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REASON, PASSION, AND HISTORY
By Chris Matthew SciabarraThe Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics: The Case Against the Brandens
When I received a copy of James S. Valliant's book, The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics: The Case Against the Brandens, I was a little apprehensive about reviewing it. It seems that every time a discussion commences about the "juicy" bits of Ayn Rand's sexual and romantic entanglements, it takes on a life of its own, and the discussion never seems to end. Cyber-forums can't even mention this book without provoking hundreds of rancorous posts among people who are still personally involved in the developments surrounding the break between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden. It's as if the War of '68 is still raging.
I was fortunate when I came to the study of Ayn Rand. I was eight years old when Rand and the Brandens went their separate ways. I knew none of the principals involved, and didn't actually discover Rand's work until nearly ten years later---when I was a senior in high school in 1977. And even after I'd discovered her work, I'd read everything she wrote without the assistance of going to live lectures or attending group meetings of people sitting around a vinyl turntable or an audio-tape player, listening to recordings of said lectures. I eventually listened to the vast bulk of those lectures as background for the preparation of my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, but even that research was pursued independently. My work was not the product of any assistance from any Objectivist institute or organization.
Around 1992, however, as I was researching my book, I began corresponding with, and interviewing, a number of people connected to Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Among these were Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, who read my work and offered extremely important critical commentary on early drafts of Russian Radical. While most Objectivists and fellow travelers were having conniptions over words like "dialectics," the Brandens were among the very first people to offer endorsements of my book. My professional relationship and friendship with these two individuals grew over time and eventually led me to invite them to contribute to Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, a book that I co-edited with Mimi Reisel Gladstein for the Penn State Press "Re-Reading the Canon" series. It was the first time since the 1962 publication of Who Is Ayn Rand? that both Brandens appeared in the same book together. Till this day, I consider Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden to be my friends. They have been unfailingly supportive of me during some of the most difficult periods of my life, and their kindness and generosity is something that I will always cherish. I say this with an interest in "full disclosure."
None of this comes with any whitewashing of their relationship with Ayn Rand. When I read The Passion of Ayn Rand, for example, I was deeply moved by the portrait of Rand painted by Barbara Branden, even if I was utterly astounded by the events surrounding the Rand-Branden Affair (henceforth, "the Affair"). I recognized that while it was a biography, it also served partially as a memoir, and like all memoirs, it was written from a particular point of view. And when I read Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand, as well as its revised version, I was even more astounded by the depths to which Nathaniel Branden had fallen in his attempts to grapple with a tragedy of which he was a prime architect. I thought his memoir laid bare the deception, the manipulation, and the humiliation to which Branden subjected Rand; I think the book said a lot about Branden's own role in the rise and fall of a dogmatic movement. In many ways, it served as a cathartic for Branden to objectify these events. But because his book was a memoir and not a biography, it manifested all the potentials and limitations of that genre.
I confess that, in my own work, I have paid very little attention to the Affair. Except for my monograph, Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation, which documented, with extensive interviews and textual support, the poor treatment of gays and lesbians in the organized Objectivist movement, I have spent remarkably little time on the interpersonal dynamics of Ayn Rand, her associates, and her successors. Even in my nearly 500-page book on Rand's corpus, I write exactly one paragraph and one footnote on the Affair. Here's what I said:
But in 1968, the Objectivist movement was torn asunder in a schism between Rand and two of her closest friends and associates, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. In later years, it became apparent that the schism was inextricably tied to a collapsing love affair between Rand and Nathaniel Branden. Even though Rand continued to publish and lecture in the ensuing years, her fractured movement disintegrated under the weight of charges and countercharges. (Sciabarra 1995, 120-21)
And the note? Here's what I said: "The affair ended for a variety of reasons. It has been acknowledged by Barbara Branden [The Passion of Ayn Rand], Nathaniel Branden [Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand], and Leonard Peikoff [My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir, audio tape]" (402 n. 57).
And that was that. And in terms of my own interest in this aspect of the phenomenon that was---and is---Ayn Rand, that would be that. I don't have much interest in this complex and tragic tale, not because I think it is of no consequence---for, clearly, it affected the lives of many people. But I think it is largely a distraction from the more important substantive issues surrounding Rand's philosophy and legacy. Yes, we can learn things about a philosophy by examining the ways in which those who adhere to it, or who claim to adhere to it, behave. But we can't reduce a philosophy to a study of biography. Ideas have analytical integrity quite apart from the people who enunciate them. And this is coming from a writer who has enormous respect for the necessity of placing intellectual figures in both a personal and historical context so as to better appreciate the process by which such figures came to their conclusions.
Rand's Personal Journals and the "Right to Privacy"
When I saw the Valliant book advertised, my initial hunch was that it would be gobbled up by people who were less interested in that context and more interested in prurient matters or in using it to attack or defend the Brandens or Rand. In other words, it would simply become yet one more distraction from the substance of Objectivism. Moreover, as I expressed in various entries at this link, "[t]hose who are convinced of the Brandens' 'evil' will see this book as the kind of 'ammunition' that is needed to forge the case. ... Valliant ... spends an incredible amount of time comparing and contrasting various stories, finding inconsistencies, and mounting a 'case against the Brandens.' But those who have already heard the Brandens' 'side' of the story---it was the Brandens after all who admitted their own negative roles in the Affair---will not be persuaded by Valliant's case."
Nevertheless, I acknowledged then, and I acknowledge now, that, for me, "[t]he most interesting part of the book is, in fact, the publication of Ayn Rand's personal journals reflecting on this episode in her life." Yet, I expressed my own inner conflict with regard to the release of those personal journals:
As an intellectual historian, one who is interested as well in the lives of historical figures, I can say with no hesitation that the publication of these journals is of interest. Not because they prove or disprove any particular "case" but because they are Rand's reflections on an episode that had serious reverberating consequences for the Objectivist movement. From an historical perspective, and strictly from that perspective, I think it offers a fascinating "first-hand" account of what she was going through and how she chose to grapple with a devastating emotional situation.
Rand once claimed that We the Living was the closest to an autobiography that she would ever write. And yet, through the reading of her personal letters, journals, and private thoughts, we are piecing together an "autobiography" of sorts that is valuable, even if we must all continue to make a distinction between the life of the philosopher and the meaning of the philosophy.
Still, I recall an article written by literary critic Carlin Romano for The Chronicle of Higher Education. In his essay, "The Unexamined Life May Be Your Own," Romano reviews two books: The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy and Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy, both of which bring together memoirs from philosophers of various stripes. In the essay, Romano states: "Autobiography matters. What would philosophy be like if we read the autobiography of a philosopher before we read the work? It would be better. We would be better." Not because we are inherently voyeuristic. But because there is something to be said about understanding the personal context of the thinker.
Rand may never have written that autobiography; she may have been bored with the idea, and she may not have been "willing to transcribe a 'real life' story," as she stated in the Foreword to We the Living. But all of these posthumously published personal notes amount to a kind of autobiographical tale, one that I, strictly from the perspective of history, find fascinating.
I have long been an advocate of studying any given issue, event, or problem from multiple vantage points; it's one of the central animating principles of dialectics or the "art of context-keeping," as I have defined and defended it. Prior to the publication of these journal entries in Valliant's book, the discussions of the Affair have been predominantly from the perspectives of the Brandens. The Valliant book provides us with an alternative vantage point: Rand's perspective. Insofar as these journal entries reveal that perspective, they are required reading for serious students of intellectual biography and the history of intellectual movements.
The release of these journal entries is something that I have advocated for many years. For example, back in 1999, I saw the Oscar-nominated documentary, "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life." One aspect of the film bothered me: Its treatment of the Rand-Branden relationship in general and the Affair in particular. As I said in my review of the film:
I also wonder about the appropriateness of having [Leonard] Peikoff talk about this painful affair in Rand's private life, which he was not privy to. While [director Michael] Paxton claims that his film does not "psychoanalyze" its subject, Peikoff injects his own brand of psychoanalysis into the discussions, since he has to present the audience with a semi-plausible explanation. Rand is said to have considered Branden a "genius," a great "innovator" in psychology, and Peikoff admits Branden was indeed quite intelligent. But he says that "one thing or another precipitated the break," venturing further that Branden committed "personal and professional deceptions." Peikoff speculates, moreover, that Frank O'Connor probably experienced little jealousy, accepting the affair because he knew his wife was special, and that she needed more than he could offer her. For me, this whole explanation was vacuous; we are given such a humane portrait of this gentle, sensitive man, and we can't help but think about the pain he must have felt over his wife's adultery. Since the Estate has access to Rand's private journals, and since these will be published ... it might have been better to simply read from the relevant 1968 entries. It would have provided the audience with a deeper insight into this bizarre episode.
Well, as the saying goes: I asked for it!
But I need to stress this point because of a comment made by my friend and colleague Wendy McElroy, in her review of Valliant's book at LewRockwell.com. She writes that "[s]ome of the voices questioning The Passion's propriety are not hostile. For example, the renowned Rand scholar Chris Sciabarra voiced an understandable embarrassment at reading Rand's most private thoughts, which he did not believe she meant to become public. The crux of this objection: rather than constituting a defense of Rand, the publication of her private journals is a violation of her privacy." McElroy disagrees; she argues that by bequeathing her journals to an executor (Leonard Peikoff), Rand did so not to preserve her privacy; "it is only reasonable to assume," McElroy writes, "that [Rand] wanted them published or, at least, she wanted that option to be available at Peikoff's discretion." McElroy's point, one with which I agree completely, is that Rand's Estate "exercise[d] that option in an appropriate manner."
As to my expressed "embarrassment" at the prospect of the publication of Rand's personal diaries: It was not embarrassment at all. It was only my projection of my own discomfort as a keeper of personal journals for over three decades, which might one day be made public long after I'm gone. So committed am I to my own privacy that I have opened each annual diary with the same statement: "Those who read this without permission, deserve it." Nobody could possibly know my context on any given day, my mood, or the history that I might bring to any given comment. Hence, any spot-check of my journals is liable to result in the worst form of context-dropping and reification: pulling a single sentence out of its embedded context and making it a whole unto itself.
It's the kind of thing that makes me genuinely appreciate Rand's statement from The Fountainhead: "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy" (Rand  1993, 684). No statement in Rand's corpus is a more profound repudiation of her Russian cultural beginnings; in fact, the Russian language does not even have a word for "privacy" and Russian culture has had no understanding or appreciation of the realm of the private (Sciabarra 1995, 105). Personally and philosophically, I'm sure Rand herself valued the privacy of her own thoughts in these journals. But the "right to privacy" dies when the person who possesses it dies, even if the publication of these specific journal entries made me wonder if the spinning of Rand's body in Valhalla's Kensico Cemetery might cause the earth to shake.
I often contemplate leaving directions to my own Estate to burn my diaries upon my death. They were written for me and for nobody else; I have worked through many-a-problem and "let it all hang out" in ways that only an introspective, private encounter with myself would allow. And it is on these grounds that I can at least appreciate Valliant's own statements with regard to the journal entries he reproduces in his book: "These passages represent Rand's very private thinking, and there is no indication that she ever meant for these opinions to be made public" (2005, 214). This is quite apart from Valliant's, McElroy's, or my own acceptance of the principle that Peikoff, "as Rand's heir, has the moral and legal right to [publish her notes], and in fact Rand's permission" by virtue of granting Peikoff said rights (11).
The publication of these journals, however, will have unintended consequences; any published text is liable to generate such consequences, since it will be read and interpreted by many different people, each of whom brings a given context of knowledge and experience to the reading. And whereas people have been reading the Branden books and analyzing them for years, I suspect that even clinical psychologists will now have a field day poring over Rand's personal journals. If it was Valliant's desire to bring less attention to Rand's private life, which has been the subject of ad hominem in the past, I don't see how the publication of these diary entries will succeed; if anything, they'll only fuel the focus on Rand's personal life, perhaps, in some circles, to the detriment of a focus on her ideas.
"It Usually Begins with the Brandens"
Valliant thinks that scholars have been doing this anyway---that is, they've been dismissing Rand by focusing on her sex life, which provides them, courtesy of the Brandens, with the ammunition for an ad hominem dismissal. As an example, Valliant highlights a single article written by Professor James Arnt Aune and published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS) [Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall 2002]. Valliant writes:
As James Arnt Aune puts it in the pages of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Ayn Rand's critics are "curious what Rand scholars think about ... claims that Rand enthusiasts appear mired at an adolescent stage of psychological development, that her style is peculiarly authoritarian ... and that the particulars of her private life call into question the validity of her moral philosophy." While these comments are far less sophisticated than any of the harshest words Rand ever wielded, it is Rand who such critics routinely tar as uncivil and "peculiarly authoritarian." Such crude ad hominem attacks by Rand's critics are themselves never seen as "authoritarian" or anything less than civil discourse---even by the editors of professional journals of philosophy. (1-2)
And later in the book (170), Valliant repeats the charge, but there he goes from a particular point about Aune's essay to a more general claim about "the kind of ad hominem fallacy we previously observed in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies." I take this criticism somewhat personally because I happen to be one of the founding editors of the particular professional journal in which Aune's essay appears. The Aune essay, entitled "Rhetorical Incorrectness?," is actually a minor 4-page piece written as a reply to Professor Leland Yeager's Journal of Ayn Rand Studies review of Aune's book, Selling the Free Market: The Rhetoric of Economic Correctness. In his review [which appeared in the Fall 2001 issue, Vol. 3, no. 1], Yeager takes Aune to task precisely for his "pathetic" ad hominem attacks on writers such as Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and others. He also criticizes Aune's work as a manifestation of what Mises called the "anti-capitalistic mentality." As a founding co-editor of JARS, I can say that we published Aune's reply and we gave Aune latitude to write the reply that he wished to write. And, likewise, we gave Yeager the opportunity to write the rejoinder he wished to write; Yeager's rejoinder was, in fact, only a paragraph but it criticized what he believed was Aune's implicit premise: that libertarians and Objectivists lack "noble ideals and good intentions." Yeager refused "to withdraw anything" he'd written in his indictment of Aune's book, and concluded with a rhetorical question: "Why drag the tedium out?"
Of course, even in his reply, Aune doesn't actually engage in explicit ad hominem Rand-bashing. As a professor of rhetoric, he adopts a familiar rhetorical strategy and asks "what Rand scholars [would] think" of the questions that have been raised about Rand's appeal to adolescents or about her personal life. Whether Aune actually engages in ad hominem or not, however, Valliant uses Aune's essay to make a sweeping claim, that "Professor Aune is not the author of these allegations. The principal cause of this particular form of Rand-bashing, the root of this trend, can be traced to two persons: Nathaniel and Barbara Branden" (2).
On this opening point in his book, Valliant stands on shaky ground. The particular charges concerning Rand's sex life can be traced to claims made in the Branden books. That much is true. But charges concerning both the Rand "cult" and Rand's "judgmentalism" and "moralizing" have been made by many people, not just the Brandens; even gentle Margrit von Mises, Ludwig's wife, once expressed shock over what she perceived as Rand's "rude, disagreeable way" of answering a question (Branden 1986, 329). Valliant argues, however, that the "shoddy scholarship" of others (he singles out Jerome Tuccille's book Alan Shrugged in this regard) emerges specifically from the Brandens' "dubious histories." Taking a cue from another Tuccille book, which argued that libertarian or free-market thinking "usually begins with Ayn Rand," Valliant remarks that in "Rand criticism[,] it usually begins with the Brandens" (397 n. 5).
Valliant points out that even William F. Buckley "relies heavily on the Brandens in his own attacks on Rand" in the book Getting it Right (399 n. 37). In Getting it Right, Buckley does repair to the Brandens on the issue of the Affair, which he uses as a springboard to ridicule Rand. But, at root, this is a smokescreen for a much deeper ideological opposition to Rand. Indeed, Buckley's animosity toward Rand long predates the Brandens. Even in his obituaries on Rand, written in 1982---long before the Branden books made their appearance---Buckley expressed disgust with Rand because of her atheism.
More significantly, the charges of authoritarianism and cultism also predate the Brandens. Valliant is aware of the fact that Rand critics have been attacking her on both personal and philosophical grounds since the 1950s (171, 387 n. 2, 410 n. 2). But in his emphasis on post-Brandenian criticism, he is more interested in singling out the Brandens for having "exploit[ed]" the "very [form of personal] attack which for so long [they] resented" (172). He fails to mention those many essays and books written throughout the early-to-mid 1960s, predating the Branden works, which took aim explicitly at the "Rand cult": John Kobler's 1961 Saturday Evening Post essay, "The Curious Cult of Ayn Rand," Nora Sayre's 1966 New Statesman piece, "The Cult of Ayn Rand," Dora Jane Hamblin's 1967 Life article, "The Cult of Angry Ayn Rand," Albert Ellis's 1968 book, Is Objectivism a Religion?, Honor Tracy's 1966 New Republic review of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal: "Here We Go Gathering Nuts" (and she wasn't talking about almonds and pecans) ... and so on, and so on.
But none of these aforementioned works compares to the antagonism that Rand inspired from left-wing and right-wing commentators alike on truly substantive grounds: those on the left who derided Rand for her defense of the free market, and those on the right who savaged her for her defense of the free mind, that is, for her atheism and her rejection of religion and mysticism. And that is the "root" of Rand-bashing: Not the Brandens, but Rand's intransigent secular defense of reason, egoism, individualism, and capitalism. Everything else is smoke and mirrors used by some to deflect attention from the fundamental issues at hand.
It wasn't an appeal to the Brandens that led Whittaker Chambers to declare in 1957, in National Review: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber---go!'"
It wasn't an appeal to the Brandens that led Charles Rolo in Atlantic Monthly to dismiss Atlas as "execrable claptrap."
It wasn't an appeal to the Brandens that led Granville Hicks to view Atlas as a "book ... written out of hate," or Gore Vidal to see it as "perfect in its immorality."
It wasn't an appeal to the Brandens that led critics to condemn Rand as a Nazi, a fascist, or a capitalistic mirror-image of Communist propagandists (that's what Sidney Hook implied in his NY Times Book Review essay when he dismissed For the New Intellectual as an example of "the way philosophy is written in the Soviet Union").
This is where the battle needs to be fought: In the realm of ideas. Ultimately, the arguments and debates must be centered on matters of substance, not over who was right and who was wrong in the Affair---but over the nature, implications, and applications of Ayn Rand's philosophy and legacy.
It would be wrong to dismiss Valliant's book simply because one doesn't accept one of his premises for writing it---that it is needed as an antidote to counter criticisms of Rand that are largely rooted in charges by the Brandens. Indeed, the bulk of this review essay will focus on the content of Valliant's book. But it must be stated: I do not grant that in "Rand criticism[,] it usually begins with the Brandens" (397 n. 5).
My criticisms of Valliant's book center on issues of interpretation and historiography, to which I now turn.
I've had an "Indian Prayer" on my wall for nearly 35 years, which states: "Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I've walked a mile in his moccasins." It's just a gentle reminder to me that it is important to grasp a person's context when passing moral judgment. This Indian Prayer is especially helpful too when evaluating, from afar, somebody else's romantic relationship that has gone terribly wrong. And as wise old sayings go, there is another adage that is just as relevant: "It takes two (or more) to tango." In interpersonal relationships, pointing fingers at the faults of one party (or parties) is often insufficient when there have been colossal lapses in judgment made by the other party (or parties).
When the break between Ayn Rand and the Brandens became known in 1968, it was, by all accounts, a deeply painful event in the lives of many people, not the least of whom were the principals themselves. Ayn Rand published a letter in her Objectivist magazine, entitled "To Whom it May Concern" (May 1968, The Objectivist 7, no. 5, in Rand 1982, 449-57), announcing the break and making a number of charges. Among these was a charge that the Brandens engaged in some kind of financial impropriety; but Valliant's own portrait of this aspect seems more like financial mismanagement, rather than self-serving impropriety. And if Barbara Branden was, for example, the conventionally greedy woman Valliant suggests she is, I can only wonder why she refused to continue hiding the truth of Nathaniel's affair with Patrecia Gullison from Rand, even though doing so would have cleared the way for Rand to name Barbara her heir in 1968. I also wonder why Rand would have consented to see an irredeemably evil Barbara Branden in 1981, thirteen years after their break (Branden 1986, 342-43; 396-400).
In any event, I don't believe the financial charges were the crux of the issue separating Rand and the Brandens.
Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden wrote separate replies grouped under the title "In Answer to Ayn Rand," which was sent to the Objectivist subscriber list. Because none of the parties wished to acknowledge the existence---or to reveal the details---of the Affair, the written exchanges were marred by half-truths. Even Valliant admits that "Rand was not telling her readers everything" and "that this was intentional"---to guard her own privacy (2005, 95). He argues that "[i]t is, indeed, difficult to identify any dishonesty regarding the affair by Rand at any time, despite the Brandens' assertions to the contrary" (138).
But if Rand didn't lie, what she omitted from her public statement spoke volumes.
Why didn't Rand herself reveal the "whole truth and nothing but the truth" in 1968? Why would a woman who had no use for conventions, habits, or traditions care in the slightest what others might think about her affair with a man twenty-five years her junior? This is a woman who wrote the phrase, "But I don't think of you" and who put that phrase into the mouth of Howard Roark in the one scene of The Fountainhead where he encounters Ellsworth Toohey, the man who seeks to destroy him. Moreover, Rand's major novels depict sexual triangles and quadrangles. Valliant argues persuasively that the polyamorous situations in Rand's fiction "represent a central aspect of Rand's own sexual psychology, even a characteristic sexual fantasy" (167). It certainly would not have been such a shock in the free-wheeling 1960s for any of the principals to have admitted the Affair to the hearing of the Objectivist universe they had created. It's also true, as Valliant indicates, that Rand's Objectivist ethical code "has no injunction against having affairs, and no stipulation requiring monogamy" (167). On the question of monogamy in relationships, I was struck, however, by one comment of Valliant's: that a person could be in love with two different people at the same time because each offers "incommensurable values of similar importance" (133). This makes good sense, I think, but Rand suggests, in a novel such as Atlas Shrugged, for example, that there is a strict hierarchy in love, and tradeoffs can be disregarded. Once Dagny Taggart meets John Galt, she knows nearly almost instantaneously that he represents a higher value than Hank Rearden or Francisco d'Anconia, along a single dimension of worth.
Whatever Rand's implicit or explicit attitude toward monogamy, she never publicly acknowledged her affair with Nathaniel Branden. She projected to the rest of the world a monogamous marriage to her husband. Valliant therefore asks a legitimate question: "Why, then, the secrecy? If her affair was a consistent expression of Objectivism, why hide it?" (168). His answer, however, is less than satisfactory; "it was not just her own feelings that had to be considered, but also her husband's and, until the break, the Brandens'" (168). But if one were to accept Valliant's portrayal of Frank O'Connor as agreeing to Rand's extramarital Affair---indeed, Valliant insists that O'Connor was not a depressed alcoholic, and, like Peikoff, suggests he was not jealous in the slightest---then why should Rand have worried about her husband's feelings? Valliant tells us that Rand was protecting the principals "from a public that would not respect their private choices," based, he says, on a "desire not to let the world even know about something it could never understand or appreciate" (168).
But the world didn't understand or appreciate the virtue of selfishness or the morality of capitalism either---and that didn't stop Rand from "challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years" (Rand in Branden and Branden 1962, 1). For a woman who ended her postscript to Atlas Shrugged with the italicized phrase, "And I mean it" (Rand  2005, "About the Author"), such reticence over any public acknowledgment of the Affair remains baffling and very difficult to explain.
Valliant considers the Brandens, by contrast, as out-and-out liars who engaged in intentional public deception over the Affair. And the public deception began with their 1968 essays in "Answer to Ayn Rand." Rand had mentioned in "To Whom it May Concern," that Nathaniel Branden had given her a "written statement which was so irrational and so offensive to me that I had to break my personal association with him." Valliant tells us that "no copy of this [written statement] is known by Rand's estate to have survived. (She may have returned her own copy, perhaps annotated, to Branden.)" (311). In his "Answer," Branden stated that he felt "obliged to report what was in that written paper of mine, in the name of justice and of self-defense. ... That written statement was an effort, not to terminate my relationship with Miss Rand, but to save it, in some mutually acceptable form. It was a tortured, awkward, excruciatingly embarrassed attempt to make clear to her why I felt that an age distance between us of twenty-five years constituted an insuperable barrier, for me, to a romantic relationship."
The precise character of that particular formulation is explained by Branden (1999, 360-61) in his memoir: "I experienced extreme distaste at the thought of writing about my affair with Ayn, although I knew that if I did not communicate the actual nature of our relationship, people would never understand the conflict. I did not realize the extent to which I had internalized Ayn's obsession with secrecy. I could not fight her at that level, I told myself, and I did not think I needed to. The thought of the shame and embarrassment I would cause her and Frank was repugnant to me, in spite of everything that had happened." So he consulted with attorney George Berger, who "advised me not to disclose the affair." Berger told Branden to follow Rand's "lead and to say as little as possible. Answer this point briefly, stating only the content of the key paragraph she found so 'offensive.'" Branden writes: "After a long process of reflection, I decided to accept his counsel."
The way that key sentence is phrased, however, it does give the impression that the age difference between them was "an insuperable barrier" to any Affair---because it omits any mention of the fact that the two of them had been carrying on an Affair some time earlier. And in Branden's actual description of the contents of that letter in Judgment Day, he uses the crucial word "now"---as in "the twenty-five year difference in our ages now made sex with her impossible for me" (Branden 1999, 333). Yet, the absence of the word "now" in his public statement gives the misleading impression that Rand was just a dirty ol' woman looking to shack up with a guy 25 years younger than she.
Still, if Branden committed the sin of leaving out the word "now," Rand's omissions carry other potentially negative implications. While Rand neither confirmed nor denied any Affair in her public statement, and while she was under no obligation to publicly acknowledge the Affair, for reasons of protecting her own privacy and the privacy of others, her alluding to "certain ugly actions and irrational behavior in [Branden's] private life" and to Barbara Branden's having 'exposed the secret of [Nathaniel Branden's] private life" ("To Whom It May Concern," May 1968, in Rand 1982, 452-53) left readers wondering about a host of unsavory, unseemly possibilities---to which Branden clearly felt the need to respond. In his statement, Branden tries to fill in "a major part of the story [that] is obviously missing" and mentions both his "relationship with a young woman" [Patrecia] and that "tortured, awkward" confession about the "age distance" between him and Rand.
Conceding that Branden's statement leads to serious false implications, that a half-truth can sometimes generate as many distortions as a whole lie, we must ask: Would a more precise statement by Branden have been better? What would such a statement have accomplished---except a violation of the very privacy that all the principals aimed to protect, since nobody at the time was prepared to publicly acknowledge the Affair? Would it have been better to state: "It was a tortured, awkward, excruciatingly embarrassed attempt to make clear to her why I felt that an age distance between us of twenty-five years now constituted an insuperable barrier, for me, to a romantic relationship---even though we were once lovers"?
Equally, we have to wonder if it would have been better for Rand to have said a bit more than she was willing to divulge. Suppose, in keeping with Valliant's points in defense of Rand, she had said something like the following:
I do not grant for one moment the premise that anyone must submit the details of their personal life to the court of public opinion. As the creator of Howard Roark and John Galt, I know that my readers will understand this principle. But in the interests of full disclosure, it must be stated that my relationship with Nathaniel Branden had evolved over time into a deeply intellectual and romantic one, with the full knowledge and explicit acceptance of my husband and Mrs. Branden. Others might be tempted to make a sordid scandal out of this, but the scandal was brought about by Nathaniel Branden's lies not by the end of our romance. The scandal was brought about by Nathaniel Branden's utter inability to live up to the principles he himself taught to his students.
Such a statement would have made Rand's actual statement even more powerful: "Since the facts are what they are, all those concerned should recognize and act accordingly. As far as I am concerned, I have made an error of knowledge and must be prepared to take the consequences. Whatever these might be, they are never as hard to bear as the consequences of a breach of morality" ("To Whom It May Concern," May 1968, in Rand 1982, 455).
As the saying goes: Hindsight is 20/20.
Nevertheless, now, years later, because Branden himself once claimed in Judgment Day that Rand would be "rewriting the history of our relationship" in her "private notes," Valliant believes that "beads of sweat [must have] gather[ed] on Branden's forehead over the prospect of the release of Rand's journals" (380). But I see nothing in her journals that indicts Branden in a way that is any worse fundamentally than his self-indictment in Judgment Day. The chief difference, and a welcome one at that, is that Rand's journals show her to be not an insane woman (as portrayed, for example, in Sky Gilbert's Branden-inspired play, The Emotionalists) but a much more sympathetic figure trying desperately to make sense of a situation that, given her own ignorance of Branden's deception, made utterly no sense at all. I personally found many of these entries shattering, heartbreaking, and very revealing.
Valliant argues that there was deception in the Rand-Branden relationship from the very beginning. He recognizes that the Affair "had its origins in their highly intellectual relationship," and that their "apparent intellectual affinity [was] largely due to the rather comprehensive nature of Rand's interests, ... encompass[ing] philosophy, psychology, art and, of course, sex." For Valliant, however, Branden was a con man from the start; "Branden ... (deceptively) conveyed an emotional affinity with Rand that encompassed everything from their esthetic preferences to the deepest aspects of their psychology" (138).
But Valliant has no way of knowing what was in Branden's or Rand's mind back in the 1950s, when their Affair began. On one level, it's very easy to understand the genesis of this Affair. When it began, it was obviously a time in which Branden was at the height of his admiration for Rand, and vice versa; this swept away all possible considerations of age. The two of them shared everything, as Valliant observes. As the parties grew older, the relationship changed---first due to Rand's post-Atlas depression, and later, by consequence perhaps, due to Branden's movement toward Patrecia. Many young people fall in love with an older charismatic mentor, and love might indeed spark an all-consuming affair. Sometimes what follows is a cooling of affections, as more and more "reality" enters the picture. The tragedy of the Affair is not that it started or that it ended, but that it became something so unwieldy and so overwhelmed by deception. And as psychologists tell us, such deception is often a misdirected "survival" strategy.
The dynamics of the Rand-Branden relationship changed over time. But Valliant only fleshes out one-half of that dynamic. For example, Valliant maintains that toward the end of the relationship Branden had "quite literally used Rand as his personal psychotherapist" (102). This is evidence, he says, that the relationship had been "transformed ... into nothing but psychotherapy" (115). But Rand wasn't forced into this role; she most likely accepted the role as a means of guiding the man she loved back to her. And whatever lies a guilt-ridden Branden was telling Rand paled in comparison to the rationalist-intellectualist lies he was telling himself initially: that all he need do is check his premises as a means of returning to Rand (Branden 1986, 333).
Regardless, the therapeutic element had been introduced into this relationship some years before---by Rand herself. Rand relied upon Branden as a psychotherapist of sorts when she fell into a deeply depressed state in the aftermath of the publication of Atlas Shrugged. Valliant (2005) acknowledges this: "Branden says he had helped her, too, during what he describes as Rand's two-year post-Atlas Shrugged depression" (96). Even in her journal entries, Rand talks about her "withdrawal during the personal crisis years" (278). Valliant admits, therefore: "In fairness to the Brandens, it must be acknowledged that Rand's private journals do substantiate several of the claims which they have made: some confirmation of a post-Atlas Shrugged 'crisis' period for Rand (her word for it)" (192). Branden had first mentioned that two-year period in his "Answer to Ayn Rand," where he wrote:
For example, in the two-year period following the publication of Atlas Shrugged, I visited her on an average of two or three evenings a week for the express purpose of trying to help her with a problem that was so distressing to her that she was unable to write or to project her future goals: the problem of her disgust with and revulsion at the intellectual state of our culture. Many other examples, of a more personal nature, could readily be cited.
In his memoirs, Branden (1999, 209) explores that period more extensively. He writes that Rand "would begin to cry while describing her perception of the world and her own place in it, and she confided that she cried almost every day. ... We had long conversations on the telephone every day. I visited her two or three evenings a week, sometimes alone, sometimes with Barbara, so we could discuss how we might better interpret the events that were such blows to Ayn's ambition, energy, and enthusiasm. These sessions typically lasted until five or six in the morning. Her suffering was devastating to watch." Branden acted also to try "to bring sanity to [his] friends [in the Collective] and to fill Ayn with hope." And during that period, Rand and Branden "made love less than a dozen times. ... Our affair died not by conscious decision but by default, as a casualty of Ayn's depression. 'I have nothing to bring to the realm of sex,' Ayn said sadly. 'Perhaps, one day in the future, when I'm alive again. But now all we can be is friends'" (219).
This situation lasted till around 1960. It was only with Rand's newfound purpose in nonfiction writing and lecturing---activities that Branden encouraged and nourished---that she began to emerge from personal crisis. Ironically, in retrospect, Rand writes in January 1968: "I think and feel strongly that our relationship was a mistake from the start---that there was and is no way to implement it in practice. But I do not know any solution other than a total break (leaving only a functional relationship). We were right to attempt it originally. But we should have broken it about 8 years ago. We might have found some form of friendship then (though I am inclined to doubt it.) Today, it is impossible---and it is these last 8 years that have made it impossible" (254). So, looking back, Rand seemingly agrees with Branden's own assessment of the situation. And had the relationship simply withered away "by default," had Rand not expressed her own interest in re-starting the Affair---after Branden had started his affair with Patrecia (unbeknownst to Rand)---things might have turned out differently. But Branden deceived Rand from 1964 on, keeping his relationship with Patrecia a secret even from Barbara until around 1966---at which point, Barbara herself became embroiled in Nathaniel's deception of Rand.
It's hard to know what was going through Nathaniel Branden's mind at the time. Rand senses that Branden "may have been role-playing from the start" (201). But it is also possible that he'd expended so much emotional energy trying to lift Rand from her own two-year depression that he thought it easier to lie to her, rather than to risk further emotional upset. Sometimes a man might lie to his lover in order to protect himself---and that lover---from upset; on one level, it is a "survival" mechanism, even though on another level, it is morally wrong and ultimately self-defeating. And once a lie is introduced into an interpersonal dynamic, more and more lies must be introduced to sustain the original lie---until the whole relationship falls apart like the proverbial house of cards.
That doesn't mean that the people doing the lying aren't simultaneously trying to tell the truth. Sometimes that comes in the form of hypothetical discussion. In Rand's own 1968 entries, she talks about how, in her sessions with Branden, he projected an "ideal life" where he "would ... have a secret, very private, very spiritual romance with me ... and, simultaneously, to have a girl of his own age, as his mistress and companion, who would 'mean less' to him than I, but who would share his life in the world" (234). Branden is clearly trying to tell Rand something about his feelings here, but he's sending complex mixed messages. This "girl his own age," whom Rand and Branden dub "Miss X," might help Branden out with his "sex problem"---that is, the lack of intimacy between Rand and Branden at this time. "In one of our early conversations about 'Miss X,' I said that if this proved to be the only solution to his sex problem," Rand writes, "I might conceivably accept a 'Miss X,' provided I understood his motives fully and rationally, and provided I did not have to meet her or associate with her." Rand says she just won't be "a spiritual 'Mother-figure' in his life" (335).
It's true that by July 1968 Rand is aware of the "greyness" of her relationship to Branden. Looking back to January 1968, she's convinced that they'd reached "the end" of their romance (331). I truly wonder if Rand had fully accepted that end, but I can say this much: If my part-time lover started talking even hypothetically about hooking up with a new Miss or Mister X, I'd have seen the handwriting on the wall pretty quickly. As that great philosopher Ryan Atwood (played by Benjamin Mckenzie) once said on "The O.C.": "[If] you gotta work this hard, it's not workin'."
There were other dynamics in the Rand-Branden relationship that were clearly problematic, at least from Rand's perspective. For example, some of Rand's own views of masculinity and femininity seem to be at work in her relationship with Branden. I have never believed that Rand's distinctive view of femininity as "hero-worship" of the male was dictated by the fundamental tenets of Objectivism (on this point, see various essays in Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand). But their mutual acceptance of Rand's understanding of gender roles shapes their response, as Rand herself expresses in a journal entry from 4 July 1968:
His original admiration for me and his devotion to me ... were authentic and rational and based on his best premises. His falling in love with me was authentic. But, thereafter, ... a terrible conflict began in him ... to his rational self, I was a woman he loved---but to his social metaphysical (and, specifically emotional) repressed self, I was a moral authority and he wanted me to remain that, he wanted me to be a superior or a leader, he could not feel a proper masculine superiority to me. (He ascribed this later to his "youth.") He told me that he felt as if there was an improper element of "surrender" in his love for me---but he never identified what it was. (343)
Aside from the crucially important issue of viewing Rand as a "moral authority," this is probably much too much of a gender inversion for Rand to find it at all interesting in a romantic context.
Eventually, the "Miss X" stuff begins to take on a human face as Branden begins to spend a lot more time with Patrecia; Rand is not a dumb woman and she begins to trust her "stomach feeling" (283). (The phrase originates with Nathaniel Branden; I don't know of anybody except an Objectivist who would use that charming phrase to describe what most others would call a "gut instinct.") The fact that Branden keeps talking about a younger Miss X, and that he's parading around with Patrecia means, to me, that Branden's actions are slowly betraying his words. And, perhaps, subconsciously at this point, he knows it.
Valliant keeps stressing throughout that Rand is not a jealous woman; she does not experience "Female jealousy, in the traditional sense" (367). But it's very hard to press all of Rand's words into that "non-jealous" model of human behavior (or is it a model of "nontraditional" female jealousy?) that Valliant sees as operative in Rand's consciousness. She tells Branden that she "can accept a relationship with him only on condition that there won't be any 'Miss X'" (252). But she believes that such a Miss X would have to be "inferior to [Branden's] values" (276). She senses that Patrecia must be hiding something too and this leads her to sense fundamental fraudulence: "I do not think that she is honest---in an inner, fundamental way---I think that she is role-playing (the 'actress premise')---I think that she is self-centered in a bad sense of the word---I think that she is shallow, superficial and presumptuous." She goes so far as to say that Patrecia's "alleged belief in openness, and of her social 'act' is a bad, and probably evil, symptom---and, perhaps above all, I cannot stand people with 'acts,' particularly women with 'acts': it is too clear to me that such acts come from dreadful premises" (283).
It's hard reading such words, knowing that Patrecia, who died tragically in 1977, is no longer here, and cannot defend herself. But Valliant explains that "Patrecia had to be a fraud in Rand's eyes." It was ultimately Branden's fault for having put all the women in his life "in a completely untenable relationship to one another, although with the willing complicity of two of them" (284). But given that Rand's gut instincts were correct on some level about the fraud being perpetuated, I don't see how she could have possibly been justified in presuming that the attraction of Nathaniel to Patrecia would be "based on mutual flaws---not mutual values" (344), and that "her particular flaws coincided with his" (362). How could Rand know this? She presumes this because Branden suggested that he felt most "natural," most like "himself," or as she puts it, most like "that kind of self" in Patrecia's presence (345). Patrecia gave Branden the kind of "blind adulation" that Branden seemed to require; Rand stresses this is adulation, "not admiration, but [Branden] could easily glamorize the first into the second" (345). By accepting Patrecia's "universe" and rejecting hers, Rand says that "existentially and objectively," the "choice ... speaks for itself" (346). (Interestingly, at one point, Rand reports that Branden "had said that [Patrecia] represented his Eddie Willers" [a positive "common man" character in Atlas Shrugged] (326)---implying that Rand herself could have been Branden's John Galt. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to ask if Patrecia served as Branden's Frank O'Connor.)
In this hierarchy of values, Rand writes: "I want to stress this: I was and am too much for him" (323). Rand states that Patrecia "herself may not be wholly evil---but the motive of his interest in her, is. Actually, she is the 'girl next door'." Rand sees this as "such an ignominious end for what had been, potentially, such rare and authentic greatness" (348) and, in the end, Branden proves to be "the worst traitor and the most immoral person I have ever met" (349). She's still hoping his "best premises" will win out (349), but she remains profoundly angry with Branden for having rejected "Objectivist philosophy and everything it implies," which, presumably, means the rejection of Rand herself as its embodiment (351). Whatever his stated values, Branden now "rejects all of it because he feels a sexual urge for the bodies of chorus girls! ... This is unspeakably filthier than the attitude of the lowest woman-chaser." She condemns Branden's "smutty little sex urges" and compares him to those religious hypocrites who go to church on Sunday "and leave their whorehouse itches at home, to indulge in for the rest of their time." But Branden is worse because he "bring[s] a whore into the church, put[s] her up on the altar and proclaim[s] that she is a goddess!" (351-52). Rand insists she's not talking about any "specific girl," just the nature of Branden's "physical alienation" (352).
But it sure looks to me as if Rand is angry at Branden because he once worshiped her; and now he has elevated a "whore" to an exalted position.
In terms of practical matters, "smaller things" as she puts it, Rand also asks Branden at one point "whether he intended any further friendship with [Patrecia]; he said, No---and was quite firm about it. I explained why I expect or demand this---in regard to therapy, to Objectivism, to the Collective ... and to myself, i.e., no one of that sort is to profit from this tragedy and from my work" (369).
Valliant insists that "Rand's anger ... was the result of nothing but Branden's repeated dishonesty" (378). Still, while it is clear that Rand was livid over Branden's dishonesty, there is the pain of rejection in her journals that cannot go unnoticed. Underlying anger is hurt and, perhaps, even fear of loss. Rand herself recognizes the insidious nature of fear: "'Fear is the antonym of thought'" (347). I don't know how else to interpret Rand's thinking or her anger except as, partially, an expression of her hurt feelings from rejection by a man whom she loved. And there is nothing wrong with any of these emotions. They are all genuinely human.
What must be remembered again is that these are Rand's personal journal entries, not meant for publication. Whatever one's interpretation of these entries, they were written by Rand for her own benefit. She's working very hard in these pages to grapple with a tragedy-in-the-making. It must have been both painful and cathartic for her to set this into writing. For me, it was certainly painful to read.
Reading these journal entries also helps us to understand Rand's reportedly violent response when she finally confronted Branden with all his lies. Barbara Branden (1986, 347) reports that Rand screamed at him: "May you be damned to the hell you put me through! Do you begin to know what you've done? Do you begin to know what you've thrown away? Me!---your highest value, you said, the woman you couldn't live without. You dared to reject me?" (Nathaniel Branden [1999, 343] reports much the same thing; he only adds that Rand yells at him: "God Damn You!"---something captured well by Helen Mirren in the film dramatization of The Passion of Ayn Rand.) "If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health---you'll be impotent for the next twenty years! And if you achieve any potency, you'll know it's a sign of still worse moral degradation!" And in her rage, she slapped him three times.
Valliant (2005, 379) reports that beyond the summer of '68, "references to Branden in Rand's private journal come to an abrupt end. If these notes are any indication, the state of Branden's mental health was no longer a concern to Rand." Valliant adds that Peikoff has "confirmed that he knows of no later journal entries referring to Branden" (414 n. 101).
Since the end of their sexual relationship didn't sink the business of Objectivism, Valliant argues that Branden's honesty could have helped to preserve his "functional relationship" with Rand. "In November of 1967, a 'total break' with Branden would have meant at least an attempt to preserve a 'functional' relationship, so Branden's self-portrait of having his 'back to the wall' must be seen as pure fantasy. Rand certainly has doubts that such a state is 'possible' to them, but it is also clear that this is precisely the nature of 'the break' which Rand was contemplating at this point ..." (244). He adds: "It is apparent---from private notes to herself---that, but for Branden's overt dishonesty, it would have been at least possible for him to retain his business partnership with Rand, whatever the nature of his romantic feelings for her" (246). Branden's fear that he "could not end just the sexual component ... because 'He thought it would end the relationship'"---was unfounded, in Valliant's view (372).
It's certainly true that, at first, Rand wouldn't break with Branden completely. But, again, that's because she is trying desperately to understand a man to whom she'd given her body and soul. She won't break with him "[b]ecause I do not understand his attitude. Because I must first understand..." (255). But by the time she comes to accept the end of the romance, "[t]he only question is: is there anything possible other than a total break? (I don't think so.)" (258). For us to accept Valliant's argument that Rand could have retained a business relationship with a man she did not trust, and who had rejected her, sexually and romantically, we'd have to completely alter the image of Rand's integrated character---as Valliant himself paints it. "Rand's own mind cannot be cut into parts," he writes, "her extraordinarily logical cognitive method was intimately tied to her passionate 'sense of life'" (220-21). I submit that any individual so fully integrated could never have retained a "functional" relationship with a man whose dishonesty and manipulation so hurt her.
The Brandens: Rationalist Sycophants, Cheats, and Liars
If Rand is the fully integrated being in Valliant's narrative, the Brandens are either misintegrated or disintegrated (shades of Peikoff's "DIM Hypothesis"). At every turn, Valliant provides the least generous interpretation of the Brandens' actions. Every comment, every action, every reaction by the Brandens is viewed in negative terms. He ascribes the very worst motivations to them in virtually every instance he examines.
For example, on the issue of how Alissa Rosenbaum eventually settled on her Rand surname, Valliant questions the story that Barbara Branden relates that Rand allegedly took the name from her "Remington-Rand" typewriter. That's apparently what Rand's friend, Fern Brown, reported to Branden. And Barbara Branden tells us in a SOLO HQ "Holding Court" article (14 June 2005) that Rand herself told this identical story. But Professor Allan Gotthelf has argued that the Rand Kardex Company didn't merge with the Remington Typewriter Company until 1927, and Rand's use of that surname predates 1927. Additionally, Michael Berliner and Richard Ralston have observed that Ayn Rand's name might have been derived from the Cyrillic spelling of her original name. Rand herself told The Saturday Evening Post that her name was an "abbreviation" of her Russian name (Valliant 2005, 14; and see here).
So we have some evidence here that brings the "Remington-Rand" story into question. Why argue that the "Remington-Rand" story is an example of many "bold assertions" that Barbara Branden makes "even in the face of conclusive evidence to the contrary" (as if Branden had the evidence noted above, and simply tossed it aside)? Why argue that this is but a symptom of the "kind of dishonesty [that] pervades all aspects of [the Brandens'] 'biographical' efforts" (14)? Even the throwing of a surprise party for Ayn Rand becomes an exercise by the Brandens in conscious "deception" (50). "Whether it was a little deception---like a surprise party---or a big one---like Branden's intellectual fraud---the Brandens insist on their right to manipulate Rand with their lies," Valliant asserts (109).
Valliant is much more persuasive when he portrays the Brandens as the First Randian Sycophants. But there is nothing in that description that is radically new; the Brandens have admitted as much. I've often thought that they speak from self-knowledge in their own criticisms of the "sycophants" who still exist in certain segments of the Rand universe. Valliant himself recognizes that Nathaniel Branden's own memoir includes an admission of "considerable responsibility" for the "misery and trauma leading up to the break" (87). But Valliant also argues that "Branden was acting, without Rand's knowledge, to create a culture of conformity which he would later blame Rand for creating" (59). While it is true that Branden would dispute any notion that he could have created a whole edifice of conformity without Rand's explicit or tacit approval, it is also the case that he fully acknowledged his own role. In Judgment Day, he recalls the many attacks that were made on him after the break with Rand. He writes: "Barbara [Branden] expressed surprise at my seeming lack of anger. I shook my head sadly. 'Barbara, I would never have done what these people are doing now---or I don't believe I would---but still, how angry can I get? I'm Dr. Frankenstein, and they're my goddamn monsters'" (1999, 358; emphasis added).
Branden speaks freely of the
"cultish" premises that were implicit in the Objectivist subculture of the Nathaniel Branden Institute: That Rand was the
"greatest human being who has ever lived," that Atlas was "the greatest human achievement in the history of the world," that Rand was
"the supreme arbiter in any issue," that Branden himself should be "accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself," and so forth (226-27). I don't think either Nathaniel Branden or Barbara Branden would disagree with Valliant (2005, 64) in his claim that the
"authoritarian" tendencies of the early Objectivist movement were rooted significantly in the
"sycophantic tendencies" that they themselves nourished.
Valliant argues that this sycophancy was actually a vestige of a
"religious ... manner of thinking" more appropriate to a "rationalist" than an Objectivist
(212). Nathaniel Branden, he says, "had practically memorized The Fountainhead. He read it with the fervor and intensity of a lover and with the serious dedication of a scholar of the Talmud, he tells us" (219). Moreover,
"Rand was a religious figure to Branden, by his own statement, 'a goddess,' unreal and disconnected from everything of this earth" (298).
But the problem of rationalism---and of its accompanying viruses of reified hyper-abstraction and emotional repression---has been a problem faced by Objectivists of all stripes from the
time of the formal inception of the philosophy. Branden's 1971 post-Randian book
The Disowned Self is, in many ways, an antidote to that kind of philosophic rationalism, as is Peikoff's
fine 1983 lecture course, "Understanding Objectivism."
In lecture 2 of that course, Peikoff himself admitted to struggling with rationalist tendencies
for fifteen years; must we blame the Brandens for that too?
To some extent, Barbara Branden roots this kind of rationalism in certain implicit assumptions held by Rand. Valliant quotes Branden as saying:
"To Ayn, other people were not fully real; they were moving and breathing abstractions, they were, for good or ill, the embodiments of moral and psychological principles... It was how she saw herself; it was how she saw everyone else" (135;
cf. Branden 1986, 263). Valliant thinks this is a distortion, but a persuasive case can be made that Rand's work
encapsulates some of these tendencies. In terms of her novels, of course, Rand constructed her fictional characters precisely in this manner---a manner developed by
such great Russian writers as Dostoyevsky. It is a literary method that dramatizes---and ultimately resolves---the conflict among characters who embody key principles. And,
in some respects, Rand saw herself in terms of her
own essential principles, rather than as a flesh-and-blood figure involved in the concrete drama of world history. Valliant
may object to those who have attempted to "separate [Rand] the woman from her ideas"
(135), but that's what Rand herself demanded in a letter to readers of The Fountainhead,
written in 1945, five years prior to her first meeting with the Brandens: When I am questioned about myself, I am tempted to say, paraphrasing Roark:
"Don't ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think." It is the content of a person's brain, not the accidental details
of his life, that determines his character. My own character is in the pages of The Fountainhead. For anyone who wishes to know me, that is essential. The specific events of my private life are of no importance whatever. I have never had any private life in the usual sense of the word. My writing is my life.
And there is some evidence too
that Rand idealized certain people in her life. For example, Valliant
(2005, 158) quotes an 8 January 1949 letter that Rand wrote to Leonebel Jacobs (see
Rand 1995, 418). "All my heroes will always be reflections of Frank [O'Connor], anyway." Really? Rand
once claimed that she was deeply inspired by Maurice Champagne's adventure story,
"The Mysterious Valley." In it, the hero, Cyrus, projects the values she would come to celebrate.
"But the hero, Cyrus---the kind of feeling I had for him, it still exists, it's in essence everything that I've ever felt for Roark, Galt, Nathan, Frank, or all my values. ... Cyrus was a personal inspiration. ... He was a man of action who was totally self-confident ... He helped me to concretize what I called
'my kind of man'..." (Branden 1986, 12).
Rand discovered Cyrus in 1914. A few years later, in 1922, she'd meet Lev Bekkerman, her first love, who so inspired her that she'd keep his memory alive in the character Leo Kovalensky in We the Living. Scott McConnell (2004, 52) quotes Rand on Bekkerman:
"He was the symbol and the focus of my whole life in Russia, and if I were to project any kind of story, he had to be the hero of it." In the end, Bekkerman was particularly self-destructive (sound familiar?), and he did not return the love Rand had for him.
"Many years later," McConnell writes, "when asked if she would have stayed in the Soviet Union if Lev Bekkerman had returned her feelings, Ayn Rand replied:
'I would have. Almost certainly'" (55). (Interesting
comment, especially for those Randians who argue that there are
"innocents" in war; Rand herself would have sacrificed her freedom to be with the man she loved,
and might have perished, innocently, a casualty of Soviet oppression or of World
I think these instances
constitute evidence that Rand could idealize or
intellectualize certain people, including herself. I'm not arguing that her philosophy leads
necessarily to philosophic idealism or rationalism. But I am arguing that certain statements by Rand carry these
intellectualist and rationalist implications that, when
more generally applied,
distort the essential message of her philosophy. The Brandens are not to blame for this, even if they admit to having contributed to the distortions in practice, if not in theory.
What concerns me even more,
however, is that Valliant is utterly unwilling to give any credit at all to the Brandens
for the contributions they made to the Objectivist canon. All Valliant (2005) sees is that Nathaniel Branden developed an archetypal theory of
and that Branden himself embodied the "'Power-seeking' social metaphysician"
(349), who used nonviolent "manipulation, trickery, and deceit" (350) in
an attempt to gain "power and position." He asserts that Branden's
Valliant argues that this sycophancy was actually a vestige of a "religious ... manner of thinking" more appropriate to a "rationalist" than an Objectivist (212). Nathaniel Branden, he says, "had practically memorized The Fountainhead. He read it with the fervor and intensity of a lover and with the serious dedication of a scholar of the Talmud, he tells us" (219). Moreover, "Rand was a religious figure to Branden, by his own statement, 'a goddess,' unreal and disconnected from everything of this earth" (298). But the problem of rationalism---and of its accompanying viruses of reified hyper-abstraction and emotional repression---has been a problem faced by Objectivists of all stripes from the time of the formal inception of the philosophy. Branden's 1971 post-Randian book The Disowned Self is, in many ways, an antidote to that kind of philosophic rationalism, as is Peikoff's fine 1983 lecture course, "Understanding Objectivism." In lecture 2 of that course, Peikoff himself admitted to struggling with rationalist tendencies for fifteen years; must we blame the Brandens for that too?
To some extent, Barbara Branden roots this kind of rationalism in certain implicit assumptions held by Rand. Valliant quotes Branden as saying: "To Ayn, other people were not fully real; they were moving and breathing abstractions, they were, for good or ill, the embodiments of moral and psychological principles... It was how she saw herself; it was how she saw everyone else" (135; cf. Branden 1986, 263). Valliant thinks this is a distortion, but a persuasive case can be made that Rand's work encapsulates some of these tendencies. In terms of her novels, of course, Rand constructed her fictional characters precisely in this manner---a manner developed by such great Russian writers as Dostoyevsky. It is a literary method that dramatizes---and ultimately resolves---the conflict among characters who embody key principles. And, in some respects, Rand saw herself in terms of her own essential principles, rather than as a flesh-and-blood figure involved in the concrete drama of world history. Valliant may object to those who have attempted to "separate [Rand] the woman from her ideas" (135), but that's what Rand herself demanded in a letter to readers of The Fountainhead, written in 1945, five years prior to her first meeting with the Brandens:
When I am questioned about myself, I am tempted to say, paraphrasing Roark: "Don't ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think." It is the content of a person's brain, not the accidental details of his life, that determines his character. My own character is in the pages of The Fountainhead. For anyone who wishes to know me, that is essential. The specific events of my private life are of no importance whatever. I have never had any private life in the usual sense of the word. My writing is my life.
And there is some evidence too that Rand idealized certain people in her life. For example, Valliant (2005, 158) quotes an 8 January 1949 letter that Rand wrote to Leonebel Jacobs (see Rand 1995, 418). "All my heroes will always be reflections of Frank [O'Connor], anyway." Really? Rand once claimed that she was deeply inspired by Maurice Champagne's adventure story, "The Mysterious Valley." In it, the hero, Cyrus, projects the values she would come to celebrate. "But the hero, Cyrus---the kind of feeling I had for him, it still exists, it's in essence everything that I've ever felt for Roark, Galt, Nathan, Frank, or all my values. ... Cyrus was a personal inspiration. ... He was a man of action who was totally self-confident ... He helped me to concretize what I called 'my kind of man'..." (Branden 1986, 12).
Rand discovered Cyrus in 1914. A few years later, in 1922, she'd meet Lev Bekkerman, her first love, who so inspired her that she'd keep his memory alive in the character Leo Kovalensky in We the Living. Scott McConnell (2004, 52) quotes Rand on Bekkerman: "He was the symbol and the focus of my whole life in Russia, and if I were to project any kind of story, he had to be the hero of it." In the end, Bekkerman was particularly self-destructive (sound familiar?), and he did not return the love Rand had for him. "Many years later," McConnell writes, "when asked if she would have stayed in the Soviet Union if Lev Bekkerman had returned her feelings, Ayn Rand replied: 'I would have. Almost certainly'" (55). (Interesting comment, especially for those Randians who argue that there are no "innocents" in war; Rand herself would have sacrificed her freedom to be with the man she loved, and might have perished, innocently, a casualty of Soviet oppression or of World War II.)
I think these instances constitute evidence that Rand could idealize or intellectualize certain people, including herself. I'm not arguing that her philosophy leads necessarily to philosophic idealism or rationalism. But I am arguing that certain statements by Rand carry these intellectualist and rationalist implications that, when more generally applied, distort the essential message of her philosophy. The Brandens are not to blame for this, even if they admit to having contributed to the distortions in practice, if not in theory.
What concerns me even more, however, is that Valliant is utterly unwilling to give any credit at all to the Brandens for the contributions they made to the Objectivist canon. All Valliant (2005) sees is that Nathaniel Branden developed an archetypal theory of "social metaphysics," and that Branden himself embodied the "'Power-seeking' social metaphysician" (349), who used nonviolent "manipulation, trickery, and deceit" (350) in an attempt to gain "power and position." He asserts that Branden's"psychology shows a striking similarity to the psychology of a rapist," one who used "sex as his chosen instrument of coercion and terror" (382). Branden, who "had written on the relationship between force and fraud as means of manipulation," committed a moral crime against Rand, Valliant argues, and what "his crime lacked in violence, it made up for in prolonged psychological torment and deception" (383). Through deception, Branden "enjoyed and prolonged this kind of domination for years. ... Branden was not only able to exploit Rand---intellectually, psychologically, emotionally, professionally and financially---he could do so with an erection. ... While his behavior was not, technically, rape, Branden's was nothing less than the soul of a rapist" and his memoir constitutes "the concealment of an act of spiritual rape" (383-84).
In reading these hyperbolic statements, my only thought was that Ayn Rand was an imbecile. How could a woman of such intelligence have been so fooled by such a con man?
In truth, of course, she wasn't fooled. She may have had second thoughts about the wisdom of the Affair, but she never had second thoughts about the intelligence of the man she loved. Valliant argues correctly that "[a] philosopher's biography is, of course, irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of that thinker's ideas" (170). But the same could be said about a psychologist's biography. For even if deception clouded the last four years of the Rand-Branden relationship, even if Rand was right in retrospect that their romantic relationship should have ended around 1960, the fact is that Nathaniel Branden developed true and valid ideas that Rand herself recognized as true and valid. And the Brandens were a significant force in the genesis of Rand's Objectivism as a philosophic movement. Through Nathaniel Branden Lectures, and then, the Nathaniel Branden Institute, they worked tirelessly to spread the philosophy globally. They encouraged Rand toward the presentation of her philosophy in nonfiction essays and anthologies. And they presented many of the most important first iterations of Objectivist philosophy---from Barbara Branden's course on "The Principles of Efficient Thinking" to Nathaniel Branden's many lectures and articles on subjects as varied as free will, determinism, mysticism, the "stolen concept," psycho-epistemology (a term actually introduced by Barbara Branden), emotion, repression, anxiety, literary method, economic depressions, public education, self-esteem, pseudo-self-esteem, social metaphysics, mental health, human visibility, and romantic love. Rand herself still accepted Branden's psychological theories, even as her relationship with him deteriorated; she only wished that he'd "read his own course on 'Romantic Love,' and say: 'and I mean it'..." (348)---as she had written in her postscript to Atlas Shrugged.
And Rand continued to value Branden's work even after her break with him. She never expunged his essays from her anthologies. She never renounced the work he did while he was associated with her philosophy, and, in fact, considered it to be part of the Objectivist corpus even after their break. Viewing herself as "a theoretician" of Objectivism, "a philosophical system originated by me and publicly associated with my name," Rand saw it as her "right and responsibility to protect its intellectual integrity." And, in so doing, she emphasized that the "only authentic sources of information on Objectivism" were her own works ("books, articles, lectures") and those by other authors endorsed in The Objectivist. She adds: "This list includes also the book Who Is Ayn Rand? by Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, as well as the articles by these two authors which have appeared in this magazine in the past, but does not include their future works" ("A Statement of Policy, Part I," The Objectivist 7, no. 6, June 1968, in Rand 1982, 471).
As late as 1978 (see Sciabarra 1995, 403 n. 64), she remarked that Objectivism had made little impact on psychology. She said that she could name exceptions, "but not in print." As I state in Russian Radical, this is, indeed, "the closest Rand has come to recognizing Branden's post-1968 contributions." One might say that Rand was even more objective than Valliant in giving credit where credit was due. Valliant (2005, 121) admits that "Rand continued to acknowledge, in some sense, the value of [the Brandens'] previous work." But Valliant himself doesn't. Valliant argues that "Nathaniel Branden never really understood Objectivism, despite his fervent claims to the contrary" (223). He views Branden's ideas as "mere adjuncts to his systematic deceptions of Ayn Rand, both intellectual and personal" (223). He even goes so far as to claim that "Objectivism never agreed with Branden's actual values, probably from the start" (224). But Valliant simply has no way of knowing this or substantiating this. In any event, even if one could prove that Branden never really integrated the philosophy into his life, or that he was playing a role that ultimately undermined him and his relationship to Ayn Rand, it would not in any way, shape, or form diminish the contributions he made---contributions that Rand herself continued to value. Indeed, any thinker's "biography is ... irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of that thinker's ideas" (170).
When some of Rand's intellectual progeny try to bracket out those contributions, the result, in my view, is a diminished Objectivism. (My book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical goes a long way toward reintegrating the theoretical work of Nathaniel Branden into the corpus of Objectivism.) The intellectual relationship between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden was significant and it had some enormously positive long-term consequences. One might even say (as I did in Russian Radical) that if Nathaniel Branden is the legitimate "father" of the self-esteem movement in psychology, "Ayn Rand is its mother" (Sciabarra 1995, 403 n. 64). Branden didn't become a leading figure in the psychology of self-esteem by simply "exploiting [his] association with Rand" (171); he is an author unto himself of nineteen books and countless articles. And he continues to credit Rand as having had the most important impact on his intellectual development. In The Psychology of Self-Esteem, his first treatise in psychology, much of it a verbatim republication of his essays written for The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist, Branden states unequivocally that "[t]he Objectivist epistemology, metaphysics and ethics are the philosophical frame of reference in which I write as a psychologist" ( 1979, ix). And, in the years since 1968, even as he developed his psychological theories of self-esteem and romantic love, his work on the relationship of reason and emotion, and his pioneering "sentence-completion" exercises in directed association, Branden (1999, 21) has continued to recognize in Rand an intellectual forebear, one who "speaks, on many different levels, to the quest for individuation, autonomy, and self-actualization."
Rand as Moralizer: The Issue of Homosexuality
Throughout his book, Valliant takes the Brandens and other "Rand critics" to task for portraying Rand as a fervent moralizer. Those who moralize don't simply pass moral judgment; they pass judgment in a way that is marked by sweeping generalization or by not paying attention to the complex context of those whom they condemn. And in a group that comes to accept the moralizing of its chief theoretician, this can have the effect of creating a subculture of conformity, one where those who doubt Shakespeare's fatalism or Beethoven's malevolence might be suspect precisely because all philosophy is integrated, and an error in one position is likely to redound throughout a whole network of related positions.
Valliant (2005, 99) criticizes Nathaniel Branden for his charge that Rand sometimes exhibited this tendency toward totalism, that"one must accept all of [Objectivism's] tenets or none of them." Valliant says that Branden dismisses this claim as "pretentious" and "grandiose nonsense." For Valliant, however, "the only 'nonsense' here turns out to be that Rand ever said such a thing; she did not." But the insidious potential for "totalism" exists in certain stated Objectivist positions on integration. I'd argue that such "totalism" is a distortion of genuine Objectivism, but the implication nonetheless exists: in Rand's own view that "everything [in reality] is interrelated" (Rand 1990, 180) and in Peikoff's quasi-Hegelian insistence that the "True is the Whole" (Peikoff 1991, 4)---that the parts of Objectivism cohere in such an integrated fashion that to doubt one of its tenets is to bring into question its other tenets and the philosophic system as well.
Jeff Walker, in his book The Ayn Rand Cult, actually indicts Rand for adhering to this kind of "totalism" and, on this basis, for creating a culture of conformity. In a review of my own book on Rand, philosopher Lester Hunt articulates the problem with such totalism, which he sees as "the habit of seeing everything as connected with everything else." Such a perspective "would tend to give [us] other habits, ones that tend to be very unfriendly to liberty." He writes:
Suppose I notice that you have made a mistake of some sort. To the extent that I have the habit of thinking in totalistic terms, I am apt to think there is a great deal more wrong with you than this one mistake. This will be true whether the mistake is moral, aesthetic, or philosophical, whether you are attracted to a person I find unworthy, or do not adequately appreciate the music of Rachmaninoff, or have wrong views on the problem of free will. At the very least, you are ignorant of the logical import of all the truths that support the idea you have rejected or the virtue you have failed to show. Worse yet, if I expect your thinking to constitute an organic whole, then I will suspect that your error will bring with it many other ideas, ones that must also be faulty somehow. On such a view, there will not be many small mistakes, and harmless ones will be far between. But in that case, people who appear to me to make mistakes---that is, people who disagree with me---will be ones that I find unwelcome and undesirable. If this is true, then I am that much less likely to show the virtues of civility and tolerance. But these virtues are an essential part of a free society, because they require me to act in such a way that I leave others free from irrational pressure to subject their way of thinking to mine.
In my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, I replied to Hunt's comments on totalism:
If we inferred something about the totality of a person's character from the vantage point of a single aspect (for instance, a person's like or dislike of Rachmaninoff), this inference would be an instance of context-dropping. It would amount to the reification of a single aesthetic response as a whole unto itself, not merely one moment of a complex totality. In order to evaluate the meaning of such an aesthetic response, one would have to know a lot more about the context of the responder, about those experiential, emotional, psychological, and social factors that influence the formation of a person's sense of life over time. That sense of life, so important to aesthetic response, as Rand herself says, is deeply personal. Attempts to elevate one's aesthetic judgments to the level of dogma and to use them as guides by which to evaluate other peoples' characters can only create a stultifying, authoritarian environment. So Hunt is correct; totalism is not friendly to liberty or tolerance or civility. ... The totality must be viewed contextually for that is the only human way of understanding it. (Sciabarra 2000, 166)
The connection between totalism and moralizing is on display in Rand's own proclamations on such topics as homosexuality. (And her legacy of aesthetic pronouncements, till this day, has lead to ongoing debates on various Objectivist forums over the value of different forms of literature or music. See here, for example.) Valliant (2005, 405 n. 7) reminds us that Rand never published on the subject of homosexuality, "perhaps indicating a lack of certainty on the topic." But it wasn't uncertainty that led her to declare in a question-and-answer session accompanying her talk, "The Moratorium on Brains," that homosexuality was"immoral" and "disgusting." That's not what I'd call "uncertain" language. And, in print, that attitude is on display in essays by both Rand and Nathaniel Branden. I examine the textual instances of this in my monograph, Ayn Rand, Homosexuality, and Human Liberation (Sciabarra 2003, 6-9). Those instances and Rand's stated opinion on the subject hurt and alienated her many gay and lesbian followers---to which the recorded testimony in my monograph attests. Now, while one can't strictly "blame" Rand for the reactions of her followers, and while I agree with Valliant (2005, 133) that Rand's views "cannot be said to amount to a philosophic principle or to a part of Objectivism," not all of Rand's interpreters see it that way (see here and here, for example; Valliant actually refers to my own discussion of homosexuality in Russian Radical as a "contrary view" [406 n. 7]). Branden himself admits to feeding into this antigay attitude in the Objectivist subculture of the 1960s, and it was his 1983 lecture on "Love and Sex in the Philosophy of Ayn Rand," among other works, that began a much-needed post-Randian reassessment of that topic (see Sciabarra 1995, 200-1; 2003, 10-16).
In a philosophy that sees "integration" among its many tenets and implications,
the jump from passing negative judgment on homosexuality to viewing homosexuals
as incapable of being Objectivists is not so great. In a philosophy that
sees "integration" among its tenets and implications, the jump from passing
negative judgment on particular thinkers, artists, or forms of music to viewing those who
respond positively to such thinkers, artists, or music as "suspect" is not so great. And to act
as if these tendencies have been absent from Objectivist writings, including
Rand's, and in the Objectivist movement itself, is to ignore real problems.
I have long maintained that there are fundamentally "Two Objectivisms"
at war with one another. As I said in my review
of the Walker book,
there has been a protracted battle between Objectivist "totalism," with its utopian
(or even dystopian) consequences, and Objectivist "contextualism," what I
call its "dialectical" essence, with its supremely radical implications.
(Rand's work is not alone in encapsulating this tension; the works of virtually
all philosophic and social thinkers are a "mixture" of such "methodological orientations." On
this, see Total Freedom, part 1 especially, which draws a distinction,
among other things, between "integration" viewed as a contextualist concept versus
"integration" viewed as a "totalist" or "strict organicist" notion.)
Some time ago, I stopped calling
myself an "Objectivist" because I became tired of the
quasi-religious debates that that label inspired over who was the "true
that a philosophy is defined by its essential tenets---indeed, settling the
issue of essential versus nonessential principles is one way out of the totalist
morass---not by the personal aesthetic or sexual tastes of its founder. I
have sometimes called myself a "post-Randian" precisely because those tastes
have sometimes been equated with the philosophy itself. And Rand's
own proclamations, her own way of rooting all her judgments in "objective"
necessity, encouraged this tendency among some of her followers. When I
argue for preserving and extending "Rand's radical legacy," then, I do so with
full conviction that there are non-radical, non-contextualist,
non-dialectical aspects to her legacy, exhibited in such areas as
sexuality and aesthetics, where Rand's personal preferences morphed into the
requirements of an objective reality.
As Rand and Branden used to say (quoting the old Spanish proverb): "Take what you want, and pay for it." In my own approach, I have taken what I want from Rand's legacy, and have paid for it by taking responsibility for my own integrations. In my "dialectical-libertarian" approach, which has been informed by several intellectual traditions, I have self-consciously eschewed the totalist elements in the Randian corpus, while taking up its radical "contextualist" essence.
Valliant v. Sciabarra
Let us recall that Valliant's book is subtitled "The Case Against the Brandens." This book is most definitely not "The Case Against Sciabarra." But there are a number of subtle criticisms made of my work and these demand a brief response.
Valliant (2005, 25) writes:
Through their research, even scholars who are critical of Rand have almost entirely verified the truth of Rand's various assertions regarding her education and youth, long a subject of doubt and speculation in some quarters. Despite such verification, these scholars persist in treating Rand's statements skeptically while they simultaneously fail to subject the Branden's assertions to the same testing of credibility. Indeed, most uncritically (and often extensively) rely on them in their own work.
He adds, in an endnote (392 n. 3), the following claim:
Close scrutiny has been given to Rand's accounts of her own past. Some critics have been so hostile that they have questioned even basic facts that she related about her early life in Russia, e.g., whether she actually took a course from Professor N. O. Lossky---indeed, whether she actually ever attended the University of St. Petersburg (then called "Petrograd," and later "Leningrad," and now "St. Petersburg" again). Sciabarra still questions one or two minor matters, but he acknowledges nearly all of Rand's autobiographical reports about her life in Russia have been persuasively verified, included her having studied under Lossky.
This is not accurate.
In my unearthing of the Rosenbaum university dossier, I discovered that in Rand's first year at Petrograd State University, there were real questions as to whether she could have studied with Lossky, given the fact that he was ill in the Fall 1921 semester, and had been barred from teaching in the university proper due to his anticommunist beliefs. He was eventually exiled from the Soviet Union (in November 1922). But in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and in a follow-up study of "The Rand Transcript" [Ed: it is now included as Appendix I in the second edition of Russian Radical], I argued that it was highly likely that Rand did study with Lossky, despite these conflicting facts. (A forthcoming Fall 2005 essay in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies entitled, "The Rand Transcript, Revisited" [Ed: This essay has also been published in the second edition of Russian Radical as Appendix II], based on new material uncovered from Russian archives, will extend my previous work in this area.)
It was in the discussion that followed the
publication of my book that
other writers, primarily "Objectivists," rather than hostile Rand
"critics," questioned my linking of Rand and Lossky, and, in so doing, they damned Rand's
own recollections of her university education. [Ed:
The one critic who has now even indicted Rand's own recollections of her having
been taught by Lossky is Shoshana Milgram, who is or is not Rand's "authorized"
biographer; I reply to her criticisms in Appendix III of Russian Radical,
and in a forthcoming July 2017 essay in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies,
"Reply to Critics: The Dialectical Rand".] James Lennox, for example, writing for both
Reason magazine and the
IOS Journal, argues that my willingness to actually believe Rand's recollections, in spite of the conflicting evidence I myself uncovered, is but another example of my
"upgrading of possibilities into established facts," something that is, he claims,
"a persistent feature of The Russian Radical."
(Lennox and other critics even questioned the young Rand's attendance at the Stoiunin
I discovered and presented in Russian Radical based entirely on an inference from minimal evidence;
Rand's Stoiunin gymnasium attendance has now been fully confirmed.) Whereas my discussion
"increase[d] the reader's skepticism about an intellectual relationship between Rand and Lossky," I
was, nevertheless, the scholar who discovered the evidence that increased that
skepticism to begin with; such skepticism didn't exist prior to my work in this area. But in their attempts to criticize my book, the critics of Russian Radical
actually cast into doubt "Rand's autobiographical
To repeat: I am the scholar who gave Rand the benefit of the doubt for it was she who claimed to have studied with Nicholas Onufrievich Lossky.
So, contrary to Valliant's claim, I did more than merely "acknowledge nearly all of Rand's autobiographical reports about her life in Russia [as having] been persuasively verified." I was the one who actually did the verifying in subsequent studies. My initial endorsement of Rand's recollections came on the basis of then-minimal available evidence. My claims have been subsequently verified because more and more evidence became available to support them. The alternative hypotheses---that Rand had misremembered Lossky or, worse, lied about her relationship to Lossky---never seriously entered my mind.
In an endnote (396 n. 105), Valliant also mischaracterizes my view of Rand as a dialectical thinker. He says that I argue that "Rand may have acquired what [I call] her 'dialectical' method of thinking from Hegel and Marx, two of the architects of modern collectivism, via her professors at university." But, he says, "what supposed value may be culled from Hegel's (or Marx's) use of a valid 'dialectical' logic can be traced directly to the influence of Aristotle---whose own logic does not come packaged with Hegel's profound errors---including his 'dialectical' assaults on logic itself." Indeed, I argue that point precisely in Total Freedom (2000), the culminating book of a trilogy that began with the publication, a decade ago, of Marx, Hayek, and Utopia and Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.
In an interview at Prodos.com, Valliant emphasizes that in evaluating any historical work, one must focus on the motives, biases, and context of those who write it. This is "basic to historical research." I agree with him wholeheartedly. This issue of historical methodology is important, of course, because the first part of Valliant's book reads like a prosecutorial indictment of the Brandens, who, he says, "distort and exaggerate the evidence" or suppress "vital evidence" in their books (85). Valliant acknowledges, however, that the Branden books have some value; after all, some of the material in Barbara Branden's biography already appeared in Who Is Ayn Rand?, and that was a biographical sketch approved by Rand herself. So though "one must acknowledge that accurate biographical material may well be contained in these books," one must acknowledge simultaneously "that these books are historically unreliable" (90). And though "[m]any of the claims made in the Brandens' books are undoubtedly true," he says, there are so many "demonstrably false, misleading, one-sided and self-serving" claims such that "it is not generally possible to distinguish the true from the false, and therein lies the problem for the usefulness of these works to historians" (173). In fact, Valliant states, the Brandens' "biographical efforts" are rendered "useless" (85). Their accuracy and reliability are on a par with the New Testament Gospels' rendering of the life of Jesus (402 n. 3). The Brandens, he argues, "are hardly in a position to demand that we rely only upon their credibility and judgment," and yet this is "what they do demand, and precisely what many of Rand's critics have done" as well (86). He adds, in his Prodos.com interview, that when these "enemies" of Ayn Rand have been taken as the "synoptic" or "standard biographers of Ayn Rand," serious misinterpretations are bound to result.
But nowhere can one find any such claim in the Brandens' works that they are either the "synoptic" or even the "standard biographers of Ayn Rand." Barbara Branden's biography may be the only full-length biography currently available, but it is most definitely not the only biographical work in existence. And Nathaniel Branden's memoir is surely not the only Rand-oriented memoir in existence either. Aside from biographical chapters on Rand that can be found in a variety of works, including Jeff Britting's book Ayn Rand, one can also find memoirs by Leonard Peikoff ("My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand" in The Voice of Reason and a DVD-length essay entitled "Leonard Peikoff: In His Own Words") and Mary Ann and Charles Sures (Facets of Ayn Rand). And aside from the 1999 Michael Paxton-directed documentary on Rand's life, "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life," major new biographical studies are forthcoming, including one by Anne Heller entitled Ayn Rand: An American Life (Ed: the title was subsequently changed to Ayn Rand and the World She Made). (It was Heller who generously provided me with the new Russian archival material upon which my forthcoming JARS essay, "The Rand Transcript, Revisited," is based.) Also on the way is a biographical study by Shoshana Milgram, which will make use of the vast resources of the Ayn Rand Archives.
It should be noted that these archives include copies of the Rand interviews conducted predominantly by Barbara Branden. Valliant
(2005, 89-90) hopes that they "will continue to be available for use by scholars"---but
up till now, they have been available only for use by scholars who are associated
in some fashion with the Ayn Rand Institute. Valliant himself is not an ARI-affiliated
scholar, but the previous web availability of his scathing attack on the
Brandens (part one of his current book) led the Estate to grant him
"unprecedented access" to the relevant private journals of Rand (6-7).
His book is one of a very select group of secondary
sources actually listed on the ARI site, with links for purchase: "Books
About Ayn Rand." [Ed: Since this essay was first published, the Valliant
book is no longer listed on the ARI site.] Since I personally know reputable scholars who have not
been allowed to work in the Archives, and I have had my own failed dealings with ARI in pursuit of certain archival records
(see here), I
can only applaud Valliant's access, and hope, with him, that the archives will
be made more generally available in time.
But even the enviable holdings of the Ayn Rand Archives do not constitute the last word in Rand archival collections; one can also go to the Library of Congress, which has many Rand writings and drafts in its possession. One can also use the growing resources of the Objectivist History Project (OHP) (a partnership of The Atlas Society and Duncan Scott Productions), which is sponsoring interviews with important principals in an effort to document the early history of the Objectivist movement. (Full disclosure: I am a scholarly advisor to the OHP.)
With an ever-growing list of available primary and secondary sources, I know of no reputable scholar who would take any of these works or projects
or people, including any of the works authored by the Brandens, as the last word on Rand biography. We are at a very early stage in the scholarly development of an Ayn Rand industry, and it is understandable that the first
biographical works and projects will be focused on the recorded testimony of those who had personal knowledge of, or experience with, the extraordinary woman who was Ayn Rand.
And, for better or for worse, such human testimony becomes a part of the historical undertaking. The remarkable variety of testimony that can be found in the various extant and forthcoming biographical works will gradually become the raw material for future works in Ayn Rand biography---raw material that will, naturally, need to be weighed, evaluated, and engaged. Taking a cue from Rand's definition of art as a "selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments" (Rand 1975, 19), Roy Childs (1994, 18-20) provides a nice answer to the question, "What is history?" He writes:
History is a selective recreation of the events of the past, according to a historian's premises regarding what is important and his judgment concerning the nature of causality in human action. This selectivity is a most important aspect of history, and it is this alone which prevents history from becoming a random chronicling of events. And since this selectivity is necessary to history, the only remaining question is whether or not such judgments will be made explicitly or implicitly, with full knowledge of what one considers to be important and why, or without such awareness. Selection presupposes a means, method, or principle of selection. The historian's view of the nature of causality in human action also is determined by a principle of selection. He can have a conscious theory, such as economic determinism, or attempt to function without one. But without one, the result of historical investigation is likely to appear disintegrated and patched together. . . .
The nature of objective evidence which is largely considered in history is simply human testimony, direct or indirect. History as a field deals with past human thought and actions. Since we have no direct awareness of the contents of anyone's consciousness but our own, we must rely on inference from what a person says, and what he does. Considered from a different perspective, history deals with the ends that men have held in the past, and the means that they have adopted to attain these ends. Since no two individuals are specifically alike in every particular characteristic, it is impossible to recreate the past in the form of a laboratory experiment and to observe the effects of single causal factors on human action. Thus, all that one can do is to collect evidence concerning the context of individual men, their ideas and their actions, using a theory or model of the nature of causality in human action that interprets or selectively reconstructs events in the past, omitting what one judges to be unimportant, and offering an explanation for what one does consider to be important, in light of the evidence available. Utopian "completeness" is neither possible nor necessary in knowledge---in history or anywhere else. All knowledge is contextual, but this does not in any way hinder knowledge from being valid.
Because of his attitude toward the "human testimony" of two key witnesses in the Rand saga, Valliant sometimes paints himself into a corner. For example, on occasion, he needs to rely on some of the Brandens' testimonies in order to make his case against them. But this won't do. For example, as I alluded to earlier, Valliant speculates on Frank O'Connor's demeanor in the context of the Affair. In her biography of Rand, Barbara Branden explored that demeanor too, but Valliant says that "[i]t would, of course, have been helpful if Ms. Branden had provided more of OConnor's actual words, and, as usual, the reader is left starved for more specifics on O'Connor's alleged misery and threats to leave Rand" (150). Why would it have been useful? Valliant doesn't believe Branden in any event; whatever exceptions he makes, his comments on Branden read like Mary McCarthy's repudiation of Lillian Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the." So what good would it have done for Branden to have provided more of O'Connor's "actual words"? She would only have been accused of making it all up. At one point, Valliant even blames Branden for not having "counseled O'Connor to express any of this agony to Rand herself" (150). But if she had counseled O'Connor, Valliant might have then dismissed such counseling as self-serving.
It should be emphasized that not even Ayn Rand hints at any of O'Connor's "actual words" with regard to his feelings about the Affair or about the Brandens; in fact, in all the pages upon pages of Rand's own commentary from her 1967-68 personal journals, as reproduced in Valliant's book, Frank O'Connor's feelings are not mentioned once.
And yet consider this passage in Valliant's book:
Ms. Branden reports that in 1968, just before Rand was to learn the truth, O'Connor "did not speak of his feelings, as he had never spoken of them; but, once, in a sudden, contextless anger, he said [to Rand of Mr. Branden], 'That man is no damn good! Why won't you see it?'" Ironic it took Frank O'Connor to point out that Rand was projecting imaginary virtue---on Branden! (161)
Valliant adds: "This is not the only evidence of O'Connor's perceptiveness" (161). Evidence? Why believe this "evidence"? Why use any evidence provided by Barbara Branden to make one's case when one has already impeached the authenticity of her work? One cannot simultaneously use---and abuse---witnesses to history without thereby impeaching the reliability of all the "evidence" they provide.
Valliant runs into similar problems in his indictments of other "critics" of Ayn Rand insofar as any of them says anything negative about her person at all. In brief, Valliant takes on people like Murray Rothbard, Edith Efron, Hank and Erika Holzer, and Kay Nolte Smith, to name a few.
I can't possibly address each of these cases but the matter of Kay Nolte Smith is of particular concern and illustrates the historiographical knots into which Valliant has tied himself. Valliant tells us that Kay Smith and her husband Philip Smith engaged in "an act exhibiting unbelievably reckless judgment" (75). Apparently, they "changed the dialogue in their production of [Rand's play] Penthouse Legend [also known as Night of January 16th] without authorization from Rand. In such an instance of systematic and personal betrayal, a break was at least understandably in order, simply on the basis of their callous indifference to Rand's personal history, if not to her artistic integrity" (75-76).
Reading this, I confess that I was dumbfounded. Because the only evidence that we are offered of this "systematic and personal betrayal" is taken from an interview that Kay Smith gave to Jeff Walker, for his book, The Ayn Rand Cult.
This is a book that has methodological problems not unlike those on display here in Valliant's own book. As I argue in an exchange with the author inspired by my Full Context review of his book, Jeff Walker presents a case that is, at times, "mean-spirited and potentially self-contradictory" for he tends "to indict people's characters based on the testimonies of those who themselves are indicted by the individuals under attack." In my published exchange with Walker, I write:
It is true that one might be able to weed through the various accounts of a story in an effort to distinguish credible aspects. But Walker has not engaged in this kind of thorough, investigative journalism. In most cases, he simply reports what the various sources say. While personal testimonies are important in the reconstruction of history, they do not alone enable us to grasp the facts. Take Virginia Hamel's comments on [Nathaniel] Branden's alleged negligence in the death of his second wife [Patrecia]. In a court of law, we'd have an opportunity to cross examine Hamel and the toxicologist, and the various principals involved. We'd have an opportunity to examine the evidence, to bring in various experts who may or may not confirm the details in question. To repeat the words of Hamel, who bears Branden no great love, without attempting to discover the facts independently is unacceptable.
Let us look too at Walker's defense of his comment about [Leonard] Peikoff's alleged "effeminacy." He states here that "this is relevant to a movement whose originator and whose leading figure ... have so deplored homosexual behavior. ..." True. And a documentation of such flagrant hypocrisy would have been a genuine journalistic bombshell. Instead, in his book, Walker lets his innuendos speak for themselves: "Rand's ideal man would have to be an overtly masculine and virile heterosexual, something of a stretch for intellectual heir [Leonard Peikoff]," who "sprinkles his lectures with cooking similes and references to ballet," and who would be devastated if someone "ripped out all the roses in her gorgeous rose garden" and smashed her "Tiffany dishes ... in a fit of rage" [Walker 1999, 185-86]. I think it's the height of absurdity to equate "effeminacy" with gay sexuality or gay sexuality with love of ballet, and to make implicit claims about something as complex as sexual orientation based on that person's love of roses and Tiffany dishes.
Interestingly, Valliant himself is critical of Walker who, he says, "grossly misrepresents Rand and Objectivism." He objects to "Walker's repeated use of empty, personal attack" and a "degree of hostility towards Rand, her philosophy, and nearly all of her associates," which brings into question Walker's "objectivity." But this does not stop Valliant from citing quotes from Walker's book, since he assumes that Walker "has not grossly misquoted persons alive at the publication of his book" (393 n. 61). Let us remember, however, that Valliant himself insists on not believing anything stated by the Brandens unless one can independently corroborate their claims. He maintains that "[t]he level of corroboration rationally required to verify their assertions makes the Brandens' own narratives virtually useless, and when such corroboration is not possible, they are entirely useless" (128). I therefore find it remarkable that he is so willing to rely on a single source with regard to this Kay Nolte Smith episode---Jeff Walker---that he, himself, dismisses as prone to gross misrepresentation and ad hominem.
To his credit, Valliant mentions that he did attempt to interview Kay Smith. But that was certainly not an interview connected to the preparation of this book. Valliant writes: "Miss. Smith refused the author's request to be interviewed in 1983" (400 n. 57). 1983? Well Kay Smith passed away in 1993; Philip Smith survives. Wouldn't it have been worthwhile to actually attempt to ask Kay Smith, some years later, about this incident, especially after she had given a 1990 talk at the Institute for Objectivist Studies (now, The Objectivist Center) entitled, "Rand, Romanticism, and Reservations"? Failing that, wouldn't it have been worthwhile to ask her surviving husband about this incident? Perhaps neither wife nor husband would have been good witnesses for the prosecution but it does help to ask the principals if one wishes to build a case.
In the end, Valliant's practice of using sources whose objectivity he doubts, or of selecting evidence from witnesses he has already impeached, weakens his case.
In this review essay, I have examined a number of issues raised by James S. Valliant's book, The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics. I have criticized Valliant's rooting of Rand criticism in the works of Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden. I have criticized his one-dimensional rereading of the Branden works as outgrowths of the basest motivations and biases. I have taken him to task for insufficiencies in his interpretation of the Affair and for his marginalization of the Brandens' contributions to the Objectivist canon. Along the way, I've examined issues of rationalism, idealization, sycophancy, and moralizing in the Objectivist movement, while defending my own work against some of Valliant's criticisms. I concluded with a discussion of methodological problems in his book.
To be clear: Valliant didn't write a biography of Rand or an intellectual history of Objectivism. He wrote a prosecutorial indictment that frequently exhibits a scorched-earth style, which tends to undermine any truly reasonable points he has raised about bias, contradictions, conflicting points of view, corroborating evidence, or insufficient sourcing in the works of the Brandens.
I opened this essay with a discussion about the importance of publishing Rand's personal journals, thus providing scholars with an alternative point of view on the collapse of Rand's relationship with the Brandens, an event that has had serious reverberating consequences ever since 1968. Whatever interpretive or historiographical problems one finds in Valliant's work, I believe that the publication of these personal journals has value from both a scholarly and biographical perspective. For me, it was worth the price of admission.
But given Valliant's one-sided interpretation of these journal entries, I think scholars could benefit from the independent release of all of Ayn Rand's personal journals. The Estate of Ayn Rand should consider publishing these journals as a supplement to the already-published Journals of Ayn Rand (Rand 1997). Perhaps such a collection might include entries that would relate to the early years of Rand's relationship to the Brandens as well, especially those entries where she might have spoken of her love for---and intellectual engagement with---Nathaniel Branden, to whom she co-dedicated Atlas Shrugged. It would give us a much more comprehensive, historically rich portrait of the Rand-Branden relationship, so important to the genesis of an organized Objectivist movement and to the first systematic presentations of Objectivist philosophy.
Branden, Barbara. 1986. The Passion of Ayn Rand. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
Branden, Barbara and Nathaniel Branden. 1962. Who Is Ayn Rand? New York: Random House.
Branden, Nathaniel.  1979. The Psychology of Self-Esteem. New York: Bantam.
___.  1978. The Disowned Self. New York: Bantam.
___. 1999. My Years with Ayn Rand. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Revised edition of Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1989).
Childs, Roy. 1994. Liberty Against Power: Essays by Roy A. Childs, Jr.. Edited by Joan Kennedy Taylor. Foreword by Thomas Szasz. San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes.
McConnell, Scott. 2004. Parallel lives: Models and inspirations for characters in We the Living. In Essays on Ayn Rand's "We the Living", edited by Robert Mayhew. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 47-65.
Peikoff, Leonard. 1983. Understanding Objectivism. 12
lectures. Oceanside, California: Lectures on Objectivism.
___. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton.
Rand, Ayn.  1993. The Fountainhead. Fiftieth anniversary edition. Afterword by Leonard Peikoff. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
___.  2005. Atlas Shrugged. Centennial edition. New York: Plume.
___. 1975. The Romantic Manifesto. Second revised edition. New York: New American Library.
___. 1982. The Objectivist. Volumes 5-10, 1966-1971. Palo Alto: Palo Alto Book Service.
___. 1990. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Expanded second edition. Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff. New York: NAL Books.
___. 1995. Letters of Ayn Rand. Edited by Michael S. Berliner. New York: Penguin Dutton.
___. 1997. Journals of Ayn Rand. Edited by David Harriman. New York: Penguin Dutton.
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 1995. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
___. 2000. Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
___. 2003. Ayn Rand: Homosexuality, and Human Liberation. Foreword by Lindsay Perigo. A SOLO Initiative. Cape Town, South Africa: Leap Publishing.
Valliant, James S. 2005. The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics: The Case Against the Brandens. Dallas: Durban House Publishing.
Walker, Jeff. 1999. The Ayn Rand Cult. Chicago and LaSalle: Open Court.
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