Friday, 13 January 2017

Who is Nathaniel Branden?

Who is Ayn Rand? 
Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden

Who is Ayn Rand? should count among the influential books on Ayn Rand’s life and her philosophy of Objectivism.

First published in 1962, the book is almost a contemporary of For The New Intellectual, Rand’s first work of non-fiction. It’s written in a style that is evocative of Rand’s books—its arguments are clearly stated and forceful, and almost every page is enriched with apt quotations.

In his Preface, Nathaniel Branden says that the purpose of the book is to provide information on Ayn Rand's philosophy. He writes: "Like the hero of  her novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has become a legend in her own lifetime."

Who is Ayn Rand? is divided into two parts: the part one titled “An Analysis of the Novels of Ayn Rand,” has three chapters in which Nathaniel Branden conducts an exegesis of Rand’s literature and philosophy. The part two titled “A biographical Essay,” has a single chapter, the title essay, “Who is Ayn Rand?”, which is Barbara Branden's biographical study of Ayn Rand’s intellectual and artistic development.

Certainly, Nathaniel Branden is a controversial figure. He is accused of moral, intellectual and financial improprieties—he was expelled by Rand from her inner sanctum in 1968.

But Who is Ayn Rand? is such a good book that it forces you to have a relook at Nathaniel. It bides you to ask yourself: Who is Nathaniel Branden? Is he supposedly the arrogant young man who is accused of betraying Rand? Or is he an original philosopher—is he one of the initial promoters of Objectivism? I don’t have a clear picture of what transpired between Branden and Rand and so I can’t pass a judgement on this issue.

In the book’s first chapter, “The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged,” Nathaniel describes the philosophical and historical importance of the ethical system that Rand has presented in Atlas Shrugged. He says that “the actual hero of Atlas Shrugged is: man’s mind. The novel dramatizes what reason is, how it functions and what happens to the world when the men of the mind—the men who create motors, railroads, metals, philosophies and symphonies—refuse to be martyred by the rule of irrationalism. It is in defense of such men—the men of ability and of “unrequited rectitude”—that Atlas Shrugged is written.”

Nathaniel takes a look at the major implications that Objectivism has for the science of psychology in the second chapter, “Objectivism and Psychology.” In the third chapter, “The Literary Method of Ayn Rand,” he analyzes the aesthetic principles that Rand uses in her novels. Here’s an excerpt:

“Ayn Rand has written four novels—We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged—and each of them has a major philosophical theme. Yet they are not “propaganda novels.” The primary purpose for which these books were written was not the philosophical conversion of their readers. The primary purpose was to project and make real the characters who are the books’ heroes. This is the motive that unites the artist and the moralist. The desire to project the ideal man, led to the writing of novels. The necessity of defining the premises that make an ideal man possible, led to the formulating of the philosophical content of these novels.”

The book’s eponymous fourth chapter, Barbara Braden's biography of Ayn Rand, begins with a quote from Atlas Shrugged: “To hold an unchanging youth is to reach, at the end, the vision with which one started.” The essence of Barbara Braden's essay is that despite having come out of the brutal Soviet Union, Rand managed to reach the vision with which she had started—she established herself as a writer and a philosopher. This biography which by the way is fully endorsed by Ayn Rand is, I think, written in a very reverential tone.

On the whole, Who is Ayn Rand? is a good primer on Rand’s life and ideas—it provides the sharp arguments that are necessary to slash through the weed of collectivism and mysticism that are strangulating our politics, art and culture. Everyone who calls himself an Objectivist—even those who follow any other school of classical liberalism—must digest this book immediately.

PS: (Ayn Rand endorsed the contents of the book even after her break with the Brandens'.)

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