Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Case Against The Brandens

The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics
James S. Valliant

James S. Valliant has done a service to the followers of Ayn Rand by writing The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (PARC). His leitmotif is to show that Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden are such thankless people that even though they benefited extensively from their association with Rand, they caused her personal pain and tarnished her reputation. But the PARC goes much beyond its “expose and diminish the Brandens” agenda, and it conjures a deeper and more rounded image of Ayn Rand as a woman.

Rand used to freely and spontaneously confide her thoughts to her private journals. The appeal of the PARC lies in the fact that it includes several of Rand’s notes on the Brandens.  These notes dispel the myth of Rand as a strident and dry philosopher and writer. Here she is showing the emotional side of her personality. She is trying to psychoanalyze Nathaniel in an attempt to find out if he loves her or not. At times, she seems unsure of what is going on—at times, she resorts to rationalization, as she tries to cope with the feelings of hurt, humiliation, and torture.

The “About the Author” note at the end of Atlas Shrugged has this line: "My personal life," says Ayn Rand, "is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence: 'And I mean it!’" But a life that is a postscript to her novels can only be led in the company of someone who is like John Galt. Therefore it was her personal need that led her to rationalize that Nathaniel was a Galt-like man.

Valliant pays considerable attention to refuting the claims about Rand that Nathaniel has made in My Years with Ayn Rand, and Barbara has made in The Passion of Ayn Rand. In the book’s second chapter, Valliant points out that Nathaniel claims in his book that “Rand once described him as John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, ‘except for a few blemishes.’” Nathaniel blames the unrealistic view that Rand had of him for the erratic behavior that he exhibited with her during this period. For once, Valliant is in agreement with Nathaniel—he accepts that Rand was in error when she proclaimed that Nathaniel was close to being a John Galt.

But he blames Nathaniel for not doing enough to make Rand aware that she was misjudging him and that he was not who she thought he was. Valiant writes: “It was his responsibility to correct Rand in this matter rather than to continue what he knew to be a fraud for several more years, as he did, and then, after her death, to characterize her unconsciousness of certain personal facts as ‘appalling.’” But I must point out that in his book, Nathaniel claims that on several occasions he told Rand that he was not a John Galt. By the time the realization dawned on her that he wasn't what she expected him to be, it was too late and they could not avoid a messy breakup.

PARC is divided into two parts. In Part I, which is titled “Biography and Myth,” Vaillant’s approach is like an American soldier going into battle—he takes an all-guns-blazing approach. In the 6-chapters of the Part I, he deploys every bit of firepower in his arsenal to demolish the critique of Rand by the Brandens. He offers novel arguments, evidence from diverse resources; he rationalizes, he analyzes, and he relentlessly strives to prove that much of what the Brandens’ have said about Rand is a lie.

Valliant is not subtle about what he aims to achieve in the book—he declares it upfront that his intention is to go after the Brandens. In the final paragraph of the first chapter, “Less Than Zero,” he writes: “As we proceed, Mr. Branden will be seen to invent implausible, improbable, and impossible quotations for Rand—again and again. Ms. Branden will be seen to make bold assertions even in the face of conclusive evidence to the contrary—again and again. The Brandens’ books are themselves replete with evidence that this kind of dishonesty pervades all aspects of their ‘biographical’ efforts.”

In the second chapter, “Rand and Non-Rand, at the Same Time and in the Same Respect,” he gives a brief survey of historian Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals. “In Intellectuals, Paul Johnson’s biographical survey of many of the most influential thinkers of the past couple of centuries, a fascinating series of case studies offer a dramatic comparison.”

Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals reveals that Bertrand Russell was himself a womanizer, but he complained bitterly when his wife Dora had an affair—Ernest Hemingway was an alcoholic who would often beat his wives and anyone else—Karl Marx rarely bathed. Valliant’s point is that even if  Rand had a few bad qualities she was still a much better person than other intellectuals. But by contrasting Rand with other intellectuals, Valliant seems to suggest that we can judge a person through a process of comparison with other people.

Would such a method of judging a person be acceptable to Rand? I think she would have insisted that a person be judged only on the basis of his own qualities. But for Valliant the intellectuals in Paul Johnson’s book are an argument by themselves—he uses their shortcomings to prove that Rand is better than them. “From the ferocity of the Brandens’ attack, one would assume that Rand was far worse than any of these celebrated figures. And, yet, an objective comparison—using the Brandens’ own works—suggests a contrast to these “giants” of another kind.”

It is clear that Valliant has gone through the books by Barbara and Nathaniel with a fine-tooth comb, because he presents his perspective on almost every adverse remark that they have made about Rand. For instance, Barbara has asserted that Rand was being dishonest when she claimed that the “only thinker in history from whom she had anything to learn” was Aristotle. She is of the view that Rand ought to have been challenged for making such a statement—she takes Rand to task for dismissing the entire history of philosophy with the sole exception of Aristotle and Aquinas.

Valliant counters Barbara by pointing out that it is true that “Rand was influenced by very few thinkers when it came to philosophical fundamentals.” He also points out that Rand has explicitly acknowledged that she was influenced by certain ideas of Nietzsche.

In the chapter, “The Exploiters and the Exploited,” Valliant takes the Brandens’ to task for their sexual misdemeanors: “in contrast to Ms. Branden’s portrait of her own personal victimization, Branden reveals the multiple, undisclosed affairs Ms. Branden had during the early years of their relationship. He also reveals himself to have been the aggressor in his sexual relationship with Rand.” In the pages of Valliant’s book, there is certainly a whole lot of dirty laundry being washed in full public view. But that is the nature of his project.

Now coming to the Part II of PARC which has only one chapter of close to 200 pages—the first thing that strikes you is the title, “Documenting the Rape of Innocence.” On which personality is Valliant attributing the quality of “innocence”? On March 2, 1950, when Nathaniel had his first meeting with Rand, he was a 19-years-old college student. Then Rand was a 45-year-old cultural icon. She was experienced in the ways of the world—she had escaped the Soviet Union and arrived in USA, and after years of struggle she had established herself as a writer of bestselling books and a philosopher.

But the word “innocence” conjures the picture of a helpless gullible person who has an immature view of the world. It does not seem logical to attribute the quality of “innocence” to Ayn Rand. She was anything but innocent. What about Nathaniel Branden? Can he be the “innocent” one? Consider these lines that he has written in My Years With Ayn Rand:

“In 1948, at the age of eighteen, I knew The Fountainhead so thoroughly that if someone read me any sentence in the book, I could recite the gist of the sentence immediately preceding and following. This had one practical consequence, which would assume so much importance later; I had become intimately familiar with the workings of Ayn Rand’s consciousness. It was as if there were a direct line from her psyche to mine. I was only two years away from our first meeting.”

This is the level of knowledge that he had at the age of 18. The point is that neither Ayn Rand and nor Nathaniel Branden were of the “innocent” kind. Both were fully mature and they entered into a relationship because they chose to do so. The use of the word “rape” in the title is quite disconcerting. It is a harsh word and it certainly seems out of context when we are talking about how the relationship between Rand and Branden developed and deteriorated.

In the final pages of the chapter, Valliant explains his choice of the title. He says that in “his sexual behavior toward Rand, Branden, by his own admission, was motivated not by lust, but by power and position.” He also reveals that in his view “Branden’s psychology shows a striking similarity to the psychology of a rapist.”

And a bit later on:

“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.”

Well, in my view Valliant’s verdict on Branden does not add any value to Rand’s reputation. If she allowed a man who is just out of college to exploit her—intellectually, psychologically, emotionally, professionally and financially—for more than two decades then what does that say about the strength of her mind? I don’t think that she had an abusive relationship with Branden. She would not have tolerated Branden for a day if the relationship had not been pleasurable and profitable for her. The quality of their relationship saw a deterioration only in the final years of their association.

While I disagree with the title of the only chapter in Part II, I like its content. The excerpts from Rand’s personal journals that I have mentioned in the beginning of the article are published in this chapter. These excerpts are a treasure trove of information on Rand’s views on mortality and psychology. Here’s an excerpt from her note on July 8, 1968:

“For instance, [Nathaniel] had thought that an ideal form of love was a single, monogamous marriage—therefore, he resisted the realization that his marriage had failed, because he regarded this as his failure to lead a “stylized” life. I asked him whether he regarded Rearden’s life as “unstylized” because of the failure of his marriage. He agreed emphatically that he had always regarded it that way. He compared Rearden’s situation—the discovery that he had chosen the wrong woman—to the position of a writer who discovers that his past work is bad or wrong, and who is ashamed of it; he said that such a writer’s position was a horror. I told him that this amounted to a “Kantian stylized universe”: a series of intrinsic moral absolutes to which men had to conform, regardless of context, personal choice or circumstances. ”

Rand’s private notes that are included in the Part II of PARC were written by her in 1968 when she was on the verge splitting from Branden. The notes show that her mind is full of questions like: Is he hiding something? Does he really love me? Why is he behaving like this? Is there another woman in his life? To find the answers to all the questions that were in her mind, she tries to psychoanalyze Branden and reaches categories such as “Kantian stylized universe.”

In her lengthy note on July 8, 1968, Rand writes that she had now realized that instead of being like John Galt, Nathaniel was like Philip, the weak, vacillating, and often irrational protagonist in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

In his Introduction to the book, Valliant writes: “In May of 2003, the Estate of Ayn Rand granted me unprecedented access to these same unpublished journals. At that time, only a small handful of people, and certainly not the Brandens, had even seen many of these journal entries, and their contents were the subject of considerable speculation.” However, Valliant does not explain why he was granted the “unprecedented” access to these notes, which are a treasure trove of information on Rand and the Brandens.

The private notes included in PARC are often fragmented but one can draw the inference that these are a small part of what Rand may have written in her journals in 1968. I find myself wondering what is there in her journals that are yet to be published? What else did she write in 1968? What did she write in 1967 and in years before that? What did she write in 1969 and the years after that?

Overall, Valliant has written a long, informative and satisfying account of a controversial epoch in Rand’s life. The best thing about the book is that he has allowed Rand to speak for herself (through her private notes) on the most compelling issues. I will end this article with a personal plea to the Ayn Rand Estate to publish all the notes from Rand’s personal journals.

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