Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil

I received the first of the two Rand biographies I ordered, Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller and now I understand why one of the book's reviewers said it made her feel compassion for Ayn Rand. I felt the same way.

That is not to say that it turns out that Ayn Rand was empathetic and perceptive about people's feelings, and was open to new ideas, and had a nuanced view of life and philosophy. Even though Heller strains to be fair to Rand, including defending her work against what I think is valid criticism (more about that later), her book makes it clear that Rand was exactly the opposite.

But you can't help but feel that it is because of Rand's traits that she was so utterly clueless her much-younger boyfriend was cheating on her (and on his wife, who knew about the affair with Rand but not about the 20-something actress), and even when he came out and said he was rejecting her because she was too old (she was in her 60s by this time) she wouldn't believe him.  (Although if the Internet is to be believed, plenty of men do have erotic feelings for old women.)

Heller writes:
...she was making more than one hundred pages of shrewd, if painfully myopic, journal entries about what had gone wrong between them. She did not accept for a minute that her age was the real source of the problem... 
Still under the impression that he was sexually 'frozen', she added: "Thus he can claim there is nothing seriously wrong with him." At times her notes expressed an austere affection for the bright young man she had met and mentored; at other times, she struggled with overwhelming revulsion against his "filthy soul." Most often, she displayed remarkable control as she analyzed him from every point of view consistent with her characters and philosophical convictions. At times, she wept in grief. Not once, however did she ask herself what responsibility she might bear for the harrowing end of one of the two most important allegiances of her life. Nor did she attempt to inhabit Branden's point of view - that, say of a young man entranced and half-consciously seduced by a charismatic, authoritarian mother figure from whom he lacked the courage to break free. Such empathy for the other was outside her range.
The inability to see things from another's point of view is one of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders. But I don't know if Asperger's is enough to explain how incredibly delusional Rand was:
Basically, what she found wrong with him was something she had struggled not to believe: that he had an advanced case of social metaphysics, the wound that disfigured the souls of Peter Keating, Ellsworth Toohey, and that chaser after shopgirls, Dagny's weak and incompetent brother James... 
...she was sure of one thing, however "with the full power, logic, clarity and context of my mind." She was too much for Nathaniel Branden... at one time, she wrote, he did have the potential of becoming a hero and a genius, and if he had chosen to pursue Roark's values of independence and integrity she would not be too much for him, she reflected from inside her world of fantasy.
I blogged last week about the inability of Ayn Rand's characters in "Atlas Shrugged" - moochers and Supermen both, to figure out when other characters have an affair going on. Lillian Rearden takes a year to figure out Hank is cheating on her, and then, in spite of the fact that Dagny is the only woman he has any interactions with; and Dagny refuses to return Lillian's Rearden Metal bracelet even though Lillian suggests it would be a scandal; it takes Lillian another year to figure out that Dagny is the other woman.

Hank Rearden, who has had every opportunity to find out from Dagny or James or Eddie Willers that Dagny and d'Anconia knew each other since childhood, and that they'd had a sexual relationship (James throws this in Dagny's face early on in the book) it comes as a huge shock to him that d'Anconia was in love with Dagny. Such a shock that he punches d'Anconia in the face - and even then doesn't realize that d'Anconia was the only other man Dagny's had sex with - she has to come right out and tell him.

And Eddie Willers, even though he's seen Dagny and Rearden alone together at odd hours several times, doesn't figure it out until he sees Rearden's dressing gown in Dagny's closet. And only this shock of jealously makes him realize that he was in love with Dagny.

Turns out Rand was exactly that obtuse herself. Even though she knew that Branden and the actress had been friends for a while, and Branden was attempting to end the sexual connection between himself and Rand:
Inexplicably, she didn't question his claim that he felt only friendship for Patreicia, whose "notary public" soul she imagined offered him relief from the burden of Roark's stern example. Yet she also angrily described him as a man who had forsaken his highest values because of "a sexual urge for the bodies of chorus girls!" 
"Inexplicably" - if you don't consider the possibility of Asperger's Syndrome, combined with years of being worshipped by her very own cult.

It's easy to feel pity for the meglomaniacal old woman, so self-serving, so deficient of insight.

The word "philosophical" has two meanings in English. The second one is:
Characterized by the attitude of a philosopher; specifically: calm or unflinching in the face of trouble, defeat, or loss
But the type of resignation implied here is antithetical to Rand's rigid, binary, winner-take-all "philosophy." And Rand's philosophy is nothing more than her own personality traits turned into a system - by Nathaniel Branden. It's a pretty safe bet that without Branden, there would only be Rand's novels, there would be no Objectivism.

And since her personality traits were indistinguishable from Objectivism, when Rand suffered a romantic disappointment it was natural for her to view it in terms of Objectivism and through the characters in her novels.

And when Branden's wife Barbara finally tells Rand the truth about the affair, her response is the opposite of philosophical - she has a complete melt-down.

It's easy to feel compassion for this clueless, delusional creature, but it's hard to understand how anybody can consider her, through either her life or her novels, to be a source of wisdom.