Rebirth of Reason


Valliant Versus the Brandens
by Fred Seddon

Let me begin with a “thank you” to Linz for recommending (highly) James S. Valliant’s book “The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics,” (PARC). And while I agree with most of what our fearless leader had to say (I liked the book so much I’ve ordered a copy as a Christmas present for a friend), I do have a few thoughts I want to state for the record.

I will divide this essay into three sections: (1) “To Whom It May Concern," (2) Honesty, and (3) Nits I Want to Pick.

To Whom It May Concern 

Let me state at the outset that I was an Objectivist (or "student of Objectivism," as we were supposed to call ourselves at the time) when the break occurred. All in Pittsburgh were shocked, needless to say, and Rand’s “To Whom It May Concern” raised more questions than it answered. Valliant devotes pp. 90-126 to an examination of this document.

I read it as a detective looking for clues as to what seemed at the time to be a mystery. Since Rand decided to give reasons for the break, I tried to determine if I could verify any of her claims. Alas, most I could not. I had no way to determine if Branden had been devoting more time to the theatre than to intellectual concerns. I also had no way of determining if he was guilty of any financial impropriety. I thought that if he had done some really bad stuff in that area, she would sue him. But the suit never came.

Then on p. 3 (I’m using the original article as my source here) she wrote, “If you check over the back issues of this publication, you will observe that in 1962 and 1963 Mr. Branden and I wrote about the same number of articles and that he carried his proper share of the burden of work. [This presupposes that they had an agreement to write an equal number of articles—but I had no evidence of such an agreement.] But beginning with the year 1964, the number of articles written by me became significantly greater than the number written by him. On many occasions he was unable to deliver a promised article on time and I had to write one in order to save the magazine from constant delays. This year [1968] I refused to write more than my share; hence the magazine is now four months behind schedule. (I shall now make up this time lag as fast as possible.) [This latter promise was never kept. In Pittsburgh, the standing joke was, “It must be Christmas, the September issue of The Objectivist is here.]
So let’s check over the back issues. Here is what I found. (A “+” indicates Rand is ahead of Nathaniel Branden's output; a “-“ that she is behind. Here are the results up to the break in May of 1968:

1962 +7
1963 -3
1964 +2
1965 +4
1966 +4
1967 +1
1968 even

Notice she is wrong about 1962 and 1963. They did not write “about the same number of articles.” In 1962 she wrote seven more than Branden, the greatest imbalance of any year, despite her complaint about 1964 on. In 1963 Branden actually wrote more articles than Rand—the only year that happened. Notice also that in all of 1967 and 1968, Rand only wrote one more article than Branden. Hardly enough to justify her fuss, especially considering the huge difference in 1962 of which she does not make mention.

How could she make such errors? I don’t know and don’t have enough evidence to hazard a guess. That exercise I will leave to the interested reader.

But if I were a member of the jury, I could only conclude—case not proven. I simply don’t have enough evidence on this issue. Rand seems to be wrong but I can’t explain how she could make such elementary counting mistakes on such an important issue. Or make such a big deal about the last two years, 1967 and 1968. Her journals however, are much less ambiguous. Here I agree with Linz and Valliant. She should have left this schmuck a hell of a lot earlier than she did. Talk about exception making. She must have really loved the guy, especially early on in their relationship.

There was one other problem I had back then with her article. On p. 5, as evidence of NBI’s unfair treatment of its associate lecturers she writes, “For instance, when the yearly grosses of NBI grew larger, the percentages paid to its associate lecturers were cut.” So what? I asked myself. I would prefer, for example, to have 5% of $1,000 in revenues than 10% of $100.

This was the extent of what I was able to personally verify about her claims in her article.


Second, let me address the “honesty” issue. Here I have some problems. On p. 105 Valliant states that Objectivism “holds that honesty is a virtue of fundamental importance.” He then paraphrases John Galt, who says that “any attempt to gain a value through deception, be it love, fame or money, is immoral and self-defeating.” But an examination of both the novels of Rand and her life, and here I’m thinking of her handling of the affair, reveals a different picture. Let’s look first at the two of the heroes of Atlas, and then look at Rand herself.

Dagny and Francisco both lie. Dagny only twice; Frisco all the time, at least until Dagny crashes the valley and discovers his secret. Let’s look at Dagny’s lies first. Her first lie occurs with reference to the scene in which Frisco slaps Dagny for suggesting that perhaps she should get D’s instead of A’s in order to become the most popular girl in school.

“When she came home, she told her mother that she had cut her lip by falling against a rock. It was the only lie she ever told. [Wrong, she lies to deceive the government men about her relationship to Galt. For more see below.] She did not do it to protect Francisco; she did it because she felt, for some reason which she could not define, that the incident was a secret too precious to share.” I emphasize "secret" because Rand uses that word in another context: the sex between Dagny and Frisco. “They kept their secret from the knowledge of others, not as a shameful guilt, but as a thing that was immaculately theirs, beyond anyone's right of debate or appraisal.”

How did they keep “their secret” one might ask. Did they lie? One can imagine Jim asking Dagny with a smutty smirk on his face, “Are you screwing Frisco?” And Dagny looking him straight in the fact and saying, “No. And even if I were I wouldn’t tell you.”

This seems to belie the fact that honesty is of “fundamental importance.” This doesn’t mean honesty is unimportant. That it is important can be seen from the fact that Rand is careful to point out, albeit incorrectly, that it is the “only lie she ever told.” Also, honesty is one of the seven virtues listed by Galt in his speech. Yet if what is fundamental is that which cannot be put aside, then honesty is not fundamental. Compare it with rationality. Can one ever set it aside and be irrational because of an important “secret” or because something is “immaculately” one’s own?

Now consider Frisco. How are we to justify his lies, not only to the world from which he is trying to hide himself while he destroys d’Anconia Copper, but also his twelve years of lying to his highest reverence, Dagny?

Could we give Dagny’s reason, i.e., that it is a secret too precious too share? Certainly Frisco’s very life is at stake. Or perhaps we should remind ourselves that the virtues of Objectivism are not intrinsic, but objective. Are there contexts where it is permissible to lie? (And if there are, notice again that this doesn’t seem to apply to reason.) I leave this as an exercise for the reader and move on to Rand.

The only lies—if that is what they are—of which Rand is guilty revolve around the affair. As Linz has said, play with fire and you will get burned.

The first lie appears in the “About the Author” and is a lie by implication. She writes, "My other acknowledgment is on the dedication page of this novel. I knew what values of character I wanted to find in a man. I met such a man—and we have been married for twenty-eight years. His name is Frank O'Connor.” Most people reading this see the word “marriage” and understand it in the sense of a monogamous relation between a man and a woman. But she had been having sex with Branden for the two years before Atlas was published. So, in effect, she was implying, “I found my man and have been true to him and him alone for the past 27 years.” But that was simply not true.

It is interesting to note that Nathaniel Branden’s name also appears on the dedication page, and would remain there until the break. (Freudians stand clear.) She could have written, as I think Dagny might have, “I knew what values of character I wanted to find in a man. I met two such men—one is my husband, the other my lover. Their names are Frank O'Connor and Nathaniel Branden. I’ve earned them.”

The second lie (or is it “series of lies”) is one of appearance. Every time she appeared in public hanging on the arm of Frank and not Nathaniel, she was sending the message that he was her only guy. That she fooled most of the people most of the time can be gathered from the fact that most readers were shocked when they read the last sentence of Branden’s 1968 “In Answer to Ayn Rand.” This is Francisco’s way of lying. Everyone believes he is a worthless playboy because he gives the appearance of being a worthless playboy. Recall his conversation with Rearden.

"But what for? Why did you do it? Just to teach them a lesson?"
"Hell, no! I wanted to be known as a playboy."
"A playboy is a man who just can't help letting money run through his fingers.”
"Why did you want to assume such an ugly sort of role?"

Everyone thought Rand was monogamous because she gave the appearance of being monogamous. She lied by appearance.

The next issue I want to raise is connected with Rand’s lying-by-appearance. On the one hand she doesn’t want to lie to Frank and Barbara. On the other, she does want to lie (by appearance) to everyone else—not only to strangers and readers and fans, but even to the innermost members of the Collective. Since the more intelligent and less starry-eyed types might suspect something, she must enlist Barbara and Frank as co-liars. And not only by appearance, but through explicit verbal lies. When someone asks Barbara if “something is going on between Ayn and Nathaniel,” she had to lie to preserve the luxury of Rand’s privacy. How nice to have someone else protect the purity of your soul by besmirching theirs.

This is a pretty nice deal for Barbara. Imagine the following conversation.

AYN: Barbara, I want you to lie to protect my privacy.
BARBARA: What’s in it for me?
AYN: I’ll fuck your husband.
BARBARA: Now that’s an offer no girl could refuse!!

Barbara reports the secrecy this way. “Frank, Nathaniel and I were sworn to lifelong secrecy about the affair; it was too personal, too precious to be shared with an irrational world.” (Does this mean that since the world is irrational one can always lie? Who decides what is “precious” in these contexts?) (p. 272) Note that Rand didn’t feel the same way about her marriage, of which she proudly boasted in the "About the Author" section at the end of Atlas Shrugged. Why didn’t she consider that “too personal, too precious?” One parades one's hubby and hides one’s lover. Is this a cultural fact that she was too timid to challenge?

Branden reports it this way in Judgment Day.

“All four of use had agreed that no one else was ever to know. This meant the relationship was to be kept secret not only from the world but from our closest friends. Ayn had begun to lay the foundation for a life of lies and deception. Earlier there had been the lie to Barbara and Frank that ‘nothing will change’—and now the lies to everyone in our circle.” (p. 165)

In My Years with Ayn Rand he adds to the above the following:

“But, of course, lie was a word we never used. We didn’t have to. We had a philosophical explanation for everything.”

Although Valliant shows that Branden's honesty is always to be questioned, here Branden is on good grounds from an evidential point of view. There is no one who denies the affair; not Valliant, not Peikoff, no one. And no one knew of the affair except the fab four from 1955 until, at least, 1968. I wouldn’t call this “a life of lies and deception,” but “thirteen years of lies and deception” seems a pretty accurate description.

How to evaluate Rand in the light of the above? How can one see her as a woman of unbreached honesty?

1. We could use Dagny’s reason (excuse), i.e., Rand’s lover is Rand’s business; that it is too precious to share. But she shared it with two non-participants, viz., Frank and Barbara.

2. Maybe it was too precious to share with more than two other people. That sounds like stretching it just a bit.

3. We could simply admit that Rand was willing to live with 13 years of “lies and deception,” but then we can hardly regard her as a paragon of Objectivist honesty.

Nevertheless and at the end of the day, I agree with Valliant’s conclusion. Of the three, Nathaniel was certainly the worst, Rand the best, and Barbara somewhere in the middle.

Nits to Pick

(1) The Law of Contradiction. Although Valliant accuses Ms. Branden of violation of the law of contradiction, he doesn’t seem to fully understand it himself. For example, on p. 17 of PARC he claims to find a contradiction between what Branden wrote on p. 49 and p. 71. Let me reproduce part of both quotations.

“Several of the people who knew her most intimately in later years commented that they never once saw her fully enjoy an event or activity that was here and now.” (p. 49)

“[Rand’s] relatives recalled that Ayn seemed happy. Minna [an aunt] explained: ‘She sang a lot around the house…she’d dance around the room [to her favorite song].’ Ayn was happy." (p. 71)

The first quotation is about people who knew her in “later years.” Her relatives knew her circa 1926. For these two claims to be contradictory they would have to apply to Rand at the same time in her life. Also, there has to be an identity of respect. But the first quotation is about Rand’s inability to enjoy the ”here and now,” and the second about happiness in general. Since these events did not happen at the same time or in the same respect, there is no contradiction.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle states the law this way: “It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect.” (1005b19-20. Translation mine.)

(2) On the bottom of p. 24 and the top of 25 Valliant writes, “…the extent to which Rand was serious about honesty can be seen from the fact that only with the full knowledge and consent of both of their respective spouses did Rand begin her affair with Nathaniel Branden.” Why this line struck me as a nit to pick is Valliant’s peculiar placement of it immediately after detailing how implacable Rand could be in the face of rejections of The Fountainhead, the hatred of conservative and liberals, or even bribes by millionaires. (p. 24) She was a force that could not be stopped. Does anyone really think Barbara’s “No” could have stopped Rand? Or that Barbara could have said “No?” Fairness demands, at the very least, that the word “consent” be placed between quotation marks.

(3) One last nit. This concerns p. 84 and a question Branden asked about the opening of The Virtue of Selfishness. Recall that Rand is answering a possible question concerning why she used “the word ‘selfish’ to denote virtue when many people might be alienated by it.” To which she replied, “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.” Branden wanted to know what “is accomplished by sounding a note of abusiveness on the first page?” Seemingly oblivious to Branden’s warning about abusing the reader, Valliant abuses his readers when he writes, “To anyone but the most spineless, Rand’s approach can only be appreciated for its clarity.” Does this mean that “the most stupid” or “ the most ignorant” or “the most naďve” of readers will only appreciate Rand’s clarity?

But even if we let that pass, Valliant changes the subject (what abuse accomplishes, if anything) and spends the rest of the page defending Rand’s penchant for blowing her top. He finally concedes that she was prone to unjustified anger, but “it didn’t last long. It was over almost as soon as it began.” (p. 84, quoting Charles Sures.) (By the way, I couldn’t verify any of Valliant’s page numbers that he give as citations on p. 84. He sources Branden’s pp. 72, 74, and 75, but alas I couldn’t find on those pages what he claims to be there.)

But enough. I did enjoy reading the book, in fact, I couldn’t put it down. I talked to Tibor about it and he said he’s not really interested in this sort of gossipy book. He prefers to deal with the philosophy. But if you think Rand needs to be defended from the Brandens, then you might consider buying this book. In addition, and this is a big addition, all of the writings that Valliant includes from Rand’s own journals (unpublished to date) are worth the price of the book alone. In fact, and I hope Valliant doesn’t take this the wrong way, her writing just shines as one reads it and the distance between her and Valliant was evident to this reader. And he is an excellent writer. But then again, she’s Rand.
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