Saturday, September 8, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #32: Barbara Branden on Ayn Rand (1986)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, the executive producer of On the Arts

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

In the chapter Icons Revisited, I included a number of writers who re-examined past iconic figures whose personalities still continued to overshadow the decade. Some of the writers included historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Kennedy family, John Malcolm Brinnin on Truman Capote, Heather Robertson's fictionalized biographies on former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, former leftist activist (now neo-conservative) David Horowitz who, along with Peter Collier, wrote a riveting and complex study of the Ford family empire, and Barbara Branden on the controversial author Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged), a writer whose work has had a strong influence on the current Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism illicits a strong reaction from just about everyone who reads her work (especially young adolescents who identify with her heroes' battles against conformity and mediocrity). Yet most of us know little of Rand's personal life. Barbara Branden, who along with her husband Nathaniel, became one of her early followers and closest friends in 1950. (Branden and her former husband also co-founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute which gave courses on Rand's philosophy.) In 1954, however, Nathaniel began a secret romantic affair with Rand with the reluctant permission of both their spouses (Barbara and Frank O'Connor). Rand terminated her association with Nathaniel Branden by 1968 however after she discovered that he had become involved with actress Patricia Scott more than four years earlier. She likewise disassociated herself from Barbara Branden for keeping this fact from her.

In 1986, Barbara Branden wrote a memoir, The Passion of Ayn Rand (Doubleday), that not only unveiled this polarizing figure, she also illustrated the perils of blind faith and idolatry. The book later became an Emmy-award winning film in 1999 with Helen Mirren portraying Ayn Rand, and Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel and Julie Delpy as Barbara.

kc: Both you and your husband met Ayn Rand in the early Fifties when you were studying at UCLA. What was it that attracted you to her ideas?

bb: We both had separately read The Fountainhead when we were fifteen years old and fell in love with it. As a matter of fact, we met because of it. A friend of mine told me that there was a man visiting Winnipeg, where I was brought up, who was the only person he knew who talked about The Fountainhead the way I did. When we were at UCLA, we learned that Ayn Rand was living in California. He wrote her a letter asking a number of philosophical questions and she answered it. That lead to a meeting with her. Whether one agreed with her, or didn't, she was the most incredibly fascinating human being I've ever met. A miraculous mind. I don't know quite how to define genius, but when you're with someone who has it, you know it. We had all the questions that adolescents have. Is there free will? Is there a God? What can we achieve in this world? And she had brilliantly logical painstaking answers. It was exciting.

kc: But I also get the feeling reading this book that because her mind and strong personality developed a philosophy that, for her, defined individuality, it also masked something else. Maybe because her thinking was deliberately designed to be so rational, it deflected you from something darker, something more irrational. 

bb: You're right in one sense. It deflected you from noticing certain things about Ayn Rand, the person. Her intelligence was so hypnotic and the rationality so fascinating that one tended to think, or to assume, that the person knows what she is doing, even if it isn't immediately clear. But one can carry that much too far, which I did.   

kc: I remember reading The Fountainhead when I was in high school and it certainly stoked a particular view of the world that is very appealing at that age. Here you have a righteous hero filled with integrity versus a culture that sets out to render him ordinary and mediocre. The notion is quite attractive when you're a teenager. But what about when you grow into adulthood and discover that the world isn't quite as black and white as it is presented in her books?

bb: It's been very interesting for me to see people of all ages who are influenced by her ideas. I think to young people the interest is primarily the enormous passionate idealism in her work. Young people tend to be idealistic. They live in quite a cynical world. And I think what they find in her work is a sanction for that idealism. In fact, she tells them great things are possible for you. If you think rationally the world is wide open to you. That's a message that I think young people are starved for. However what I see as the single most enduring thing to most people seems to be her emphasis on reason, the idea that the world is intelligible and that we can understand it

kc: It's curious to me though that Ayn Rand came from the Soviet Union, a nation that had a revolution built on an ideal, but it was a utopian vision that very quickly turned into a reality of horror and oppression. 

bb: Yes. But she understood in a deeply philosophical way what was wrong with Communism. What she always resented was the idea that it's a wonderful ideal but it doesn't work in practice. She thought it was a terrible ideal, the whole concept that man must live for the State. At 12-years-old she knew that was evil. She never lost sight of that and believed, like an American would believe (but most don't know to), that man lives for his own happiness, for his own goals, for his own purposes. And no one has the right to tell him what to do with his life. That was present in her before the revolution yet it was the concept that enabled her to understand the revolution. 

Barbara Branden
kc: But doesn't her own ideals, especially her view of the ideal man in The Fountainhead, become deeply flawed when measured against the reality of her world?

bb: This concept of the ideal man was really her motivation for her writing. There are writers in love with language. There are writers who are in love with different aspects of their work. For Ayn, though, it was a means to an end. The whole purpose of it for her was to create her concept of the human ideal. Her husband, Frank O'Connor, was very much like Howard Roarke, the architect hero of The Fountainhead, but he was not an intellectual. He was not particularly ambitious. He was not many of the things that Ayn's heroes were. But she romanticized him in her own mind. She would talk about him as if he were one of her heroes. I think she truly loved the man she married, but sometimes when she'd talk about him, one would wonder if she saw the man she married, or was she seeing an abstraction? 

kc: When she began her affair with your husband, did he begin to represent more to her?

Nathaniel Branden
bb:  Yes he did. We were two young students who first started as her protégées and became very soon close friends. About a year and a half after we were married, she saw Nathan as a great mind who was studying psychology and would do great things. But she saw us as having attributes that anyone at twenty could have. We were not giants of the universe. So she romanticized us as she had her own husband. We struggled to live up to her ideal, failed, and then we walked around with considerable guilt. It had also been becoming clear that Nathan and her were feeling more for each other than just friendship. So she sat everybody down and said that she and Nathan wanted to have a love affair. Ayn believed that it was reasonable. She believed that it would not affect either marriage. Her love for Frank was an absolute and would not change. Nathaniel's love for me would not change, or would not be damaged. There was 25 years difference in their ages so it would not be a long lasting relationship, either, perhaps a year or two. Ayn didn't think anyone would be hurt. Now it made intellectual sense to me. But it never emotionally rang a bell. Yet I said yes and Frank said yes. And it was a disaster from beginning to end. It should never had happened and it came to involve thousands of other people who were hurt by it.  

Ayn Rand
kc: This is what I meant earlier when I mentioned the irrational side that gets masked by her rational reasoning.

bb: My greatest disagreement with her today is in the area of psychology. I think there were many things about human beings that she simply didn't understand. Therefore, her expectations of people were not what I would consider to be rational. What I quarrel with is her view of human beings. And it was based on a concept of what four people could do that was simply not valid. Years later, Nathaniel and I were getting a divorce and he fell in love with another woman [Patricia Scott] and he did not tell Ayn. When she learned of it, she was bitterly hurt. Ayn's tendency was to instantly transform pain into anger. So what one saw on the surface was rage. She broke with him instantly and permanently. Never saw him again. That's when it began to have its impact on other people. Nathan and I, after all, ran an institute that gave lectures on various aspects of Ayn Rand's philosophy. They were given all over the country in about 80 different cities. When this break came, we decided to close the institute. But what do we tell people? We swore that no one would know the truth. Ayn said that she would be happy to have it published in the New York Times, that it was nothing she was ashamed of, and she wasn't ashamed, but she felt it was very private. So we felt very much bound by that secret. We could not tell the truth and she didn't. All that our students and our friends knew was that people who they idolized were at each other's throats and had broken completely. For all those people, I felt they had a right to know what had happened. And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to write this book.

kc: Has your book had any effect on people's beliefs in Objectivism?

bb: You know, she has been seen so much as a symbol – either a goddess or a devil – and I wanted to say in my book that she was a human being and a woman about whom nothing was known. I very much disliked the fact that she was always seen as a symbol. I felt that she had a right to be a human being and worlds shouldn't topple if she made a mistake for her admirers. She faced the same human problems that all of us face.

kc: But isn't it also a problem when someone who stressed individuality influences a mass movement of like-minded thinkers?

bb: Yes. In a way. It's a problem when a formalized intellectual movement is organized. That can lead to all sorts of cultism. I think it's very good now that people read her works, take what's valuable in them, and then go on to live their own lives. That's the way it should be. And that's what is happening.

 – Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.    

No comments:

Post a Comment