Steven Mallory: Objectivist Ideal for the Struggling Artist

by Alan Tucker

In the world of Ayn Rand's novels and her philosophy of Objectivism — overflowing with businesspeople, engineers, academics, lawyers, and such — Steven Mallory stands out as an example of the struggling artist: the nonconformist visionary perhaps unemployed and unemployable, perhaps spending too much time in that Village bar drinking too many Guinesses — yet living and surviving in order to portray a vision of beauty and truth by the strength of his inner vision. Much in contrast to man-god Howard Roark, Steven Mallory is the chaotic free-spirit, an ungodlike human example of the artistic spirit who perhaps serves as an real-life example for would-be artists, writers, and visionaries, as he has for me.

If an imaginary revision of The Fountainhead could appear — and I stress imaginary because there is no intention to impugn the greatness of the book with its soaring spirit and heroic ideals — I would vote for a much more developed and enlarged role for Steven Mallory, as an early Objectivist guide to the flawed and struggling artist. As a counterbalance to Howard Roark, Steven Mallory, with his defects, weaknesses, and fears, would serve as a spiritual "little brother" to the herculean Howard — as a flawed human being attempting to climb Howard Roark's psychological and spiritual mountain.

Like Roark, Mallory is very much the bohemian individualist, in love with life and his work, fearless in pursuit of those values, but yet, unlike Roark, fearful of the world of people and the morality that governs them. When one first meets Mallory in the novel, he is the classic example of the alienated and talented artist, at odds with society. He has tried to kill the great "humanitarian" Ellsworth Toohey, and has done so without remorse or regret, making him a potential looming giant still bogged down in self-defeating behavior. He is devastated by continuous career rejections: rejections not from lack of talent but from the arbitrary whims of a confusing world. His fear of the "drooling beast" — a nightmare manifestation of what Toohey represents — paralyzes him. In a dialogue with Roark, Mallory refers to himself as a "weaker" version of Roark — one who knows the disease and sickness that infects the world. He tells Roark that, he, Roark, is too healthy, so healthy, in fact, that he is unaware of the disease that sometimes paralyzes Mallory.

In one of the most psychologically revealing scenes in The Fountainhead, Rand has Roark summing up Mallory's plight (and his own) with these sentences, "That if suffering could be measured.... Can anyone measure the suffering of the rejected innovator. The one who brings joy of life to the world and suffers rejection and alienation as the reward."

This is what makes the Steven Mallory characterization so psychologically interesting, especially in regard to the plight of the artist in our culture. He loves his work, yet the power of his love is not strong enough to overcome the fears. He's uncertain. He's confused. He's scared. He's filled with the pain of rejection and isolation. He drinks. He womanizes. And yet, his intentions are all good. His weaknesses are from alienation and loneliness, and not from a cowardly approach to life. He is at a much lower level of functioning then man-god Howard, but yet, much more "human" — one who simply needs to mature and evolve to a higher plane of living.

In the first scene together with Roark in Mallory's Greenwich Village apartment, Mallory opens the door and appears to have been drinking heavily. To my knowledge, this is the only scene where Rand presented a sympathetic character under the influence, although, as anyone familiar to the experience knows, drug and alcohol consumption has been a dominant part of the lives of so many artists, writers, and actors.

Loose and uninhibited under the influence of alcohol, Mallory is totally suspicious of Roark, unable to believe that someone would actually want him for his talent and ability. The exchange in this scene is tough and spontaneous, bordering on combative. There is a "gutty" reality to it — not two men who are philosophical characters carrying out a pre-formed plan, but two creative and individualistic personalities "feeling" each other out on the way to an efficacious purpose. Roark is in supreme control, as he is in all situations, but his control is benevolent in nature, geared to salvaging the extraordinary talent he has seen displayed by Mallory:

"Why did you pick me?"
"Because you're a good sculptor."
"That's not true."
"That you're good?"
"No. That it's your reason. Who asked you to hire me?"
"Some women I laid?"
"I don't know any women you laid."

In his relationship with Mallory, we get a glimpse that Roark knows of these fears and terrors that Mallory has, but yet has somehow transcended them. Roark's treatment of Mallory in this first meeting is an overwhelmingly benevolent scene. (See the beginning of David Kelley's Unrugged Individualism, for an excellent description of this.) In this scene, Roark projects the feelings of a kindred spirit: a brother in combat who knows the terrors of potential death — a soulmate in a war of life and death. This projection speaks of empathy and understanding, to an earlier time when maybe he walked in Mallory's shoes.

This is of crucial importance. For if Howard knows the route to spiritual transcendence, to his heightened elevation of fearless living and a state of detachment so superiorly honed that almost nothing has the power to affect him — then to see how he relates to his spiritual soul-brother, Steven Mallory, could be a psychological roadmap of extreme value to nascent objectivists.

For the sake of one's imagination and in order to picture an enlarged role for Steven Mallory, picture a scene in The Fountainhead with Mallory in a Village bar drinking jars of Guinness with one Dee Dee Doogan. His emotional state is a cyclone of passionate feelings. On the one side, he has had a good day with his work, he feels empowered and sexual, and wants to share it with Dee Dee, who is smacking her gum and staring at herself in the mirror, hoping her breasts don't fall out of the low-cut, skimpy mini she just bought on Ninth Avenue. While he looks at Dee Dee, he thinks of his friend Howard, and he starts to feel guilty. Then, the elegant image of Dominique enters his thoughts, and he remembers her posing naked for the statue. He stares over again at Dee Dee and wonders what he sees in her, if anything, except a release from the terrible loneliness of the moment....

Yes, not the superman image one receives from Howard Roark, but part of the ecstatic and often painful life of the creative artist. Watching Steven Mallory surmount this pain, come to terms with the loneliness and self-destructive behavior, and go on to form a relationship with, let's say, a woman who is a novelist, and achieve higher artistic goals, would be an extremely powerful model for the struggling, objectivist-oriented artist.

In this way, one can see that much of the attraction and fascination with Steven Mallory, as artist, is his flaws and defects combined with his heroic sense of life. He struggles in a world that often angers and confuses him, and he turns much of that anger against himself. Believing that ability was all that one needed, he is devastated by his repeated rejections, and his fear that the "drooling beast" is master of the world. Like Vesta Dunning (cut from the final version of the novel), he is a healthy seed ready to sprout, yet a seed that could just as easily remain fruitless in the soil.

In a psychological sense, for the young, struggling objectivist-oriented artist, an expanded role for Mallory would serve as a roadmap in how to deal with the hostile world the artist often encounters. Being an artist or writer is, usually, an act of courage in any society, but the road ahead for the objectivist artist is even more trying. While the intrinsic loneliness of objectivism affects all its admirers, it has a much harder effect on the artist, who often labors alone, absent of peers. The objectivist artist not only faces the hostile world every artist faces, but also suffers from the lack of community so essential to psychological health, a community of other artists that one can share with and feel a part of. Then, too, the objectivist artist starts from a fundamental view of the world that is much at odds with others of artistic bent, a view that, often, sets him or her apart in a vacuum of isolation.

Then, again, there is one other area of immense importance to the objectivist-oriented artist. The creative person — the writer, actor, artist, etc., — must experience, explore, and be open to different ways of seeing the world, in a free, spontaneous manner. The creative person cannot close himself or herself off from experience, or that person is cut off from the lifeblood of his or her work. The creative individual's approach to things has to be accepting of life on life's terms. One has to "feel" life as one feels all experience by "getting dirty in the trenches", for how else can one share these experiences in the artistic act?

Steven Mallory did not ask Howard Roark's approval for his work on the nude statue of Dominique, any more than Howard Roark sought his approval for the creation of the Enright House. Would Steven Mallory be able to give life, power, intense emotion to the statue of Dominique, under the collar of forces outside of himself, under the rigid discipline of a person or a philosophy?

Thus, one could ask: "Is being open to life's experiences, and being an objectivist, a contradictory position?" Steven Mallory, as artist — with his open, and spontaneous approach to life — has provided me with an answer to this question, and a reason to think that a free and open objectivism is a vital tool in the act of creation.