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? 🙃

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