Objectiblog's Neil Parille looks at the ongoing campaign to invent the Perfect Rand.
"A half-truth, in many issues, is more misleading than an outright lie; it is more of a distortion. Therefore if a reporter cannot reveal the whole truth in a given issue, he should not touch that issue at all." -- Ayn Rand, Objectively Speaking, p. 68.One of the most genuinely weird features of Objectivism is the compulsion amongst orthodox Objectivists to mythologize Ayn Rand. This compulsion extends to even the most trivial aspects of her personality or life story, which, in classic cult of personality style, are the subject of deliberate and extensive rewriting, airbrushing, and half-truths until they are in accord with Objectivism's internal mythology.
The apogee of this compulsion to falsify in the service of the Great Randian Myth is probably James Valliant's bizarre The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics (“PARC”), a must-read for anyone who wants a glimpse inside Objectivism's cultic side. I've documented its many apple-polishing distortions and - often hilarious - outright fakery in considerable detail here.
Orthodox Objectivists, led by the Ayn Rand Institute, claim that Rand has been maliciously portrayed in the past by evildoers, and that they are trying to restore the true picture of Rand as humanity's foremost moral and intellectual exemplar. However, given that it's been recently confirmed that the ARI have surreptitiously and comprehensively rewritten Rand's own work to be more consistent with the myth, it is unlikely they'll be any less dishonest in the presentation of Rand's life.
Contrary to what orthodox Objectivists contend, Rand’s “bad side” is amply and credibly documented. In 1986 Barbara Branden published her biography of Rand entitled The Passion of Ayn Rand. Although Branden’s description of Rand was in many ways positive, it contained much that was critical. Rand held eccentric beliefs (such as cancer was caused by “bad premises”), was prone to moralizing over aesthetic matters, possessed a volcanic temper, was controlling, demanded strict loyalty, and held exaggerated views about herself, her husband and even Nathaniel and Barbara Branden (prior to their 1968 split). Barbara Branden’s portrayal of Rand was based on 18 years of close personal association and over 200 interviews. Robert Hessen, a professionally trained historian and biographer who knew Rand well from the 1950s until shortly before her death, opined that the biography was mostly accurate and if anything was too easy on Rand’s “inexcusable anger, rudeness and cruelty.”
The response from the ARI has been a strenuous counter campaign both denigrating the Brandens and trying to replace this warts-and-all-portrait of Rand with one ever more airbrushed into mythological consistency.
In 2005, ARI supporter James Valliant published PARC. This book -- which is endorsed by Leonard Peikoff and is sold by the ARI’s book store – was in effect a proxy for Peikoff’s belated in-depth response to Barbara Branden’s biography (and Nathaniel Branden’s memoirs). Following what appears to have become something of a party line, Valliant (following Peikoff*) explicitly identifies an occasional anger as her only character flaw, and that even that was well justified; and perhaps in the bigger scheme of the fight for Objectivism against the forces of evil, not even a character flaw at all.
In order to airbrush the inconvenient facts of Rand's personal life and behaviour away, Valliant engages in blatant misinterpretations of the Brandens’ books and other publicly available information. Indeed, just how much Kool Aid Valliant is drinking becomes evident when he blatantly distorts not just the testimony of others, but the testimony of Rand herself that he has reprinted in his own book. For example, in order to promote the myth that Rand was immune from envy (an emotion that contradicts Objectivist doctrine) Valliant tries to pretend Rand wasn't jealous of her lover Nathaniel Branden’s gorgeous new girlfriend Patrecia Scott - a claim flatly contradicted by the quotes from Rand's diaries reprinted in Valliant's book. As summarized by Daniel Barnes here at the ARCHNblog:
Only those inhaling the rarified air of Objectivist psycho-epistemology would not find the following statements rather conclusive evidence of Rand’s jealousy:
Rand: "...he [Branden] kept insisting that he sees some wonderful qualities in her, which he could not define and which were not seen, nor even sensed, by anyone else (most emphatically not by me)..."
Rand: "And what did he get in exchange for his mind and soul? Nothing. That is the grotesque emptiness of evil. Nothing but the empty chatter with [Patrecia] at their lunches...listening to the theatrical prattling of a girl who bores much lesser minds within half an hour...what else was there to do with a girl of that kind?...If one looks at the above in realistic, existential terms, it becomes pure insanity: why would would a man want to give up all the values representing his mind and his career...in exchange for this sort of silly, trashy, vulgar, juvenile nonsense?"
Rand: "[Patrecia] was disgustingly phony, and I felt strained..."
Rand: "Symbolically, this was a battle between my universe and [Patrecia's]. Existentially and objectively, the choice to keep [Patrecia's] and to reject [mine] speaks for itself..."
Rand: "Existentially, he must not have any romantic or even friendship relationship with [Patrecia]..."
Rand: I feel the strongest contempt I have ever felt - and I regard [Branden], for his relationship with [Patrecia] as the worst traitor and the most immoral person I have ever met..."
Like the old Chico Marx line says, who are you going to believe - Valliant or your own lying eyes?
Similar mental gymnastics have been performed by ARI scholars such as Robert Mayhew as they try to rationalize Rand’s claim that her later revisions to her early novel We the Living were only “editorial line changes” when in fact they were substantial. Most would see the first edition of We the Living as representative of a Nietzscheian phase in Rand’s early life, a phase she hadn’t completely left as late as the publication of Atlas Shrugged.
Likewise, even though Rand praised Nathaniel Branden’s works (and declined to delete them from reprints of her anthologies), ARI scholars such as Mayhew and Tara Smith studiously avoid any mention of him. In fact, Mayhew even attributes an essay by Branden to Rand in the index of his Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A.
A particularly blatant example of rewriting Rand’s life was done by Leonard Peikoff in his 2006 account of Ayn Rand’s decision to stop smoking.
Barbara Branden relates in Passion that Rand, a lifelong smoker, refused to stop smoking claiming that there was insufficient evidence that smoking caused cancer. Branden states, however, that Rand immediately stopped smoking in 1975 when her doctor showed her an x-ray indicating that there was a “malignancy” in her left lung. (The malignancy turned out to be cancer.) Rand put out her cigarette in the doctor’s office and never smoked again.
Branden’s version of events was confirmed in 2000 by ARI writer Andrew Lewis.
Miss Rand smoked for many years, until her doctor told her to quit. She put the cigarette out in his office and never smoked again.In contrast, Leonard Peikoff, in 2006, gave a mythologised version of events:
Q: If Ayn Rand were still alive, would she smoke?
A: No. As a matter of fact, she stopped smoking in 1975. When the Surgeon General in the 50s claimed that smoking was dangerous, he offered nothing to defend this view but statistical correlations. Ayn Rand, of course, dismissed any alleged “science” hawked by Floyd Ferris, nor did she accept statistics as a means of establishing cause and effect. Statistics, she held, may offer a lead to further inquiry but, by themselves, they are an expression of ignorance, not a form of knowledge. For a long period of time, as an example, there was a high statistical correlation between the number of semicolons on the front page of The New York Times and the number of deaths among widows in a certain part of India.
In due course, when scientists had studied the question, she and all of us came to grasp the mechanism by which smoking produces its effects—and we stopped. Doesn't this prove, you might ask, that she was wrong to mistrust the government? My answer: even pathological liars sometimes tell the truth. Should you therefore heed their advice?Peikoff’s version of events is a half-truth and thus, according to Rand, perhaps worse than a lie. Non-Objectivists would probably be content to say that it was so misleading as to constitute a lie.
But to ask more important questions: Why does Leonard Peikoff consider it necessary to lie about Rand, in particular when the account that Barbara Branden relates about Rand’s decision to stop smoking is, in its own way, inspirational? Why do ARI scholars consider it necessary to ignore the influence of thinkers such as Nietzsche on her work or the contributions of Nathaniel Branden to the Objectivist movement? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Rand had an inflated ego and a self-estimation that bordered on the delusional. Not only do ARI supporters have to justify this, but during Rand’s life the sycophancy of the orthodox Objectivism’s current leadership no doubt fed Rand’s borderline megalomania. For example, Allan Gotthelf relates that Rand once said that “I’ve done for consciousness what Aristotle did for metaphysics.” Gotthelf responded, “yes, that’s true.” In particular Leonard Peikoff has paid a high personal price to become Rand’s legal and alleged “intellectual” heir. He was even exiled by Rand to Denver for a time for failing to insufficiently advance Objectivism.
2. Rand also set in motion the claim that her philosophy did not undergo any changes, even telling an interviewer later in her life that she had held the same philosophy since her first memory at age 2 and a half. That Rand went through a Nietzschean phase would suggest that she was not a consistent Objectivist and that her own life’s story was false.
3. A high estimation of Rand the person functions as what sociologists call a “boundary marker.” It identifies those who are “in” and “out.” Those who dissent from a high regard for Rand the person are most likely to question aspects of her philosophy, such as her interpretation of other philosophers and the lack of empirical basis for many of her judgments.
4. Rand saw a particularly close connection between her philosophy and her life. She famously said that her life was postscript to her philosophy: “and I mean it.” To Rand her life was the perfect exemplar of an ideal Objectivist and living proof that the theory/practice and mind/body dichotomy that plagued Western civilization since Plato had been put to rest. If Rand can’t live up to Objectivist standards, then what does that say about Objectivism as a “philosophy for living on earth”?
- Neil Parille
* “My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand,” his 1987 Ford Hall Forum lecture