Monday, January 18, 2016

Companion to Ayn Rand - Preliminary Review

Ayn Rand was a novelist and philosopher who has never gotten her due. Perhaps it is because of her unfashionable ideas (laissez-faire capitalism and rational selfishness) or perhaps it is because of her polemical style. Nonetheless, her ideas are often unique and well worth studying. So it’s good to see a study of her work in the prestigious Blackwell Companions series. I haven’t read the entire book, but have a few preliminary comments.

1. The book is edited by Greg Salmieri and the late Allan Gotthelf. Both Salmieri and Gotthelf are/were associated with the Ayn Rand Institution as are most of the contributors. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that: scholars associated with the ARI often do fine work, but you would have to be blind not to see that almost unqualified praise for Rand (and her heir Leonard Peikoff) seems to be mandatory. From what I can tell, that’s pretty much par for the course here. I don’t think this seriously detracts from the work because what it offers are moderately in-depth overviews of Rand’s views on various topics.

2. This book does mark a new path in ARI scholarship because the essays often make mention of Nathaniel Branden as a source on Objectivism and also interacts with non-ARI Objectivists (such as David Kelley and Stephen Hicks), sympathizers with Objectivsm (such as Roderick Long) critics of Objectivism (such as Scott Ryan) and even the once forbidden Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (which I have written a couple of minor pieces for). In years past, anyone not in the line of Apostolic Succession would pretty much have been ignored.

3. The introductory essay by Greg Salmieri ("An Introduction to the Study of Ayn Rand") is quite good. He discusses Rand, her works, and her influence in the academy. For some reason he didn't mention the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which has been publishing since 1999. However, he does comment on several of the various works published posthumously under the editorship of various ARI writers. It had long been suspected (and shown by Jennifer Burns in 2009) that these works have been heavily edited for ideological purposes (to make Rand more consistent and omit embarrassing material). This was further confirmed by Robert Campbell a few years ago in his analysis of the changes that Robert Mayhew made in editing Rand’s question and answers (Ayn Rand Answers). Salmieri acknowledges that much editing has taken place and that there are editorial decisions that “I wish had been made differently [but] these books serve their purpose well . . . .” I find this shocking. A half dozen of Rand’s books have been so heavily edited as to be worthless for scholars and almost worthless for the casual admirer and Salmieri can’t get worked up over this? These books should be removed from publication immediately and replaced with accurate versions. Rand worked hard to protect the integrity of her material and the ARI should do the same.

4. Anyone who has followed the ongoing controversy over Rand’s life and the biographies of her will be interested in what Salmieri and Shoshana Milgram (who is writing an authorized biography of Ayn Rand) say. In 1986, Barbara Branden wrote the first full-length biography of Rand (The Passion of Ayn Rand). Shortly after the publication of Passion, Leonard Peikoff denounced the book as an “arbitrary assertion” (without having read it) and in 2005 James Valliant (who had access to Rand’s diaries thanks to Leonard Peikoff) claimed that everything in Passion was arbitrary (even, I imagine, that Rand was born in Russia) but also “dishonest” and that Branden made stuff up out of whole cloth. (I critiqued Valliant’s moronic book in 2008, which you can find on the web.) Well, in 2009 Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller published biographies of Rand which more or less followed Branden’s take on Rand. And what’s more, they often used Branden’s book as a source. These books were not viewed with favor by the ARI establishment. Now, Salmieri and Milgram don’t appear to have a high regard for these three biographies either, but gone are the days when everything Barbara Branden said should be dismissed out of hand. Milgram, unfortunately quotes Burns out of context when she reports Burns as saying that Branden’s biography is “marred by serious inaccuracies.” (page 87 in the Wylie edition). Burns, however, goes on to say “too often Branden takes Rand’s stories about herself at face value, reporting as fact information contradicted by the historical record.” Milgram does make some good points about the three biographies and I think they all have their strengths and weaknesses. She is correct that Passion (and the memoirs of Nathaniel Branden) should be used with caution, in particular when reporting something for which they are the only source (private communications, for example). I would be curious what Milgram thinks about those who have said things equally critical of Rand and who never broke with her or, if they did, their breaks did not involve dishonesty. I assume Milgram has interviewed such people or consulted the interviews that others have done of them.

5. I’ve read only a few of the essays beginning to end, but they were informative albeit not particularly critical. The essays all appear to be polished and Salmieri and Gotthelf are to be commended for what must have been a lengthy editing process.

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