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The Fountainhead - Critical Appreciation
|by Nikhil Sharda|
When Roark tells Keating, “To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul — would you understand why that’s much harder?” he is only stating an indisputable fact of life.
There is no greater sacrifice than the sacrifice of the soul. Without the soul, there is no ‘self’ left, nothing that one can claim to be his own. True success is achieved only when one realizes that the soul is the most sacred possession one has, that it is something to be held “above all things” and if necessary “against all men”.
The man without a soul can be described using Steven Mallory’s words as only - “a succession of adjectives fading in and out of an unformed mass”. This is exactly what Keating has become when the novel reaches this scene. He is a broken man, willing to do anything to once again be king in the eyes of others. Roark wants him to understand the nature of his actions – the fact that, throughout his entire life, all Keating has been is a parasite. The scene is decisive as to the fate of the person of Peter Keating. It is also significant because for the first time in his life, Keating comes face to face with what he really is. When he talks to Roark, there are no pretences. Only a sense of finality remains. For Peter, this is the purest moment of his life and a palpable relief in the admission.
It is Roark's integrity of spirit that makes him 'special'. His undying faith in himself makes him someone who never sacrifices the great for the ordinary, the right for the wrong, and the strong for the weak. He decides for himself. In contrast Keating is never able to decide for himself:
Keating: “How do you always manage to decide?”
Roark: “How can you let others decide for you?”
This precisely sums up the characters of Keating and Roark. Roark does not understand how one can let others hold such a lot of influence on one’s decisions. Your future belongs to you; it is not for the world to decide your course of action, your destiny.
Keating never measures his words and speaks – he uses them crudely, and does not appreciate their full value. When he says in one of his conversations with Roark, “But I didn’t mean anything…” he subconsciously acknowledges this fact. Words are not objects to be thrown around without meaning. The very essence of Rand’s philosophy requires that the words one uses should mean exactly what they mean literally. Integrity of thought and character is required for this to happen. Keating lacks it; Roark doesn’t.
Keating’s way of working itself is one which unwaveringly involves the “sale” of the soul. Keating completely submits himself to the wishes of his clients. There is no originality in him – his work is only a passive process, where all he does is imitate the designs of the creators, the grand masters. He does nothing because he loves to do it, and that is why he is never happy with life or with himself. On the contrary, he has been made to think that sacrifice of the soul is the way to paradise.
It is very easy to get deceived by big words like “supreme happiness” or “paradise” or “nirvana”. It is tempting to just submit oneself to others’ wishes. But that means not standing up for what you believe, doing what you are not convinced about, just because everyone else thinks that’s the way to go. It takes courage to fight the battle of the individual against the collective, of the soul against society, of reason against blind faith.
This is Roark’s strength, and this is what leads him to success. When one is convinced that one is right, nothing should make one waver from doing it. The so-called saints of society like Ellsworth Toohey constantly make you deny your own ideas, lead you to contradictions, lead you to hypocrisy. It requires an effort on the part of the individual to see through that. Keating lacks the will and the sanctity of the soul to make that effort; Roark doesn’t.
Probably the biggest blot on Keating’s character is that he has always known what is right, and yet makes no effort to accomplish that. He consciously chooses the easier way over the correct way.
When Dominique puts her proposal for marriage to him, it is his biggest test of character – does he have the strength to fight for his love, Katherine, or does he give in to Dominique? He gives in.
Keating's corruption is complete when he makes the error of choosing Dominique over Katherine. He does not love Dominique but he wants to posses her as somewhere to him she represents the ideal – an ideal that that he fears yet desires. When he gives Katherine up he gives up the vestige of ‘self’ that was left within him.
Keating has created an illusionary world around him in which he convinces himself that what he is doing is right, thus, failing as a man.
In this scene, for the first time in his life, he stands uncorrupted in front of Roark – he has nothing to corrupt him, neither fame, nor money.
“Roark, I'm a parasite. I've been a parasite all my life… I have fed on you and all the men like you who lived before we were born…. I have taken that which was not mine and given nothing in return.”
Keating realizes his errors, his failures and acknowledges them. For the first time, he comes face to face with the monster that he has become, and he cannot help but be horrified at himself. Earlier in the novel, Keating says to Roark, “When I’m with you – it’s always like a choice. Between you – and the rest of the world. I don’t want that kind of choice”.
He makes the choice this time. The scene presents Keating begging for redemption. Whether he will get it or not is what will decide his fate.
Roark wants Keating to understand the ugly nature of the second hander. He wants Keating to realize his mistake. Roark sees that Keating is a completely broken man, and says, “You’ve changed, Peter”.
Roark accepts the Cortlandt project. Perhaps the biggest reason is the fact that he will love the challenge of the engineering required to create such a design as Cortlandt. His reward will be as Keating rightly puts it, “You (Roark) will have designed Cortlandt.” That is another aspect where Roark scores over Keating. He is an architect because he loves to create buildings. That’s it, and nothing more. In his trial speech towards the end of the novel, he says, referring to the motivation of the egoist, that it is “his creation, not the benefits others derive from it”.
Before finally accepting the project, he puts Keating to a final test of character. Like all his other buildings, this one should also be built exactly as he designs it. Keating knows that this is a huge challenge. To get past Toohey is all but impossible, and yet, he accepts the condition. This is where Keating makes an attempt to become what he never has been – a man of courage, a man ready to fight for what is right.
As to whether he will be successful or not, the answer is already given when Roark tells Keating “It is too late” on seeing his paintings. After pronouncing such a verdict, Roark is sick with pity. Sick that there should be such men, and that he should declare such a judgment on any person.
Rand is a stern judge. She does not forgive Keating for his actions, for his cowardice, or for his weakness of character. There is no “self” left in Keating to salvage, for he has already given it up to the whims and wishes of society.
On the other hand, Gail Wynand, the famous newspaper tycoon who has always taken pride in his base power, is granted a chance at redemption, and he, unlike Keating, seizes that opportunity. Rand puts the two scenes consecutively for us to juxtapose the characters of Wynand and Keating.
The person of Keating makes it only too evident that collectivism can only lead to catastrophic failures, after which there can be no forgiveness. When one sells one’s soul for the “benefit” of others, there is only an empty void, a vacuum that is left in its place – a vacuum to be filled by people like Toohey, who are only too good at destroying whatever self worth remains within an individual. That the soul or the spirit is of no value to an individual if not sacrificed in the service of others is against the very fundamentals of Rand’s philosophy. That there is nothing higher than the human soul is one of the basic principles of objectivism.
Strangely, a large number of people believe in collectivism, the doctrine that the individual is of no importance. It is obvious, through the character of Peter Keating, that such people are weak, and personify cowardice. They do not have the strength to maintain their integrity. They live a life of manipulation and scheming which drain their energy and creativity. Like Peter Keating, they take the “easy” way out giving scant thought to the fact that they are bartering it for their most precious possession – their soul!
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