“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?”

That’s a deep comment from a book all about architecture, soaring skyscrapers, churches of low snaking walls, meetings of structure and land. It comes from a book called The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, a book that surprisingly does not feature a single water spout. That question stuck in my mind as I slowly digested this long novel the summer before my junior year of highschool, as I traveled abroad with my Mother. For a book called The Fountainhead, where was the fountain? What could the title mean when Howard Roark, the relentlessly self-contained and individualistic protagonist, challenged the gratingly homogenized trends of architecture by creating all manner of structure dedicated to the glory of himself and mankind- but never a fountain?

If Roark never built a fountain, then what form could this titular fountain take? It became clear to me somewhere along the read that there was something going on, some deeper meaning to the book beyond this profession of Roark’s, architecture. I thought about this fountain, and the choice of Ayn Rand to focus on a very specific aspect of the structure- the head of the fountain. Where water emerges. Where something new emerges from darkness into the light for all to see. A source of novelty, a point of creation, a vehicle for creativity itself. Howard Roark did not need to create a fountain, as he was one himself. He was the fountainhead, and through him new ideas about what a structure could be and could represent entered the world. Throughout his career, his customers, peers, and instructors all demanded he follow the norms, and dish out the same corinthian columns that satisfied the Greeks of old. But Roark did not, against all the pain and suffering it caused him, follow the norms. He asked why he must rehash the same tired structures of marble, when the medium of steel brought possibilities never before available in the history of man. Roark valued his work for the justification that it brought itself. He justified his existence by the integrity with which he performed his creative passions and brought new ideas to life.

Flashback to myself reading this book, while riding a levitating bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo. I was a scrawny kid, unpopular, often depressed, yet spoiled enough to travel and attend a snooty prep school. A central question bothered me just about every moment of each day. The oldest one, possibly only asked anywhere in the universe by mankind. “What’s the point?” “If the world is made of physical things that will all turn to dust eventually, and only have whatever sentimental value we care to give them, then why does anything matter?” The Fountainhead offered me the first look at the only conceivable answer that, after many more years of reflection, I have recently reached. The answer to life, as I see it, is one’s dedication to one’s own convictions expressed physically. In Roark’s case, that meant being an uncompromisable source of creation, leveraging his hands and mind to take the ideas in his head and make them stand through cement foundations and steel beams upon the surface of the Earth. In my case, it means a dedication to the pursuit of fundamental knowledge and utility. It means building an understanding of physics, biology, and philosophy, and using that understanding to practice medicine and participate in research that further elucidates the mechanics of life. The Fountainhead taught me that the only important truths to life and how one should live it are self contained, and found by looking inward. It taught me that seeking meaning through social groups, hobbies, or other distractions was ultimately circular and meaningless. The only things justifiable justify themselves- knowledge through the power it grants, and work through the utility it generates.

Coming back to the book now, after moving away from my radically conservatively oriented peers at my upstate New York prep school, to California where I made new friends that challenged many of my ignorant preconceptions with new lines of thought, I’ll say that some of my feelings about Ayn Rand’s philosophy expressed in The Fountainhead have changed. Her philosophy, known as rational objectivism, is the standard of many in the conservative camp because it establishes one’s ego as the sole moral justification for behavior. They love it because it glorifies materialistic greed, as it would be called in liberal camps, and rephrases it as individualistic self actualization- the realization of one’s own personal goals and motivations. Those on the left say that this philosophy unfairly impacts those that come from backgrounds of lesser opportunity. For instance, an individual coming from a lower income first generation family does not have “equal opportunity” to achieve their internal passions and materialistic success as someone coming from wealth and racial privilege. Thus, a society built around rational objectivism cannot be considered morally just. My time at college has led me to this camp, as The Fountainhead pertains to society as a whole, however I believe its arguments towards personal actualization are still relevant. That is, while I believe socially there is much work to be done to realize equality of opportunity, the message of reflecting upon and living relentlessly alongside one’s own convictions are still valid. As individuals we must ask if we are pursuing our own goals without worry of norms and conventions, however as a society we must enact legislation that provides equal education, and all the other resources that would enable each child to achieve their individualistic truths.

As soon as I could speak, my very first question was why. Of all the basic questions one can ask, “why” is the  most open ended. It’s the difference between “how” does a plant grow, and “why” does a plant grow. It gets at the moral, philosophical, and circular explanations for existence and life that are fundamentally unanswerable and yet fundamentally critical. It’s the question we spend all our lives trying not to ask precisely because it has no answer, and precisely because that terrifies us. But, if The Fountainhead reveals anything about  me, it reveals my willingness to consider the question of why. To approach it with all the care of a scientist attempting to understand the “how.” I love the book because it presents a character that is fundamentally fulfilled, someone that has defined their life by a certain convention and draws from that convention an irrepressible source of meaning. Why does Howard Roark live? Howard Roark lives so that his hands may build what his mind imagines. That’s beautiful. That’s golden in its simplicity and its justification. It means to me that it is worth asking why. Answers exist, and so what if they’re different for everyone? They exist and The Fountainhead proves that they’re worth asking. 

Ayn Rand is quoted in the introduction to her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged as fundamentally rejecting pre-packaged interpretations of her work. And that’s because interpretation meaning for you, the reader of this reflection and potentially of her works, is destructive of the message itself. You must read and reflect upon The Fountainhead on your terms. Find the meaning in your own mind. And then find meaning in your life. That last suggestion is one that I’ve developed myself, in the context of my personal life history. As the last piece of retrospective analysis, from my understanding of what Ayn Rand seeks to engage you the reader with, I suggest that you consider the contrast between your personal interests, your most fundamental and basic desires, and those that seem socially and culturally normative. For instance, if you’re an artist, are you churning out pieces that have creative significance to you? Or are you making pieces that sell and line your pockets? I don’t think the answer to that question has any moral weight at all, but it has the most critical significance to your own fulfillment. It could be the difference between keeping your soul, or selling it away.