Ayn Rand and I – Part 2 (of Three)

This essay is a slightly revised version of a chapter from Tibor Machan’s memoir, The Man Without a Hobby (Hamilton Books, 2006). It had an earlier life as an essay in Liberty Magazine, although in a much-shortened version.

When I had been at Claremont McKenna College for a while and had begun writing for the student newspaper to promulgate as best I could the ideas that I picked up from Rand and found sensible, a few of us on campus decided that we should start a 14-campus student newspaper filled with diverse intellectual ideas. I designed the logo-an abstract drawing of various shapes and lines-and we called the newspaper Contrast. I was also assigned the job of contacting Rand and asking her to write something for us. I was eager to comply for I was sure that her ideas would win readers for her works. She didn’t reply, although I wrote several letters. At one point I asked that she at least let me know why she couldn’t grant my request. In response to this I did receive a brief letter in which Rand observed that it “requires no philosophical knowledge, only common sense ethics and etiquette, to know that one does not ask for the free professional services of any profession, whether doctors, lawyers or writers. If one permits oneself the breach of asking it, one has, at least, the decency to know that one is asking a favor-and one does not pretend that one is offering a value in return. And when one is refused, one does not demand to know the reason.”

Ouch. Clearly Rand did not appreciate my persistence in the matter. I was hurt and then angry-why was this person unable to see the good will and supportiveness of my suggestion? But I didn’t give up, instead writing several more letters, explaining that she must have misunderstood me. For I had certainly meant to do only one thing, namely, get her ideas before student readers. I got no response to any of these efforts.

One night my suite-mate Greg Smith, an outspoken leftist and fellow staff member of Contrast, asked about my progress with Rand. I explained that I hadn’t gotten anywhere. Thereupon he started to poke fun at me-“How do you like your rational hero now?” Goaded, after he left I jumped to my typewriter and dashed off a scathingly hostile letter. I was often jumping to my typewriter and dashing things off, but this time it was a very bad idea. In a typical passage I remonstrated against Rand for “criticizing the world and its inhabitants of wholesale irrationality (as true as this may be) while continuing to practice identical methods in dealing with those who address you, who seek your advice or who wish to clarify some points with you. This approach draws no distinction between those who consider your philosophy-Objectivism-good, and right, and those who are approaching it skeptically or antagonistically. You are making it quite difficult for the first group to create a better world for themselves.” The letter went on in a similar childish vein, sometimes getting rather nasty as it unloaded my pent-up anger.

Not long after I sent this tirade, a letter arrived from Nathaniel Branden advising me: “At Miss Rand’s request, all mail that comes to this office addressed to her is read by me. In the event that she receives crank and/or obscene letters, she has asked that these not be forwarded to her. As your letter is in the same moral category, it has not been forwarded to her.” He also warned me not to reprint Rand’s letter to me, lest I be the subject of litigation. “Please do not write to this office again. We do not wish to hear from you. I have instructed Mr. Peter Crosby, my Los Angeles representative, that you are not to be admitted to any lectures, should you attempt to attend.”

I have never lived down this act, one that, as I realized very shortly after carrying it out-and even before experiencing the repercussions-was undoubtedly intemperate and insulting. Rand really owed me nothing except perhaps a bit of indulgence. And if I didn’t get even that much from her, so what? One finds surliness everywhere in the world, without lashing out as fiercely as I did. In my loneliness and confusion I was trying to gain some kind of support from Rand that she had no responsibility to offer me.

The following year, in 1964, I tried to re-establish some kind of intellectual rapport but was rebuffed, this time via a letter from Robert Hessen (who is now a close friend). It said, in part: “Nothing in the nature of your subsequent letters to Miss Rand or the Brandens has been such as to provide them with objective evidence that your psychology has significantly changed. A simple apology won’t do it. As the situation stands now, there is no way for any one of us to know when you will choose to lose your head again.”

In 1965 I learned that Leonard Peikoff, another expositor of Rand’s ideas, was teaching a philosophy course at University of Denver just as I was writing my senior thesis on free will. I wrote asking whether I could meet with him during my spring break and he said yes. We corresponded a bit-he discussed some aspects of volition with me-and during the break I went to Denver with another student who wanted to tag along, although I knew him only slightly.

But when we got to Denver and I called Peikoff, he said that he would not see me inasmuch as I had deceived him by failing to report that I was persona non grata with NBI! I hadn’t known, then, of any inner circle, nor of his membership in it. I had thought of NBI as more of a private school, modeled on the Lyceum or Plato’s Academy. (Ironically, Peikoff was reportedly out in Denver in the first place only because he was “on probation” for having committed some gaffe or other with Rand, and had been temporarily exiled to this province.) Peikoff said I was trying to pull an altruistic blackmail on him-the one that goes, “But I drove 1100 hundred miles, so you must see me.” I was stunned but did not think it right to protest, so I asked whether at least the student who had come along with me could attend one of his classes. Peikoff said I would have to okay this with Branden! Hoo boy. So I called Branden and he in turn called Peikoff to clear the proposal. When my companion returned from the lecture, he said Peikoff reported that he had tried to call me in Claremont (after mistakenly agreeing to see me) but no one answered my phone. Supposedly I had abstained from answering precisely so that I could later, upon arriving in Denver, deploy the altruistic-blackmail gambit. Of course this was all “the bunk,” as Rand might say. Peikoff was elevating a mere suspicion to the level of knowledge, a trait that became habitual for many members of the inner circle. They tended to equate a psychological feeling of certainty with the kind of epistemological certainty properly based only on evidence and proof. Nothing in Objectivism would support such dogmatism, nor did I ever think to seek the explanation within the philosophy. It was clearly the people involved who were responsible.

Later, around the time I was studying at NYU in 1965-66, I began a philosophical correspondence with one Harry Binswanger, having heard of him or read his IREC Review. (See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Binswanger). We ex-changed a few cordial letters pertaining to various philosophical ideas-even after I explained my troubles with Rand, Branden and Peikoff! Some of his letters were even supportive and filled with benevolent advice on how I might re-establish contact with Rand and the others. But later, when I offered some ideas of my own on the possible problems with Rand’s belittling of Wittgenstein in The Objectivist Epistemology, he too lashed out at me, declaring that I just wasn’t thinking, period.

In 1967, while studying for my Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara, I asked Branden whether I might quote Rand or Branden in some article I was writing. I had not yet become adept at the game of scholarship and I was also too literal about the idea of intellectual ownership. I should have predicted the response: “Please try to understand, once and for all, that I dislike and disapprove of everything I know about you, I have no interest in your thoughts whatever, and I sincerely wish that you would stop sending me letters…. In answer to your letter of June 17, permission to quote from Miss Rand or myself is unreservedly denied.”

Obviously, I was getting on Dr. Branden’s nerves.

I had no desire to become bosom buddies with these inner-circlers. I did think that sitting around and brainstorming ideas with them would have been very valuable and exciting. I later came to believe that this was one of the saddest aspects of the atmosphere surrounding Rand, namely, the missed opportunity with a whole bunch of reasonably bright, civil students of philosophy interested in Objectivism. By this time I had learned of their shabby treatment of philosopher John Hospers. Later, philosopher John O. Nelson and other distinguished persons would join the list. As the years swam by the ranks of the blackballed grew by leaps and bounds. I hope that Plato and Aristotle and all the other innovative philosophers were not obliged to suffer the kind of inner-circle-enforced isolation that Rand experienced (and abetted). Still, one might recall what I’m told is one of Nietzsche’s dictums, that “one must forgive every great genius his first disciples.”

Gradually I gave up on the idea of getting together with these “experts” and went about the business of figuring things out for myself, in the company of similarly estranged students of Objectivism. I never attended any lecture series apart from the one on psychology. I did enjoy the pleasure of having my book Human Rights and Human Liberties (1975) attacked by Harry Binswanger. Douglas Rasmussen had penned a favorable review for Law and Liberty, whereupon Mr. Binswanger wrote a nasty letter to Davis Keeler, the editor, denouncing the book as pure mush. Much later, when I heard that David Kelley was studying at Princeton, I wrote asking whether we could correspond about various philosophical topics, and he replied that we had better not. Kelley too was a little less distant after his break with the official crew in the late 1980s, and I have even been asked to lecture at the summer seminars sponsored by his organization, The Objectivist Center (formerly the Institute for Objectivist Studies).

Eventually I would be on better terms with Branden, but only after his 1968 split with Rand paved the way. Not long after that noisy event I met him and found that he was not very eager to talk to me about the past, nor about ideas. At first I found him largely unfriendly. We still know each other and meet now and then and speak openly, and he’s even become a rather pleasant chap-but I never quite managed to cast out of my mind either his gleeful letters of rebuff or his longtime failure to apologize for hurting my feelings at a time when I was all alone, growing up and looking for a bit of intellectual companionship. To be fair, Branden probably has a very long list of people from those days who might deserve his apology, and one cannot spend one’s whole life apologizing to people seriatim. (And recently, when I aired these sentiments with him he actually did apologize and quite sincerely, if belatedly.)

In 1971 I attended group therapy with him but found that I didn’t share the problems of most of his clients, which seemed to boil down to lack of motivation to do anything worthwhile. My own problems had to do with feelings of isolation and my relationships with women. I found Branden to be a very brilliant as well as showy therapist-a virtuoso-but one who could not make me feel as if he cared about me personally or my problems, even for good money.


Ayn Rand and I – Part 2 (of Three) — 2 Comments

  1. I sincerely regret that you had such a hard time in your early days of interest in Objectivism, although I think Miss Rand was certainly right that you had inappropriate expectations of her.

    Your run-in I swith Dr. Peikoff is also unfortunate, but the fact is that that was many, many years ago and Dr. Peikoff has most certainly distinguished himself since. Moreover, I’ve seen and heard him lecture many times, and not only is he an incredible intellectual, he has also shown himself to have a sense of humor (including occasionally self-deprecating) but also the capacity for great warmth and benevolence. (Although, it is true that he can sometimes be impatient.)

    One does not have to agree with him fully to acknowledge his many great virtues, his contributions to Objectivist thought (listen to his many taped lectures) and, indeed his heroic character.

    Dr. Binswanger has also blossomed into an outstanding teacher.

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