Saturday, March 04, 2006

Ayn Rand Answers, The Best of Her Q&A, Edited by Robert Mayhew, New American Library, 2005. x + 241 pp.

Ayn Rand’s question-and-answer sessions following her lectures, and following the lectures of Nathaniel Branden, were always a fascinating display of her brilliance. They showed an incredibly powerful mind at work on the spot, instantaneously able to unravel virtual pretzels of mistaken premises, errors of logic, and, not infrequently, one or more forms of dishonesty, and bring everything into the clearest, sharpest light. Watching her do this incredible work, I came to think of her as a kind of avenging angel, routinely righting the intellectual wrongs that were destroying our culture and that almost always went unanswered. She answered them—in spades! I thought of her as taking the questions of intellectual shysters and hanging them with them.

Few things could be more valuable for advancing Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, rescuing contemporary culture from the philosophical poison that is destroying it, and, at the same time, giving a sense to those who never met her of what Ayn Rand was like in person, than making her Q&A sessions available to the public, in the original, spoken form in which they took place and were recorded.

Unfortunately, this was not the approach taken by Prof. Mayhew and Leonard Peikoff, whom Prof. Mayhew credits with having encouraged him to undertake the project. Instead of remaining faithful to the oral nature of the material being presented, they decided to make a book out of it, which it never was and now cannot properly be.

Speaking is not writing. Converting lectures, and still more, spontaneous answers in question periods, into the form of an essay or book requires editing and a process of considerable intellectual refinement. As a result, in order to put her oral material into the form of a book, Prof. Mayhew was placed in the impossible position of trying to improve upon Ayn Rand. This is an assignment that no one in the world would be capable of carrying out but Ayn Rand herself.

It was totally unnecessary to attempt it. Making the attempt must rank as a classic example of context dropping. Of dropping the context that while carefully considered, edited writing is superior to spontaneous speech, it by no means follows that the most carefully considered, edited writing produced by Robert Mayhew is superior to the spontaneous speech of Ayn Rand. Nothing can be gained from attempting such a conversion when there is no one alive capable of reliably carrying out the conversion.

The result of Prof. Mayhew’s misguided attempt is a product that, in his own words, “should not be considered part of Objectivism.”

In his view, the reason is simply that “no one can guarantee that Ayn Rand would have approved of editing she herself did not see.” But these words subsume something much more substantial. This is revealed when Prof. Mayhew says, “I should mention, however, that some (but not much) of my editing aimed to clarify wording that, if left unaltered, might be taken to imply a viewpoint that she explicitly rejected in her written works.”

Here we have a confession that the content of some of Ayn Rand’s answers has been materially altered, indeed, apparently transformed, at least in part, into the very opposite of what she actually said. We have no way of knowing if what was involved was a mere act of misspeaking, or something of real significance, possibly representing a change in her position on a subject. We cannot know if Ayn Rand was addressing a complexity in her position that was too subtle for Prof. Mayhew to follow and that he mistakenly inferred a contradiction of her published position when in fact there was none. Whatever the explanation may be, the reader will never know. Nor will anyone know what significant new knowledge the world may have been deprived of because Prof. Mayhew assumed that he was entitled to correct Ayn Rand.

Even the most minimal respect for honesty would have required explicitly naming all such Q&As and providing the exact text of Ayn Rand’s answers in all such cases. If transcripts were not to be provided for all the Q&As, they should most certainly and absolutely have been provided in cases of this kind. That way, the reader would know what Ayn Rand actually said, not what Prof. Mayhew had decided she should be allowed to say. In his capacity as editor, Prof. Mayhew could have argued for his particular interpretation in a footnote if he wished, but not present his interpretation as though it were the view of Ayn Rand.

But with the most cavalier disrespect for his readers’ independence and powers of judgment, Prof. Mayhew not only does not provide the transcripts necessary to know what Ayn Rand actually said, but he does not even tell us which particular answers of Ayn Rand he has altered in this way nor how many answers he has altered in this way. The result is that a reader who has had no first-hand experience with Ayn Rand’s answers can never be sure if what he is reading on any given page is the views actually expressed by Ayn Rand in a Q&A or some distortion of Ayn Rand’s views invented by Prof. Mayhew. In effect, his policy of disrespect and secretiveness has substantially destroyed the value of the whole book.

Many years ago, there was a young actress to whom Ayn Rand gave the responsibility of directing a production of her play “The Night of January 16th.” Toward the close of the play’s run, an actor prevailed upon this young woman to allow him to alter one of Ayn Rand’s lines in one of the play’s last performances. When Ayn Rand learned of this, she was furious and completely ended her relationship with this young woman, who had been in her inner circle for several years. Ayn Rand attached the highest value to her every word and would never agree to her words being altered by anyone, let alone made to represent the opposite of what she said.

I cannot say if Ayn Rand were alive and knew what Prof. Mayhew had done with her words, and what Leonard Peikoff had allowed and encouraged him to do, that neither of these gentlemen would now still be alive. Ayn Rand would not literally have killed them, though she might have thought about it. What I can say is that neither of them would ever again be welcome to touch a single word or thought of hers.

This article is copyright © 2006, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author’s web site is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved.

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