Thursday, August 06, 2009

New Ayn Rand books are sure to heat up the debate

It is well known that some of Ayn Rand’s followers have long tried to present Rand as some sort of infallible messiah. I have long thought they have done her a great disservice. The ideas she presented stand on their own, separate from her life as a very fallible human being.

But, whatever you may think of her ideas, and I admit sympathy for many of them, although not total agreement, her life was as fascinating as her novels. And that is what has worried her acolytes and sycophants. The drama of her life is compelling, not just because of her virtues and her triumphs but because she also made some astoundingly bad choices.

The most well known of such blunders was her affair with the much younger Nathaniel Branden. Don’t get me wrong: I am neither horrified, shocked or particularly titillated by the affair. As I see it, if a woman her age, could get a man half her age to want her, more power to her. But, I note, that in the process others were hurt, particularly Nathaniel’s then-wife, Barbara, and Ayn’s husband, Frank. But both partners had consented, so that’s that. However, Ayn and Nathaniel should have seen that, consent or not, their respective spouses were suffering.

As I said, none of this impacts on the ideas that Ayn espoused. They rise and fall entirely on their own.

But Rand’s absurdly labelled “intellectual heir,” Leonard Peikoff, has done his best to fake reality by turning Rand into some sort of messianic figure, without flaw or scandal. For decades he denounced the Brandens, who divorced as may be expected, as liars for even hinting that such a relationship had existed. Unfortunately for Leonard among Ayn’s belongings, which he inherited, were her personal journals which outlined in clear detail that such an affair, actually existed. Always the true believer, Leonard didn’t bat an eye. He admitted the affair and still said the Brandens were liars who were enemies of Rand.

The problem for Leonard is that there were many witnesses to the more egregious failings of Ayn as a person. In a word, she often screwed up. I know some people take great joy in that. I shrug my shoulders and say, “welcome to the human race.” We all fuck up, and sometimes spectacularly. I don’t see Rand’s failings as being particularly horrific. She didn’t send people to death camps. She didn’t beat children or rob banks. She was sometimes unpleasant and often quite generous. She offended people and impressed them. She was, in a word, human. Whoopee!

Peikoff, not long ago, unleashed one of his sycophants to attack the Brandens with an absurd book entitled, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics. It is really a continuation of Peikoff’s hate campaign against Nathaniel and Barbara. You would think that at his age Peikoff would have better things to do than nurse his petty hatreds. He doesn’t. Unfortunately for him, he’s never had a better thing to do, but to be Ayn Rand’s total servant. That was the only role in life that he could play. He was, and is, in many ways, the premier second-hander. (Those who have read Rand will know precisely what I mean.)

Peikoff’s role as the keeper of the flame of Ayn Rand has become increasingly more difficult. The release, this October, of Anne Heller’s biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, will be troubling to Lenny. (You can order your copy here.) The only reason he isn’t spinning in his grave is because he’s still alive; though reading this book may resolve that issue. He might pull the routine he did when his cousin, Barbara Branden, wrote her biography of Ayn. Then he denounced it as dishonest while admitting he had never read it, and wouldn’t. However, I expect total silence is more likely. He will pretend it doesn't exist.

People will forgive anything, but the truth. Nathaniel and Barbara spoke the truth. Leonard will not forgive them. He sent James Valliant after them with his ridiculously bad work, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critic (a title Valliant derived from Barbara’s work, The Passion of Ayn Rand). Leonard and his cult want to pretend that Valliant has proven that the Brandens are liars. Unfortunately for him, a dissection of Valliant's work proves him totally unreliable.

Anne Heller is a Rand admirer, she admits, but not an Objectivist. She has her reservations and has questions. She is an independent observer who wanted to write the definitive biography of Rand. She had nothing at stake. Valliant tried to present the Brandens as vicious attackers of Rand, seeking to distort facts in order to ruin her reputation. But, Heller’s biography, which I have read, doesn’t contradict the Brandens on any major statement of fact.

In fact, as I read the biography, I have to wonder whether the Brandens hadn’t actually protected Ayn’s reputation—the complete opposite of what Valliant and Peikoff allege. Surely, if they were the destroyers that the Peikoffians alleged they were, they would have revealed and relished in anything that might tarnish Rand’s image.

Consider the matter of Rand being prescribed an amphetamine for her to control her weight. She did so with a prescription and it may, or may not, have effected her moods. There is some evidence that it could have, but we can never know for sure. Both Brandens, while mentioning this, played it down. Heller makes a bit more of it. She clearly did believe that it had an effect on Ayn. Apparently so did Isabel Patterson, Rand's one-time best friend, who urged her to stop taking them. Jennifer Burns, in her less sympathetic, but still interesting book, Goddess of the Market, also thought the issues of amphetamine usage was more significant than either of the Brandens.

Why is it that “enemies” like the Brandens were playing this matter down, while two independent researchers found it more significant? That doesn’t fit the portrayal of the Brandens as character assassins.

Let us also discuss a matter that Heller reveals publicly for the first time, and something I have long suspected. Heller writes that early in her career Ayn had an abortion. Neither of the Brandens ever mentioned this detail. Yet, is it possible that they never knew? I doubt that. I did ask one of them about whether Ayn had an abortion and the response was one of utter astonishment with me being asked what caused me to ask the question. I said my suspicions were aroused because of Ayn’s very passionate views on the matter, far more passionate than I thought the issue itself warranted. (I share Ayn's views on abortion but can assure you that I’ve never had one, which itself would be something of a medical miracle.) The reply I got was a non-reply and I respected that. I still do. I can understand, why both of them, who are still very fond of Ayn, wouldn’t want to bring up something that personal.

Even the affair was not something they wished to reveal. In truth, no one came out of that mess looking good. So everyone had a reason to want to keep it private. Ayn forced the issue with her denunciation of the Brandens. Even then, their reply to Ayn, issued at the time, danced around the issue. In her denuciation Ayn mentioned a letter Nathaniel had given her, which caused the break. She never told her readers what it said, only that she deemed it irrational. Branden, in his 1968 reply, described the letter as: “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.” Even then, at the height of Ayn’s attacks on the Brandens, Nathaniel skirted the issue, protecting Ayn. His wording could be read as meaning that he rejected the idea of a relationship and that it never took place. At worst it says Rand wanted such a relationship, but doesn’t actually say she had been involved in such a relationship for many years and that Nathaniel was terminating it.

Yet an Ayn Rand “enemy” would relish in this fact and publicize it widely, especially among conservatives. To my knowledge neither of the Brandens ever mentioned the abortion. Heller only gives it the briefest of mentions herself. It is a sensitive issue and I can understand that. No doubt the fanatical types in society will latch onto it, but then would already be hysterical about Ayn’s atheism.

Heller’s biography quite clearly says that Ayn had a passion for younger men. Again, no blame from me on that, just admiration if she succeeded. I also had long suspected this. Barbara’s wonderful biography, at most, hinted that such things were possible. But Barbara didn’t report every salacious detail and failed seduction. But Barbara had interviews with many of these young, male acolytes of Rand’s. And they were forthcoming that they believed Ayn was being seductive with them. She didn’t choose to emphasize that. Once again she was not acting the role that Valliant and Peikoff had assigned her.

I will venture into uncharted waters here and voice a suspicion. Note that this is only a suspicion and it is one that may explain Rand’s seeking of relationships outside her marriage, and her husband’s willingess to go along with such things. Ayn clearly preferred a sexual relationship where the man took charge, sometimes rather strenuously. Frank never did. He was a passive partner who answered Ayn’s call but never initiated a sexual relationship with her. This is clear in both Barbara’s book and Heller’s book.

Frank was from a large family and his closest brother was Nick, who went by the name Nick Carter. Nick was also a close friend of Ayn’s. Nick was gay. Heller describes Frank as somewhat feminine. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not condemning Frank. Every person I have spoken to about him described him as a caring, gentle man who was kind and pleasant. No one had a bad word about him. Frank, to a large extent, and long before it was considered socially acceptable, took on the woman’s role in the relationship. He decorated their house, not Ayn. He was the one who tended the flowers, became a flower arranger, and took up painting as a hobby. Frank O’Connor acted very much like a closeted gay man. I don’t know if he was. And I don’t care if he was. Married gay men can perform sexually with their wives, but they are far less likely to be the initiators of the physical aspects of married life.

Heller’s biography shows Frank to be rather accepting of the relationship. When Nathaniel would come to the apartment for his biweekly sexual sessions with Ayn he often meet Frank in the hallway. Nathaniel felt awkward but Frank seemed far less perturbed. There is no doubt in my mind that Frank loved Ayn very much. And even less doubt that she loved him very much. But their sexual relationship was not what Ayn needed. One has to wonder if Frank didn’t appreciate, at least sometimes, that Nathaniel was pitch-hitting for him. So much of Frank’s actions seem to fit the situation of a married, gay man that I have to wonder if this was not a strong possibility. It would explain a lot.

Both the Burns and Heller books are interesting works. Burns reveals that Peikoff’s Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) plays a very dishonest game with Ayn’s previously unpublished works. Peikoff and crew set up the Ayn Rand Archives, but access tends to be limited. Burns, somehow managed to get into them. Heller was banned. That was certainly a particular dumb choice since Heller is clearly more sympathetic to Rand than is Burns. If anything they should have done the reverse. But Lenny often made some major errors in judgment, so this is no surprise.

Burns cautions readers of Ayn’s newly published papers. She compared the original writings and the published versions and discovered that the ARI crowd changed what Ayn wrote. She writes, concerning Rand’s journals: “On neary every page of the published journals an unacknowledged change has been made from Rand’s original writing. In the book’s foreword the editor, David Harriman, defends his practice of eliminating Rand’s words and inserting his own as necessary for greater clarity. In many case, however, his editing serves to significantly alter Rand’s meaning.”

She warns people to see these published collections as “an interpretation of Rand rather than her own writing.” She is quite scathing in what she reveals as outright fraud. She says that the unacknowledged editing “add[s] up to a different Rand. In her original notebooks she is more tentative, historically bounded, and contradictory. The edited diaries have transformed her private space, the hidden realm in which she did her thinking, reaching, and groping, replacing it with a slick manufactured world in which all of her ideas are definite, well formulated, and clear.” She also reveals that the same problems exist in Ayn Rand Answers, The Art of Fiction, The Art of Non-Fiction, and Objectively Speaking. All these works, she says, have been significant rewritten.”

What purpose does this serve? All Peikoff and Co., have managed to do is portray themselves as unreliable, deceptive and untrustworthy. Burns shows that.

What struck me about Heller’s biography, is that while it reveals new details, and more information, there simply was nothing there that indicated the Brandens had been deceptive. That has to be a problem for Pope Lenny and his sect.

As I said, whatever you think of Ayn Rand and her ideas, there has never been a shortage of drama around her life. Dead all these years, that hasn't changed at all. But all in all, those who are trying to protect Rand are doing her far more damage than they realize.