|I agree with Hong that The Passion of Ayn Rand has become a kind of Rorschach test, in which people bring their own preconceived emotions to deciding whether it was a tribute or a hit job. And I also agree with Jeff that the Showtime film drawn from PAR was ugly and disgusting, completely departing from the noble portrait of Rand presented in the book.|
That film, incidentally, was a "last straw" for me in biographical rehashing of the details of Rand's personal life, at which point I totally lost interest. Since my view of such matters has unaccountably become a matter of obsessive interest for some, perhaps a recap of what led up to my conclusion might enlighten them--and please forgive the length of this post, if you are not among them.
Up until the Showtime film, I had read or watched, multiple times, almost every biographical account of Rand's life. These began with Barbara's original, glowing, "authorized" portrait in 1962, Who Is Ayn Rand? After that, not a single other account of Rand's life surfaced for the next two decades.
In the meantime, however, came the 1968 split, with all its attendant, confusing counter-claims between Ayn, Nathaniel, and Barbara. This traumatic event left many then-young Objectivists like me not knowing exactly what or who to believe--but with the vague, uneasy sense that not all the reasons and details were being revealed by the principals.
Older Objectivists will recall the atmosphere in the Split's aftermath, when many Objectivists involved in "movement" activities were compelled by Rand's partisans to choose up sides, even in the absence of sufficient facts to make reasoned moral judgments about the principals. Many people previously associated with Nathaniel or Barbara were denounced and purged for maintaining those personal associations, or for recommending (or sometimes even reading) Nathaniel's subsequent books. Others were banished for merely speculating about the possibility of an affair between Ayn and Nathaniel.
The crime in all these cases was failing to take the "official" view on faith.
How ludicrous did things get? I vividly recall hot denials by Rand's most prominent partisans that there had been, or even could conceivably have been, an affair. Rand, it was proclaimed, was utterly and monogamously loyal to Frank O'Connor. One memorable statement I heard was that she would never have "betrayed her Roark" for "that Keating."
For me, another of the more telling episodes occurred during the Spring of 1986, just before publication of PAR, at a party in the New Jersey home of the publisher of the now-defunct Objectivist newsletter On Principle. I had by then received and read advance galleys of PAR for review in the newsletter. Well, several people closely (and prominently) associated with the "official" movement were present at the party, and one of them raised, in sneering tones, the subject of Barbara's forthcoming book, which he had not read. I chimed in to say that I had just read it and planned to review it favorably, as its portrait of Rand was, overall, extremely positive and heroic. This shocked everyone for a moment. One of those "inner circle" people, a woman artist, then asked, in an indignant tone: "Well, does she claim that there was an affair between Ayn and Nathaniel?" I told her, quite calmly, that Barbara presented compelling evidence to that effect. The stricken, angry, and disbelieving looks around the room told their own story.
When PAR came out a few weeks later, it was a revelation. For me, the richness of the additional biographical detail of Rand's early life, the extraordinary heroism of her struggle, and the ultimate triumph of her career, only confirmed my highest opinion of the woman.
But the revelations about the affair suddenly made a great deal of sense of tumultuous events that were previously inexplicable. And contrary to the claims of her critics, I found Barbara's account of Nathaniel's and her own actions unsparing: his, for years of cowardly deviousness and manipulation; hers, for cowardly sacrificing her own romantic happiness, and for "enabling" Nathaniel in his deception. (Many independent reviewers without an ideological or personal axe to grind agreed that neither Barbara nor Nathaniel came away from her chronicle of those days looking particularly admirable.)
Yet at the same time, Barbara's portrait of Rand was remarkably kind and generous, considering what almost any woman could and would have written about the "Other Woman" in her marriage. In her attraction to, then involvement with, Nathaniel Branden, Rand came across not as vicious or devious, but simply as extraordinarily naive in "matters of the heart." And the life context that Barbara provided made Rand's own frustrated romantic yearnings completely comprehensible. Even though I couldn't approve of Rand's choices and actions, I could understand and sympathize. And by that same account, Rand's outrage over her manipulation and betrayal by Nathaniel was completely understandable and justifiable, too: Barbara's account made utterly clear that she had been treated shamefully.
If Barbara's book had a "moral," it would have to be summed up in its final chapter and Epilogue: a celebration of the heroism of Rand's struggle, and her growing, global influence. No fair, objective reader could read any of that and conclude that Barbara's aim had been to undermine Rand or Objectivism. Consider this, the closing paragraphs of the final chapter before the book's Epilogue:
I visited Ayn and Frank's graves a year later, on a brilliant summer day...As I stood remembering, I thought that I had often grieved for Ayn's unhappiness in her last years. And yet, was grief appropriate? In the life of Ayn Rand, I had seen something I had never seen before nor ever heard or read of. Ayn had begun life with a single passionate goal--to create her ideal world and her ideal man. And at the end of her life--despite the odds against her, despite the pain and the losses, despite illness and anguish and death--it was done. Perhaps it is for the rest of mankind that one should grieve.
I stood by the weeping willow and I thought how fitting it would be if the legends of Valhalla were true. Ayn would travel to the paradise of the brave, the paradise assigned to heroes slain in battle. Eight guards would rise to salute her and to escort her on her new journey. But they would not be the guards of the legends. They would by Cyrus, and Enjolras, and Leo, and Frank, and Howard Roark and Hank Rearden and Francisco d'Anconia and John Galt. Ayn had fought for Valhalla--for Atlantis--all of her life, and now she would enter its gates.
Weeping, I remembered what she had said at the conclusion of the interviews I had done with her in 1961: "It's a benevolent universe, and I love it, and any struggle was worth it. Struggle or unhappiness are so enormously unimportant. I don't regret a minute of my life."
This is the intended message of The Passion of Ayn Rand.
This is the glowing portrait of and tribute to a heroic life that I chose to praise, enthusiastically, in my Spring 1986 review of PAR in On Principle.
Yet this is the book that Certain People have denounced as written from hostility and malice toward Ayn Rand.
The denunciations of Barbara's book began even before it appeared in print, with Leonard Peikoff leading the charge in a published statement prior to publication, in which he attacked Barbara and the book while stating he hadn't and wouldn't read it. It continued with a subsequent vicious attack by Peter Schwartz in The Intellectual Activist, published with Peikoff's blessing.
Yet even though no other "official" biographical portrait of Rand had been offered as a counterweight, one's opinion of PAR became the new litmus test for his continued permission to participate in ARI and related Objectivist activities. Somehow, in the absence of any counter-portrait or detailed factual refutations, Objectivists were expected to reject Barbara's extremely detailed account of Rand's life out of hand, simply on the say-so of Peikoff and Schwartz.
That, in itself, caused me to write a harsh letter of protest to Schwartz--copied to Peikoff and other ARI promenenti--thus withdrawing from future writing for his newsletter, The Intellectual Activist (for which I had written a number of articles), and also from any further involvement with the "official" movement.
The next quasi-biographical account dealing with Ayn Rand's life was Nathaniel Branden's 1989 Judgment Day. I say "quasi" because it was actually more of a personal memoir of his own life, rather than a biography of Rand. I found his account far less objective than Barbara's, and also far more "self-serving" in the negative sense of the term--something that I told him to his face, some time later, as my very first words to him on the occasion of our first meeting. That his book was subsequently rewritten and reissued under a new title speaks volumes about its objectivity and factual inaccuracies.
Still, it wasn't until 1997--over a decade after Barbara's book--that the first "official" biography of Rand was released since the appearance of Barbara's brief 1962 biographical essay in Who Is Ayn Rand? It was the film documentary "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life"--a charming and inspiring recap of the heroic details of Rand's life and career--but details that already had been mostly presented in Who Is Ayn Rand?, in The Passion of Ayn Rand, and even in Judgment Day. For regarding the general outline and broad facts of Rand's public life and career, there is little dispute or argument. The major arguments are over the long-hidden facts concerning her private and romantic life, and how they might be interpreted as to reflect upon Ayn, Nathaniel, and Barbara.
On those more controversial facts, the "official" account presented in the film was completely unenlightening. In this three-hour epic, the entire period of her life concerning NBI, her relationship to Nathaniel Branden, and the launching of the organized Objectivist movement--a period of 18 years, which included a host of publications, courses, and organized activities--was condensed to approximately three minutes of screen time! And those minutes consisted of nothing but vague characterizations by Leonard Peikoff and Cynthia Peikoff about the affair, the claim that it occurred with the "knowledge and consent" of the principals' spouses, and that Rand had special "needs" as a woman which explain why she did it. That's it. Not a single mention of the Nathaniel Branden Institute and its remarkable success in turning "Objectivism" into a movement. Not a single mention of Barbara Branden, or the many other associated speakers and scholars. Nada, zip, nothing.
This is an extraordinary example of the kind of historic "airbrushing" that has gone on in "official" circles for decades, and which on its face calls into question the credibility and reliability of any of the claims made by "official" spokesmen and their acolytes.
At this point, I had already gone through all the previous biographical material at least twice (or more). I saw "Sense of Life" two or three times, too, even though it offered little news about Ayn Rand that I didn't already know. And I was reaching the saturation point. After all, how many times does one have to plow the same biographical fields before one has harvested the essential narrative? Moreover, just how much time of one's own life should be spent dwelling on accounts of the life of another?
I felt that by now, I "got it," and had no further need to read future accounts of Rand's life. Anyway, what for? My interest was primarily in Rand's ideas, not in her biography.
I did read, in galleys, Jeff Walker's unspeakably indecent 1998 screed, The Ayn Rand Cult--but only because it attempted to attack Rand's ideas and the Objectivist movement. I also sent a long, detailed, scorching refutation to its publisher, in hopes of their changing their minds about publishing it--to no avail.
I also forced myself to watch the 1999 Showtime film, "The Passion of Ayn Rand," because of its advance hype and likely audience reach. I was appalled that it focused only on one aspect of Barbara's biography--"the Affair"--and even so, was a completely sleazy and distorted presentation of the facts, devoid of wider context, and dwelling only on the most lurid and sensationalistic details. Unlike readers of Barbara's book, no viewer of this exploitative Doctoredrama could possibly grasp from it a thing of importance about Rand's philosophy, her personal integrity and appeal, or the reasons why a movement could have grown up around it, or her. I told Barbara a long time ago of my unhappiness (to put it mildly) with that R-rated piece of soft porn, while also knowing that she had no control over the script or final production.
Anyway, that did it for me: I had enough. I lost any interest in wasting further time on Rand biography.
Again, my focus has always been primarily on Rand's ideas; and in validating or justifying her philosophy, what possible importance could be attached to what she chose to do on any given day? After all, at the foundation of her moral philosophy is the principle of volition: the fact that each of us has the power to choose, in any given moment, whether to act rationally or not, whether to practice a given virtue or not, whether to remain loyal to our values or not. Rand's arguments had established these truths for me, and also the fact that her philosophy is practicable. I needed neither her example nor anyone else's as "proof" of Objectivism's practicability and personal worth. Thus, her choices--great, ugly, or anything in between--were and remain entirely irrelevant to the validity of Objectivism.
And thus, attempts to attack Rand's ideas on the basis of any facts (or claims) concerning her personal life are crude ad hominems, and should simply be dismissed as such. To obsess about the minutiae of her private life--even to defend it--only gives credence to the purveyors of the ad hominems: it affirms that Rand's personal life is important to the validation of her philosophy.
That is a premise I totally and emphatically reject.
Consistent with that view, I have not bothered to read Nathaniel Branden's 1999 rewrite of his memoir, now titled My Years With Ayn Rand. Besides dealing with a subject that has been examined to death, I felt that it could only be a self-serving attempt to rehabilitate his reputation in the wake of criticism for his original self-serving book.
Similarly, I have not and won't bother to read PARC. Again, if my interest is in Rand's ideas, and if the biographical details of Ayn Rand's life don't much matter to me, why then should I care about someone's claims about the moral character of those writing biographical accounts of Rand's life? If I don't care about the details of Johnson's life, why should I care about the character or objectivity of Boswell?
It used to be that one's commitment to Objectivism was determined by one's commitment to the principles and view of human potential expressed by Ayn Rand herself, in Atlas Shrugged. But with the rise of an organized movement, new litmus tests have been put forth to determine one's personal loyalty to movement icons. In 1968, the litmus test was the side that one picked in the Rand-Branden split. In 1986, it was one's position on The Passion of Ayn Rand. In 1989, it was one's position on Peikoff's breathtaking rewrite of Objectivist ethics, "Fact and Value"--and, as a corollary, one's view of the ARI-TOC split. Now, some (though not on the "official" level) are trying to transform one's interest in or opinion of PARC into the new litmus test of true commitment to Objectivism.
But only if one equates "Objectivism" with the "official" movement, its organs, its principals, and its saints do these endless litmus tests, loyalty oaths, pledges of affiliation and non-affiliation, and other tokens of group cohesion become intelligible.
Yet I, for one, cannot for the life of me imagine a Howard Roark submitting to such abject, ritualistic genuflection and professions of unending and undying agreement. For on its face, it would be bizarre to imagine Roark swearing allegiance to the ideas and vision of Henry Cameron, rather than to his own independent ideas and vision--or to describe his architectural theories as "Cameronism," rather than in terms of the principles he shared with his mentor. (In fact, if my aging memory serves--and it may not--I seem to recall a passage in The Fountainhead in which he explicitly rejects a client's request to design a building just as Cameron would have.)
In The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand (online here), David Kelley aptly defined this policy of loyalty oaths and litmus tests as tribalism. The tribalist's desire to enlist people into an organized movement, thinking and acting in lockstep and in abject deference to annointed authorities, prompts his insistence on chronic demonstrations of loyalty. And in the tribal context, such loyalty is enforced with endless witch hunts to root out heretics.
Unfortunately, like most organized movements, the Objectivist movement has become rife with such tribalist behavior. Unlike other movements, though, only the Objectivist movement has tried to square its tribalism with "rational individualism." And the hypocrisy of this effort is so excruciatingly blatant and ludicrous that it has caused far more damage to Objectivism's reputation in the court of public opinion than have anyone's contentions about Ayn Rand's personal life.
In my self-published response many years ago to Peikoff's "Fact and Value," I ended with a comment that remains applicable today:
"Objectivism has John Galt. It needs no Javert."
I invite readers to reflect upon which role model appears to dominate the current movement jihads against sundry heretics, whether by book or by blog.