Independence, Egoism, and Achievement in The Fountainhead
Ayn Rand said that the theme of The Fountainhead is "individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in man's soul." I want to comment on three specific aspects of this theme, as it is embodied in Roark's character and his interactions with the other figures in the novel. Roark is a man of independence, he is an egoist, and he is a creator, a paragon of productive achievement. These three concepts—independence, egoism, and achievement—are the key to understanding the moral sense of The Fountainhead and the ways in which it differs from the conventional ethos.
Rand makes it clear from the outset that independence does not consist in nonconformity. Henry Cameron says to Roark, "I wouldn't care, if you were an exhibitionist who's being different as a stunt, as a lark, just to attract attention to himself. It's a smart racket, to oppose the crowd and amuse it and collect admission to the sideshow." Later on, we meet a number of artists, protégés of Toohey, who are engaged in precisely that kind of racket; the writer who did not use capital letters, the painter who "used no canvas, but did something with bird cages and metronomes," and the like. When Toohey's friends ask him how he can support such rabid individualists, he smiles blandly. He knows that these "iconoclasts" are merely playing off conventions, for the sake of shock value; they are just as dependent on others as the most abject conformist. And most of them, like the writer Lois Cook, have a smirking kind of awareness that they are getting away with something, foisting trash on a credulous public. (I sometimes think that Andy Warhol got his ideas from these passages of The Fountainhead.)
Real independence is a trait of mind. It is a commitment to one's own perception of reality as an absolute standard of thought and action. This is what disturbs most people about Roark. His primary connection is to the world, not to other people. His convictions, his artistic judgments, his commitment to his goal, are not filtered through any awareness of what other people thought or felt. It is not rebelliousness; it is indifference. "'You know,'" says the Dean, when Roark is explaining why he does not wish to be readmitted to Stanton, "'you would sound much more convincing if you spoke as if you cared whether I agreed with you or not.' 'That's true,' said Roark. 'I don't care whether you agree with me or not.' He said it so simply that it did not sound offensive, it sounded like the statement of a fact which he noticed, puzzled, for the first time."
Keating, by contrast, is an instrument that registers every twitch and nuance in his social environment. Rand describes his chronic fear of "that mysterious entity of consciousness within others," which he spends his life trying to appease and control. ...Keating takes great relief when he notices...