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Homework for Brian Doherty
On the matter of Ayn Rand’s life, Brian Doherty’s new book—Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (New York, Public Affairs, 2007)—provides considerable food for thought. The author appears to be a fairly neutral observer. He does not appear to have a particular philosophical agenda or bias. He credits Ayn Rand as one of the five key intellectual figures in the evolution of libertarianism, and notes that she has had an extraordinary impact on the movement. On the other hand, he is anything but an Objectivist philosophically. In fact, although he describes her great novel, Atlas Shrugged, in some detail, he has clearly never read it. We must assume that his exposure to the book was largely of the Cliff’s Notes variety. It is simply not possible to truly read Atlas and proceed to use the word ‘nightmarish’ (p. 227) to describe it.
There is an ominous quality to Rand’s depiction of a society coming apart at its philosophical seams, but that portrait of decline is framed in the perspective of a profoundly benevolent sense of life. Atlas Shrugged makes lucidly clear that America’s destruction occurs in a rational universe as the logical, predictable consequence of causal factors which the author proceeds to reveal as the story unfolds. Even at her novel’s most destructive moments, Ayn Rand’s words convey an underlying intelligibility to the events and a sense of the overwhelming power and grandeur of man’s mind. The reader is never led to believe that what is occurring is some horrible, mystical fate beyond human control.
And the last third of the novel, following the introduction of John Galt, is, quite simply, one of the most magnificent and inspirational visions of the future that has ever been written.
In view of the importance which Doherty ascribes to Atlas Shrugged in the history of the modern libertarian movement, he really should have done his homework. It is not fear and horror that gave this monumental work its extraordinary power to transform the lives of so many readers.
Doherty interviewed quite a few individuals who, at various critical points, came in and out of Ayn Rand’s life. He chronicles her warm relationships and eventual break-ups with numerous well-known writers and thinkers, from Isabel Paterson to Murray Rothbard to Nathaniel Branden. One striking—and disconcerting--aspect of his book is the realization of just how many of the people who had once been close to her were estranged from her at the end of her life. Aside from the people mentioned above, one could add the names of John Hospers, Edith Efron, Joan and Allan Blumenthal, Kay Nolte Smith, Robert Hessen, Barbara Branden and Henry Mark Holzer. No doubt this list is still a long way from being complete. In the final days leading up to her death in 1982, as Doherty states, “of her old circle of friends and followers, only philosopher Leonard Peikoff was left.” (p. 538).
Although this is scarcely new information, it is a new source for it, and seems to provide objective confirmation of some of the unfortunate aspects of Ayn Rand’s personality that were described by Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden in their biographical and autobiographical works.
As an example, here is one recollection from the late Joan Kennedy Taylor:
“She was much harder and much less respectful to anyone who wanted to be her student…She looked for mistakes and constantly threatened not to speak to them anymore…I remember once I said I could understand why Bill Buckley could be attractive as a candidate for mayor of New York City…Ayn said, ‘If you never want to speak to me again, go ahead and consider voting for him.” (p. 237)
Historian Robert Hessen recalled “that lesser members of her inner circle—including eventual heir Leonard Peikoff—were regular victims of minipurges.” And what were the crimes that prompted her to stop speaking to them? Expressions of respect for people Rand considered her “intellectual enemies” or words of approval for a movie she considered “evil” (p. 238).
Despite such evidence, Doherty seems eager to give credence to the recent literary assault on the Brandens by James Valliant in The Passion of the Ayn Rand Critics. In a lengthy footnote (p. 678), Doherty describes Valliant’s book as “a lawyerly brief that reverses the apparent virtues of the Branden’s biographical writings on Rand.”
“Valliant’s interpretation of Branden’s affair with Patrecia Wynand and the break with Rand, backed up interestingly with Rand’s contemporaneous diaries, is that Rand was perfectly willing to accept that their sexual relationship might have to be put aside permanently, and even that Branden might want a sexual relationship with a younger woman; it was his continued lying and hiding it for years that drove her to turn on him with such rage. Branden’s keeping the secret, in Valliant’s reading, was not to protect Rand’s feelings, so delicate that she could not handle the truth; it was to protect his own position as her right hand man and the commercial life of NBI..."
“Valliant uses journal excerpts to show that Rand was aware that their romantic relationship was over before the angry break (194); that she did not believe that not being sexually attracted to her would be a moral failing on Branden’s part (196); and that she even suggested he have an affair with someone else to help solve his emotional and sexual problems (199).”
As demonstrated elsewhere by this writer and others, Valliant’s book is a masterpiece of obfuscation. With rare exceptions, he does not present Rand’s diaries in a way that allows the reader to draw his own conclusions. Instead, almost every comment by Rand is bracketed by Valliant’s dubious “interpretations” as to what she “meant.” In addition, the timelines are deliberately blurred in a way that make it virtually impossible to see the context of Rand’s thoughts with respect to the external events of their momentous relationship.
Apparently some readers are more than willing to simply accept Valliant’s interpretations—and Doherty is one of them. This is understandable, in a way, because the task of untangling what Rand said from what Valliant wants us to believe she “meant” is virtually impossible. In the three citations mentioned above, however, it is not difficult to cast enormous doubt on the validity of Valliant’s interpretations.
What is Valliant’s journal evidence (on page 194 of PARC) that Rand considered their romantic relationship “over” in January, 1968? Answer: a statement written by Rand in July of 1968 (just prior to their ultimate break)—a statement written in response to Branden’s letter informing her that he could not resume their romantic relationship!! There is a brief reference to a journal entry in January of that year about a potential “break” with him, apparently based on her conclusion that he “does not really love me.” But the so-called awareness that their romantic relationship was over at that time was 20-20 hindsight—and it is contradicted elsewhere. Why do you suppose Branden felt the need to write his letter if he did not feel significant sexual pressure from Rand?
Consider Rand’s journal entry (also written in July, 1968) on page 334 of PARC: She refers to a five month period between January and June of 1968 when she had suggested to him “more than once” that maybe her age was a problem for Branden. Why would her age be an issue for discussion at all if she had decided that their sexual relationship was over?
What is Valliant’s journal evidence that Rand would not consider his lack of attraction for her to be a moral failing? Again, Valliant’s interpretation is based on some journal comments in July, 1968, written after Branden gave her the infamous letter. That journal entry is published with relatively few interruptions later in Valliant’s book; I defy anyone to read it and draw any other conclusion than that she considers Branden evil for his lack of desire for her. The entire essay is an analysis of why Branden is irrational to choose Patrecia over her and how he can regain a “proper sex attitude.” (PARC, p. 348) She characterizes Branden’s sexual feelings as “moral disintegration” (p. 336) and calls the motive for his interest in her younger rival “evil” (p. 348).
Page 199 of Valliant’s book does refer to a suggestion by Rand that Branden have an affair “to help his sex problem.” Rand then adds: “provided I did not have to meet her or associate with her.” This apparent off-hand comment by Rand is made in a way that suggests that such a “triangle” might serve to resurrect their own sexual liaison. In February, 1968, Rand writes that she was “totally wrong” to have ever made that suggestion. Later, her long journal entry of July, 1968 (PARC, p. 348) includes Rand’s comments to the effect that Branden must not even have a “friendship” with Patrecia, much less a romantic relationship with her. Does one off-hand remark by Rand genuinely prove the absence of jealousy? Of course not.
Consider another comment from Rand’s notes of July, 1968, another recollection about January, 1968: “I could not break with him, as long as any hope remained…” (PARC, p. 332) Hope for what? She does not say. Could it have been a reference to “hope” for the resurrection of their romance? That interpretation is every bit as reasonable as any offered by Valliant.
Remember that, prior to their break, Rand had granted Branden equal status to her as a spokesman and representative for Objectivism. She had never given such stature to any other member of her circle. At the time of her July, 1968, statement, she had made no effort to strip Branden of this lofty status in the eyes of her followers, despite a journal entry characterizing him as “the most immoral person I have ever met.” Anyone familiar with Ayn Rand’s prior pattern of moral denunciation has to take note of the flagrant inconsistency here.
Is it possible that, even then, despite Branden’s letter of rejection, she continued to believe that there was hope for their romance? She characterizes Branden’s reference to their age difference as a “rationalization”(PARC, p. 360). If, as she continued to hope, his rational self managed to somehow prevail, would the resumption of their sexual interaction then be out of the question? Obviously not.
I certainly would not claim to have certain knowledge of precisely what Ayn Rand meant by the various conflicting statements from her journal. There are probably numerous plausible explanations. But Valliant claims that he does know, and he proceeds to use his “knowledge” to verbally assassinate those of whom he disapproves. And to publish his “interpretations” in a form that makes it extremely difficult to analyze the evidence independently.
It is grossly unfair of Doherty to rely on Branden as a major source for his analysis of Rand, and then use arbitrary assertions by Valliant to imply that Branden is not only an unreliable source, but morally corrupt. He may not have had the time to unravel Valliant’s assertions, but he should have taken the care to see that something was very wrong here and, at the very least, withhold judgment. Valliant’s book is a disgusting display of naked vitriol masquerading as objectivity—and Doherty should have known better than to give it credibility it could never have earned from any thoughtful observer.
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