0435 – earn some self-respect

I feel a little funny writing this, because it’s probably something that I should write for myself, personally, rather than something that I write about in a semi-public way. (I call these vomits semi-public because they’re not very accessible. They don’t get a lot of hits, and I like it that way for now.) To quell that, I’ll write something else entirely for me in private. But in the meantime, this is what’s on my mind, and one thing I’ve learnt is– if there’s something on my mind and I’m not writing about it, I can’t seriously write about anything else.

So. I’ve been reading The Fountainhead, and I’m halfway through. It’s interesting. I get it, I understand why some people are crazy about it and why more people are crazily against it. (It’s quite meta. The book is about an architect who’s relentless about his ideals– which some people love, and most people hate.) There are a bunch of valid criticisms about the book– it might be a bit oversimplistic. The characters might be a bit predictable, simplistic, and a little humorless. Ayn Rand sets up strawmen to knock down in a really nice, orderly way.

But I believe Rand wasn’t claiming to describe reality as it is (which I think Honore de Balzac did a much better job with, with Lost Illusions). She was trying to put forth a vision, her personal ideal of how man should be, or might be. And I can respect that as an intellectual pursuit, as an exercise in hypothetical thinking. Such thinking and projections can be really useful thought experiments. That’s the lens that I’m choosing to read this book through. Rand is making a bunch of propositions, which may not necessarily correspond perfectly to reality (and now I’m thinking of the Ender’s Game series, which is similar– a bunch of characters who behave with almost supernatural efficiency. And can’t the same be said for Aaron Sorkin’s characters?)

That’s what fiction does, isn’t it? It shows us what is true by exaggerating things out of proportion, by using unusual circumstances, fringes, borders, etc etc. It doesn’t have to be immediately, directly true to be useful.


So the interesting thing for me about The Fountainhead is how its protagonist– Howard Roark– behaves. I’ve read a bunch of books by now, lots of different characters, lots of different ways of exploring different minds. But there’s something slightly different about Roark. It’s a sort of intense, relentless fixation on self-respect. He has his personal beliefs, his view of the world, his view of what is acceptable and what is not– and he lives by those principles as perfectly as he can. What’s interesting is how he navigates conflict with other people. He doesn’t enter some sort of difficult moral conflict as protagonists often do. He doesn’t debate internally. His decisions are practically pre-made. He walks into difficult situations with his decisions pre-made, and he’s calm and unfazed and this calm threatens and frustrates the people around him. His dramatic foil is his childhood friend who, while successful, is hooked on the opinions of others. He derives his validation from others.

Rand turns this into an extreme black and white affair. There are a few people who truly have self-respect, who are truly principled, who really care. And everybody else is shamefully deficient in some way. [1] You can see how this must be really exciting to brooding, overthinking young teenagers. And how it might seem outright wrong or dangerous to others. Blah blah.

I think it’s important to view it through the lens of “This is a thought experiment.” When we do thought experiments, we distort, twist, exaggerate, amplify and dramatize things for effect. In a sense, we all have a little bit of all of the characters inside all of us.

Anyway, again.

The point I want to get to is– what I think has been interesting, compelling and useful for me. And that is the fictional idealism of Roark’s intense self-respect. What will life be like if you strongly, clearly know exactly what you want, and don’t give a fuck about anything else but getting that? What is life like if you refuse to allow other people’s input to sully your thoughts and perspectives? What is life like if you refuse to compromise on anything that really mattered to you?

Of course, realistically, it’s not quite possible to do that unless you’re wired a little differently from everybody else. Or is it? We probably wouldn’t be able to turn into Howard Roarks just by reading about him, and I’m not sure if it’s realllly worth it even if it were possible.

But is there something I can learn from him? I think so. By embodying a sort of extreme, fierce, radical self-respect, by extension, he’s gotten me to think about what my personal equivalent of that would be like. I mean, I’ve read all of the Ender’s Game sequence, and I do appreciate Ender’s perspective and thoughtfulness and insight and maturity… but there’s something quite different. There’s something about Ender’s mind that is left a little unexplored, I think. Doing a proper comparison will take a lot more effort than a throwaway word vomit. It might be this– Ender is constantly trying to survive in his environment, and he’s trying to do right by others, within a context of a very large, looming existential threat. Roark on the other hand isn’t under nearly as much of an existential threat (though he might disagree). He has more of a “spiritual” problem– his context is closer to Lucien’s from Lost Illusions.

I guess the question I’ve been posing to myself at the back of my head is– what does self-respect look like, to me? What do I need to do to earn my own respect? Why have I not thought about this earlier?

I will answer those questions privately for the time being, probably.


[1] There are a couple of antagonists who haven’t quite revealed all their cards yet, so they’re kind of outside the scope of this until I read further. I wonder what Toohey is really all about, in the end. And that Gail dude. We’ll see.

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