According to Barbara, Rand expected the discarded spouses to go along with the new arrangement: “Whatever the two of you may be feeling, I know your intelligence, I know you recognize the rationality of what we feel for each other and that you hold no value higher than reason.” After their dozen-year dalliance ended in acrimony, Barbara Branden would write The Passion of Ayn Rand, an insightful and sympathetic study.
Before the break up, both Brandens had belonged to the informal group that gathered at Rand’s New York apartment to comment on her novel in progress, The Fountainhead. Present was the future chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, who later would say “I’m grateful for the influence she had on my life. I was intellectually limited until I met her.” Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential candidate, owns to growing up “reading Ayn Rand, and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are.” (Ryan later backed off, claiming her atheism was incompatible with his Roman Catholic faith).
The Brandens were of an age when the intelligent young want answers to their questions as clear and cogent as those Rand provided. She claimed to be “primarily the creator of a new code of morality, which has so far been believed impossible – namely, a morality not based on faith, not on emotion, not on arbitrary edict, but on reason – morality which can be proved by means of logic.”
But the mechanism she relied on to get her message across to the world was her novels. The kindest thing that can be said about them was said by Nathaniel Branden: that her characters are too busy preaching to interact in a way that would engage the reader with a viable plot, realistic characterizations, and a coherent narrative strategy. Literary deficiencies notwithstanding, over 6.5 million English language copies of The Fountainhead have gone to press since 1943 and three decades after Rand’s demise, the sales curve grows by a yearly half-million.
Who did Ayn Rand connect with? “For a certain kind of [teenage] American girl, the ‘Ayn Rand phase” is another rite of passage,” writes journalist Amy Benfer. ”Like Our Bodies, Our Selves, Rand’s books were meant to be serious, yet were ready-made for appropriation by the sexually curious adolescent. Still, the sexuality in her work is as troubling as it is erotic.” Nora Ephron, who nailed Rand to the wall in a classic Esquire interview, admitted to having been one of those American girls, but came round to the view that The Fountainhead “is better read when one is young enough to miss the point [its erotic content]. Otherwise, one cannot help thinking it is a very silly book.”
It is a shorter hop than one might think from adolescent girls to Silicon Valley, where Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has been outed as a Randian true believer. Indeed, Evgeny Molotov assures that Silicon Valley has become “a burgeoning enclave of Randian thought” as exemplified by billionaire tech guru Tim O’Reilly. The only important freedom, according to O’Reilly, is “my choice as a creator to give, or not to give, the fruits of my work to you, as a ‘user’ of that work, and for you, as a user, to accept or reject the terms I place on that gift.”
That sounds a lot like Rand’s non-conformist hero, hunky Howard Roark, confronting his accusers in The Fountainhead. ‘The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself,’ Roark proclaims. Yet too much ego has reportedly all but sunk the American retail giant Sears, said to be hellbound for bankruptcy ever since Eddie Lampert, a Randian enthusiast and venture capitalist, took control of the business.
Rand did not make it easy for her disciples. Says Barbara Branden “At any time, an action, an emotion, a conviction that she deemed irrational could result in an explosion of anger. One had no hoard of deposited virtue in the bank, one was judged moment by moment, loved or rejected moment by moment.”
Branden’s ex-husband, the target of much of that anger, adds that “Not just Ayn and me, but all of us—we were ecstasy addicts. No-one ever named it that way, but that was the key. People can’t understand Ayn, or her appeal to people, or the force that held all of us together back in New York if they don’t understand that human beings have that need for an ecstatic state of consciousness. That’s what Ayn transmitted through her novels and that’s what we fell in love with and fought against leaving. It was a spiritual hunger. A hunger that inspired the best in us, and sometimes the worst.”
When Nathaniel Branden terminated his affair with the by-then 61-year-old Ayn Rand, her parting words were “If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health, you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years! And if you achieve potency any sooner,” she added “you’ll know it’s a sign of still worse moral degradation!”
If that sounds like an old-fashioned curse (it does to me) it would rate as fairly mild compared with the gushes of excoriation that Laura Riding directed at Robert Graves, who had been her sporadic lover, literary subaltern, and meal ticket from 1926 to 1939. Years later she would accuse him of basing his entire career on “lifework manifestations sucked, bled, squeezed, picked, grabbed, dipped, glued, carved, and lifted out of the body of my work,” a malicious attempt to “murder the actuality of my thought.”
Hard to believe the two of them had organized a “Trinity” with Graves’ first wife (they had four small children and no money) while Riding subjected his poems to severe criticism that improved them immensely. For in her early years, Riding was a remarkable poet and a perceptive, take-no-prisoners critic. Read the early poems, especially those collected in First Awakenings. Read the take-down of Edgar Allan Poe and the dissection, carried out jointly with Graves, of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. Then go to “The Damned Thing” and “Eve’s Side of It” for some startling observations on gendered humanity and the sexual act.
As well as implausible and doomed, the Graves-Riding arrangement proved unstable after a new disciple named Geoffrey Phibbs turned up in the bed Laura hitherto had allowed Graves to share with her. According to David Garnett:
The trouble was that Phipps was scared of Laura Riding. She had told him, as a great secret, that she was going to stop time. And that his help was necessary for this operation. Stopping time was carried out in bed. Robert was all right in bed and she loved him and admired him — but he proved no good as a time stopper….
“Time has been going on long enough,” she would say, earnestly. “We can break through and stop it. Not just move about in it as Donne has shown is possible, but smash it up altogether.” She expected him to do his share of the work. No shirking was allowed. She had a time table.
Garnett is not terribly reliable, but he was having an affair at the time with Phibbs’ wife, and Riding’s obsession with “breaking the frame of the universe” and stopping the clock on history, resurfaces throughout her later writings, though not invariably with reference to orgasms.
Phibbs’ refusal led Riding to attempt to transform herself (as she put it) into “a spirit-framed being of mind” by throwing herself from a third-floor window. She survived, Phibbs ran off with Graves wife, Nancy, and Graves ran off with Riding to the in-those-days unspoilt island of Mallorca where a cluster of “inside people” were drawn like captured asteroids into her orbit and persuaded to accept her as “Finality,” the unimpeachable source of moral authority for the whole of misbegotten mankind.
Insiders’ accounts ooze with the soppy devotion expressed by Ann Lee’s acolytes. Honor Wyatt came to “love her and admire her tremendously: I put her in the place of Christ when I was young and behaved as I hoped she would like.” Lucie Brown, who was living with the painter John Aldridge, said that conversation with Riding and Graves felt “like stepping into the centre of some Greek myth and being accepted by the gods.”
Decades later, the artist Len Lye would recount that “if she hadn’t been around and I hadn’t come across such a person I would have wondered what all these bloody California movements and so on were all about. Now I know what they’re all about, they’re all about somebody like Laura getting in there and dictating health and happiness and being a bloody dictator and hypnotizing everybody, and everybody doing everything that is suggested under hypnosis – it’s kind of a mass hypnosis. So she hypnotized this bloody bunch, but not me. Because I hate being hypnotized.”
T.S. Matthews and his wife Julie had already experienced submission to a higher spiritual authority with the colorful charlatan George Gurdjieff. But this time Julie kept her distance, possibly intuiting what eventually would happen: Laura made a pass at her husband and hinted that Julie could be conveniently paired off with Graves. In 1933, Riding had notified him that “bodies have had their day” and sexual congress put on hold, but Graves was allowed to (and did!) make himself useful by seeing to the housekeeping and writing “potboilers” like the I, Claudius books.