THE DARK TRAGEDY OF AYN RAND
I was quite unaware of a rather well-sculpted and articulate movie which I got to watch yesterday- The Passion of Ayn Rand
. The movie focuses on Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden
, a psychologist 25 years her junior who was ardently wedded to her philosophy of objectivism. Rand is played by Helen Mirren who again demonstrates that she can play virtually any strong female character from history. Eric Stolz gives a nuanced and excellent performance as Branden. The movie actually does an even better job of indicating why exactly her philosophy became cultish and why there is so much disdain for both her writings and her personality
It begins when Rand meets the 20 year old Branden as part of a study group dissecting her favourite philosophical ruminations. There Branden meets an attractive and intelligent woman named Barbara, and it's Rand who brings the two together. The two get married and seem to have a happy married life, in spite of Barbara's increasing discomfort with the closeness between Rand and Branden.
At one point both Barbara and Rand's husband discover the affinity of the two for each other. What happens next is rather bizarre and in my opinion emblematic of Rand's dogmatic view of things. Rand and Branden decide to ask the "permission" of their spouses for having an affair. At first bitter and heartbroken, the two spouses somehow delude themselves in thinking that by giving their permission they are ascribing to a "higher" ideal. But it is Rand who has sowed the seeds of such thinking in their minds. She tells them that by giving her and Branden "permission" to have an affair, they would wean themselves away from being "lesser" human beings. This all sounds rather ridiculous, but somehow the two spouses fall for it.
In the next several years, Rand and Branden carry on a torrid affair, often meeting at her apartment for both intellectual and erotic explorations, with Rand clearly putting much emphasis on the latter. The relationship serves as another kind of aphrodisiac for Rand; she derives inspiration for Atlas Shrugged from her and Branden's lives and finishes the book in record time. One wonders at this point how much her own life and thinking has influenced the depiction of her cardboard cutout characters who seem to lack nuance and depth. Through all of this, both Barbara and Rand's husband display a herculean tolerance; I don't know whether to worship them for their open-mindedness or scorn them for their utter stupidity in being suckers for Rand and Branden's world-view. A simpler interpretation would portray them simply as good people who were too much in love to endure breaking up with their lovers, even if their lovers had no problem sharing themselves with other people.
In any case, Branden's convictions clearly are not as steadfast as Rand's, and he starts having an affair with yet another woman. When Barbara finds out about this, she quite fairly now asks Branden for "permission" to have an affair with a musician that she has just met. But hypocrisy being an essential quality of most dogmatic thinking, he thinks that doing so would betray his "principles". However, Branden clearly now has started seeing cracks in his long-cherished objectivism. He has started realizing that compassion, understanding and sacrifice are perhaps as important as individualism, something which Rand herself seems quite incapable of realizing. More simply the strain of his various relationships is starting to be too much for him.
The end is inevitable. Rand finds out about Branden's affair and in another display of hypocrisy, cannot stand it when he displays the self-interest and the selfishness which she has coveted so much all his life. They have a falling out, with Branden forever being persona non grata in Rand's life. Barbara marries the musician, Rand's husband says he has reached a point where he is incapable of understanding anything at all, and Rand retreats into her own dark world of ideology.
The movie exposes problems with Rand pretty well. These problems have of course been well-documented by scores of writers, analysts and philosophers. Libertarians for example, including libertarianism's founder Murray Rothbard
, have soundly blasted her philosophy. Michael Shermer
has an articulate denunciation of Rand's cult in his book
If there is one quality that Rand embodies throughout the movie, it is of utter intolerance and dogma. Rand might have been brilliant, but she was quite one dimensional. There is not one moment when she admits she made a mistake, admits that others could be right, commiserates with their point of view or believes that her philosophy has limitations that need to be understood. When facts fit her world-view, they are praised and exalted sometimes beyond their significance. When they don't, clearly it's the facts that must be wrong, and not her world-view. The same principles apply to human beings; if they share different or opposing world-views they are wrong and need to "rise above themselves". She loves uttering words like a prophet or an oracle, convinced that they are destined to be true. And for all her constant emphasis on "reason", Rand forgets an essential signature of reasonable thinking- the ability to understand that the world is not black and white but shades of gray. In addition she is incapable of applying the same rigorous standards to herself as she does to her "heroes", both fictional and real.
These are the classic hallmarks of dogmatic religious thinking; an inability to see the world through anything else but your private monochromatic lens, a rock-hard stubbornness that renders you wholly incapable of admitting to flaws or mistakes in yourself and your philosophy, an unwillingness bordering on cruelty to show sympathy to other people and their views, and lastly and sadly, a remarkable hypocrisy that keeps you from applying the same standards to yourself as you so eloquently apply to others.
Rand's work is probably summed up best by a simple line from the movie. The musician who loves Barbara, a simple and friendly guy says, "I have read her books. They are good stories". And that's what they should be taken as, not much more than good stories.
Since we were talking about comparisons yesterday, how about this one; Ayn Rand and Edward Teller. Even if it might sound strange, I noticed some interesting similarities. Both Rand and Teller were emigres from fascist and communist systems which they deeply and utterly hated all their life; in fact it would be fair to argue that this visceral hatred often clouded their thinking later. Both were exceptionally brilliant individuals welcomed by America and immensely treasured the gifts that the capitalist system provides. And yet both were so taken by the system that in their own way they became dogmatic and convinced of one worldview or another. With Rand it was objectivism. With Teller it was nuclear weapons. Both were so wedded to their ideas that they refused to accept the limitations of those ideas in spite of evidence to the contrary. Rand believed that individualism could make man achieve a mythical ideal. Teller believed that nuclear weapons actually held the panacea to all our evils. Both refused to accept that their ideas could be utterly unrealistic. What Enrico Fermi once said about Teller can well apply to Rand- "She was a monomaniac who had several manias". Both had scant patience if any for even entertaining alternative points of view. In the process both lost many good friends and made countless enemies who looked down upon them. In fact they seemed to end up having no qualms in being extremely cruel and indifferent to people close to them. However both of them also spanned cults that became obsessed with their philosophy. And both went to their grave convinced their ideas were the right ones to make the world a better place.
In the end, Rand and Teller cannot help but appear as nothing more than personalities who fervently espoused and disseminated ideas essentially to indulge their private thoughts, insecurities and paranoias. The tragedy was that both of them were brilliant and had enormous influence. I think Rand and Teller both are model embodiments of what can happen when immense intelligence, creativity and dogma are manifested in minds that are in a position to make a difference. Ultimately they emerge as dark and tragic figures, personifying only the failed ruins of the glorious edifices they strived to create.
Labels: Ayn Rand, Edward Teller, objectivism