Saturday, August 12, 2006

James Valliant on Ayn Rand and the Blumenthals

On pages 74-75 of The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (“PARC”) James Valliant discusses Rand’s breaks with Henry Holzer and Allan Blumenthal as related by Barbara Branden in The Passion of Ayn Rand (“PAR”).

Valliant says “one would never have guessed it from reading Ms. Branden’s book, but it was they who left Rand.” (PARC, p. 75.)

But let’s look at Ms. Branden’s book. With respect to Holzer, she says that Rand “broke” with him. (PAR, p. 385.) With respect to Allan (and Joan) Blumenthal, Branden explicitly says that it was the Blumenthals who broke with Rand. She quotes Allan Blumenthal: “I telephoned Ayn and said we no longer wished to see her.” (PAR, p. 388.) Valliant has mischaracterized PAR with respect to the Blumenthals.

Incredibly, Mr. Valliant doesn’t even cite PAR concerning Rand’s breaks with the Holzers and the Blumenthals. His source is Jeff Walker’s book The Ayn Rand Cult (“TARC”). What does Walker say? Concerning the Holzers, he implies that Rand broke with them, but “she explicitly left the door open.” (TARC, p. 35.) On page 37, Walker quotes the Holzers as saying that it was hard to walk away. Taken as a whole, I don’t think the account in TARC contradicts Branden’s account. And it doesn’t support Valliant’s claim that the Holzers broke with Rand.

Valliant also implies that Branden contends that Rand’s break with the Holzers and the Blumenthals constituted an “excommunication.” (PARC, p. 75.) But that certainly is incorrect as far as the Blumenthals go, and Branden doesn’t claim that Rand “excommunicated” the Holzers.

I’ve discussed Rand’s break with Mark Holzer, so I’ll confine my comments to the Blumenthals.

You wouldn’t know it from reading Valliant’s book, but Branden quotes the Blumenthals extensively.

Branden quotes Allan Blumenthal: "She [Rand] was relentless in her pursuit of so-called psychological errors [concerning judgments on art]. If an issue were once raised, she would never drop it; after and evening's conversation, she'd telephone the next day to ask what we had concluded about it overnight . . . It was becoming a nightmare." (PAR, p. 387.)She quotes Joan: "but, often, she would seem deliberately to insult and antagonize us." (Id.)

When I asked Valliant about the Blumenthals, he said that PARC doesn’t dispute that Branden has accurately quoted the Blumenthals or their version of events. He says we should be cautious since we haven’t heard the other side of the story, and I agree.

Although Valliant didn’t have space to mention what the Blumenthals told Branden, he does quote what Allan Blumenthal told Walker, viz, that he believes that Objectivism was created by Rand as self-therapy. Now, Walker doesn’t indicate when Blumenthal came to this conclusion. Even if we assume that Rand had good reasons for breaking intellectually with the Blumenthals (because, for example, she believed they were drifting away from Objectivism) does that make Rand’s conduct any less unfortunate? And PAR’s discussion indicates that, regardless of whatever differences existed between Rand and the Blumenthals, the Blumenthals wanted to remain friends.

I got the impression from reading PARC the first time that Valliant questions most the stories about Rand that her former associates related. He describes the Branden’s “biographical efforts” as “useless to the serious historian.” (PARC, pp. 85-86.) If the Blumenthals and others are telling the truth about their interactions with Rand, then I think it’s fair to say that Barbara Branden’s biography is not useless.

Interestingly, Valliant says a great deal about the people who broke with Rand, and questions their commitment to Objectivism and the like, but virtually never relates the rather substantial difficulties they had in getting along with Rand.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

On Breaking With Rand

I have been discussing some of the people who broke with Rand, including Murray Rothbard, Henry Mark Holzer and John Hospers.

Barbara Branden says that starting with the publication of Atlas Shrugged many people entered Rand’s orbit. “Some of her new friends circled her orbit for a few weeks, some remained for months, some remained for years; but with very few exceptions, the relationships were ruptured in anger as Ayn felt her friends to have failed reason, morality and herself.” (PAR, p. 311-12.) I don’t read PAR as alleging that Rand never had good reason to split with people, or that the split was always Rand’s fault, or that every split ended in some sort of excommunication. So I don’t think it undermines Branden’s biography to point out that Rand had good reason to sever her relationship with John Hospers.

It is also true that many of this who split with Rand have confirmed the accuracy of parts of Branden’s biography. In the current issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies Robert Hessen states:

“As an eyewitness to many such outbursts [Rand’s interactions with questioners], I can verify that Ms. Branden’s claim was accurate and not exaggerated.”

Justin Raimondo, in his biography of Rothbard, quotes a 1954 letter from Rothbard to Richard Cornuelle. Rothbard writes:

“[George Reisman] found himself under a typical vitriolic Randian barrage, according to which anyone who is not now or soon will be a one-hundred percent Randian Rationalist is an ‘enemy’ and an ‘objective believer in death and destruction’ as well as crazy.” (An Enemy of the State, p. 110.)

Interestingly, some who broke with Rand are, as Valliant acknowledges, no fans of the Brandens.

Unfortunately, it seems that almost all we have to go on is people’s recollections. I don’t know of many recordings, documents or journals that shed much light on the issue.

James Valliant on Ayn Rand, John Hospers and the Brandens

Barbara Branden's discussion of Rand's relationship with philosophy professor John Hospers is four paragraphs on pages 323-324 of PAR.

In paragraph 1, Branden talks of their first meeting. Hospers said that Rand had a "tremendously powerful intellect." (p. 323.)

In paragraph 2, Branden says that they soon became friends and had many lengthy philosophical conversations. They agreed on moral and political philosophy, but not epistemology. Hospers recalled that their arguments became heated at times and that Rand easily grew angry. Hospers describes her "sudden anger" as "bewildering." (p. 323-324.)

In paragraph 3, Branden says that Rand "broke" with Hospers. In 1962 Hospers invited Rand to speak at an academic symposium and Hospers criticized some of Rand's presentation. "Ayn took violent exception to his criticisms--and he never saw her again." (p. 324.)

In paragraph 4, Branden writes that Rand's relationship with a professional philosopher "made her eager to write a nonfiction work on epistemology." (p. 324.)

Here is Valliant: "Professor John Hospers, according to the Brandens, was taken to task for certain 'sarcastic' and 'professorial' criticisms of Rand in an academic setting, although, once again, neither of the Brandens chooses to relate the specifics." (PARC, p. 71.) Valliant drops a footnote and references both PAR and Nathaniel Branden's Judgment Day. Nathaniel Branden says Hospers "challenged her viewpoint with the kind of gentle sarcasm professors take for granted." Barbara Branden does not use similar words to describe Hospers' comments. Valliant should not present the two accounts as if they were one.

In any event, Nathaniel Branden appears to believe that Hospers' tone was liable to be misunderstood. (Judgment Day, p. 307-8.) Barabara Branden appears to think that Hospers' comments were appropriate to the forum and Rand overreacted. There is a minor discrepancy over Hospers' tone, but other than that what is the big dispute here? Although neither is happy that there was a break, they both concede that epistemology was an area of dispute between the two philosophers and neither states (contra Valliant's implication) that philosophical disagreements shouldn't be cause for "moral indignation." And even if they do believe this (which they don't express in the context of this break) I don't see how it lessens their credibility.

According to Nathaniel Branden, Rand directed him to read the "riot act" to Hospers. Valliant is upset that there is no description by either Hospers or Nathaniel Branden of what the "riot act" consisted of. He ends his discussion with a claim that there are "missing details." Personally, I am satisfied that after the passage of roughly 25 years (from the time of the event until the two books) that we know basically what happened.

Incidentally, neither of the Brandens describes the split as an "excommunication" as Valliant calls it or indicates that Rand demanded philosophical loyalty from Hospers.

James Valliant on the Passion of Ayn Rand

My copy of the Donahue tape hasn’t arrived from the ARI, so I’ll have to discuss a couple points in The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (PARC) that have been mentioned before, but this time with the emphasis on how James Valliant represents arguments made in The Passion of Ayn Rand (PAR).

More on the Name Change

On page 12 of PARC, Valliant says:

“’Ms. Branden also tells us: 'Ayn Rand never told her family in Russia her new name . . . they never knew she became Ayn Rand.’ Ms. Branden may be trying to insinuate that Rand was being neurotically secretive, perhaps even turning her back on her family. This is the sort of vague impression we will see the Brandens persistently attempt to create. Ms. Branden certainly claims that this was an important reason why Rand lost contact with her family shortly before World War II—they did not know her name.” [Ellipses in the original PARC.]

What Branden said in full is:

“Ayn never told her family in Russia the new name she had chosen. She had no doubt that she would one day be famous, and she feared that if it were known in Russia that she was Alice Rosenbaum, daughter of Fronz and Anna, her family’s safety, even their lives, would be endangered by their relationship to a vocal anti-Communist. Through all the years that she corresponded with her family, until just before World War II, Russia refused entry to mail from the United States and she lost track of them—they never knew she had become ‘Ayn Rand.’” (PAR, 71-72.)

Valliant creates a totally different impression of what Branden is writing through the use of the ellipses. He omits Branden’s assertion that Rand (allegedly) did not tell her family in Russia that here new name was “Ayn Rand” for concern for their safety. Had this been true (which it apparently wasn’t) it would have been a perfectly reasonably concern on Rand’s part. So while Branden may be mistaken on the name issue, nothing she says implies that she considers Rand to have been “neurotically secretive” much less “turning her back” on her family in Russia. In fact, Branden is saying the opposite. Rand corresponded with them often and would have continued had it not been for a change in Soviet policy shortly before World War II. Had Valliant included the material in the ellipses this would have been clear. Finally, although a minor point, I don’t read Branden as claiming that the new name resulted in her family in Russia losing track with her. I think “they never knew she had become ‘Ayn Rand’” refers back to the opening statement of the sentence about the correspondence (as Valliant appears to read it in his first sentence quoted).

More on We the Living

On page 44 of PARC, Valliant claims that Branden alleges that Rand’s statements concerning the changes in the revised We the Living were the product of “self-delusion.” Branden, while noting that Rand claims she did change the content of the book, says she removed the Nietzscheian element from the book. Branden says Rand “evidently considered it a defect” and decided to “ignore” the reason for the changes rather than explain it to her readers. (PAR, 114-15.)

Say what you want about Branden’s analysis of the content of the changes, she is not accusing Rand of being self-delusional. Branden accuses Rand of deliberately refusing to admit the extent (and the reason for) the changes. Perhaps it isn't too strong to say that Branden is accusing Rand of lying, but doesn’t want to come out and say it.