Friday, January 19, 2007

Something Like a Review

Dr. Purdom is doing some volunteer work for the county helping draw up new voting districts. It's an interesting problem he's working on - namely, how do we draw up districts and then distribute voting machines to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance to vote? In the extreme cases, theoretically speaking, the voting lines go to infinity! But of course that's just theory. In reality, what it means is that the wait time for a machine is unacceptably long, and that there are enough people waiting there and enough arriving to replace any who leave that the problem never resolves itself. What they're gearing for, apparently, is a "steady state" - a state where a new voter arrives, on average, as often as one finishes, on average.

I feel sort of the same way about my backlog of books I'm meaning to read. There seems to be an infinite number. In reality, of course, there isn't and can't be. But there are now so many books I've promised myself at one point or another to read that even if I arrived at a state where I added fewer than I was reading over a given time interval I think the situation wouldn't resolve itself. Since I have a finite lifespan, my reading list is infinite for all practical purposes.

Recently I came across a review for this book - which I didn't know existed. It's called "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics," and as anyone in the know will guess from the title, it's a direct response (20 years too late, I should add) to Barbara Branden's biography of Rand - The Passion of Ayn Rand. And The Passion of Ayn Rand is a book I've been meaning to read since at least 1995, probably 1994.

So I moved it to the top of the list and read it, finally, this week.

My interest in the details of Rand's life started when I was a member of a an online discussion forum called "DigiaLiberty." I'm sure it's long defunct, but what we were pushing for was to establish an online currency to replace the US dollar. It's roughly the same idea as the Liberty Dollar. I was then and am now opposed to fiat money - such as the kind we spend every day in this country. Well, the group quickly got off topic when people started arguing about whether or not to take Ayn Rand seriously. I'd read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged for the first time only recently, and I knew little about the details of the author's life (I didn't even know she was Russian!). It was shocking and interesting to hear about the fatal affair with Nathaniel Branden (whose name, of course, I had to look up) and listen to people who had been around in the 60s talking about their memories as members of the Objectivist Movement. I did some digging and ran across The Passion of Ayn Rand - and since it was written by Nathaniel Branden's wife, it seemed like a good place to start.

And then one thing led to another and ... well, you know how it goes. I picked up bits and pieces of the story on the net over the years, and especially from a book called The Ayn Rand Cult. But I never got around to reading The Passion of Ayn Rand until this week.

First a couple of words about the issue itself. For anyone not in the know - Barbara and Nathaniel Branden were arguably Rand's first serious followers. They were Canadians, living in the US to attend UCLA (Nathaniel in Psychology, Barbara in Philosophy). They met in Winnipeg (Nathaniel - whose birth name is Nathan Blumenthal) in the late 40s because of shared admiration for The Fountainhead. One of Barbara's friends introduced her to Nathaniel apparently hoping she would go bug someone else about the book. Well, while at UCLA, Nathaniel found out that Rand was living in California and sent her a letter with philosophical questions about The Fountainhead and We the Living. They were the right questions - Rand felt it was the first really intelligent letter about the books she'd gotten, and she responded. One thing led to another, and eventually the Brandens (not yet married - still Blumenthal and Weideman) were visiting Rand nearly every day at her house. They all became good friends. When the Brandens moved to New York to go to graduate school, Rand followed them (she loved New York and apparently hated living in California). She was in the middle of writing Atlas Shrugged, and would show them bits of the manuscript. Once it was published, Rand was catapulted to fame, and letters from admirers began pouring in. There were so many questions to answer and so much interest that Branden was able to found the Nathaniel Branden Institute - which started out as a lecture series on her philosophy. Objectivism became a cultural movement, with Rand as center and Branden as the organizer.

The dirty laundry involved is that Rand ended up having an affair with Nathaniel - with the full knowledge of both her husband and Barbara Branden - and this despite the fact that he was 25 years younger than her. The relationship blew up in 1968, and Rand cut the Brandens off completely. She publicly denounced them, shut down the Nathaniel Branden Institute (even though she didn't own it), never spoke to Nathaniel again, and only spoke to Barbara again in 1981 - not long before her death. As a consequence, the Objectivist movement faltered, lost momentum, and more or less ground to a halt. Recently interest is reviving, but there is no longer a central "fountainhead" person or organization who speaks for the movement (though officially it's Leonard Peikoff).

I can't say exactly why I'm interested in this. In fact, it was on those discussion boards at DigitaLiberty that I first heard the aphorism "An idea is not responsible for the people who hold it." I completely agree - the details of a thinker's biography, though perhaps historically interesting as a basis for the formation of his ideas, are irrelevant to the merits of his ideas, which stand on their own. It shouldn't matter what kind of person Rand was: her ideas are sound and should be studied.

But I think I can offer a two thoughts by way of explanation. First - Atlas Shrugged is a fantasy. Indeed, that's one of the main reasons I like it so much. I usually prefer science fiction novels to the ordinary kind - and for largely the same reasons that Rand prefers Romanticism to Naturalism. I don't really see the point in writing books that simply reproduce the details of life - details that I can go out and see for myself. The kinds of books my mother reads bore me to a thousand-year sleep. No - I like books about, as Rand would say, the world as it could and should be, not about the world as it actually is. But of course, one of the elements of a good fantasy is that it makes you wish you could live the lives described in it. The interesting thing about Atlas Shrugged is that the author and several of her associates claimed that she actually was the kind of person described in that novel. Since I have never met anyone who fully fits the bill, probably part of my interest stems from a curiosity to see just how well Rand herself lived up to her own ideals. The closer she came, the more hopeful I can be about finding Galt's Glutch. Second - more than any other public figure I'm aware of, details of Rand's biography are used by people to avoid having to take her ideas seriously. I got a good example of this over the summer, in fact. I brought up Ayn Rand in an email, and the recipient wrote back that she was "crazy." He knows little of her ideas and has never read one of her novels, but he has it on good authority (ah, but from where?) that she was "crazy." I don't blame him for this and I didn't get angry about it - because what's probably happened is that he's heard it repeated so many times at parties and such that it seemed credible. No one has time to go checking out every claim they've ever heard; hear something repeated often enough, and unless you have good reason to care, the efficient thing to do is simply to believe it. For better or worse, Rand has the image of a "pop philosopher." It's one of "those movements" that sprung up in the 60s, when people were restless to know all the answers and to save the world by tomorrow, or at least the end of the week. It isn't serious philosophy or serious literature - just one of those things people get into when they're young. Well, there's some truth to that, I think. And that image (and the grain of truth on which it's based) keep this tactic going. But make no mistake - it is a tactic - employed originally by people who don't want serious discussion of Rand's ideas going forward. And it's been very successful. Unfortunately for Rand, as for most Libertarian thinkers, both major "sides" in the American political "debate" have a stake in this. The Socialists don't want people looking out for number one, and the Religious Right doesn't either, though for different reasons. I do get frustrated being laughed at when I mention that Ayn Rand has had more influence on my thinking that probably anyone else, and that Atlas Shrugged is my favorite novel. And it is indeed especially frustrating that most of the people doing the dismissing seem to base their opinion not on any familiarity with the writing, but just on rumors they've heard about details of Rand's personality and biography. (That there is an ideological dimension to this - that it's not just a progression of rumor - should be obvious. I'm not aware of any other thinkers who are so roundly dismissed on this basis. There are, as far as I am aware, embarassing personal facts about virtually every famous thinker, and yet Ayn Rand fans are the only ones who ever seem to have to actually answer for them.)

So I guess my interest is partly from curiosity whether the claims that there are real John Galts in the world are true, and partly from natural curiosity at the details of the biography that has been used so effectively to shut down discussion on Rand's philosophy.

I am not an Objectivist. I am frequently accused of being one (most recently in a Philosophy class I had to take last semester), and I do agree with a lot of Rand's thought, but not to the extent that I would wear the label. Specifically - I agree with her wholeheartedly, down to the minor detail, on politics (save one issue: I think the government should be allowed some limited and clearly defined powers of taxation, though nothing like the criminal system we have now). On other issues I agree with her in basic principle but am inclined to think that she hasn't given things a sensitive enough treatment. For example, I am in large agreement with what I read in The Romantic Manifesto - which covers her ideas on art - but am also willing to admit that I don't think anyone understands what art is well enough to make the generalizations she does. I thoroughly enjoy some art that doesn't fit the bill. For example - the movies of David Lynch. There's ultimately something unsatisfying about The Romantic Manifesto - and I think the problem is that there's so much more to be said about all this than she really says. The basic principles are right, but a serious study of asthetic philosophy requires a PhD and years of devoted learning. What's a bit offputting about it is that Rand writes as authoritative a book that should more properly be seen as an introduction, a foundation. And I have that frustration with a lot of her writing. It gets worse with her moral philosophy. Again, I think the basic principles are right, and I live by them in my own life. I absolutely agree without reservation with the famous credo in Atlas Shrugged -

I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

This is indeed the foundation of morality - as much as is the Golden Rule. But I don't think this requires people to be arrogant (though I admit that arrogance turns me on in women) and cold, nor does it mean we have to be indifferent to suffering. And in theory Rand would agree - but she writes her characters in such a way that it sounds like this is what she's advocating. A more useful collection of essays on ethics than The Virtue of Selfishness would have dealt with more difficult situations, well-known conundra or historical events. Which isn't to say The Virtue of Selfishness is a bad book. I really like it and found it helpful. But again, one gets the impression that we're just scratching the surface. Her general answer to any question dealing with practical morality was to advise people to imagine what John Galt would do in a similar situation. Yes, great, but that's the whole problem. John Galt barely makes an appearance in that book - just like Howard Roark before him in The Fountainhead. There aren't enough details about him to allow us to truly imagine what he would do. We're given the broad outlines, but none of the particulars.

Nowhere is this feeling more acute with me than in her positions on psychology - which are simply pedestrian. I agree with her that a great deal of what is passed off as psychological problems are just philosophical or moral problems by another name. But we're sidestepping the more interesting issue by saying so, which is: what chain of events makes a person deny reason? What's the attraction? How do we cure it? It's one thing to say that reason and emotion come to complement each other with effort. In fact, I found this position - which is in the Commencement Address that she gave to West Point - completely convincing. But it would have been worth spelling out in more detail the process of transformation here. What are the pitfalls? Is there such a thing as false emotionalism? What stages does a typical person pass through in becoming more rational and learning to harmonize with his emotions? How long does it typically take? Are different teaching strategies more or less appropriate to people from different backgrounds and with different experiences? If sexual jealousy is irrational, why do so many people suffer from it? Is there perhaps a biological basis, and if so, how do we look beyond that? Etc. There's a wealth of important but unanswered questions. The Devil's in the details, but we only get the broad foundational principles.

(Don't get me started on her epsitemology, which I find uninformed, to put it mildly. She clearly hasn't read any primary source Kant and doesn't seem to have even bothered with secondary source readings on everyone else. If it is true, as she says, that the only philosopher to whom she owes any debt is Aristotle, then that is so because he's the only one she bothered to read seriously.)

But I don't want to sound only critical. I said that Rand is the most influential thinker in my life, and I meant it. If I were to count up opinions that I now hold that are the result of having read a convincing argument from someone else - as opposed to having thought of it myself - I think the lion's share of these would owe to things that I read in Rand. And it's not just that - the whole ethos of Objectivism is attractive to me. I like goal-driven people, arrogant people, absolutes, clear speech, believers in reason, people who can't make smalltalk, lack of use for sports, skyscrapers (God, I love skyscrapers!), cities, industry, progress, material things, money, people who love their lives and aren't cynical. I believe in a utopian future, I believe that technology and science will save the world, I believe that life here on earth is good enough that there is no need to dream of an afterlife. I believe that most problems in the world are simpler than people think, that they have obvious solutions that people are simply avoiding. We could spare ourselves a lot of grief if people would just put some value in their lives, take themselves seriously, and think. I do not believe in marriage, nor do I believe in religion, nor magic. I think that if Dominique Francon were real and Howard Roark were real, then he would have raped her just like it says in the book. And in fact, it was that scene that made me stand up and take notice of a book I otherwise hadn't been too impressed with. When Rand says it was based on "wishful thinking," I completely believe her. It's my ideal too. So it isn't just the ideas but the expression of those ideals. Objectivism has a style I really like and respond to.

So in this sense the story of the whole sordid Branden affair is important to me. I am intensely interested in Rand's work, and so too also in her personally.

Having now read Barbara Branden's book, I guess I would say that I don't really see what all the fuss is about. In the first place it doesn't strike me as being all that critical of Rand. If it is, it's critical in the same sense that makes Jews into "self-hating Jews" in certain circles when they say anything south of that Israel is the pinnacle of all human civilization. Branden criticizes Rand, right. She paints her as vindictive, callous, inconsiderate, and somewhat jealous. From what I can tell from the bits of reading I've done, that's not too far from the mark. But she also gives a good and highly sympathetic psychological profile of why Rand was the way she was. And I should add, I think, that I find the portrait of Rand independently highly believable anyway - because I was exactly like that in junior high. I've always had a sense of "there but for the grace of God go I" with Ayn Rand - that I could easily have turned out like that, with all the same neuroses and egoistic hangups, if certain events in my life hadn't happened the way they did.

Branden's book is criticized for being self-serving, for choosing its details, for being contradictory and for projecting most of the blame onto Rand when some of it clearly lies with her and her (ex-)husband. Fine - all these things are clearly true too. It would be foolish to take one biography as cannon on any historical figure, and especially when the biography is written by someone with a personal stake in how the story gets told! And yes, there were some obvious contradictions in the book. The most glaring, for me, was the way she talked about Rand's 1979 appearance on the Phil Donahue Show. It gets two mentions in separate chapters near the end of the book. In the first, it was a "disaster," particularly the part where Rand confronts a woman in the audience who was a former Objectivist. (The full video, by the way, is unsuprisingly available on YouTube.) In the second mention Rand conducted herself well, effortlessly answered all the questions, and enjoyed herself.

So which is it?

I think anyone who saw the clip would agree that it's more the second than the first. It's true that Rand gets short-tempered with the woman in question and probably doesn't give the best answer she could have (really, there was no need to get angry) - but it's equally true that the question was malicious, pointless and unfair. It kinda pissed me off too. The woman starts by saying she is a former member of Rand's "cult" and then, after taking that back, implies that no mature person could believe in Rand's philosophy. Somehow, Donahue seems to want to audience to believe that Rand was asked a fair question when it was clearly an attack. But fine, Rand could have dealt with it better by simply pointing out that the woman was accusing her of being immature. She didn't have to take the question seriously.

Probably it's true that there's some hostility on Branden's part. And yes, it's true that the book has too much ad hoc psychologizing without information to back up its claims. But I think there is a place for such books as well. The Passion of Ayn Rand shouldn't be taken as a studied biography so much as Branden's personal impressions. A lot of the information about Rand's life is useful and informative, but nothing about the book claims to be final or authoritative. Branden doesn't come out and admit her biases, but neither does she really conceal them, I don't think. And in any case, the encomium that is the last chapter should be enough to convince any non-believers that Branden truly is impressed with Rand, her life, and all that she achieved. I have no problem with her putting a human face on the legend - I am not aware of a perfect person, especially not a perfect famous person, in existence.

I'm independently incined to believe Branden's account anyway. It seems believable. In the comments section the Amazon entry on The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, a reviewer from New Zealand writes the following:

With "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" James Valliant scores what may turn out to be Objectivism's biggest own-goal yet. An unprecedented combination of wiggy conspiracy theorizing and bug-eyed idolatry, the book has not only succeeded in dividing the struggling Objectivist movement for the nth time, but has the potential to scupper what's left of Rand's reputation for good...For example, when Branden, at 38 some 25 years her junior, breaks off with Rand for the luscious young Patrecia, Rand construes it thus:

"I am convinced that the clearest and probably conscious fear in his mind was the fear of admitting that I was 'too much for him'...I was too much for him - in every sense of the phrase and in a deeper sense than would apply to the type of men he despises. I want to stress this: *I was and am too much for him*. This is my full conviction, reached with the full power, logic, clarity and context of my mind..." And so on in similarly excruciating fashion.

This makes a lot of sense. The very fact that Rand was in this relationship for so long in the first place should be good evidence to the doubters that she was an egomaniac. It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with dating someone 25 years younger than you, but generally speaking the older women in these relationships understand when the man moves on to a younger woman. It's one of the well-known sex differences, in fact, that men tend to prefer younger partners and women older ones.

Also, there's the oddity of the breakup with Branden - the fact that she roasted him in public without ever really explaining herself to her confused followers, that she let the movement wither as a result. Whether or not the explanation Barbara Branden gives is right in all its particulars I don't know and can't say - but it seems very plausible and should, for that reason, be taken seriously untill someone cares to produce counterevidence. Indeed, the obsessive movement to ban the book on the part of the Ayn Rand Institute - which essentially forbids members from reading it - does more than anything to convince me that there's at least something to what Branden writes. That, and the fact that there's an Ayn Rand Institute or an Objectivist Movement at all. What person who takes her philosophy (as stated, I mean) seriously would really want to join such a thing? The whole point is independent thought based on reason. An lecture institute for discussion is one thing. A political movement is one thing. But a cultural movement is quite another. Its existence is brazenly at odds with the kind of novels she wrote and ideas she developed. It isn't hard to get a picture of Rand as a monstrous hypocrite - whether or not it's actually true.

Nathaniel Branden, as it turns out, has his own account of the split, which I may take up next.

And yes, I fully intend to read Valliant's book as well. I will order it in February, when the new version of the Atlas Shrugged audiobook comes out (or will check it out of IUCAT if it becomes available before then).

To make a long story short (too late!) - I read The Ayn Rand Cult and was very much aware that it was a hatchet job, though no doubt not completely removed from reality. I didn't get that impression at all with The Passion of Ayn Rand. The author seemed sincere, if a bit self-serving, and the book didn't suffer from the same kinds of glaring contradictions and factual inaccuracies that Walker's book did. I consider it an important piece of the puzzle.

Of course, it is ultimately a meaningless puzzle. I'm not big on biography as a general rule, and I find myself somewhat at a loss to explain why this one is interesting to me. But it is interesting, and so I keep reading...


At 7:39 AM, Blogger noahpoah said...

I brought up Ayn Rand in an email, and the recipient wrote back that she was "crazy." He knows little of her ideas and has never read one of her novels, but he has it on good authority (ah, but from where?) that she was "crazy."

Jeez, what kind of asshole would just dismiss someone he didn't know much about as 'crazy'?

Oh, right. That was me.

In my defense, because I knew (and still know) very little about Rand, my opinion of her as crazy was not a particularly deeply held opinion. Given that you think much more highly of her than lots of people, and given that I agree completely that the person is distinct from the idea, I have adjusted my opinion of Rand.

She may well have been crazy - it actually sounds like she was, at least a bit - but I'm willing to investigate her ideas a bit more now (once I get some free time to do so).

I like ... people who love their lives and aren't cynical.

A 'traditional' definition of a cynic is "a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view." Now, this may not be what you mean by 'cynical' here - there are also definitions such as "bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic." given - but, isn't objectivism essentially in favor of selfishness?

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

I'll answer the second question about selfishness, cynicism, and Objectivism in a post later today or tomorrow.

I didn't expect (or really want) you to publicly admit to being the person I was talking about. I don't blame you for it, didn't mean it as a personal criticism at all, and I completely understand that it's because it just wasn't an important issue. So I now want to apologize for putting that in the post.

But it illustrates my point all the same. This smear technique (which I believe it is) works because it's not an important issue. Most of the people who are dismissive in this way are for the same reason you were - which is that there's limited time in their lives to check out every idea they come across, so unless something really catches their eye they just go with the consensus view on it. It's a perfectly reasonable way to behave, and I do it myself all the time too.

As for whether she was "crazy," she may well have been. There's certainly a lot of annecdotal evidence (some of which is included in this post) that she was. This is sort of why I'm interested in her biography. Barbara Branden's book is really sympathetic on the whole - I wouldn't say she comes off as "crazy," but maybe a little intense and maladjusted.

I started (against my better judgment) Nathaniel Branden's book last night. He's much harsher. I'm 80 pages in and it already seems likely that the conclusion will be that she was a complete misfit.

I'll read The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics next month and then might have a more complete view of it.

But of course it doesn't matter in the end - since what's important is the content of the ideas, which is sound - at least on politics.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger noahpoah said...

No need to apologize. I didn't perceive it as a personal criticism - it was very clear in the post that it was not intended as anything other than an illustration of generalization based on imperfect information. I thought it would be funny(ish) to own up to it.

At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was sent a link to your essay by someone I know who's a fellow participant on a website called "ObjectivistLiving." You might be interested in taking a look at that website:

There's a considerable amount of material there pertaining to the dissensions which James Valliant's book, The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, has occasioned in the Objectivist world.

Also of possible special interest to you are a number of recent threads in which Ayn Rand's theories of art are being debated.

My main reasons, though, for posting a comment are two: First, to say that I enjoyed your essay; I found it insightful and well written.

The second is to correct a minor mistake.

You wrote:

And yes, there were some obvious contradictions in the book. The most glaring, for me, was the way she talked about Rand's 1979 appearance on the Phil Donahue Show. It gets two mentions in separate chapters near the end of the book. In the first, it was a "disaster," particularly the part where Rand confronts a woman in the audience who was a former Objectivist. (The full video, by the way, is unsuprisingly available on YouTube.) In the second mention Rand conducted herself well, effortlessly answered all the questions, and enjoyed herself.
So which is it?

The apparent contradiction is easily resolved. Rand appeared on the Phil Donahue Show twice, once in May 1979, and a second time in the year following her husband's death (he died on November 9, 1979). Although Barbara doesn't give the date of the second appearance (I don't remember exactly when it was myself), it's the second appearance she means in the second mention (on pp. 395-96; the mention of the earlier, the May 1979, appearance, in on pg. 391).



At 11:02 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

Thanks Ellen! I wasn't aware she'd been on Donahue twice. I will post a correction in the original post. I'll follow up on your thread links. I haven't been maintaining this blog for about a week and only just saw them.


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