Notes On the Pathetic Criticism of Howard Roark, and Gail Wynand’s Rebuttal

A couple of years ago, I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. It’s a genius piece of literature, and Howard Roark, the book’s hero, is one of the most epic characters of any story I’ve ever discovered.

On trial for demolishing a building he designed himself, Ayn Rand’s hero Howard Roark receives extraordinary hatred from society. This hatred sets him up to make one of the boldest and most righteous speeches ever made.

Before I dive into his speech, it’s important to establish the hatred that general cultural mentality that precedes his commentary about the society he lives in..

There’s a lot to learn and digest from the hatred he receives, as well as Gail Wynand’s commentary on that hatred and defense of Roark.

I’m writing notes on it here so that I can revisit it later.

Here are my notes on what some pathetic bystanders had to say about Roark.

It was a sensational scandal, and there was the usual noise and the usual lust of riighteous anger, such as is proper to all lynchings. But there was a fierce, personal quality in the indignation of every person who spoke about it.

“He’s just an egomaniac devoid of all moral sense” — said the society woman dressing for a charity bazaar, who dared not contemplate what means of self-expression would be left to her and how she could impose her ostentation on her friends, if charity were not the all-excusing virtue —

— said the social worker who had found no aim in life and could generate no aim from within the sterility of his soul, but basked in virtue and held an unearned respect from all, by grace of his fingers on the wounds of others — 

— said the novelist who had nothing to say if the subject of service and sacrifice were to be taken away from him, who sobbed in the hearing of attentive thousands that he loved them and loved them and would they please love him a little in return — 

— said the lady columnist who had just bought a country mansion because she wrote so tenderly about the little people — 

— said all the little people who wanted to hear of love, the great love, the unfastidious love, the love that embraced everything, forgave everything and permitted them everything —

— said every second-hander who could not exist except as a leech on the souls of others.

Ellsworth Toohey sat back, watched, listened and smiled.

Gordon L. Prescott and Gus Webb were entertained at dinners and cocktail parties; they were treated with tender, curious solitude, like survivors of a disaster. They said that they could not understand what possible motive Roark could have had, and they demanded justice.

Peter Keating went nowhere. He refused to see the press. He refused to see anyone. But he issued a written statement that he believed Roark was not guilty. HIs statement contained one curious sentence, the last. It said: “Leave him alone, can’t you please leave him alone?”

Pickets from the Council of American Builders paced in front of the Cord Building. It served no purpose, because there was no work in Roark’s office. The commissions he was to start had been canceled.

This was solidarity. The debutante having her toenails pedicured — the housewife buying carrots from a pushcart — the bookkeeper who had wanted to be a pianist, but had the excuse of a sister to support — the businessman who hated his business — the worker who hated his work — the intellectual who hated everybody — all were united as brothers in the luxury of common anger that cured boredom and took them out of themselves, and they knew well enough what a blessing it was to be taken out of themselves.The readers were unanimous. The press was unanimous.

Gail Wynand went against the current.

“Gail!” Alvah Scarret had gasped. “We can’t defend a dynamiter!”

“Keep still, Alvah,” Wynand had said, “before I bash your teeth in.”

Now that we’ve basically established the depravity of Roark’s critics, I’ll focus on Gail Wynand’s scathing commentary of the depravity of a society that seeks to find a righteous genius like Roark guilty.

“In the filthy howling now going on all around us,” said an editorial in the Banner, signed “Gail Wynand” in big letters, “nobody seems to remember tha tHoward Roark surrendered himself of his own free will. If he blew up that building — did he have to remain at the scene to be arrested? But we don’t wait to discover his reasons. We have convicted him without a hearing. We want him to be guilty. We are delighted with this case. What you hear is not indignation — it’s gloating.  Any illiterate maniac, any shrieks of sympathy from us and marshals an army of humanitarian defenders. But a man of genius is guilty by definition. Granted that it is vicious injustice to condemn a man simply because he is weak and small. To what level of depravity has a society descended when it condemns a man simply because he is strong and great? Such, however, is the whole moral atmosphere of our century — the century of the second-rater.”

“We hear it shouted,” said another Wynand editorial, “that Howard Roark spends his career in and out of courtrooms. Well, that is true. A man like Roark is on trial before society all his life. Whom does that indict — Roark or society?”

“We have never made an effort to understand what is greatness in man and how to recognize it,” said another Wynand editorial. “We have come to hold, in a kind of mawkish stupor, that greatness is to be gauged by self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice, we drool, is the ultimate virtue. Let’s stop and think for a moment. Is sacrifice a virtue? Can a man sacrifice his integrity? His honor? His freedom? His ideal? His convictions? The honesty of his feelings? The independence of his thought? But these are a man’s supreme possessions. Anything he gives up is not a sacrifice but an easy bargain.They, however, are above sacrificing to any cause or consideration whatsoever. Should we not, then, stop preaching dangerous and vicious nonsense? Self sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed. It is the unsacrificed self that we must respect in man above all.”

I admit, upon first reading this, I greatly struggled with the concept of self-sacrifice being bad. I still, in some ways, struggle with it. I believe this is because of my programmed view of the world as a Christian that believes service to others to be the highest form of love.

I believe there’s truth in both viewpoints. I’ve struggled to reconcile what that truth is, and where the line is drawn, but I trust that in time I will develop the wisdom to be able to discern.

Anyways, before I move on, here’s one last bit from Gail Wynand’s passage that absolutely fascinated me and spoke deeply to my masculine soul.

The editorial was quoted in the New Frontiers and in many newspapers, reprinted in a box under the heading: “Look who’s talking!”

Gail Wynand laughed. Resistance fed him and made him stronger. This was a war, and he had not engaged in a real war for years, not since the time when he laid the foundations of his empire amid cries of protest from the whole profession. He was granted the impossible, the dream of every man: the chance and intensity of youth, to be used with the wisdom of experience. A new beginning and a climax, together. I have waited and lived, he thought, for this.”

Brilliant.

Check out Roark’s righteous and epic speech about truly heroic creativity and parasitical “self sacrifice”  in my next post.