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Comments on Those Who Knew Ayn Rand:

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In response to the post entitled “Statements from those who knew Ayn Rand from NBI & such”, I have the following observations, as a longtime follower and attendee at Ayn Rand’s lectures throughout the 1960s and 70s in New York City:

Post number 8, in reference to Ellen Stuttle’s observations about Miss Rand’s handling of questions and her general attitude toward people asking her those questions is consistent with my own observations.

Ayn Rand was indeed a person who radiated power—the power of her mind—like her heroic main characters in her novels, almost as if it were a metaphysical power over everyone in the room.

She was also very precise both in her definitions and her choice of words. Words have meaning to Miss Rand. There are no grey areas. All terms are defined. It is clear to me that her thinking is systematic and that she spent decades refining and sharpening her thinking to the point where she valued her cognitive abilities and therefore regarded them as sacrosanct.

When she spoke to her audiences, it was her, offering the gift of her philosophy, not her, begging for feedback from the audience. As such, she had no reason to look expectently upon them. They either “got it” or they didn’t (her ideas and concepts).

Ellen did however feel that there was no psychological visibility between Ayn and the people on the autograph line. I can tell you from personal experience that this was not always the case. My parents and I often carpooled to these lectures, as it was a 2 hour drive to NYC, and so we were all present for many of them. Hence, I witnessed a profound sense of two-way recognition between Ayn and my parents, when they told her that they loved Ayn Rand and when they finally explained what they meant by love in this context. Miss Rand, in a very rare sense of direct awareness of one of her fans, acknowledged and accepted my parents’ declaration of love for her mind and her works. Perhaps Ellen’s assessment was as it was because the level of intelligence of most of the attendees was pedestrian—and that those people were only there to take her autograph, not to repay her, symbolically, for her efforts.

My own encounter with Ayn Rand, at a piano concert given by Allan Blumenthal at Carnegie Hall in New York, was positive and uplifting. I had, up to that point, held an irrational fear of Miss Rand, because I perceived her in the manner that most of the other people mentioned in that thread perceived her, though to a lesser extent. I felt that I had better know my Objectivism perfectly before talking with her. But my encounter with her was in a social situation. We did not discuss philosophy at all. I found her genuinely warm and charming, like a sweet older aunt. There was nothing hard or judgemental about her demeanor. I felt a huge sense of relief, experiencing her as a benevolent being; an event that changed my view of her as a person from that day forward.

I’ll now address some of the earlier comments from people who met her:

First, I will state that Miss Rand dispenses with friendly formalities. For her, it is fluff, a waste and is immaterial to the discussion at hand. Therefore, she will appear as being blunt, to the point, very direct.

There are questions that are valid, relavent and genuine efforts to increase one’s knowledge. And then there are questions that are slanted to insult or otherwise denigrate, in a “clever” way. Finally, there are the just plain dumb questions that only people who either did no read her books, or were asleep or on drugs while reading her books, would ask.

That said, I’ll address a few examples:

The young man at Yale U in Feb 1960, asked a “loaded” question about her characterization of Kant’s philosophy and whether it was correct. What the hell kind of question is that? The only purpose of such a question is to insult and inflame the person being asked. I am not surprised that she became very angry with him. In my understanding of the situation, he got what he deserved. If the question was not posed out of malice, then the kid was supremely dumb.

In regard to Maxfield Parrish’s art, Miss Rand may have been referring to some of his fantasy art, such as “Man in an Apple”, “Land of Make Believe” or “Reluctant Dragon”. If she had seen only these types of paintings, and concluded that this is the extent of the artist’s work, then I can understand her response. Perhaps a more appropriate response would be “of what I’ve seen of his art? Junk. Next question.”

With regard to her responses to questions on Phil Donahue’s show, I have just recently watched the archived broadcast, and I saw no instance in which her response was inappropriate, excessively strong, or otherwise monstrous. In all cases, where a rational question was asked, she treated the person asking with similar respect. When a condescending person asked a question intended as a smart alec question, she let them have it, appropriately, but with reserve. I found nothing explosive. She remained calm and methodical about telling such people what her assessment of their values was.

You see, when you’re as sharp and clear about something as she is, you have earned your arrogance. She could be a lot more arrogant, in my opinion. She originated Objectivism, and she calls the shots. No one knows it better than she. No doubt, due to the contraversial nature of Objectivism, she has had a lot of heckling and negative audience responses over the years. She has certainly demonstrated that she can handle them with a facile that is nearly as awsome as her philosophical system of values.

She could be sweet-tempered, but when the situation demands it, she will defend ideas and denounce those that are the second-handers and those that open their mouths without benefit of brain activity.

Many of the stories related in that thread are the accounts of people who see Rand through the filter of their emotions. For many, it is a frightening experience to see Rand get angry, and they feel hurt by that anger, especially if it is directed at them. However, I think they exaggerate the matter. I have been to enough of her lectures to see her attitude toward questions from the audience. Not once have I gotten the impression that her response was out of line. Some questions don’t merit an answer. She is blunt about that and wastes no time moving on, because to address such stupidity further is to steal time away from issues that matter, and we were all paying good money to hear her speak. For her terseness and efficiency, I thank her for giving me full value for my money.

With regard to Tibor Machan’s letter requesting Rand to write an article for his student newspaper, he is sadly mistaken about the ethics of the matter. The fact, as presented, is that he expected her to give away her time for free. If he had really understood Ayn Rand, he would have realized that she does not work for free. She is a Capitalist. She would obviously take offense to his badgering her with not one request, but repeated annoying requests for her services for no compensation. That she wrote him back at all was even amazing. He got the response he deserved.

Robert Davison second quote, last sentence, certainly sums up my impression of Rand as well as any: “Upon meeting her I knew I stood in the presence of greatness.”

In closing, I will state that I hold the position that the naysayers are soft-skinned, oversensitive people who had better develop a tougher skin, or get out of the philosophy business. Both in my own experiences and in the descriptions of the dialog of the experiences of the complainants here, I found nothing unreasonable about Rand’s responses. If bluntness and unabashed honesty are negative traits, then I guess the world is upside-down.

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Mark,

You misunderstood the purpose of that thread. It is to register impressions of Rand by people who knew her. It is closed precisely to avoid what you just did. You took the focus off Rand and put it on you and your opinion of the other posters.

You mentioned your own real-life impressions of Rand. That interests me. What you think of the other posters does not. If you like, I would be very pleased to put your own impressions of Rand on that thread--without the bitching about others.

Are you game?

Michael

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I never got the impression that Ayn Rand disdained "stupid" questions. She did disdain antagonism. She did have some obvious anger issues, but in that culture that was easy to understand. She tended to be on her best behavior on television. She was conceited, but she had a lot to be conceited about. I think she had a low opinion of students of Objectivism, but a lot of that may have come out of her deteriorating relationship with Nathaniel Branden with the students being associated in her mind with him. Did she represent greatness to me? Absolutely, especially in the 1960s. It is too bad that that didn't fall over into her personal life nearly as much.

--Brant

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Mark Weiss writes: "With regard to Tibor Machan’s letter requesting Rand to write an article for his student newspaper, he is sadly mistaken about the ethics of the matter. The fact, as presented, is that he expected her to give away her time for free. If he had really understood Ayn Rand, he would have realized that she does not work for free. She is a Capitalist. She would obviously take offense to his badgering her with not one request, but repeated annoying requests for her services for no compensation. That she wrote him back at all was even amazing. He got the response he deserved."

I don't know what account of the matter Weiss is responding to. I would say it's possible to respond to a request like Machan's while taking into account the sometime-obliviousness of youth. Machan also admits that his final angry letter to Rand was indisputably out of bounds, something he could never live down. See his autobiography A Man Without a Hobby for his fullest account of the whole thing. Well, it's out of print, so here's an excerpt:

* * *

IN THE fall of 1962 I left the Air Force and entered college. I had read about Claremont in National Review—in a column by Russell Kirk, who talked about how wonderful and independent the place was. So I contacted the admissions director, Emery Walker, and managed to gain admittance. But before starting school I also managed to gain an audience with Ayn Rand. I went to New York and met with her for about half an hour at her office.

It was a wonderful experience. What stuck in my mind was how warm, calm, sensible and friendly Rand was. She showed none of the prickly traits I would later hear about. I remember saying to her that perhaps I liked her work because I, too, was a refugee from communism. She said she hoped this wasn’t the case, since her ideas were meant to have universal significance, not appeal only to those who shared her personal experiences. There was no badgering or finger wagging; she was like a sensible aunt or grandmother. I promised to send her a letter I had written to my friend the priest, concerning the struggles I had been having with religion, and when I got back to Washington I sent it off to her.

Rand replied with a wonderful letter commenting on how mine, to the priest, exemplified her principle of the sanction of the victim—which it did. In it I had expressed dismay about a book Father Novicky gave me, Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, with its denigration of the human desire to know (the desire that Aristotle, at the very beginning of his Metaphysics, states flatly is inherent in all of us). Rand wrote that she was “deeply impressed with the letter you wrote to the priest. If The Fountainhead has helped you to find a way out of such a terrible and tragic conflict, I am very happy to know it. Your letter to the priest projects, with startling accuracy, what an honest and intelligent young person would have to feel if he attempted to practice the altruist morality fully and conscientiously.

“The most terrifying indictment of religious morality is contained in the following lines of yours: ‘The trouble is that I am always asking for the logic. And the more I will know the more I will want to know. What should I do[,] stop wanting to know?’ I hope that you realize fully to what extent you were on the premise which I call ‘the sanction of the victim.’ You were accepting as a sin the thing which was your greatest virtue and the greatest of all human virtues: your rationality, the desire to know and to under-stand. I am sure that you will never make that mistake again, but I want to stress, as the most important advice I can give you, that no matter what intellectual errors you may make in the future, do not ever accept the idea that rationality is evil or that it can ever be proper to discard your mind. So long as you hold this as an abso-lute, you will be safe, no matter what errors you make. But if one doubts or rejects one’s own mind, one commits an act of spiritual suicide and the greatest evil possible to man. I believe that you know it now.” I found her advice extremely sound and have tried my best to follow it.

When I had been at CMC for a while and 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 profes-sional 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 type-writer 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 that, “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 rep-resentative, 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.#

* * *

Edited by Starbuckle

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