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The Passion of Ayn Rand: What's the Big Deal?

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So, I just today finished reading Barbara Branden's biography of Rand, The Passion of Ayn Rand, and I have to say, I don't really understand why it caused a furor in the Objectivist community (or so I have been told as I was not around to witness the reception firsthand). Maybe it's a generational thing, belonging to a very specific time and place, but could anyone with the experience I lack help me to understand the nature of the controversy?

What was it about Rand's portrayal that was so questionable (for I can only conclude that this must be the issue in some respect), and why was whatever it was so significant? So far as I can tell, there is no aspect to Objectivism that is challenged -- or could be challenged -- by Rand's personality or personal history, so why should I get worked up about such details in the first place?

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There is no reason anyone not involved should care.   

Some people expect philosophers to uphold a standard of conduct similar to Jesus Christ or the Buddha or Aristotle or Socrates.  Ayn Rand disappoints them in that regard.  That has nothing to do with arguments and theories which she advocated.  

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One difficulty with it might have been that it created fodder or material for detractors and regressives who very often rely on ad hominem attacks... no matter how logically flawed, such yammerings are very annoying and hard to counter when third parties (population at large) are swayed by such tactics.

Edited by StrictlyLogical

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The big shockeroo was the revelation that AR had been unfaithful to her husband. People had gossiped, but this was the first time anybody attested to it on the record. Attendant to that was the revelation that she hadn't come clean to her public about the reasons for her break with NB.

Just to speculate, I imagine the book was offensive to Peikoff, implying as it did that either he hadn't known this during Rand's lifetime (despite his claims to have been close to her) or that he had (and had cooperated in the deception). He finally admitted, at one of his Ford Hall Forum appearances, that he'd learned about the affair from her journals shortly after her death. That's the worst of both, if you think about it: she never saw fit to tell her self-appointed "intellectual heir" and he kept it a secret once he found out.

Edited by Reidy

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On 3/13/2019 at 10:18 AM, Reidy said:

The big shockeroo was the revelation that AR had been unfaithful to her husband.

She wasn't "unfaithful," though, since her husband was fully aware of what was going on. Her actions were perfectly consistent with the trader principle.

I know what you meant, of course, but you could have been more accurate with your phrasing. This is important on a public forum which is frequented by novices who may not have a firsthand understanding of the situation.

Quote

He finally admitted, at one of his Ford Hall Forum appearances, that he'd learned about the affair from her journals shortly after her death. That's the worst of both, if you think about it: she never saw fit to tell her self-appointed "intellectual heir" and he kept it a secret once he found out.

Why was it wrong to keep it a secret? It was nobody else's business. Moreover, both Peikoff and Rand surely knew it would serve as the basis of personal attacks against Rand and Objectivism once it became public.

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I don't see that unfaithfulness requires deception. It simply means having a sexual partner other than one's spouse (or committed partner). She made her marriage the public's business by talking about it.

Nor do I see that Peikoff was merely being discreet. Rand and the Brandens had both dishonest by omission in their original explanation. Had Rand merely said, in a sentence or two, that she and the Brandens were going their separate ways, then discretion would have been been due. Instead she denounced him publicly for all manner of depravity, specified or not, while withholding the real reason. By 1986, when BB's biography came out, there was a pent-up demand for the whole story.  Rand was a famous and historically important person, and people want to know about her life.

If people want to attack you ad hominem, they're going to find a way. What you make public and what you keep private won't change this. For example, some have denounced her for taking Social Security and Medicare in later years, and they didn't need any gossip or personal secrets to do this.

I'm not sure. Did Peikoff ever deny on the record that the affair had taken place?

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I also finished the book, as well as Nathaniel's book, this past weekend.

I was surprised how cultish their circle was. There were a few parts where I had to laugh out loud as it seemed ridiculous, from Ayn writing papers on other's psychology to the account given that she was "clapping" in amusement and laughing when Nathaniel used eloquent phrasing when providing his perspective on others' "psycho-epistemology" (essentially clapping at others' misery).

Nathaniel's book seemed pretty self serving and arrogant, but also reflective and interesting at times.

All of them acted immorally and reality won out; I felt worse for Barbara and especially Frank. Ayn, from Barbara's account, seemed unfulfilled in her marriage, especially indicated by the fact that other young men before Nathaniel noted that there was that similar type of flirting going on. It seemed like she was seeking out an affair all along, but didn't want to let go of Frank. Nathaniel, though he was very young at the start and under the influence of Ayn, kept up lies and deception all the way to age 38. He was, essentially, using Ayn and not treating her as a human by lying to her and lying to everyone else.

The whole thing was a major rationalization. Frank and Barbara's error was agreeing to it and staying with them, though I understand why they did. Poor Frank seemed to have a miserable life towards the end, and Ayn did as well. He had a lifetime of suppressed emotions and it was especially sad to read about his last years.

It was interesting to read about Ayn's character - she seemed to have a lot of flaws, and virtues, I would not have been able to guess by listening to her interviews, etc. It was also interesting to read how Peikoff came to the forefront of Objectivism and how he became the "intellectual heir" that ARI makes him out to be (and by his own statement) - it was almost by default, everyone else in Ayn Rand's life left her.

It would have been interesting to hear Ayn's take on the whole thing as I bet it would give a more complete picture, especially with her dealings on Nathaniel. I was really disgusted, enchanted, and saddened at different times reading the book. It was a rollercoaster of emotions - not because I was particularly invested, but all the triumph in her life as well as all the tragedy (including for the people around her) was sometimes hard to read.

 

 

Edited by thenelli01

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17 hours ago, thenelli01 said:

It would have been interesting to hear Ayn's take on the whole thing as I bet it would give a more complete picture, especially with her dealings on Nathaniel.

You're in luck. You can read her side of things in The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics.

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On 6/25/2019 at 10:21 PM, thenelli01 said:

It would have been interesting to hear Ayn's take on the whole thing as I bet it would give a more complete picture, especially with her dealings on Nathaniel.

You can read James Valliant's opinions about Ayn Rand's side of the story in The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics.

Edited by merjet

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Late in 1980 Nathaniel Branden and his wife Devers were in New York, and Devers finagled a long conversation with Ayn Rand in the latter’s apartment. This is reported in some detail from Branden in his My Years with Ayn Rand (1999). Rand mentioned in that conversation that Leonard Peikoff was her friend. I noticed there was no mention of other still-friendly long-time philosophy associates such as Allan Gotthelf or Harry Binswanger. It is a plausible picture that Peikoff was more personally close to Rand in the 70’s and early 80’s. (Gotthelf was around the country speaking for her philosophy at her behest in the late 70’s.) But I notice, beyond the episode with Devers and Rand, that Branden does not mention the existence of either Gotthelf or Binswanger in his entire book. Those associates of Rand and of Branden were getting their doctorates in philosophy in New York during the ‘60’s. And by 1999, Gotthelf had gone on to become one of the towering figures in the world of Aristotle scholars. There was a tendency of Nathaniel and of Barbara (at least in her internet postings) to paint Rand’s life and the vitality of her intellectual circle after their own exist from it as next to zero, which is ridiculous by public records.

There was a later phone conversation between Devers and Rand, which conversation included:

Devers: “And again I told her I wanted some communication between you two [Rand and Branden]. Then, for the first time, I referred to your affair explicitly, ‘Ayn you two were once lovers’. / ‘We were never lovers!’ . . . ‘We were never really friends! He was a student of mine! Did he tell you we were lovers?’ / ‘Of course’, I answered gently. / ‘Why would he do that? Why?’ / I was incredulous and said, ‘Ayn, I’m his wife’. . . . ‘Are you now saying that you dedicated Atlas Shrugged to a man who was not even important to you?’ / There was a long moment of silence. Then Ayn answered, her voice low and muffled, ‘A gentleman would have taken it to his grave’.”

I was not personally acquainted with Rand or either of the Brandens. I’ve noticed that all of them and all her circle were good writers. I take whatever ideas I find good in their writings and incorporate them into my own comprehension of things. I’ve not read Barbara Branden’s book or James Valiant’s book on that book. I’ve had friendly exchanges with those two authors by internet postings. Allan Gotthelf and David Kelley were subscribers to my journal Objectivity (1990–98), and I had some personal acquaintance with them. I’ve some friendly communication with Leonard Peikoff years ago, and readers here know I’ve respect and appreciation for his contributions to Rand’s philosophy and its promulgation. I was in the audience of presentations of Nathaniel Branden a couple of times (early 70’s, late 90’s), also Alan Blumenthal once (early 90’s). What they had to say was important and moving.

From my perspective, in the long run, it was better for Rand’s philosophy that the separation of Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand occurred. Too much of her public tablets had been filled with psychological construction of archetypes and psychological casting of issues and personages. After association with Branden (who went on to good developments in his own field), philosophy, serious philosophy, got more and more portion of the space she bannered in print and on tape.

Edited by Boydstun

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Here is part of some remarks Barbara Branden wrote, around 2006 I think, concerning her writing of the biography back in the 80's, after Rand's death.

Quote

As Executive Vice-President of Nathaniel Branden Institute, I had had an important role in its success during the ten years we taught Objectivism in New York and ultimately in eighty cities across the United States and Canada. I had had an important role in forming the Objectivist movement that had sprung up. And I had helped to create the "cult of personality" that had formed around Rand in particular but also around Nathaniel and to some extent around myself. The three of us, and Frank O’Connor, were seen as ideal exemplars of the Objectivist morality and sense of life; admirers of Rand’s ideas were expected to understand that to criticize us was equivalent to criticizing the ideas that, for so many of them, had changed their lives for the better and had given them exalted ideals and goals to reach for. 

When Rand broke with Nathaniel and me, it appeared to her admirers that a near-impossibility had occurred: in the persons of Ayn and Nathaniel, two totally rational people had encountered differences that reason could not resolve. It was a deeply shocking and hurtful event, made much worse by the fact that the real reason for the break was not presented, leaving our students deeply confused and deeply hurt. I felt strongly at the time that the truth—that Nathaniel was in love with another woman and was unwilling to continue his affair with Rand—should have been stated if anything at all was to be stated. But Rand was unwilling even to consider this, and I had given her the most solemn oath of secrecy of my life.

In 1981, I decided to break my vow of secrecy, and I shall forever be glad that I did so. I believed—and believe—that my debt to my students and their right to know the truth overrode that vow. I had to break the presumed link between the validity of Objectivism and the perfection of Ayn Rand.

Where Barbara wrote "secrecy of my life," I imagine she meant "secrecy on my life."

I think Barbara had an exaggerated view of how important was the Nathaniel Branden Institute in creating strong personal admiration and affection for Ayn Rand personally among her readers. Rand's writing did that to some of us. Period. No existence of any associates of Rand's required. Moreover, when some hostile query would come to Rand asking if she and her chief spokesperson Nathaniel Branden were exemplars of the ideals in her philosophy, and she would answer Yes, her answer, her estimation and her say-so, carried no weight with the more intelligent and serious-minded sympathizers among her audience. We had the novels and the essays of Rand and of her associates before us. That was our focus, our debates with our fellows, and our estimation of what was important.

Imagined responsibilities for follies of the supposedly weak-headed students of NBI is a bit odd. Weight of respect for the foursome all around and for truth-telling of history from Barbara's particular vantage would seem enough to consider in deciding to produce the biography.

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On 6/25/2019 at 10:21 PM, thenelli01 said:

There were a few parts where I had to laugh out loud as it seemed ridiculous, from Ayn writing papers on other's psychology to the account given that she was "clapping" in amusement and laughing when Nathaniel used eloquent phrasing when providing his perspective on others' "psycho-epistemology" (essentially clapping at others' misery).

I wonder, and I'm curious if anyone has more thoughts on this. Might this relate to Rand's use of amphetamines? As far as I heard, she used it for decades. It would only make sense that it would manifest as behavior like this. And I wouldn't be surprised that people may have attributed this behavior to her personality instead, especially in that day and age. I'm only interested in terms of her biography, so I would like to know more.

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6 hours ago, Eiuol said:

I wonder, and I'm curious if anyone has more thoughts on this.

Yeah, I wouldn't take discredited sources too seriously. Rand wasn't "clapping at another's misery." She was applauding Branden's eloquent insights. Plus, the subject herself wrote later that she "will always remember the day [she] met Ayn as one of the happiest days of [her] life." And that's all coming from the same passage in Branden's book, so she contradicts herself, which shouldn't be surprising to anyone who's read Valliant's book.

If you're going to bash Rand, at least use a credible source that can write more than a few pages without sounding like a moron.

Edited by MisterSwig

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It's not a discredited source for that behavior, although it certainly was disputed (not to mention it isn't a contradiction to say that meeting someone you are critical of was one of the most important things in your life). Actually, you didn't even dispute the behavior.

Anyway, it's pretty well known that she did take amphetamines. I just want to hear more. For a moment, let's consider that she might not have been either being a jerk or using legitimate psychological insight that she was approving. Using drugs like amphetamines can screw up your ability to interpret social situations or manage emotions. This isn't bashing Rand, it's looking for more context to her life. Depending on how much of a user she was, it would be a way to verify behavior that doesn't rely on memory.

Edited by Eiuol

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30 minutes ago, Eiuol said:

(not to mention it isn't a contradiction to say that meeting someone you are critical of was one of the most important things in your life)

What are you talking about? The subject of the evaluation didn't criticize Rand, Barbara Branden did, years later, after Rand had died and couldn't respond.

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I must have misread something. I don't know who "the subject" you're referring to is. It sounded like you were saying that Barbara Branden was contradicting herself because she pointed out what she remembered as worth mentioning, while also saying that meeting Rand was so deeply important to her.

Either way, I don't put much weight on memoir type biographies. Does either book mention much about Rand's use of amphetamines?

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1 hour ago, Eiuol said:

I must have misread something. I don't know who "the subject" you're referring to is.

The subject is the young woman whom Nathaniel Branden was diagnosing. The story is on pages 270-271, if you're interested.

1 hour ago, Eiuol said:

It sounded like you were saying that Barbara Branden was contradicting herself because she pointed out what she remembered as worth mentioning, while also saying that meeting Rand was so deeply important to her.

No, Barbara contradicts herself because in one paragraph she suggests that Rand is applauding Nathaniel's "well-phrased point," and in the next she's applauding "a young woman's agony." It's ridiculous. Such an accusation demands a fuller context, which is conveniently not provided. What were the exact points being applauded? How did the young woman take it? The only indication of the young woman's reaction is that Rand made her very happy that day. How does that fit with Barbara's contention that Rand "exhibited a lack of human empathy that was astonishing"? It doesn't. It indicates that Barbara herself is the one who lacks empathy, empathy for Rand and the young subject.

1 hour ago, Eiuol said:

Does either book mention much about Rand's use of amphetamines?

Yes. In a footnote, Barbara tells us that Rand was prescribed a low dose of Dexamyl for energy and weight control. But she doesn't seem to think it had a negative effect on Rand, due to the low dosage and scientific studies at the time. Not that I trust Barbara's opinion, but I doubt it had a negative effect too. Given Rand's intelligence and self-control, it is unlikely that she would have let some drug habitually impair her emotionally or psychologically. Furthermore, Rand was able to immediately stop taking Dexamyl in her old age, once she got sick. So, it's not like she was addicted to the substance. She took it for a healthy purpose.

Edited by MisterSwig

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7 minutes ago, MisterSwig said:

Such an accusation demands a fuller context, which is conveniently not provided.

For sure.

It might not be a contradiction to Barbara's story though. Both things can be true. Still, Barbara might be reliable for basic facts, but nothing that involves emotionally charged drama like this (events like that are prone to being misremembered, that goes for anyone). To say the least, it shouldn't be controversial to say that Rand was rough around the edges. That's not necessarily a bad thing. So I wonder if amphetamines contributed to that at all, and exaggerated those personality traits.

9 minutes ago, MisterSwig said:

Given Rand's intelligence and self-control, it is unlikely that she would have let some drug impair her emotionally or psychologically.

Intelligence has nothing to do with drug use itself, but being intelligent makes it easier to hide drug use. The thing about amphetamines is that they don't necessarily impair rational thought, but they can impair emotional function. About all I know is that she used them at least since 1942, and used them for 30 years. We don't know her dosage, or habits of use. It doesn't matter why they were prescribed, and many doctors at the time had no idea just how bad they were for you. So a "low dose" back then would probably be seen as a high dose nowadays. Using amphetamines for that long is not good psychologically.

Do you know any other books that might talk about it?

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41 minutes ago, Eiuol said:

We don't know her dosage, or habits of use.

We do, if you believe Barbara, who says Rand took two small, low-dose pills a day. The common prescription was two 5-mg tablets per day, and that's the same or lower than a low dose of amphetamines today. Also, Dexamyl, unlike Adderall today, was not pure amphetamines. It's a compound of dextroamphetamine and amobarbital, a sedative. So it's a less potent stimulant than Adderall.

41 minutes ago, Eiuol said:

Do you know any other books that might talk about it?

Besides the Brandens' and Valliant's books? Nope.

Edited by MisterSwig

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Well, true, I looked it up, it is not a pure amphetamine. It might actually be worse, because it combines an upper and a downer, so we can't compare dosages directly - especially since Rand wasn't using it for psychological reasons. 

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One of Rand's biographers - Heller, I think - talks about her pep pill use and quotes a letter from Isabel Paterson in the late 1940s, warning her strongly to lay off at once.

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2 hours ago, Reidy said:

One of Rand's biographers - Heller, I think - talks about her pep pill use and quotes a letter from Isabel Paterson in the late 1940s, warning her strongly to lay off at once.

I have a copy of Jennifer Burns' book which I haven't read. But using the index I found sections where she talks about Rand using Benzedrine in the '40s to pull all-nighters and complete The Fountainhead. The Paterson warning is also mentioned. Paterson took offense at Rand discussing the success of her novel, while Paterson's book bombed. And Rand started cutting her off, which Paterson didn't like. I don't know if that can be attributed to amphetamines. It sounds like there were some deeper issues on both sides. Clearly the amphetamines made Rand hyperactive. Beyond that, I don't know. 

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