Differences in the Consciousness of a Day

A dialogue on a quote from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

(Quote from The Fountainhead)

Roark walked through the house. There were moments when he could be precise, impersonal, and stop to give instructions as if this were not his house but only a mathematical problem; when he felt the existence of pipes and rivets, while his own person vanished.
There were moments when something rose within him, not a thought nor a feeling, but a wave of some physical violence, and then he wanted to stop, to lean back, to feel the reality of his person heightened by the frame of steel that rose dimly about the bright, outstanding existence of his body as its center. He did not stop. He went on calmly. But his hands betrayed what he wanted to hide. His hands reached out, ran slowly down the beams and joints. The workers in the house had noticed it. They said: “That guy’s in love with the thing. He can’t keep his hands off.”


Roark had bought an old Ford and drove down to the job more often than was necessary. It was difficult to sit at a desk in his office, to stand at a table, forcing himself to stay away from the construction site. At the site there were moments when he wished to forget his office and his drawing board, to seize the men’s tools and go to work on the actual erection of the house, as he had worked in his childhood, to build that house with his own hands.
He walked through the structure, stepping lightly over piles of planks and coils of wire, he made notes, he gave brief orders in a harsh voice. He avoided looking in Mike’s direction. But Mike was watching him, following his progress through the house. Mike winked at him in understanding, whenever he passed by. Mike said once:
“Control yourself, Red. You’re open like a book. God, it’s indecent to be so happy!”
Roark stood on the cliff, by the structure, and looked at the countryside, at the long, gray ribbon of the road twisting past along the shore. An open car drove by, fleeing into the country. The car was overfilled with people bound for a picnic. There was a jumble of bright sweaters, and scarfs fluttering in the wind; a jumble of voices shrieking without purpose over the roar of the motor, and overstressed hiccoughs of laughter; a girl sat sidewise, her legs flung over the side of the car; she wore a man’s straw hat slipping down to her nose and she yanked savagely at the strings of a ukelele, ejecting raucous sounds, yelling “Hey!” These people were enjoying a day of their existence; they were shrieking to the sky their release from the work and the burdens of the days behind them; they had worked and carried the burdens in order to reach a goal—and this was the goal.
He looked at the car as it streaked past. He thought that there was a difference, some important difference, between the consciousness of this day in him and in them. He thought that he should try to grasp it. But he forgot. He was looking at a truck panting up the hill, loaded with a glittering mound of cut granite.

Bob (B): What do you think of this quote?

Adam (A): I’m not sure exactly what the difference “between the consciousness of this day in” Roark and in the people he sees is. Is it because his work is integrated into his life whereas the people he sees work so that they can escape?

B: I think Rand gives us some big hints. Let’s go through the passage carefully.

A: Okay.

B: So she says that the the car was “fleeing” into the country. Suppose Roark were driving a car into the country. Do you think he would be described as fleeing?

A: No!

B: Right. So what are they fleeing?

A: Work? Responsibilities? Obligations? Duties?

B: Right. Let’s take the first one of those. What’s Roark’s attitude to his work?

A: Ah! I have a good quote here:

“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”

And here’s another:

The only thing that matters, my goal, my reward, my beginning, my end is the work itself. My work done my way. Peter, there’s nothing in the world that you can offer me, except this. Offer me this and you can have anything I’ve got to give. My work done my way. A private, personal, selfish, egotistical motivation. That’s the only way I function. That’s all I am.

B: Right. So, does his work sound like something Roark would want to flee?

A: God no!

B: Right.

A: I see.

B: Consider this next bit: “a jumble of voices shrieking without purpose over the roar of the motor.” What does Rand think about doing things without a purpose?

A: She thinks it’s bad, depraved even.

B: Right. And why are they shrieking without purpose? Shrieking is an especially strong thing to do without purpose. It’s not like humming or tapping your fingers on something.

A: I think that people often have exaggerated emotional reactions to things in social situations. Like when people who know each other randomly encounter each other on the street, sometimes they’ll make a super big deal about it and have some kind of strong emotional reaction.

I also think that people think its fun to have exaggerated emotional reactions to things and be like “OMG!”, make really strong facial expressions, and that sort of thing. I think that maybe it’s the same sort of thing that motivates rows of crying emojis and reaction gifs on the internet.

B: That would also apply to “overstressed hiccoughs of laughter”.

A: Yes. I guess “overstressed” is a key word there. Is that indicating that there’s a social performance going on? People are trying to “have fun” so that other people see them “having fun” and so they can convince themselves that they are “having fun”?

B: I’m not sure if that’s what is going on - I don’t know if there is enough information to determine that from what we have. That interpretation would fit with an overall theme of the novel though (second-handedness).

Analyzing more - would one of Rand’s heroes yank “savagely” at a Ukelele while yelling “Hey”?

A: No!

B: Why?

A: Well, I think they’d have better things to do. It sounds like a purposeless activity. And also, if they were playing a ukulele, they’d play it well and with skill - or at least try to learn how to do so - instead of yanking savagely at it for “fun”.

B: Right. I agree.

So then we come to:

These people were enjoying a day of their existence; they were shrieking to the sky their release from the work and the burdens of the days behind them; they had worked and carried the burdens in order to reach a goal—and this was the goal.

Was fleeing into the countryside and doing purposeless activities a worthy goal?

A: No.

B: Why?

A: Because … the goal that you have should be commensurate with what you can actually do. If you’re a rational human being, you can do great and important things. You could solve some hard problem or master some challenging field. You could have actual accomplishments that are objectively hard and demanding. So if you don’t set your goals with that in mind, you are doing yourself an injustice as a human being.

B: And Roark is an example of not making that error? Of doing justice to himself as a human being?

A: Yes. He set himself very hard goals in a demanding career, especially given his standards and his integrity and the general cultural situation.

B: So what is the difference “between the consciousness of this day in” Roark and in the people he sees?

A: I guess … for Roark, his experience of the day is as a day of purposeful activity, of seeing his vision and his values brought into the world in physical terms (in the form of the house being constructed). He has his values, he is taking action, and he is getting results, and it’s all integrated and driven by a purpose, and he sees that and gets to experience that in a concrete way, and he loves it.

Whereas the people in the car … at best, they have contradictions. They presumably do some kind of work, and so they have some purposeful and productive activity in their lives, but it’s not integrated into their being or soul in the same way. Whatever their productive work is might be something they seek an escape or respite from rather than something that they deeply love. Their joy is in purposelessness rather than purposefulness.

There’s a passage in Atlas Shrugged about Dagny which I think may capture some of Roark’s attitude:

No matter what night preceded it, she had never known a morning when she did not feel the rise of a quiet excitement that became a tightening energy in her body and a hunger for action in her mind—because this was the beginning of day and it was a day of her life.

Roark and Dagny feel a need to act, and they have a sense of the grandeur and importance of a day in their own lives and of the possibilities of action within each day. They aren’t interested in escaping from anything, and a life spent toiling away miserably in order to escape for a couple of days at a time would be almost incomprehensible to them.

B: I agree.