Sunday, December 4, 2011

Subject and Object

"The life of Ayn Rand was the material of fiction. But if one attempted to write it as a novel, the result would be preposterously unbelievable." Truer words, the first that appear in The Passion of Ayn Rand, were never spoken. Rand's story--filled with adventure, philosophy, tragedy, lurid sexuality, politics--is absolutely compelling: a ridiculously intelligent social misfit escapes Soviet Russia, works for Cecil B. DeMille while working a first novel and a play (Night of January 16th) that goes to Broadway, giving her enough money to live on, intermittently, to write The Fountainhead; she assembles a cult of personality in the name of rationality and individualism, embarks on a decade-and-a-half affair with a twenty-five years younger protege while writing a book that helps birth the Libertarian movement, and eventually drives nearly all of her friends away and dies alone. I'm at a loss to explain my ongoing fascination with Ayn Rand, but if pressed I would venture her literally incredible life's story.

Barbara Branden, Passion's author, was in a unique place to tell it. She and her husband Nathaniel Branden were for 18 years Rand's closest friends, associates, and Objectivist acolytes, and so knew Rand better than anyone besides her husband Frank. She and Rand shared hopes, fears, and fury (Rand was quite one-sided in this respect), and before their break--precipitated by Nathaniel's excommunication for disclosing that he could not continue his affair with Rand because he had fallen in love with a younger woman--she had conducted hours of biographical interviews with Rand in preparation for an earlier, and much more fawning, autobiographical sketch, Who is Ayn Rand?

The uniqueness of the author's relationship to Rand is itself enough to make the book interesting. What made it vital in its time (1986, only four years after Rand's death) was that it was virtually the only biography of Rand that existed to that point, and was also the first publicizing of Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden. Until Anne C. Heller and Jennifer Burns' volumes, it was essentially the only complete biography of the egoist firebrand.

Reading it in quick succession after the other two is like looking at someone's baby photos; the defining characteristics are easily recognizable, but not nearly so developed. Many of the quotations and subjects in the other two books--such as Heller's detailing of Rand's childhood crush, the hero of a French adventure story--were used here first, though without as thorough an investigation of the given subjects. Rand's relationship with Isabel Paterson, an early libertarian writer who tutored Rand in American history and politics, features much more prominently in Burns' account for the considerable impact it had on Rand as a thinker, but here it is given limited treatment. Some figures are scarcely mentioned at all. Murray Rothbard, an anarcho-capitalist and disgruntled Randian who wrote damningly (and quite humorously) of the Rand cult, is only mentioned in an afterward as one of the people Rand influenced.

What most distinguishes Branden's account is its style, a sometimes breathless romanticism that details the state of the person it describes. For instance, "[Frank] spent many hours each day in his studio, but seemed to be producing less and less; he was not painting, he was drinking, drowning his grief and his failed life in liquor." Repitition is a repeated (heh) rhetorical device used throughout to emphasize certain moments. They are scattershot in their effectiveness. A less successful example:

And I had loved Ayn for too long, she had meant too much to me and had done too much for me--ever to be able, even had I wished to do so, to tear that love out of me. I had seen too often her unique, heart-wrenching charm, and the enchanting young girl who still dwelt somehwhere within her, I had witnessed too often, with a sense of wonder, the power and the passion of her intelligence. I had seen....

And so forth. This tool is most ill-used in the final chapter, which endlessly describes figures influenced by Rand, with each entry ending in "The fountainhead is Ayn Rand." In some of the more climactic moments, however, it can be quite appropriate, if still overdone:

"You dared to reject me?" She was no longer screaming, her voice was guttural, choked, and all at once her accent was startlingly heavy--and it seemed for a moment, that she no longer knew it was Nathaniel she was denouncing, she was in Russia, she was a girl again, she was damning those who had inflicted upon her a lifetime of rejection--damning her mother who had required as the price of love that she be glamorous and social and pretty, damning her father who had never touched her hand in affection, damning her schoolmates who had profited by her intelligence and excluded her from their lives and activities, damning all the men through all the years who had feared the power of her brain and so had been blind to the woman's body it inhabited--and damning Leo most of all, damning the man to whom she had offered her heart and her should and who had been indifferent to them. Leo had been born again, more than forty years later, when she had become everything she had wanted to become and achieved everything she had wanted to achieve--and once more he had done to her the unthinkable, the unendurable, once more he had tried to destroy her life, once more she had offered him her heart and her soul and he had thrown them in her face.

On the whole, however, the book reads incredibly well and provides a narrative sweep befitting its epic subject matter. Such an, ahem, impassioned and occasionally judgmental (Frank's "failed life") approach, given the nature of Branden's history with Rand, raises the question of, erm, objectivity. Strangely enough, her treatment is if anything too fair. Burns notes that Branden is too credulous of Rand's account of her early history, and may well have overplayed Frank's use of alcohol. When it comes to analyzing the Rand herself, Branden is remarkably sympathetic in describing a woman whose demand of an unceasing rationality led her to repress every feeling of weakness or inadequacy she ever felt. Her lingering affection for the person who she says gave her life direction and made her feel for the first time that ideas mattered, is palpable.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Ayn Rand's American historical counterpart, contra Johann Hari, is not L. Ron Hubbard, but Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Both figures were of dubious character who led movements that have been wildly more influential than anyone could have imagined. More pertinently, they were charismatic figures whose personal magnetism was such that even after the original group splintered (in both cases due to gross sexual impropriety on the cult-leaders' part), the apostates did not repent their earlier opinions. The "witnesses" of the Book of Mormon's infamous plates, as any good Latter-Day Saint will tell you, never recanted their testimony. Likewise Branden's grace, including the astonishing restraint she and her ex-husband showed, following their break with Rand, in not revealing the affair that would have humiliated and publicly destroyed her, until after her death.

Branden, in a footnote, disputes that their experience ever qualified as a cult, on the grounds that their belief was grounded in rationalism and individuality and not religious worship. One is reminded of the Cult of Reason of the revolutionary French, or the cults of personality that developed around 20th century authoritarians, which did not abolish religion so much as replace it. There is no better illustration of this similarity than the response of Leonard Peikoff, Rand's intellectual standard-bearer and executor of her estate, who insisted without ever reading it that any follower of Rand's who spoke well of the book be cut off and shunned. Peikoff, it must needs be noted, is Barbara Branden's cousin.

Peikoff recently midwifed The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics, a much belated (2005!) response to both The Passion of Ayn Rand as well as Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand, an account of the affair written by Nathaniel Branden. I will in good time take it in, along with Judgment Day. But for now I'm going to break from the biography beat and actually start digging into Rand's actual writing, beginning her first novel, We the Living. Critics were and have been quite vicious in their estimation of Rand's fiction, and often unfairly; perhaps the best possible jumping-off point into it, then, is Barbara Branden's telling of Rand's tale: respectful without outright fawning, and with a touch of the romantic.

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