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Part One: Review of Nathaniel Branden Issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies

In America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on June 21, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is the reproduction of portions of a series of pieces originally published at Atlas Society’s website.  The original series of posts is available here, here, here, and here.

The idea for a symposium on the life and thought of Nathaniel Branden came in 2012, two years before Branden’s death. Branden himself knew about and approved of the symposium but never saw it completed before he passed away.

The editorial board of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies conceived of this symposium as a wide-ranging, probing treatment of Branden’s vast and complex career, not just of his years with Ayn Rand. The response from potential contributors exceeded their expectations; they were inundated with submissions. What was supposed to be one volume became two. The once-slender manuscript grew to over 300 pages bearing the title “Nathaniel Branden: His Work and Legacy.”  This is the first such work of its kind to assess Branden as a central figure in both philosophy and applied psychology in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Although the contributors to this collection come from various disciplines and represent different, sometimes incompatible positions, the editors received no contributions from the more “fundamentalist” Objectivists, and none from scholars associated with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). The editors emphasize this fact in their prologue not to display resentment or animus, it seems, but as a sort of disclaimer—and explanation for the largely positive  tone that characterizes much of the content here.

I have striven for impartiality regarding the Branden-Rand split and have, I think, made a good-faith effort to maintain the critical detachment necessary to write searchingly and decisively about this collection without sacrificing scholarly rigor or causing needless offense to students of Branden or Rand.

Section I

Section I of the collection is devoted to the so-called “Rand Years” of Branden’s career. It contains essays by Duncan Scott and Susan Love Brown and the reproduction of a lecture and question-answer session by Branden himself.

Scott, a filmmaker, tells the “truly epic story” of the improbable rise of the Objectivist movement that is attributable in part to Branden’s efforts. Scott met Branden but did not know him well. Filming Branden in 2003 for the Objectivist History Project, however, led him to realize Branden’s seminal role in the proliferation of Objectivism.

Scott credits Branden with popularizing Rand’s work and institutionalizing her lecture series. “The creation of a philosophy and the creation of a philosophical movement,” he says, “are not one and the same.” Undoubtedly Rand achieved the former on her own, but Branden is largely responsible for the latter, having responded to Rand’s fan mail, planned her events, established a newsletter in her honor, and spread her message across the globe to eager students and curious minds. These labors not only increased Rand’s following, but also lifted her spirits. Discouraged by negative reviews of her work, she began, with Branden’s help, to realize the extent of the impact her novels were having.

Branden popularized Rand as a writer of nonfiction and encouraged her to write about “racism as biological collectivism, totally incompatible with individualist philosophy”—a position that drew needed attention during the height of the Civil Rights Era. Scott succeeds in showing that Branden’s singular devotion to Rand during this period made him something of a publicist for, not just a disciple of, her work. He created vehicles for driving her ideas to vast audiences and made possible the formation of groups devoted to her philosophy. Without him, Rand may not have become the towering figure she is today.

Because it is so titillating and provocative, Brown’s piece on Branden’s sexuality is the most memorable part of the opening section of“Nathaniel Branden: His Work and Legacy,” recently published by The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

Even its title—“Nathaniel Branden’s Oedipus Complex”—invites controversy. Although Branden was a psychologist, or perhaps because he was one, Brown’s invocation of Freud seems both fitting and surprising. Freud, like Branden and Rand, was educated in philosophy. But Freud’s oedipal theories remain divisive and contested, not to mention opposed by both Branden and Rand. At least since Richard Webster’s publication of Why Freud Was Wrong in 1995, and probably much earlier, consensus among psychologists has held that Freud’s theories, many of them anyway, have been discredited. Yet Brown gives them full and unequivocal expression in her treatment of Branden.

Having left behind the phallic stage, transfixed by an unconscious castration anxiety, aroused by his loving mother and threatened by her loyal closeness to his father, the sexualized developing male child, in Freud’s paradigm, represses his feelings towards his mother or transfers them onto another female, one who is more appropriate for pursuit. When he reaches puberty, his excited feelings for his mother are reanimated; if left unresolved, they can cause eventual adult neurosis, the fading memory of the unattainable, ideal young mother serving as the inescapable fixation that blurs perceptions of reality. The thematic suggestions of this Freudian scheme characterize Brown’s curious approach to Branden.    

That Branden would describe his mother affectionately in his memoir should come as no surprise. Absent any evidence of abuse or neglect, most adult males probably have articulated love for, and devotion to, their mothers. Whether these feelings amount to oedipal sexual attraction in the Freudian sense is open to debate. Branden was a psychologist and so wrote with a vocabulary specific to his discipline. “One consequence of my repression,” he said, “was that sometimes I failed to see that girls I liked returned my feelings.” Brown picks up on the word “repression,” hypothesizing about Branden’s “unresolved feelings about his mother” that implicated “his feelings toward his father.” Either Brown is on to something, or she overreads and overstates what was merely the retelling of an ordinary adolescent incident with no symbolic significance. The value of Brown’s analysis on this score is only as valuable as Freud’s theories are credible.  

Branden moved out of his parents’ house when he graduated high school, as is customary for young adults of that age. Brown sees in this natural transition the carnal workings of an oedipal force that explains, in part, his budding relationship with Barbara Weidman, who became his first wife. Brown claims that, through Barbara, Branden “insinuat[ed] himself into a surrogate family and, out of that, tr[ied] to construct an ideal family within which he could at last resolve his Oedipal complex.” It so happened that Branden read The Fountainhead during this time of alleged psycho-sexual fantasy and stimulation, and Brown attributes his interest in the novel, not to his own agency, will, intelligence, or curiosity, but to instinctual sexual fixations that were mostly out of his control and subject to random events and chance relationships, such as the one with Rand and her husband, Frank O’Connor.

Brown’s theorizing about Branden’s “genital stage” (a Freudian term she avoids) raises compelling questions: were Rand and O’Connor—who were around the age of Branden’s parents—surrogates for Branden’s natal family on whom he could project his sexual energies? Did Branden’s relationship with Barbara reenact the power plays between his own father and mother? Did Branden attempt to push away O’Connor as a male child in the phallic stage struggles through his rivalry with his father? Was Rand’s dedication of Atlas Shrugged to both Branden and O’Connor a signal that Branden had achieved sexual equality with Rand while supplanting O’Connor as Rand’s romantic interest?  

Brown suggests that, through his affair with Rand, “Branden had effectively slept with his ‘mother’ and vanquished his ‘father.’” These and other stimulating conclusions demonstrate how Brown provides a unique and intriguing perspective even if her psychological hypotheses are ultimately untestable and thus unprovable. Rand’s admirers may take issue with Brown’s portrayal of Rand as increasingly needy and dependent on Branden’s affections as he grew apart from her. They may not like the effort to superimpose Freudian paradigms on complicated human experiences from long ago. But they cannot deny the magnetism of Brown’s analysis.

Paul H. Fry on “Influence”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy on March 25, 2015 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Paul H. Fry on “Freud and Fiction”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 26, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.



Edgar Allan Poe and Mesmeric Possibility

In American History, Arts & Letters, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Writing on May 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This piece first appeared here at The Literary Table in 2010.

Sidney E. Lind, writing in the 1940s, said of the “mesmeric lexica” of nineteenth-century America:  “It is safe to say that the terminology of mesmerism was bandied about in much the same manner as the language of psychoanalysis was to be eighty years later, and with, in all probability, as little real comprehension on the part of the public.”

Lind’s reference to psychoanalysis—signified, at that moment, by Austrian physicist Sigmund Freud—is particularly telling for 21st century audiences, who have witnessed an avalanche of criticism of psychoanalysis, a pseudoscience, according to the naysayers, the results of which are un-testable at best and bogus at worst.  Lind’s aim is not to destabilize the practices of psychoanalysis but to interrogate three short works by Edgar Allan Poe in which mesmerism features prominently:  “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “Mesmeric Revelation,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”  “These three stories,” Lind submits, “constitute a series within which the mesmeric experiment becomes more profound, irrespective of plausibility or implausibility, or of whether or not Poe in at least two of the three was hoaxing his readers.”

Lind’s point is well-taken.  In Poe’s day, the subject of mesmerism was “in the air” and therefore “it was logical that Poe, as a journalist sensitive to popular interest, should have exploited it.”  True, these three stories exhibit, often wryly, a profound familiarity with mesmeric techniques and influences.  But more is going on in them than Lind lets on.  Indeed, Lind goes to great lengths to contextualize these stories within scientific (or other) discourses on mesmerism in Poe’s era, but he overemphasizes their “unity,” “theme,” and “intention” (always mimetic) instead of their singular dialogic contribution.  That is to say, Lind treats the stories as “echoes” or “reiterations” of other thinkers rather than as unique theses in their own right.  For Lind, the stories are indebted to other sources because they derive their vocabularies and methods from these sources.  I would suggest that Poe’s stories are in conversation with various dissertations on mesmerism rather than mere signs of cherry-picking or copying.  Although Poe’s modus operandi or preferred genre is fiction, his supposedly plagiarized passages lend substance to the notion that he might actually have been dissertating on mesmerism, animal magnetism, or hypnosis.  The luxury of storytelling is that the storyteller can dismiss unverifiable data as hoaxes or products of imagination; nevertheless, the storyteller can at least hope to hit on something real, novel, or scientific.  Two examples, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, writing well after Poe, conceived of technological advances—most notably space travel—long before such advances were practical.

Lind’s work, at any rate, is impressively researched, laying the foundation for future analyses of Poe and his infatuations with mesmerism.  But why does Lind downplay Poe’s role in developing pioneering work?  All arguments are indebted to previous arguments; indebtedness does not take away from the originality or force of their articulation or genre.

Unlike Lind, Matthew A. Taylor calls attention to the distinctiveness of Poe’s contributions to “mesmeric theory” (for want of a better phrase) and its progeny.  He locates Poe in contradistinction to Herbert Mayo:  “Unlike Mayo, […] Poe radically deviated from the utopian utilitarian, or benign notions of mesmerism at play in most contemporary discourses on the topic, picturing instead the unsettling implications for human ontology consequent upon the idea that persons are less sovereign entities than manipulatable effects of external powers.”  In short, Poe considered mesmerism a bad thing, or at least a dangerous thing that did not lead down a road to human improvement.  “Poe concluded,” Taylor opines, “that an all-encompassing cosmic energy inevitably troubles human-being by suspending the autonomy and interiority of individual humans; the disorientation of normal, corporeal functioning and the literal loss of self-possession attending mesmeric practice illustrated for Poe the fact that people are little more than occasions for the demonstration of an impersonal power.”  If Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism is not only unique but also quite sophisticated; it demonstrates a full understanding of mesmeric theory while simultaneously rejecting that theory.  More to the point, if Taylor is right, then Poe’s take on mesmerism stands on its own and demands critical attention.  Unlike Lind, Taylor seems to acknowledge Poe’s special role in shaping mesmeric theory—or, more precisely, mesmeric counter-theory.  In fact, Taylor seems to think Poe’s ideas about mesmerism reflect an entire cosmology about human nature and the imperfectability of humankind.  This is a tall claim.  For present purposes, it shows that Poe might have been worried about more than entertaining readers with fanciful mind-candy.  He might have been positing a worldview that flew in the face of prevailing physics (that “perverse yet consistent calculus that unites everything in existence under a single, universal law that, by definition, eliminates all difference—including, of course, the human difference”).  Poe, the relativistic Renaissance man, might have been demonstrating his facility as both scientist and philosopher.  To further establish Poe’s uniqueness, I might add to Taylor’s observations the theological dimension of “Mesmeric Revelation,” which accounts for evangelical objections to mesmerism without plainly endorsing or rejecting them.

Besides the three stories that Lind interrogates, there are, Martin Willis claims, “many other tales that exemplify [Poe’s] abiding interest in the contestation between the science and the human, as well as his fascination with the borderlands of scientific achievement, both in terms of their advancement to new states of knowledge and their place within the scientific pantheon.”  Poe’s interest in scientific trends was not a passing one.  Willis points out that Poe spent years studying science in general before turning to mesmerism in particular.  Whether Poe “believed” in mesmerism is unclear.  It seems plausible that his stories about mesmerism were meant, in Willis’s words,  to “consider mesmeric debates in the realm of fiction rather than that of science.”  I would argue that Poe collapses any distinction between science and fiction by teasing out various theses—which, for all he knew, might one day be proven—through the medium of imaginary characters.  In doing so, Poe forges a distance between theories and their authors: if the theories turn out to be “true,” future generations will consider Poe a genius; if they turn out to be bogus, future generations will claim Poe was merely hoaxing.  Thus the dual-advantage of employing fiction to hash out scientific hypotheses.  Regardless of whether Poe is ultimately “right” about any of his dissertations, which he dresses up as fiction, he demonstrates an impressive breadth of knowledge that should not be ignored.

Not all scholars have ignored it.  Antoine Faivre takes pains to explain how Poe appropriated scientific knowledge and then inserted it into fictional narratives.  He suggests that many readers have mistaken or misread Poe’s tales as “factual, non-fictional case studies,” which in turn has led to a “flurry of reactions and debates.”  My point is not to argue that Poe treats his stories as factual case-studies but to suggest that he left open the case-study possibility.  In other words, Poe might have wanted readers to misread his tales as factual, or else to have some later scientist come along and verify the “truth” of his hypotheses, notwithstanding whether they were in fact his, or whether they were intended as reasoned argument at all.

Lind allows that Poe might not have been hoaxing readers in writing about mesmerism.  “Mesmerism as a theme for fiction,” he explains, “was, like metempsychosis and the exploration of the realm of the conscience, so well suited to Poe’s principles of literary composition that it was natural for him to work this new field, to attempt to achieve the sensational without deliberately attempting to mislead.”  More than simply avoiding misleading commentary, Poe might have been dissertating with the hopes that, one day, scientists would look on his fiction as a catalyst for new and innovative practices.  While not aspiring to complete verisimilitude, Poe’s stories about mesmerism are highly sophisticated tracts, informed by trendy scientific theories (and their counter-discourses), and very probably marked with the faint expectation that their subjects, though fictional, might somehow contribute to future systems of knowledge.

See the following for further reading:

Faivre, Antoine.  “Borrowings and Misreading:  Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Mesmeric’ Tales and the Strange Case of their Reception.”  Aries, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2007: 21-62).

Lind, Sidney E.  “Poe and Mesmerism.”  PMLA, Vol. 62, No. 4 (1947:  1077-1094).

Torrey, E. Fuller.  Freudian Fraud:  The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory on American Thought and Culture. Lucas Publishers, 1999.

Taylor, Matthew A.  “Edgar Allan Poe’s (Meta)physics:  A Pre-History of the Post Human.”  Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 62, No. 2 (2007: 193-221).

Willis, Martin.  Mesmerists, Monsters, and Machines:  Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century. Kent State University Press, 2006.

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