INTERVIEWS AND NOTICES
Intellectual Affairs, by Scott McLemee
Among the Randroids (10 February 2005)
This, That and the Other Thing (3 March 2005)
In Among the Randroids (10 February 2005), McLemee refers to The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies as the favorite professional journal of Continental philosopher Slavoj Zizek.
In This, That and the Other Thing (3 March 2005), McLemee writes about an upcoming volume by James Valliant entitled The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics: "Perhaps the most incisive comment on the volume comes from Chris Sciabarra, author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical and other studies. 'Reading Rand's personal journal entries makes me feel a bit uneasy,' he recently wrote in an online forum. 'As valuable as they are to me from an historical perspective, I suspect there might be an earthquake in Valhalla caused by the spinning of Ayn Rand's body.'"
Here are some of the comments from that forum:
I see my name has been brought up here in
a few instances. Michael N. is looking forward to my review of the book. Then,
George and Robert got into a discussion of the relative merits of my "blog" and
Robert's, until Joe set the record straight. Since my "blog" is "Not a Blog," it
is possible to like both Robert's and mine and not be caught in a contradiction.
As for this thread, let me add my two cents.
Since "full disclosure" is important, I should state up-front that Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden have been dear friends and colleagues of mine for over a dozen years; it was I who facilitated their appearance together in print for the first time since 1962 in the 1999 book Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. And I have very much valued, and value, their friendship and support.
I have only perused the uncorrected page proofs for James Valliant's book and hope to get the corrected final copy in the near future. I have not had the time to read this book in its entirety.
As for the predictable responses to this book, my hunch is this: Those who are convinced of the Brandens' "evil" will see this book as the kind of "ammunition" that is needed to forge the case. And, just from a perusal of the book, I think it can be safely stated that Valliant, who has a law degree, spends an incredible amount of time comparing and contrasting various stories, finding inconsistencies, and mounting a "case against the Brandens." But those who have already heard the Brandens' "side" of the story -- it was the Brandens after all who admitted their own negative roles in the Affair -- will not be persuaded by Valliant's case.
For me, all this is somewhat beside the point. The most interesting part of the book is, in fact, the publication of Ayn Rand's personal journals reflecting on this episode in her life.
I am of two minds on this.
As an intellectual historian, one who is interested as well in the lives of historical figures, I can say with no hesitation that the publication of these journals is of interest. Not because they prove or disprove any particular "case" but because they are Rand's reflections on an episode that had serious reverberating consequences for the Objectivist movement. From an historical perspective, and strictly from that perspective, I think it offers a fascinating "first-hand" account of what she was going through and how she chose to grapple with a devastating emotional situation.
Rand once claimed that We the Living was the closest to an autobiography that she would ever write. And yet, through the reading of her personal letters, journals, and private thoughts, we are piecing together an "autobiography" of sorts that is valuable, even if we must all continue to make a distinction between the life of the philosopher and the meaning of the philosophy.
Still, I recall an article written by literary critic Carlin Romano for The Chronicle of Higher Education. In his essay, "The Unexamined Life May Be Your Own," Romano reviews two books: The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy and Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy, both of which bring together memoirs from philosophers of various stripes. In the essay, Romano states: "Autobiography matters. What would philosophy be like if we read the autobiography of a philosopher before we read the work? It would be better. We would be better." Not because we are inherently voyeuristic. But because there is something to be said about understanding the personal context of the thinker.
Rand may never have written that autobiography; she may have been bored with the idea, and she may not have been "willing to transcribe a 'real life' story," as she stated in the Foreword to We the Living. But all of these posthumously published personal notes amount to a kind of autobiographical tale, one that I, strictly from the perspective of history, find fascinating.
I should reply, however, to a few things that Michelle C. writes here: "After reading Branden's negative, vengeful account, I have a valid interest in reading the account of the other side. Even if the published collection of Rand's letters and journal entries is incomplete, it is not forged. If people look down at Objectivism because of the conduct of the originator of the philosophy, it is because all they have is Branden's negative account."
Whatever one can say about the "negative" details of Rand's personal life, I don't believe that people "look down on Objectivism because of the conduct of the originator of the philosophy." It might provide some critics with ad hominem ammunition, but hatred of Ayn Rand has been around long before any knowledge of the Affair. And that hatred is primarily ideological not personal. The fact that there are still people alive who were personally involved with Rand and who still have a personal stake in the stories being told is certainly of interest; but I don't believe that this is the prime reason for Rand's "negative" press.
Also, with regard to the previously published collections of Rand's letters and journal entries being "incomplete," but "not forged," I do think there have been problems with the integrity of some of those published materials, as I explain here. I have no reason to doubt the integrity of Valliant's presentation of Rand's private journal entries in this book, but I also have no way of checking the accuracy of the presentation since I have never seen Rand's original notes.
All of this said, I think we should keep something in mind: The discussions of the Affair have been mostly from the personal perspectives of the participants. Each person comes to that experience with a different context; the Valliant book simply provides us with an insight into Rand's perspective. As I said back in 1999 in my review of the documentary, "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life":
I also wonder about the appropriateness of having [Leonard] Peikoff talk about this painful affair in Rand's private life, which he was not privy to. While Paxton claims that his film does not "psychoanalyze" its subject, Peikoff injects his own brand of psychoanalysis into the discussions, since he has to present the audience with a semi-plausible explanation. Rand is said to have considered Branden a "genius," a great "innovator" in psychology, and Peikoff admits Branden was indeed quite intelligent. But he says that "one thing or another precipitated the break," venturing further that Branden committed "personal and professional deceptions." Peikoff speculates, moreover, that Frank O'Connor probably experienced little jealousy, accepting the affair because he knew his wife was special, and that she needed more than he could offer her. For me, this whole explanation was vacuous; we are given such a humane portrait of this gentle, sensitive man, and we can't help but think about the pain he must have felt over his wife's adultery. Since the Estate has access to Rand's private journals, and since these will be published ... it might have been better to simply read from the relevant 1968 entries. It would have provided the audience with a deeper insight into this bizarre episode. ...
Well. As the saying goes: I asked for it.
:) I'll leave it to readers to decide whether or not this perspective or that
perspective is persuasive, but I think we should all keep in mind that this was
an intensely personal affair that affected the lives of individuals, each of
whom, as Robert put it, showed "an abundance of poor judgment ... certainly
enough to go around." People have been reading the Branden books and analyzing
them for years; I suspect that even clinical psychologists will have a field day
with Rand's own personal diaries at this point, and I'm not sure this will do
anything to quiet that debate or the focus on Rand's personal life.
And here is where I must confess something about the second of my "two minds"---a confession of a certain personal discomfort: Reading Rand's personal journal entries makes me feel a bit uneasy. As valuable as they are to me from an historical perspective, I suspect there might be an earthquake in Valhalla caused by the spinning of Ayn Rand's body. As Valliant himself admits, Rand would never have wanted this material made public.
But it's certainly the kind of thing that gives me pause. In another week, I'm going to be 45 years old. Except for when I was 12 and 13---when I was unable to keep a diary due to a life-threatening illness---I have been keeping journals since I was 11 years old. They are intensely personal. I often state at the beginning of each journal: "Those who read this without permission, deserve it."
Anytime I read the published private journals of anybody, I am led to contemplate leaving directions to my own Estate to burn my diaries upon my death. They were written for me and for nobody else; I have worked through many-a-problem and "let it all hang out" in ways that only an introspective, private encounter with myself would allow.
Hence: my "two minds" on this subject. Either way, I can say, as an author, that it is always worth reading a book before evaluating it. So, by all means, if you're curious about the Valliant book, read it for yourselves.
Mike E. raises these questions about my diary-keeping and my thoughts about having the material burned when I'm gone:
Isn't this what would make them especially valuable for someone who studies your work? And if you decide not to have them destroyed before you die, isn't this an implicit understanding on your part that they will be read and studied by someone? I suppose you could leave in your will that they not be read for 100 years after you die, this would ensure that nothing in them would be damaging to anyone that was still alive when you wrote them. Do you know if Ayn Rand made any stipulations at all like this about her private journals?
Michael N. writes:
Its interesting that you can't bring yourself to burn your journals yourself!? But I do wonder what the hell you are going to do with all your private correspondence?!
Well, I haven't burned the journals because they have a continuing utility for me; there are plenty of times I'll check back on this or that point or this or that event for this or that reason. Sometimes, it's interesting to see what I was thinking in prior years and how I may have worked through a similar problem; it's great to see growth, and humbling to see that some of the same issues persist. One thing that it has done for me is that it has made honesty, especially self-honesty, a number one priority in my life.
As for Rand: I don't know anything about any stipulations in Rand's will.
I can tell you that currently I've made arrangements to have my journals, private papers, and library transferred to a reputable institution after my death, with the stipulation that none of it be opened for a number of years. But if I don't decide to have the journals burned, I will probably increase the number of years that they are under lock and key. My concern is less about my "reputation" (how much worse can it be when the founder of SOLO calls you "Her Royal Whoreness" and "Dr. Diabolical Dialectical" among a few other choice epithets?), and more about people who are mentioned in my journals.
And yes, I do suppose they might have utility for others in some distant time as a curiosity, or perhaps as a travel-guide to one man's adventures in self-discovery.
Lindsay Perigo: Her Royal Whoreness Dr. Diabolical Dialectical wrote, re the possible incineration of his private journals:
**My concern is less about my "reputation" (how much worse can it be when the founder of SOLO calls you "Her Royal Whoreness" and "Dr. Diabolical Dialectical" among a few other choice epithets?), and more about people who are mentioned in my journals.**
Now Chris, you know I had a much better idea as to what to do with those journals than burning them (that would be such a waste---think of all the hilarious denunciations by the ARI we'd be deprived of!). I think you should share my idea with your fellow-SOLOists. :-)
Since Linz has practically given me
permission, I shall quote him directly. Upon my suggestion that I should burn my
journals, he wrote:
Nonsense, my dear. You should have them published now. "Confessions of a Whore." Would make you a *fortune*!! I should write the Foreplay ... er, Foreword :-)
I suspect he's talking about something other than my scandalous intellectual adventures. :)