John Hospers’ Betrayal of Ayn Rand
An eyewitness report
by Harry Binswanger
The November-December 2009 issue of Harvard Magazine had a story on Ayn Rand by Jennifer Burns, the author of one of the two (bad) biographies on Ayn Rand published in 2009.
The article’s topic is Ayn Rand’s appearance in October of 1962 at Harvard, where she gave “Art as Sense of Life” to the American Society for Aesthetics. The commentator for her talk was John Hospers, who at that time Ayn Rand was friendly with. Here is Burns’ presentation in the article, which I will correct afterwards.
“What happened next [after she delivered her talk] is a matter of some dispute. As the designated commentator, Hospers rose and delivered some remarks on Rand’s presentation. At least one of her entourage remembered his words as surprisingly sarcastic and harsh. Hospers himself thought his comments, while critical, were entirely typical. ‘I could not simply say how great her remarks were and then sit down,’ he recalled.
“But there was no mistaking Rand’s reaction. She lashed out at him immediately from the dais, raising eyebrows in the crowd.”
Well, as it happens, I was present at that talk. I was 18 years old, had only been introduced to Objectivism 7 months earlier, and was entirely unfamiliar with ideas about decorum and moral sanction. Nonetheless, I was stunned by the hostile manner of Hospers’ comments. I remember, verbatim how he began one of his “comments”: “Surely,” he said in a really sneering way, “Miss Rand doesn’t expect us to believe that a painting of a landscape can [here I’m unsure of the exact wording] convey a view about man’s relation to existence.”
Hospers concluded his attack, then stepped down from the dais, and, as is the academic fashion, Ayn Rand went up to give her response.
As you know, Ayn Rand could get intensely angry and fry a questioner with both her moral intensity and her logic. But, completely contrary to Burns’ report, she was on this occasion more than calm–she was gentle and earnest. She answered Hospers’ attack, including the landscape example, so gently and earnestly that I was a little uncomfortable, feeling: “Doesn’t she know what he just did to her?” I knew from The Objectivist Newsletter that Hospers was supposed to be very friendly to Objectivism–I think he even gave part of a lecture once in the NBI series “Basic Principles of Objectivism.”
Another thing struck me. During her response, Ayn Rand was looking straight at where Hospers was seated (in the front row on her far left). But I could see Hospers, and the whole time he was turned in his seat away from Ayn Rand, facing toward the wall, in an awkward pose that seemed to say, “I’m not interested in whatever you have to say.” He wouldn’t look at her; he stared at the wall. I’m not a great believer in “body language,” but in this case, his was loud and clear.
I left the event surprised and bothered by Hospers’ behavior. I concluded, immediately and without difficulty, that he had just sold her out in order to maintain “face” with his academic buddies.
Apparently, Ayn Rand got the message, too, because she broke with Hospers afterwards, and I’m pretty sure it was over this betrayal.
© 2010 TOF Publications, Inc.