Rand and the Ad Hominem Fallacy
One would think after several years in the development of modern Rand studies that Rand scholars would not have to continue dealing with the fallacy of ad hominem, which is a familiar tactic used by Rand critics to discredit Rand as a philosopher.
This is quite apart from any genuine, substantive criticisms of Rand's work, which are needed, and which Randians should engage.
Granted, because Rand ended her postscript to Atlas Shrugged with the comment "And I mean it," suggesting that her life itself was a testament to the philosophy and morality she extolled, she virtually invited discussion of how well or how poorly she reflected Objectivism. And as I have said in my review of James Valliant's book here, "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 canít 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."
Nonetheless, the "commingling" of biography and philosophy continues, especially in discussions of Rand's work. The most recent example of this comes from Commentary magazine, in which Algis Valiunas attempts to dissect "the work of the high priestess of reason," whose "centenary has gone uncelebrated."
Hogwash! As my own Centenary articles make clear, the Rand Centenary attracted quite a bit of coverage. As I wrote: "Every publication from Reason, The Free Radical, and The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies to the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, and New York Times featured something of significance in its pages. There were sponsored parties and panel discussions from California to New York to the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C."
But disparaging the Centenary isn't Valiunas's purpose; it's disparaging Rand's person as a means to disparaging her ideas that is most obvious here:
In Rand's psychology, reason unfailingly determines emotion, never the other way around. But in her own erotic life Rand was at the mercy of a turbulent unreason that pulled her under even as she burbled on about her unimpeachable rationality. As she could only love an extraordinary man, she endowed the man she married, Frank O'Connor, with all the qualities of a hero, even of a god. In fact, in almost everyone's eyes but hers, O'Connor, a failure as a movie actor, was a raging mediocrity. At the age of forty-nine, Rand fell for yet another god, Nathaniel Branden, the husband of her biographer and himself a disciple younger than she by 25 years. She expounded the perfect reasonableness of their adultery to each of the injured spouses, whom she expected reasonably to accept their twice-weekly scheduled trysts in the bedroom she shared with her husband. After years of this, the Brandens' marriage collapsed and Rand's husband swirled down the alcoholic drain. When Rand was sixty-one and Branden thirty-six, the sexual fire went out for him and he found a younger lover. Rand nearly went insane in her jealousy. Maintaining that she was entirely reasonable and right, and Branden purely evil, she destroyed his professional reputation and banished him from the Randian kingdom where he had been until then the crown prince. Heroic reason, heroic freedom, heroic love ended, as they began, in folly.
As I mentioned in my critique of Valliant's book, I have devoted only a few paragraphs in toto, in all of my Rand scholarship, to the discussion of the Rand-Branden Affair. When the critics focus on this Affair and reify it as if it were a whole unto itself, one must begin to question precisely what this strategy seeks to accomplish. They wouldn't do this typically with Plato, Kant, or Hegel, would they?
As Rand once said: "Don't bother to examine a folly, ask yourself only what it accomplishes."
Of course, we live in a culture that encourages a focus on prurient interests; that's why tabloids sell so well. And it's fairly typical that discussions of Rand end up becoming discussions of Rand's life. In these instances, however, biography doesn't supplement a discussion of ideas; it often supplants that discussion entirely. Even the New York Times, which has reviewed many Rand works, has never actually reviewed any books about Rand, unless those books are of a biographical character. Reading the Times, one would not even know that there is a growing secondary literature, a veritable industry, of scholarship focused on Rand's ideas.
As I acknowledged in my review of Valliant's book, "[t]he particular charges concerning Randís sex life can be traced to claims made in the Branden books. That much is true." But these charges are almost always used by others as the veneer to cover up an essentially ideological opposition. Back to Valiunas:
What is one to make of it all? In Rand, soundness and charlatanry commingle. In the end, charlatanry prevails. Having learned the lessons of socialist dystopia on her own body, she embraces a utopian fantasy of her own ... In her passion to reshape the world in accordance with her idea, Rand begins to sound like the tyrants she hates. Her capitalist revolutionaries speak of their opponents as "subhuman creatures," "looting lice." Galt's radio address to the nationóhe has commandeered the airwaves by some electronic magicóis positively Castrolike in its mad zealotry, running to over 50 pages and unfolding every half-truth and alluring lunacy Rand ever entertained. ... But compassion disgusts Rand; John Galt scorns it as love of the unworthy, a triumph of sloppy feeling over lucid reason. This is no doubt why, for all her continued popularity, Rand is anything but a commanding figure these days. Very few conservatives want any part of her, for she is the conservative bogeyman that liberals invoke to terrify their children: money-worshipping, absorbed in the pursuit of her own happiness, indifferent to the pain of others. Though she will no doubt continue to sell-there are certain effects she brings off as well as anyone, and they haye their undeniable appealóit is hardly a matter for regret that her centenary has gone largely unmarked.
Now, even if Valiunas is absolutely correct in every assertion (and these are assertions, since nowhere does Valiunas actually provide any argument), what "commingles" here is ad hominem and an essential hatred of Rand's intellectual body of work.
If only more mainstream critics would focus on that body ... instead of, literally, Rand's body, or Branden's body, the state of Rand criticism and critical engagement would advance considerably. I know we are working very hard at The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies to advance that critical engagement (information about our new Fall 2005 issue will be posted here at Notablog on Tuesday, September 13, 2005). But more work needs to be done.
In any event, even if one wishes to focus on Rand biography, or on the particular issues surrounding the Rand-Branden Affair, then it is incumbent upon the critic to focus on all the material now available. Whatever one thinks about the Valliant book, I do believe that the publication of Rand's private journals changes the landscape considerably in any discussion of this particular aspect of Rand's biography. If Valiunas wishes to indict Rand's philosophy by assassinating her character, then it's important for Valiunas to at least weigh the evidence that is now available to scholars on this subject, for better or for worse. And though I have been intensely critical of how Rand's private papers have been edited up till now (see here, here, and here), I stand by my expressed belief that there is no reason to doubt the quality of Valliant's editing of those papers in his book. One may quibble with Valliant's parenthetical interpretive remarks. And one may still long for the unedited publication of all of Rand's private papers. But, in his publication of Rand's notes, Valliant is very careful to place any changes or substitutions in [brackets], unlike previous editors of Rand's letters, journals, and lectures. Such editors do not realize that their attempts to smooth out some of Rand's previously unpublished materials lead those of us who have not seen these materials to question their full authenticity.
Quite clearly, Valliant's book and my review of it are not the last words on this subject. Nor was my review or the lengthy dialogue on Notablog the last word on his book. In describing what is the essence of the "hermeneutical" enterprise, I state in my review:
The publication of [Rand's private] 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.
And so... the dissection of Rand's private life is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
In fact, Rand's private life has now been made the subject of a comic book! Writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey have just published this past June the newest installment of their "Action Philosophers" series. This one is an "All-Sex Special" that focuses on "the shocking contradiction of Thomas Jefferson," the "Hard-Drinkin', Hard-Lovin' Saint Augustine," and "Ayn Rand's Non-Objectivist Love Affair." Oy.
The cover design for Issue #2 of this series only hints at the contents. The comic tells the story of Rand's life from her beginnings in Russia. In the context of a comic book, it accurately renders Rand's thinking, but the last two pages of it tell the story of the Affair. And on that note, Van Lente concludes: "Rand liked to say that modern culture 'seemed totally indifferent to my ideas and to ideas in general.' She made sure that that would be a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Van Lente provides us with a "Recommended Reading" list at the end, which includes The Virtue of Selfishness. Though he "find[s] Rand's novels turgid and dated (the plot of Atlas Shrugged hinges upon the centrality of passenger railroads to the American economy, for example)," he believes "she is perhaps the most entertaining writer of philosophy since Nietzsche (whom she rejects as a non-rational pseudo-hedonist)."
The Rand-Branden Affair is not going away. And the rancor and divisiveness it provokes won't dissipate, I suspect, for a few generations. All the more reason for Rand scholars to insist that critics adopt a scrupulous focus on ideas in their engagement with Rand's philosophy. And if their subject is Rand biography, then they should do their best to assess all the information now at our disposal.
To reiterate: There is a place for biography and there is always a place for situating ideas in a larger historical context. But I don't think it serves the cause of Marxist criticism, for example, to criticize Marx's private life as a means toward criticizing his analytical framework. This tactic has been adopted by some critics of Marx (Gary North's essay, "The Marx Nobody Knows," published in the Yuri N. Maltsev volume, Requiem for Marx, and available as an mp3, comes to mind).
That kind of thing may be of interest to our understanding of the development of an idea. But it serves no purpose in grappling with the complexity of Marx's legacy.
If, in the future, Rand's legacy is treated with the same critical respect that has been given Marx's, it will be no small achievement.