Friday, December 30, 2016

The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies: A Symposium on Nathaniel Branden

The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies
Volume 16, Numbers 1 - 2, December 2016

The new edition of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies is a symposium on the work and the legacy of Nathaniel Branden. Its collection of essays reveal a new kind of image of Nathaniel Branden that may have been out of view to many people.

In the prologue Robert L. Campbell and Chris Matthew Sciabarra say that “despite criticisms of Rand in his later work, Branden became a veritable “neo-Objectivist”…” This is a striking statement, one that gives rise to several questions. How does a “neo-Objectivist” differ from an Objectivist? Did Nathaniel Branden prefer to be regarded as a neo-Objectivist? How do we define neo-Objectivism?

Duncan Scott has written the first chapter “The Movement That Began on a Dining Room Table.” Scott begins with a quote from Dr. David Kelley: “It is hard to imagine that there would have been an Objectivist movement without [Nathaniel Branden].” The overall purpose of the Journal’s symposium on Branden is subsumed in this line attributed to Dr. Kelley—it is to prove that Branden had a seminal role to play in the development of the Objectivist movement.

Scott points out that the creation of a philosophical system and the creation of a philosophical movement are not one and the same. He says that Ayn Rand did a great job of integrating her philosophy into her fiction, but Branden was the driving force behind the systematic presentation of her philosophy. He goes on to narrate the story of how the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI) came into being and the kind of work that the organization did before it was abruptly shut down after the breakup between Rand and Branden.

The most shocking chapter in the Journal is Susan Love Brown’s “Nathaniel Branden’s Oedipus Complex.” Brown claims that during the 1970s she heard Branden say in reference to Frank O’Connor: “He is nothing. Nothing.” She picks up this comment and goes on to deduce a rather tragic picture of the O’Connor household in the period when Rand was having a relationship with Branden. Perhaps Brown can be accused of rationalization, but the picture that she presents is somewhat convincing (in my view) and that is why it is shocking.

Branden’s November, 23, 1996, lecture and Q&A before the California Institute for Applied Objectivism has been transcribed by Roger E. Bissell in the chapter, “Objectivism: Past and Future.” In this chapter we have Branden reminiscing the experiences that he and few other young people (including Leonard Peikoff) had when they were part of Ayn Rand’s circle. He also offers his ideas on the future of Objectivism.

To those who are interested in making converts to Objectivism, Branden says: “If you want to fight for Objectivism, we’d better start learning something a little more about civility than we seem to be practicing now, a little more about benevolence and good will, and giving the other person the sense that at least they are truly heard, because this is how you touch and reach another mind.”

While reflecting on why Ayn Rand’s philosophy is not as popular as her literature, Branden says that it is in the nature of art to simplify and stylize. “And when you write dialogue, not an essay, you are still writing art, not philosophy.” He is of the view that a literary presentation is not enough; the Objectivist ideas must be developed technically. Further in the lecture he says, “Because in the modern world in which we’re living now, for Objectivism to catch on in a wider sense, it has to find its way into the universities. It has to find its way into the philosophical journals.”

The three chapters that I have described above are from the Journal's Section I, which is titled “The Rand Years.”  The Section II of the journal, titled “Reflections,” has five articles in which the writers are reflecting on their past association with Branden. The articles are somewhat hagiographic but they give you an idea of how Branden was perceived by people who were closely associated with him. In Section III, titled “If Branden’s Works Were Studied More By Academic And Clinical Psychologists…”, there are five articles on Branden’s work in psychology.

In the epilogue, “Nathaniel Branden in the Writer’s Workshop,” by Stephen Cox, we are introduced to Branden who is in the final years of his life—now he seems eager to go beyond psychology and philosophy and work on fiction ideas (novels and plays) that have been germinating in his mind for decades. Branden used to show his manuscripts to Cox and seek his advise. Cox had a high opinion of the fiction work that Branden is doing. Unfortunately Branden was unable to complete his novels and plays for reasons that are unclear.

Cox’s description of how Branden matured over the years is quite interesting. “Nathaniel was the rare person who, as he aged, actually changed in important ways. He was something like the opposite of the arrogant young founder of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, a man who had been lacking in perspective on both himself and other people. The Nathaniel I knew enjoyed others for who they were. He was tolerant of bores and knew how to make them less boring. He was benevolently amused by young people, and knew how to advise them, firmly but kindly…”

The journal ends with an extensive bibliography on Nathaniel Branden’s published works. Overall, this is a well-designed edition—it succeeds in elucidating the life and works of Nathaniel Branden. It gives the reader the feeling of reading Branden’s entire intellectual history.

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