When Lululemon introduced its Ayn Rand line of products, yogis everywhere exhaled a collective, “whaaaa?” And that’s understandable. Ayn Rand’s fans and yoga practitioners often find themselves on the opposite side of every debate.
But maybe there is something yogic about some of Ayn Rand’s ideas. Maybe just as one can embrace some aspects of Indian culture (Patanjali for instance), while rejecting others (untouchability and self immolation upon the death of one’s husband for example), one can embrace certain aspects of Ayn Rand’s philosophy while rejecting what one finds disagreeable. Certainly it is never a requirement for a thinking person to swallow whole another person’s entire outlook. Discernment is a wonderful thing
When I picked up The Fountainhead I had never heard of Ayn Rand before. I was on a beach in Australia, far away from anybody else’s opinions. When I returned to Boston, I found it quite peculiar that she was so popular with my school’s neo-conservative political group, and also peculiar that so many other people loathed her.
Part of this, I think, is because I had read, The Fountainhead and not Atlas Shrugged, the work that most people connect her with. I tried reading Atlas Shrugged the next summer and I couldn’t make it through more than thirty or so chapters (I think there are about a million chapters total). It is just a different work, and a different take on the author’s philosophy, and, let’s face it, Rand has an extraordinarily shrill literary voice. If you don’t care about her characters, it is just too painful to struggle through.
But here is what I liked about The Fountainhead.
1. The heroes are all artists who could care less about business. Howard Roarke is an architect who has a vision and a talent. He knows who he is and he knows his mission. He doesn’t care that his professors and the industry don’t recognize his talent. He doesn’t care that nobody wants to hire him. He trusts himself and his ability. He designs buildings that discard accumulated cultural style and detritus and makes real innovation in creating habitable spaces that cause pleasure for the people who visit and live within them. The other hero is a genius sculptor. The two artists mutually recognize the genius in each other’s works- that it comes from tapping into a sort of higher truth and then manifesting that truth in the real world. Furthermore, the heroes are equally comfortable living in states of poverty and riches, failure and success.
2. Roarke is not boastful. He does not begrudge anybody who stands against him. He does not seek accolades. He does not expect any help or favors from anybody. Rand’s heroes all have this independent streak (one against the world), but Roarke is exceptional because his independence is tempered by his humility, kindness and generosity. Peter Keating is kind of a suck-up and he lands the biggest architecture gig in town. The problem is, the task is beyond him and he turns to Roarke for help. Roarke designs an amazing skyscraper for Keating and does not begrudge him anything. Roarke does not seek credit. For him, the reward is simply to create.
At the end of the book, Roarke finds Keating painting. Keating has finally realized that the only way for him to be happy is to follow his true calling and to cease lusting after status. Roarke is genuinely happy for him. They only lament that Keating had not made this realization when he was younger. In The Fountainhead, Rand really seems to be saying that the way to fulfillment has nothing to do with gaining status, and everything to do with knowing yourself.
3. True happiness and greatness come from devoting oneself to a higher calling. Roarke does this through his devotion to his art. Gail Wynand, by contrast, is the sort of Rupert Murdoch of his world, seeking a world media hegemony, wherein he can print any trash that will sell. Dominique Francon, another character in the book, calls Wynand the most despicable man in the world and Roarke the most admirable. The difference between the two is that Roarke is devoted to a higher transcendent cause, concerned with creating a positive effect and real value. Wynand, on the other hand is devoted only to himself. Gail only wants to amass wealth, and is indifferent about making any sort of valuable contribution to the world. He creates an island of opulence for himself but it does not bring him happiness. Instead, the negativity that he has wrought through his business leaves him feeling empty and hollow.
Roarke and Wynand actually end up as very good friends. They both have had the expeience of being, “one against the whole world.” The key difference is that Roarke finds greatness through transcending his small self and devoting himself to his higher self, and Wynand falls because he is caught in duality and only serves his small self. I think that this is an essential point that gets lost on many Ayn Rand fans, especially those who have only read Atlas Shrugged. One can gain power through creating value and one can also gain power through destroying value. The former leads to self realization and the latter leads to ruin.
It seems to me now that Ayn Rand’s work is like a fruit salad with a small (or large) handful of poisonous berries. If you’re willing to take the time to sort out the good berries from the bad, it becomes altogether digestible. And if you think you might like to entertain reading something by Rand, I would suggest forgetting about Atlas Shrugged. Try The Fountainhead instead.
Bobby spends most of his time in Mexico, where he teaches 8th grade English and Social studies at an international school. He loves teaching because it reminds him of how little he actually knows, and because his students are pretty awesome. He is almost thirty years old and still isn’t sure what being a “grown-up” really means. He started practicing yoga in 2004 and is not afraid to admit that he still finds it very confusing sometimes.