Women, artists and businessmen.
“If you consider the behavior of the world at present and the disaster toward which it is moving you might find the undertaking preposterous. The age of the skyscraper is gone. This is the age of the housing project. Which is always a prelude to the age of the cave. But you are not afraid of a gesture against the whole world. This will be the last skyscraper ever built in New York. It is proper that it should be so. The last achievement of man on earth before mankind destroys itself.”
“Mankind will never destroy itself, Mr. Wynand. Nor should it think of itself as destroyed. Not so long as it does things such as this.”
Gail and Howard at
the end of “The Fountainhead”
“The Fountainhead” is a 1943 novel by Ayn Rand. It tells the story of a young woman named Dominique who marries a guy named Peter. Peter is rich, handsome and apparently is the most brilliant architect of his generation. A few hundred pages later Dominique discovers Peter is a bit of a dud, so she leaves him and marries a ruthless, successful businessman named Gail. A few hundred pages later Gail’s business empire is rocked by union troubles and scandals. At the same time Gail is having business trouble, a former classmate and former friend of Peter, a guy named Howard, is getting his life together and getting his career on track. The world is starting to realize that Howard, in fact, is the most brilliant architect of his generation. So Dominique leaves Gail and moves in with Howard. The novel ends, then, with Dominique riding up in a construction elevator at a New York site of what will be the tallest building in the world, a magnificent structure designed by Howard. The elevator lifts Dominique up higher and higher. The rooftops of the smaller skyscrapers fall away. Soon she sees only the horizon where the ocean and sky meet, and then she sees her husband, Howard, waiting for her at the top of the tallest structure in the world.
And they all live happily ever after.
Well, not everyone. Peter, ruined, goes off to spend his time painting pictures even he doesn’t like looking at. Gail, ruined, goes off to manage the local newspapers he still owns. But Dominique and Howard get the spandex jackets and sunglasses and get to live happily ever after.
“The Phantom of the Paradise”
“The Phantom of the Paradise” is a 1974 musical movie written and directed by Brian De Palma, with music and lyrics by Paul Williams. It tells the story of a young woman, Phoenix, who falls in love with a composer named Winslow. Winslow has written a ‘pop cantata’ based on the Faust     mythos. Winslow hopes to sell the cantata to a businessman named Swan so that Swan can use the music for the opening night of his new nightclub, the Paradise, with Phoenix singing the female lead. But Swan steals the music and has Winslow killed. Swan re-writes the cantata as a weird combination of bubble-gum music and punk rock. But Winslow, not really dead, just badly mutilated, returns as the Phantom of the Paradise. Opening night, Winslow kills the singer performing the corrupt version of his music. Phoenix goes on and sings one of the songs as Winslow originally wrote it. Phoenix becomes an overnight sensation and the Paradise becomes famous for the unbelievable “show”—a real death and then an amazing song.
Swan tracks down Winslow and reveals that he, Swan, has actually sold his soul to the devil. And if Winslow will also sell his soul to the devil, Swan will arrange for Winslow to be able to re-write his original cantata completely for Phoenix and then Swan will put on the show as originally conceived by Winslow. Winslow agrees and sells his soul to the devil. Phoenix, believing Winslow is dead and that Swan was responsible for her becoming a star, falls in love with Swan and agrees to marry him. Winslow, eavesdropping, can’t bear seeing Phoenix with Swan, so he kills himself by stabbing himself in the heart.
Swan goes to Winslow’s body and removes the knife. Winslow is still alive. Swan explains to Winslow that Winslow can’t kill himself because he’s made a deal with the devil and he must complete his part of the deal by re-writing his cantata for Phoenix.
Only now Swan is planning the biggest rock and roll show ever at the Paradise. The cantata Winslow wrote will serve as a wedding show for Swan and Phoenix, and then Swan plans to stun the world in the ultimate rock and roll act, by having an assassin murder Phoenix during the show.
Winslow discovers what Swan is planning. During the big show at the Paradise, Winslow stops the assassin. Then, live on stage, Winslow stabs Swan. Swan, dying, ages and physically becomes the aged and ugly monster his deal with the devil had prevented people from seeing. With Swan’s deal voided, Winslow’s deal with the devil is voided, too. The knife wound in Winslow’s heart opens up and gushes blood. As Winslow falls, dying, his mask falls off. His face twists to the side and Phoenix sees that the ‘Phantom’ was really her love, Winslow. Winslow dies. Swan dies. Phoenix, realizing the tragedy unfolding around her, falls to her knees sobbing hysterically.
Nobody lives happily ever after. The only people wearing spandex jackets and sunglasses are the customers at the Paradise who continue to dance and sing as Swan and Winslow die. They’re just there for the show. And they got a show.
It’s interesting that of these two things, these two creations, “The Fountainhead” continues to be a dynamic thing, continues to influence people. If I remember right, I’ve read that bookstores typically sell more copies of “The Fountainhead” every year than they sell of the average new release book. And just a few months back there was an art show in New York where one of the canvases was an oil painting taken from a scene in the film version of “The Fountainhead.”
The almost classical tragedy of “The Phantom of the Paradise” has disappeared, but the very explicit love-and-romance-are-capitalism-for-the-heart-and-mind of “The Fountainhead” lives on.
It is, I suspect, the nihilism of the old beatniks and hippies rooted, grown and blossoming around us.
Capitalism and nihilism can co-exist. But genuine tragedy is kind of the opposite of nihilism. Nihilism is the notion that everything just is. The notions of good and bad, in fact standards of any kind, are all delusions to the nihilist. But genuine tragedy is all about—at its most simple—bad things happening to good people. Genuine tragedy requires us to understand that there are such things as good and bad people. There are such things as, well, good and bad things.
The biggest most interesting tragedy of the modern world is playing out around us all without too many people even noticing because, for the most part, most people simply don’t believe in tragedy as a concept any more.
I opened this post with a quote from “The Fountainhead.” I’m going to close the post with a song from “The Phantom of the Paradise.” This is what Phoenix sings, when she becomes an overnight sensation:
Is an old love, baby
It’s older than all of our years
I have seen in strange young eyes
We’re old souls
In a new life, baby
They gave us a new chance to live and learn
Some time to touch old friends
And still return
Our paths have crossed and parted
This love affair was started long...
This love survives the ages
In its story lives are pages...
Fill them up
May ours turn slow,
Is strong love, baby
We give it all and still receive
And so with empty arms
We must still believe...
All souls last forever
So we need never fear
A kiss, then I must go
In time we kiss