Bodies, however, were still present at Riding’s one night stand with Norman Cameron, the poet she considered her “never-begotten, perfect son,” but he sneaked off to London, shamed by his own disloyalty. Jacob Bronowski was another disciple reviled by Riding as “spiritually dead” after he broke away, but John Aldridge stayed on, “lost all independent personality” and “was reduced to a syphon of Laura.”
The Spanish Civil War forced the couple’s return to London. Her new plan was to identify a select group of “inside people” morally obligated to unleash a tsunami of concerted common sense on the world to forestall the coming global holocaust. “The insider way of doing things.” was set out in in a book published as The World and Ourselves. Of the 400 people invited to contribute their thoughts and suggestions to the endeavor, some 60 replied but not all of them bought into her contention that “by applying the universal dimensions of their own consciousness to the human record, considering the ultimately natural and hardly longer postponable service human beings owed to their existence” a three-tiered reshuffle of human society would emerge in which women would play the decisive part — a return to matriarchy, in short.
What, apart from sex and intellectual brilliance, was it that brought all those variously talented individuals to sit at her feet? “It is easy to exaggerate the grimmer side of Riding’s personality,“ writes Graves’ biographer Miranda Seymour. “It should never be allowed to overshadow her charisma or the fact that there was a girlish, playful aspect to her character which Graves loved quite as much as her exceptional intelligence.”
But some of those who had dealings with her (TS Matthews, Lucie Brown, Griselda Ohannessian) have advanced the notion that Laura Riding seemed to possess “witchly powers” and did not hesitate to use them to harm those who stood in her way. Even Graves noted in a poem that “the strong pull of her bladed mind” could make “strange things” happen.
Matthews and Ohannessian witnessed those powers at their worst in 1939 when Riding set about breaking up the faltering marriage of the American dilettante the she had decided to take up with by driving his wife stark raving straightjacket mad. Turned out that bodies hadn’t had their day after all. Wife out of the way, Robert Graves was next on the discard pile, and not long after that, so was poetry – hers and everyone else’s. She did not write new poems or her allow her work to be reprinted until after her hapless husband’s death, almost thirty years later. “Truth begins where poetry ends,” was the only explanation offered.
During those three decades and for two more, Riding worked tirelessly on a scheme to totally alter the character and uses of the English language. Under the new dispensation, words would be assigned a single significance so that their one true meaning would reflect “the human capability of truth-telling” and “the mind-seated law of spiritual understanding.”
Not until she was alone and in her seventies did Riding make herself available to a new set of acolytes two or more generations removed from her own. “Men and women were drawn to Laura Riding because they recognized qualities in her that they valued in, or desired for themselves…Before too long they found themselves beginning to believe that her extraordinary intellect was capable of solving the problems of human existence,” wrote Riding’s authorized biographer, Elizabeth Friedman. (To punctuate that statement with an “Indeed” would probably spoil its effect.)
Apart from the permanent campaign against Robert Graves, Riding mustered her troops for retaliatory strikes on the literary/university establishment for refusing to recognize her eminence or grant her final word on all matters poetical. So it was payback for Julian Symons (possibly the mildest, most even-handed critic that ever lived), Paul Auster, Stephen Spender, Virgil Thomson, Richard Ellmann (“Ellmann is a madman. That’s why he insulted poems of mine, what he does in his so-called criticism”) and Graves biographer Martin Seymour-Smith. Her special vehemence was reserved for feminist academics who sought to claim her for the canon. Riding considered a feminism nugatory as a category and an insolent disparagement of her human identity.
Controversy and contentioness followed Riding to the smallhold farm in eastern Florida where she lived for nearly 50 years in a house without electricity or telephone. In the 1930s a canny publisher like Arthur Barker lost serious money by putting his imprint on Riding’s books, reportedly because he was “smitten” with her. A half century later, a former vice-president of the Guggenheim Foundation had to be sent packing after manifesting an undisclosed “physical-emotional aberration” and attempting to gain control of her affairs.
Nor was even a sympathetic and intelligent biographer like Deborah Baker spared Riding’s viperish attempts to anathematize any consideration of her life and work that evaded her control. “When I approached her in 1989, she was living as a recluse in a Florida citrus grove,” Baker wrote. “Fifty years before, she had not merely renounced her own poetry but everybody else’s as well. Through an intermediary, she conveyed to me that I should write a sample chapter (she assigned the topic). If it met with her approval, we would work together on her biography. She could use a secretary, she said.
“But before I could reply, she fell ill. When she heard I had proceeded without her, she wrote me angrily, calling me ‘sluttish’. Her minions sent me lengthy poison-pen missives, dissecting my character. She never read a word of what I’d written. The day after I sent the final manuscript to the publisher, she had a heart attack, as if my book and her life were paired like Siamese twins and I had killed her by finishing it.”
Minions. Exactly. Towards the end of her life, Laura Riding insisted she never sought nor claimed disciples. That may be true, if you accept that it is the followers who do the seeking and claiming. But once you’ve got them, they do provide a mechanism for self-validation for the possesor of existential truth who nonetheless remains alone and adrift on the empty sea of soliplism.
Adam Hirsch commented that “Ayn Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching.”
And TS Matthews, who had good reason to know what he was talking about, gets straight to the point. “People with pretensions, who are sure they are superior beings, will always be dangerously attractive. We are weak and cowardly and they are strong and indomitably crazy.”