The Fountainhead Scene Analysis: Costume Ball

The Fountainhead:

That winter the annual costume Arts Ball was an event of greater brilliance and orginality than usual. Athelstan Beasely, the leading spirit of its organization, had had what he called a stroke of genius: all the architects were invited to come dressed as their best buildings. It was a huge success.

Success by what standard? Presumably, by the standard of getting socially notable people to attend and have “fun”. By the standard of getting talked about as an “event”. So it was a success by second-handed standards, which is pretty much the only standard that an event like that could have. People weren’t going to the event to objectively evaluate costume quality and design, or to talk about or learn about architecture, or anything of substance, but only to see and be seen.

Some types of events- like costume galas where people come to make light of their life’s work – are inherently corrupt and only about social/second-handed stuff. Other types of events could theoretically be more worthwhile – like a conference on technical issues related to your profession. Even those types of things, IRL, tend to wind up being much more about social interaction and networking than about learning anything.

Peter Keating was the star of the evening. He looked wonderful as the Cosmo-Slotnick Building. An exact papier-mâché replica of his famous structure covered him from head to knees; one could not see his face, but his bright eyes peered from behind the windows of the top floor, and the crowning pyramid of the roof rose over his head; the colonnade hit him somewhere about the diaphragm, and he wagged a finger through the portals of the great entrance door. His legs were free to move with his usual elegance, in faultless dress trousers and patent-leather pumps.

The reference to “faultless dress trousers” reminded me of “conservative” New York Times writer David Brooks being really impressed by Obama’s pants:

That first encounter is still vivid in Brooks’s mind. “I remember distinctly an image of–we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant,” Brooks says, “and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.”

People are really impressed by that sort of thing. Keating knows that, and is playing effectively to the crowd with his clothes. (Tangentially, I think the reference to “patent-leather pumps” is a reference to something like a court shoe or opera pump described here. I was a bit curious since “patent-leather pumps” didn’t really map to anything for me in the context of men’s footwear, so I researched it a bit).

Back to The Fountainhead:

Guy Francon was very impressive as the Frink National Bank Building, although the structure looked a little squatter than in the original, in order to allow for Francon’s stomach; the Hadrian torch over his head had a real electric bulb lit by a miniature battery. Ralston Holcombe was magnificent as a state capitol, and Gordon L. Prescott was very masculine as a grain elevator. Eugene Pettingill waddled about on his skinny, ancient legs, small and bent, an imposing Park Avenue hotel, with horn-rimmed spectacles peering from under the majestic tower. Two wits engaged in a duel, butting each other in the belly with famous spires, great landmarks of the city that greet the ships approaching from across the ocean.

Nobody in this scene seems to have an attitude to their work consistent with answering the question “When did you decide to become an architect?” with “When I was ten years old”, as Roark does to Cameron earlier in the novel.

Everybody had lots of fun.

Why? Because they got to socialize, see and be seen, and maybe most importantly, not take themselves or their work or their lives seriously.

Many of the architects, Athelstan Beasely in particular, commented resentfully on Howard Roark who had been invited and did not come.

Athelstan Beasely is the person who organized the Ball and came up with the costume idea. Why is Beasley resentful? I think there are two reasons. The first is that by not showing up to the event, Roark has socially slighted Beasley. (As Lillian Rearden says of Francisco d’Anconia in Atlas Shrugged, “It’s a nuisance if he comes, and a social black mark if he doesn’t.”) The second is that by refusing to participate in the whole building costume ball thing, Roark implies that he takes his work seriously – more seriously than the people who do participate, which “insults them by implication” (to quote Toohey in another context).

They had expected to see him dressed as the Enright House.

Given that they had that expectation, the costume ball people don’t really “get” Roark, do they? 🙃

Second-handed questions vs. rational questions

Roark in The Fountainhead:

“That, precisely, is the deadliness of second-handers. They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: ‘Is this true?’ They ask: ‘Is this what others think is true?’

“Is this what others think is true?” has many forms. The following are attempts to capture the essence of the linked second-handed example in question form, and present an alternate, rational question – a form of “Is this true?” – that could be asked instead. The examples are drawn from this thread.

Second-handed question Rational question
Is he peer reviewed? Do his ideas make sense?
Who does he think he is (to disagree with everyone)? Do his arguments make sense?
Do people recognize this person as bad? Is this person bad according to some objective standard?
Can I ignore this person due to their low status? How should I engage with this person in light of my own values and goals?
Is this game popular?  Is this game fun (according to some rational standard)?
What meals would look good on my instagram?  What meals would I enjoy eating?
Are prestigious people using this app? Will this app help me achieve some goal or value of mine?
What coat would people approve of?  What coat would keep me warm?
What will people think of the increasing deaths? How can we keep people alive?
Will people think I’m being alarmist about the virus? Is the virus a serious threat to the lives of millions of people?

Quote Contrasts from The Fountainhead

Some contrasting quotes in The Fountainhead on various themes. Sometimes I noticed a sentence or paragraph talking about the same theme as another, and sometimes I noticed a sentence written in a very similar way to another sentence. I noticed the first one below regarding “that which proceeds from man’s independent ego,” and was curious how many other interesting contrasts I could find fairly quickly. Mostly it’s contrasting Toohey vs. Roark but other people say stuff too.

That Which Proceeds From the Ego


In spiritual matters there is a simple, infallible test: everything that proceeds from the ego is evil; everything that proceeds from love for others is good.”


The code of the second-hander is built on the needs of a mind incapable of survival. All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil.

An Average Drawn Upon…


Judgment, Peter? Not judgment, but public polls. An average drawn upon zeroes—since no individuality will be permitted.


An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act—the process of reason—must be performed by each man alone.

Here, Roark emphasizes the fundamental role of the individual in an agreement upon a group of men. Toohey wants to wipe out the individual, and casts them as “zeroes”.

BTW a public poll drawn upon people in the sort of authoritarian society Toohey wants would actually be worthless as a poll of the public, except as propaganda. Either people would be too afraid to express their actual opinion, and the poll would therefore be invalid, or the people would actually have been brainwashed by the government propaganda and would just repeat the leaders’ opinions back to them, in which case it’s not really an independent “public” that’s being polled.

Individual Minds vs. the Collective

Toohey friend:

“It’s stupid to talk about personal choice,” said Eve Layton. “It’s old-fashioned. There’s no such thing as a person. There’s only a collective entity. It’s self-evident.”

Ellsworth Toohey smiled and said nothing.


“Speaking anatomically—and perhaps otherwise—the heart is our most valuable organ. The brain is a superstition.”


“But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought.



“Service is the only badge of nobility. I see nothing offensive in the conception of fertilizer as the highest symbol of man’s destiny: it is fertilizer that produces wheat and roses.”


No creator was prompted by a desire to serve his brothers, for his brothers rejected the gift he offered and that gift destroyed the slothful routine of their lives. His truth was his only motive. His own truth, and his own work to achieve it in his own way. A symphony, a book, an engine, a philosophy, an airplane or a building—that was his goal and his life. Not those who heard, read, operated, believed, flew or inhabited the thing he had created. The creation, not its users. The creation, not the benefits others derived from it. The creation which gave form to his truth. He held his truth above all things and against all men.

Insulting Others By Implication


“A man braver than his brothers insults them by implication.”

Dominique Francon, writing one of her dual-meaning columns:

“… AND THERE IT WILL STAND, AS A MONUMENT TO nothing but the egotism of Mr. Enright and of Mr. Roark. It will stand between a row of brownstone tenements on one side and the tanks of a gashouse on the other. This, perhaps, is not an accident, but a testimonial to fate’s sense of fitness. No other setting could bring out so eloquently the essential insolence of this building. It will rise as a mockery to all the structures of the city and to the men who built them. Our structures are meaningless and false; this building will make them more so. But the contrast will not be to its advantage. By creating the contrast it will have made itself a part of the great ineptitude, its most ludicrous part. If a ray of light falls into a pigsty, it is the ray that shows us the muck and it is the ray that is offensive. Our structures have the great advantage of obscurity and timidity. Besides, they suit us. The Enright House is bright and bold. So is a feather-boa. It will attract attention—but only to the immense audacity of Mr. Roark’s conceit. When this building is erected, it will be a wound on the face of our city. A wound, too, is colorful.”



Let us aspire to no virtue which cannot be shared.


We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred.

Rulers of Men


Peter, my poor old friend, I’m the most selfless man you’ve ever known. I have less independence than you, whom I just forced to sell your soul. You’ve used people at least for the sake of what you could get from them for yourself, I want nothing for myself. I use people for the sake of what I can do to them. It’s my only function and satisfaction. I have no private purpose. I want power.


“Rulers of men are not egotists. They create nothing. They exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker and the bandit. The form of dependence does not matter.

They basically agree on this one.

Servility of the Spirit


“To achieve virtue in the absolute sense,” said Ellsworth Toohey, “a man must be willing to take the foulest crimes upon his soul—for the sake of his brothers. To mortify the flesh is nothing. To mortify the soul is the only act of virtue. So you think you love the broad mass of mankind? You know nothing of love. You give two bucks to a strike fund and you think you’ve done your duty? You poor fools! No gift is worth a damn, unless it’s the most precious thing you’ve got. Give your soul. To a lie? Yes, if others believe it. To deceit? Yes, if others need it. To treachery, knavery, crime? Yes! To whatever it is that seems lowest and vilest in your eyes. Only when you can feel contempt for your own priceless little ego, only then can you achieve the true, broad peace of selflessness, the merging of your spirit with the vast collective spirit of mankind. There is no room for the love of others within the tight, crowded miser’s hole of a private ego. Be empty in order to be filled. ‘He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.’ The opium peddlers of the church had something there, but they didn’t know what they had. Self-abnegation? Yes, my friends, by all means. But one doesn’t abnegate by keeping one’s self pure and proud of its own purity. The sacrifice that includes the destruction of one’s soul—ah, but what am I talking about? This is only for heroes to grasp and to achieve.”


The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality—the man who lives to serve others—is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit? The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man and he degrades the conception of love. But this is the essence of altruism.