A lefty critique of the Fountainhead

CW: rape mention.

What 1950s dystopian novel contained a scene where frustrated factory workers sabotage the machinery to prevent it from falling into the wrong handas?

Probably the last book you’d think of is 1957’s Atlas Shrugged by divisive figure Ayn Rand. Trying to classify her novel is hard— it’s a massive, weighty thing, one part sci-fi-mystery-romance, one part shrieking defense of capitalism. While her philosophical ideas never gained serious traction among academics, her novels still sell well— and have been read by some influential people, including Alan Greenspan, Former Chair of the US Federal Reserve; and Rand Paul, US Senator from Kentucky.

Since I’ve been stuck at home due to social distancing measures, I’ve had some time to re-read Atlas Shrugged… and wow. I’m embarrassed to say I loved this novel as a teenager. Heck, I even have a couple of Rand-inspired tattoos. As an adult, I find it clunky, problematic, and full of bad science and economic theory. It’s so puzzling and awful, I’m actually curious what I saw in it in the first place.

So in this video, I’m going to critique Ayn Rand’s novels and ideas from a lefty point of view— but also from the point of view of someone who, once, really admired them. I was a fan of her work for a while, even though I now know that fundamentally misunderstood what her novels and her ideas were about.

I’ll address why her ideas are dangerous and ill-informed. Especially during a global pandemic, with COVID-19 making us rely on one another in a way we never have before, it’s obvious that Rand’s ideas of individualism don’t work. Society doesn’t work that way. We need each other in order to survive.

Also, I’m going to cover not just Atlas Shrugged, but also the rest of her works, including The Fountainhead, and Rand’s semi-autobiographical novel, We the Living. To me, the best and only way to really understand what shaped her ideas is to take a look at not just her well-known stuff, but her more obscure writings, as well.

Overture: The Fountainhead and roofs

I’m going to start with her first well-known book. Published in 1943, this novel about an architect was Rand’s first literary success. It wasn’t her first book— I’ll talk more about her other novels in part 3 of this video.

The Fountainhead stars Howard Roark, a red-haired modernist architect who doesn’t care what other people think and is Rand’s Hero of the story. In contrast is Peter Keating, another architect who’s devoted to what other people think, and borrows designs of his buildings from other architects. With these two characters, Rand explained part of her worldview: the individualist versus the “second-hander,” Rand’s term for people who take other people’s ideas while giving nothing of value to society. While Roark has new ideas, Keating just takes ideas from other people.

There’s something appealing about that idea, as anyone who’s ever done an unsuccessful group project can agree on. However, there’s something a little off about it as well. I cannot imagine hiring a man like Roark to design a new grocery store, for example, or a daycare. Sometimes, relying on established precedents is a really useful thing— there’s a reason why English has a saying, “don’t reinvent the wheel.”

While parts of the novel are interesting, it also marks one of Rand’s big problems with writing: believable-sounding characters. Apparently, people at fancy cocktail parties in the ‘40s spent all their time talking about architecture. The 1949 film version captures this issue perfectly: the dialogue is weird and unnatural, and the characters have a bad habit of bursting into philosophical diatribes every time they turn around or light up a cigarette.

To me, it comes across less as intellectual and more like that annoying libertarian guy at a party who latches on to people to explain Why They Are Wrong.

Also, The Fountainhead feels weird because Rand designed a world to fit her philosophy— instead of creating a philosophy designed for the real world. And before any Rand supporters throw a fit about how the real world would be like Rand’s imagination, if only second-handers and looters weren’t in charge, I’m going to use a real-life example.

The character of Roark was loosely based on real-world architect Frank Lloyd Wright. While they didn’t meet while she was writing The Fountainhead, they did meet after it was published and exchanged correspondence for some time. Wright even designed a home for Rand, but it was never built.

Now, while Wright is a celebrated architect, there is one thing to remember: structurally, his buildings were a mess. His designs may have been beautiful, but he really needed an engineer.

For example, the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, underwent an extensive renovation. It had to— the roof was leaking. Part of the renovation included removing the roof, installing a steel cage, and putting the roof tiles back on over the steel cage. That was the easiest way to make the wide roof structurally sound. That house isn’t the only one with issues— Wright’s designs are infamous for having leaky roofs and shaky foundations. Even Falling Water, the house in Pennsylvania built over a waterfall, had issues that engineers had to fix.

Also, Wright was as weird as Roark about control. Wright didn’t just stop at architectural design: He would design the furniture, the silverware, even tell you where to hang the art he designed for his specific buildings. Both Roark and Wright seemed unable to step back and let the owners live in their buildings the way they wanted to.

Both of these things signal the problem of a person who thinks they’re a genius planning things. Not that Wright’s designs aren’t beautiful— they most certainly are. But by refusing to listen to anybody else, Wright designed a lot of buildings with easily fixable structural issues.

In addition to rich people talking about architecture, there’s also the constant criticism of anything to do with social programs or welfare. The way Rand handles her critiques of social welfare shows just how little Rand understands poverty, and also, how contradictory her thinking is.

The scene from The Fountainhead that stands out to me is when rich heiress and newspaper columnist Dominique Francon lives for “two weeks in the hall bedroom of an East-Side tenement.” Afterwards, she writes about her experience for the New York Banner, and details the numerous ways that the tenants are treated badly by the slumlord who owns the building: the sewage pipes that back up and empty into the courtyard, the stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

However, while Dominique’s newspaper article is sympathetic to the poor, a different story is told when she’s asked to speak at a meeting of social workers. Instead of listing the issues with the buildings, as she had done, now Dominique goes through all the ways the poor hurt themselves: one has nine children and must depend on a church for support; another couple has bought a very expensive radio. Of course, they’re poor because they spent money on that radio. She also mentions how the father of one family has never done any work in his life— and I am so curious how she knows that.

Later, when her editor discovers how she told two different stories about the same thing, and asks her about it, Dominique says:

“They’re true, though, both sides of it, aren’t they?”

Yet, the idea of breaking the cycle of poverty is never mentioned or discussed in any of her books. Which is strange— Rand acknowledged the issues that poor people can face. One of the families Dominique lives next to has a father who spends all their money on alcohol instead of clothes, so the children can’t go to school. I suppose Rand expects that those children should just teach themselves how to read and write, so they can get the hell out of this made-up scenario?

Also, while looking for this scene in the book, I realized how bizarre her writing can be. Check out this description of Dominique in the slums:

“She wore frayed skirts and blouses. The abnormal fragility of her normal appearance made her look exhausted with privation in these surroundings; the neighbors felt certain that she had TB. But she moved as she had moved in the drawing room of Kiki Holcombe—with the same cold poise and confidence. She scrubbed the floor of her room, she peeled potatoes, she bathed in a tin pan of cold water. She had never done these things before; she did them expertly. She had a capacity for action, a competence that clashed incongruously with her appearance. She did not mind this new background; she was indifferent to the slums as she had been indifferent to the drawing rooms.”

First, I’m calling BS on a person who grew up wealthy just being able to magically step into slums and have all the skills it takes to survive. And two, in the books, Dominique was a haughty, aloof, yet overly intense weirdo. All her new neighbors were just cool with this rich woman who moved in next door?

Speaking of Dominique, you can’t talk about The Fountainhead without mentioning the rape problem. I could say sex scenes, but these are rape scenes. Like real, actual, forced rape. However, to really unpack the issues with sex and consent in Rand’s work, I’d need a whole separate video. I might address this topic in an upcoming vid. Actually, I think I definitely will.

On another topic, I’m not going to delve into the characters of Gail Wynand or Ellsworth Toohey, mainly because I think they’re boring and incredibly unrealistic characters. I promise to go more in-depth with the minor characters with Atlas Shrugged, however.

As a teen, I zeroed on Rand’s themes of not compromising your art and following your passions, even if they were difficult. I mean, who wants to be a sellout? There is something inviting to her ideas— but also something juvenile and very impractical.

For example, when Roark can’t get work because the world hasn’t recognized his genius yet, he goes to work in a limestone quarry. Ignoring the absurdity of this— like someone who does a white-collar job can just jump into doing a physically demanding job— this shift makes no sense. What, since he can’t do the exact thing he wants to do right out of university, he refuses to work in the field at all? How will that help him get ahead?

Get over yourself: working at a job to pay your rent and eat is not something to be ashamed of. And there’s a huge chasm between “your ultimate dream job” and “job I only do for money.”

Rand refuses to think about the reality of getting a job or obtaining real experience in the field. Either you should be a brilliant genius who blows things up when you aren’t listened to— literally— or you should go “on strike” and work in a limestone quarry. Forget trying to make contacts or gain actual experience in your field. If they don’t see you as brilliant, fuck em! Go on strike!

And that’s how Rand gets you: one appealing idea, like how group projects suck, and then suddenly you find yourself reading about how wonderful laissez-faire capitalism is.

Finally, I don’t think I can discuss The Fountainhead without mentioning how she describes buildings. Here’s a description from the beginning of the book:

“The Frink National Bank Building rose over Lower Manhattan, and… displayed the entire history of Roman art in well-chosen specimens; for a long time it had been considered the best building of the city, because no other structure could boast a single Classical item which it did not possess. It offered so many columns, pediments, friezes, tripods, gladiators, urns and volutes that it looked as if it had not been built of white marble, but squeezed out of a pastry tube. It was, however, built of white marble. No one knew that but the owners who had paid for it. It was now of a streaked, blotched, leprous color, neither brown nor green but the worst tones of both, the color of slow rot, the color of smoke, gas fumes and acids eating into a delicate stone intended for clean air and open country.”

This paragraph has it all: her absolute hatred of buildings that weren’t sweeping and modern, and some contradictions. In Atlas Shrugged, she gushes about smokestacks and billboards as symbols of industry and progress, making her comment about clean air stand out.

 However, it wasn’t until I lived in Poland that I noticed there are real world buildings that bear a resemblance to Rand’s descriptions. This is the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw— designed by a Soviet architect. This is the “eighth sister” to seven other similarly designed buildings through Moscow. Personally, I think that when Rand was railing against traditional styles, she was actually railing against Soviet architecture. 

Rand was Russian, and grew up under Communism. She was 12 when the October Revolution took place, and I think her aversion to Soviet-style Communism profoundly shaped her life.

So: red haired, individualistic men; random philosophical outbursts; a complete misunderstanding of economics. As Rand herself said, The Fountainhead was the overture. In the next video, I’ll look at the first movement.


Famous people who read her dreck:


Fountainhead as an overture to Atlas Shrugged:


Wright and Rand’s relationship:



The Meyer May house:


A steel cage to hold up the roof:


Issues with Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings:


Stalin’s skyscrapers:

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