vulgar and lowbrow and awful, and it’s the hit of the season:

He broke down by laughing frankly, in helpless disgust.

“Good God, Dominique, not that one!”

“Why, Gail, it’s the biggest hit in town. Your own critic, Jules Fougler” — he stopped laughing. He understood — “said it was the great play of our age. Ellsworth Toohey said it was the fresh voice of the coming new world. Alvah Scarret said it was not written in ink, but in the milk of human kindness… Why, it’s the godchild of the Banner. I thought you would certainly want to see it.”

Rand tells us that this play was written by “Ike the Genius”, a pretentious and awful writer and another of Ellsworth Toohey’s proteges, like Lois Cook. Toohey is using his influence to place people like this in every field of art and literature. Naturally, like everything else Toohey does, it’s part of his sinister plot to annihilate human greatness.

You might ask, what about this play that makes it so evil? Is it a Lars von Trier-esque celebration of gore, violence and depravity? Does it try to disgust the audience, to outrage their bourgeois morality, to violate theatrical conventions in intentionally offputting ways?

Nope. This play commits a worse sin: it’s about ordinary people.

Wynand and Dominique sat in the center of the fourth row, not looking at each other, listening to the play. The things being done on the stage were merely trite and crass; but the undercurrent made them frightening. There was an air about the ponderous inanities spoken, which the actors had absorbed like an infection; it was in their smirking faces, in the slyness of their voices; in their untidy gestures. It was an air of inanities uttered as revelations and insolently demanding acceptance as such; an air, not of innocent presumption, but of conscious effrontery; as if the author knew the nature of his work and boasted of his power to make it appear sublime in the minds of his audience and thus destroy the capacity for the sublime within them.

So basically, it’s The Room: banalities presented as wisdom, cringeworthy dialogue, baffling characterization, nonsensical plot twists, and an ending that doesn’t resolve anything. It’s implied that the playwright intentionally made it bad, which is a mark of extreme villainy in Ayn Rand’s universe (like in Atlas when Dagny jokes about getting bad grades on purpose and Francisco hits her so hard it almost knocks her down).

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You have to assume that, if Ellsworth Toohey were around today, he’d approve of Tommy Wiseau.

But wait. If this play is so badly written (“trite and crass… ponderous inanities”), how did it become a runaway hit? Why does everyone want to see it?

The text says that this was because of the machinations of Jules Fougler, the Banner‘s theater critic and yet another Tooheyite, who made it a hit just to prove he could: “What achievement is there for a critic in praising a good play? None whatever. The critic is then nothing but a kind of glorified messenger boy between author and public… But if a critic is able to put over a perfectly worthless play — ah, you do perceive the difference!”

You might well question whether critics in general, let alone a single critic, can make or break a play regardless of its quality. After all, we can all name a long list of critically praised bombs, as well as critically detested yet wildly popular schlock. However, uniquely for a Rand villain, Ellsworth Toohey shares in the infallible competence of her heroes. He always achieves what he set out to do, no matter how implausible the outcome or how many low-probability events have to happen for him to succeed.

While she’s sitting in the audience, Dominique has a revelation about the philosophical conflict that’s tearing the world apart:

It was a contest without time, a struggle of two abstractions, the thing that had created the building against the things that made the play possible — two forces, suddenly naked to her in their simple statement — two forces that had fought since the world began — and every religion had known of them — and there had always been a God and a Devil — only men had been so mistaken about the shapes of their Devil — he was not single and big, he was many and smutty and small. The Banner had destroyed the Stoddard Temple in order to make room for this play — it could not do otherwise — there was no middle choice, no escape, no neutrality — it was one or the other — it had always been…

More than any other writer, Ayn Rand exemplifies the Old West cliche, “There ain’t enough room in this town for the both of us.”

I wrote previously about The Fountainhead‘s strange insistence that compassion for the weak and admiration for greatness are incompatible. If you feel either emotion, she believes you can’t also feel the other one.

But this chapter takes it to a far more ridiculous extreme: Rand asserts that these qualities can’t exist in the same world. Either bad art drives good art to extinction, or vice versa – where “good art” is defined as art that exalts the tiny handful of people who meet her definition of genius, and “bad art” is art that does anything else, especially anything that treats the lives of ordinary people as significant or noteworthy. One must always destroy the other.

This is a startling claim, to say the least. You’d think that a true-blue capitalist like Ayn Rand would recognize that any creative work can succeed, as long as it finds its own audience. And with billions of people in the world, each with their own unique preferences, there can be niches for all different kinds and themes of entertainment. There’s room for classical opera and rock-and-roll concerts, for ballet and breakdancing, for high literary fiction and pulpy romance novels, for the Louvre and Thomas Kinkade. Highbrow and lowbrow art have lived comfortably side-by-side for the entire history of human civilization. It’s ludicrous to imagine we’re heading for some inevitable final battle where one of each of these pairs will destroy the other.

Besides, even if Ellsworth Toohey can get the public to see a crappy play – even if he can deceive them into thinking it’s profound – so what? Why does that destroy their ability to appreciate fine drama or modernist architecture? Why does it corrupt the souls of the populace to watch actors spout cliches on stage for two hours?

This is the book’s explanation:

“When the fact that one is a total nonentity who’s done nothing more outstanding than eating, sleeping and chatting with neighbors becomes a fact worthy of pride, of announcement to the world and of diligent study by millions of readers — the fact that one has built a cathedral becomes unrecordable and unannounceable. A matter of perspectives and relativity. The distance permissible between the extremes of any particular capacity is limited. The sound perception of an ant does not include thunder.”

No! That is not how human psychology works!

In Ayn Rand’s weird binary, the human soul is incapable of appreciating two different kinds of entertainment. If you like one thing, you’ll automatically dislike anything that’s different. And because Rand’s ontology insists that all fields of human endeavor reduce to only two worldviews and two possible messages, it follows that liking Evil things makes you blind to Good things.

The reality is that people defy categorization all the time. The same person can enjoy complex, sophisticated, intellectual entertainment and also enjoy trashy, mindless, guilty-pleasure entertainment. You can savor a fine filet mignon and sometimes want a greasy hamburger. You can enjoy the plays of Shakespeare and sometimes want to see a by-the-numbers Hollywood blockbuster with CGI and explosions, or a reality TV show where beautiful people treat each other atrociously. Rand’s insistence that human preferences are black or white, that you have to choose one or the other because she says so, is as futile as insisting that a four-minute mile is impossible because nobody can run that fast.

I can appreciate that Rand was at least trying to show how the bad guys’ plot operates. (This is something she gave up on in Atlas Shrugged, which begins with the socialist villains firmly in charge and never goes back to explain how things came to that pass.) However, the means she chooses are disproportionate to the ends. It’s no coincidence that The Fountainhead is the only novel where the villains’ world-domination scheme begins with, “First, stage a play on Broadway…”

Image credit: Glyn Lowe, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...