|I am discussing the following comments here, even though they were originally aired on on Michael Kelly's forum, Objectivist Living, because the thread in which they appeared has been closed to any new replies. The comments, which are critical of Ayn Rand's character and personality, were made by Robert Hessen, who was an intimate associate of hers during the days of NBI. Hesson writes as follows: |
As Rand would say, "Oh, brother!" The student's question was clearly a rhetorical swipe at the accuracy of Rand's representation, one that amounted to an accusation that she had misrepresented Kant. I mean, if someone asks you, do you think your characterization of so-and-so's philosophy is accurate, what are you supposed to say? No, it's not accurate? What could the student have expected her to say? This was clearly an insult -- a passive-aggressive one, to be sure, but an insult nonetheless. And for that very reason, Rand was entirely justified in responding the way she did. The fact that Hessen doesn't see this is astonishing. He continues:
Those seeking to canonize Ayn Rand have an obstacle blocking their efforts: Barbara Branden's THE PASSION OF AYN RAND (1986). Hence the continuing -- and recently intensifying -- efforts to discredit that biography. One line of attack accuses Ms. Branden of lying when she claimed Ayn Rand sometimes gave angry answers during question periods.
As an eyewitness to many such outbursts, I can verify that Ms. Branden's claim was accurate and not exaggerated. I remember many occasions when Rand pounced, assuming that a question was motivated by hostility to her or her ideas, or that the questioner was intellectually dishonest or irrational, or had evil motives, or was her "enemy." The key, I believe, to Rand's reaction was an assumption that every question was unambiguously clear, so she never asked anyone to clarify or rephrase a question that appeared to be critical.
I could end my comment right here, having attested to Ms. Branden's truthfulness on this specific issue, but I think my testimony will carry more weight if I offer examples of what I witnessed.
My earliest memory goes back to Ayn Rand's appearance at Yale University in February 1960. The morning after she gave a public lecture, she spoke to a small philosophy class and invited questions from the students. A young man asked if her brief characterization of Immanuel Kant's philosophy was accurate, and she exploded that she had not come here to be insulted. I was surprised at the heated tone of her response because he was not antagonistic to her and he had, as I watched him, no glimmer of malice or "gotcha" in his eyes.
One thing that was nice about Rand is that she didn't mince words. You knew exactly where she stood. If you asked an honest question, you got an honest answer. Hessen says it was obvious from the girl's tone of voice that Parrish was her favorite artist. Obvious to whom? Since when does a tone of voice give us that much information, such that we are justified in concluding that Rand was being unfair? And what's so terrible about her answer in regard to Koestler? If she didn't think much of him, what's she supposed to say? "Not much" is as good an answer as any, if that's what she thought. If she can be faulted at all, it may be for her failure to elaborate, but she may not have thought the question warranted a longer answer. Is this the best Hessen can do in finding examples of Rand's "angry, unfair" demeaner? If it is, it speaks pretty well of her. He may inadvertently have come to her defense by doing something akin to damning with faint praise--praising with faint accusations! ;-)
I attended five or six speeches by Ayn Rand at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston. All were marred by one or two angry answers. But anger was not her only inappropriate response. On one occasion a young girl asked Rand what she thought of the artist Maxfield Parrish. It was obvious from the girl's tone of voice that she was asking her favorite writer's opinion of her favorite artist, so I was struck by the cruelty of Rand's answer (in its entirety): "Junk. Next question." So much for objectivity, or sensitivity. She gave a similar reply ("Not much") the next year when someone asked for her opinion of Arthur Koestler, the writer.
This does sound like an evasive answer, but Rand may have viewed the question as an unwarranted invasion of her privacy that she could have been expected to protect by denying that any such relationship occurred even if it did. It is understandable that she would not want to reveal something that sensitive and context dependent in a Q&A.
After Ayn Rand's break with Nathaniel Branden in 1968, he claimed that she did so because he had given her a paper in which he explained that the 25-year age difference between them was an insuperable barrier for him to have a romantic relationship with her. This oblique remark clearly implied that they had earlier had such a relationship. In her first public appearance after his statement, she participated in the Q&A at one of the reconstituted Objectivist lectures series. A longtime student of Objectivism, Alan Margolin, asked her to comment on the truthfulness of Branden's allegation. Rather than admit it was accurate, or denounce it as false, she gave an angry-- and evasive-- answer: "If you could ask me that question, why would you believe my answer?"
Give me a break! These were private, off-the-cuff responses jotted in the margins of what she was reading; they were not intended for publication. Rand was a passionate intellectual; she felt strongly about ideas and expressed herself accordingly. You'd have to be a pretty tepid, emotionally repressed individual not to respond this way to ideas that offended you, even if you didn't bother to express it in writing. I'm sure such passionless intellectuals exist, but they don't have the influence and impact that Rand did. What does Hessen want? A dispassionate, dessicated, denuded Ayn Rand with all the life blood sucked out of her? -- an Ayn Rand bereft of character, force and personality? I'm happy to see these kinds of replies. They don't diminish my respect for Rand one bit.
My over-all impression of that era is that NBI students were apprehensive that a poorly formulated question might unleash her anger. To spare audience members public humiliation at her hands, they were invited to submit their questions to her in writing -- and anonymously.
The accuracy of Ms. Branden's claim about Ayn Rand's style of answers need not depend on anyone's personal recollections. Numerous examples can be found in the audio tapes of her Q&A sessions during the Branden years, or later during the Peikoff succession, or her Ford Hall Forum tapes, or her appearances on various TV shows, such as Phil Donahue.
If the censors and air-brushers at The Ayn Rand Institute have not deleted such scenes, and if access to original sources is open to independent investigators (two dubious assumptions indeed), then more examples of Rand's short fuse could be documented.
Pending the release of unexpurgated tapes, evidence of her anger and rage can be found in the published collection of Ayn Rand's Marginalia, filled with her tirades against F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man, Helmut Schoeck's Envy, and even one of Ludwig von Mises' books. I am no fan of the first three of these books, but her marginal scribblings are an embarrassment to her -- and a challenge to anyone who claims that she was invariably a gentle, sweet-tempered person.
Let me see if I understand this: Rand would have wished that the defects in her personality be exposed so they can then be separated from her intellectual creations? Hello! I would be the last person to argue that Rand was without any character or personality flaws. But to whatever extent they existed, they pale by comparison to her achievements. The kind of stuff Hessen is citing is so questionable, his mentioning it sounds more like an attempt to make something out of nothing.
Ayn Rand was undeniably a genius whose intellectual achievements have not received the recognition they deserve. But why must some of her fans venerate her as a saint, or imply that her "benevolent universe" premise made it improbable, indeed impossible, for her to give angry answers? [I don't think they do; I doubt think any of her fans view her this way -- as someone who never got angry or expressed it in public.] It is time to separate her personality from her intellectual creations. Indeed it is something I believe she would have wished.