Category Archives: Sexuality

Scent and Sensibility

I am way behind in my newspaper and magazine reading, but I came upon an article, “The Forgotten Sense,” which appeared in The New York Times Magazine, by Brooke Jarvis, which was among the most fascinating pieces I’ve read in a long time. The article focuses a lot of attention on the ways in which up to an estimated two-thirds of post-COVID-19 infected patients lose their olfactory senses (and in many instances, their sense of taste, which is intimately connected with the sense of smell). Lacking the sense of smell is hazardous to your health; not being able to detect food poisoning, a burning dinner or a gas leak is, indeed, problematic. “This month,” writes Jarvis, “a Texas family whose members lost their sense of smell to COVID narrowly escaped a house fire after the only uninfected member, a teenager, smelled smoke and woke everyone else up.” Indeed, “Smell is no big deal, until it’s missing.”

Those who have suffered this abnormality struggle “with depression, symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder and feelings of relentless isolation and disconnection from the world around them. It felt, some people said, as if they were living their lives in black and white, or trapped behind a sheet of glass; their sense of normalcy and well-being had disappeared with their olfaction. ‘I feel alien from myself,’ one person wrote. ‘Detached from normality. Lonely in my body. It’s so hard to explain.’ Another described feeling ‘discombobulated—like I don’t exist.’”

Our sense of smell is taken for granted and often dismissed as almost irrelevant to who we are as human beings. So many philosophers and scientists—from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Kant, and Darwin—have relegated it to the more “primitive” of our five senses, the “province of lesser animals.” But as Jarvis writes:

“Smell is a startling superpower. You can walk through someone’s front door and instantly know that she recently made popcorn. Drive down the street and somehow sense that the neighbors are barbecuing. Intuit, just as a side effect of breathing a bit of air, that this sweater has been worn but that one hasn’t, that it’s going to start raining soon, that the grass was trimmed a few hours back. If you weren’t used to it, it would seem like witchcraft.”

Jarvis notes that there has been a “renaissance” in “smell science” over the last 30 years. Linda Buck and Richard Axel, awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004, identified “the neural receptors that allow us to perceive and make sense of the smells around us. … The revelation opened the door to a new way of understanding the olfactory system, as well as to a new, ever-expanding world of research. A system assumed to be unsophisticated and insignificant turned out to be quite the opposite. Where vision depends on four kinds of receptors—rods and three types of cones—smell uses about 400 receptors, which are together estimated to be able to detect as many as a trillion smells. The complexity of the system is such that we’re still unable to predict how, or even if, a given chemical will be perceived by our olfactory system. The old quest to map odorants and their perception is now understood to be a wildly complicated undertaking. Joel Mainland, a neuroscientist at the Monell Center who is working on the problem, told me that while maps of color vision are easily presented in two dimensions, an eventual olfactory map might require many more.”

Smell is indeed one of the most remarkable senses we have. From its role in detecting hazards to the transmission of pheromones and its role in human attraction to its crucial role in the functioning of our immune system, olfaction is the most underappreciated and least understood of the ways in which the human organism apprehends the world. As Jarvis explains: “While what we see must pass through various parts of the brain before it reaches our centers for memory or emotion, smell has a nearly direct pathway. ‘They’re built together,’ [neurobiologist Sandeep Robert] Datta said of the brain and the chemical world that it perceives. ‘They’re meant to function as a unit.’”

The sense of smell is the only sensory modality in which the actual airborne molecules of the perceived object enter our bodies, attaching to receptor cells that are themselves neurons.  Our olfactory nerves consist of neurons with one end in direct contact with the external world and the other in direct contact with the brain. It may be the most primal, but it is also the most intimate of our sensory modalities, performing an act of neural intercourse every time we take a whiff.

Science is coming to understand the importance of the olfactory sense in more ways than one. Just as some of the recent research has shown an impaired sense of smell in COVID and post-COVID-infected patients, it is often bound up with neural diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as autoimmune disorders, from MS to rheumatoid arthritis to lupus. It is also experienced to a much higher degree by those suffering from depression. Interestingly, it has been found that “children with autism have different automatic sniff reactions than those who are neurotypical, and they use more parts of their brains to process odors. They can also follow social cues better if they can smell a mother’s odor, even if she isn’t present.”

For me, olfaction has never been a “forgotten sense.” It is something of which I am deeply aware. I cannot imagine a world without a sense of smell. It is such a crucial part of my sensory apparatus that I have never taken it for granted.

It also has a way of transporting me to places buried deep in my memory. That acrid smell of burning plastic, metal, and human flesh that inhabited southern Brooklyn in the days after 9/11 is something I will never forget. But it is not just tragic memories that the sense of smell conjures up. Walking through my neighborhood, picking up the scent of fresh baked bread or a pizza emerging from a hot oven can get my salivary glands going immediately. I cannot forget the scent of a brand-new car or of an infant child—a parent, a friend, a partner. Just the scent of a certain perfume or cologne conjures up immense feelings of a particular person, time, and place that are not triggered in the same way as, say, looking at a photo of that same person, time, and place. One whiff of Aqua Velva conjures up whole memories of my Dad, who passed away in 1972 in ways that a photo or a video image cannot. One whiff of Chanel No. 5 conjures up a flood of memories of my Mom, who passed away in 1995, in ways that a photo or a video image cannot.

A greater understanding of the “forgotten sense” is one of the more welcome scientific by-products to have come out of a tragic pandemic. Let us hope that research continues to unlock not only the mysteries of COVID, but the continuing mysteries of how our organisms function—and why it is so important to recognize when something so crucial to being human is just not functioning the way it should.

Jeff Riggenbach, RIP

I met Jeff Riggenbach many, many years ago at a libertarian conference when I was in my early 20s. I had first encountered his singular voice in a New York Times article published on June 24, 1979: “In Praise of Decadence” (before publishing a book of that name) and later, in Reason magazine (December 1982), where he discussed “The Disowned Children of Ayn Rand,” putting forth an audacious thesis:


If any single American novel of the past quarter-century may fairly be described as one of the major definitive documents of the ’60s, that novel is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.


To some readers this proposition doubtless seems paradoxical, even perverse. Ayn Rand an avatar of the ’60s, that decade of campus unrest, acid rock, and flower childishness? The very idea! Was it not Rand who described the Berkeley rebels of 1964 as “savages running loose on the campus of one of America’s great universities” and as “contorted young creatures who scream, in chronic terror, that they know nothing and want to rule everything”? Was it not Rand who described the participants in the Woodstock music festival of 1969 as “scummy young savages” who spent the weekend “wallowing in the mud on an excrement-strewn hillside”? Was it not Rand who dismissed the New Left as “wriggling, chanting drug addicts,” rock ‘n’ roll as “primitive music, with the even beat that deadens the brain and the senses,” and the spread throughout America of the counterculture lifestyle as an “obscene epidemic of self-destruction”?


Were the flower children and the campus radicals of the ’60s obsessed with their own youth? Did they regard young people as uniquely qualified by the very tenderness of their years to see through and expose the evils and the hypocrisies of their elders? Did they soberly counsel each other not to trust anyone over 30? If they read Atlas Shrugged, they found nothing in it to dissuade them from this prejudice. …


Were the ’60s radicals openly contemptuous of establishment intellectuals, conventional wisdom, and eternal verities? Atlas Shrugged contains the most acid-etched portrait of establishment intellectualdom ever published in America. It stands all of contemporary conventional wisdom on its head. And as far as eternal verities are concerned, Rand herself never tired of remarking that her big novel challenged the entire Western cultural tradition of the past 2,000 years.


Were the ’60s radicals feminists who believed a woman was as good as anybody else? Atlas Shrugged could have done nothing but fuel their fire. For here was a deeply intellectual novel written by a woman and depicting the adventures of one of the most extraordinary women to be found anywhere in 20th-century fiction—a beautiful female entrepreneur who flies her own plane, runs her own railroad, and takes her own risks and who is equally good at engineering, philosophy, tennis, housework, and sex—the sort of woman who is not only as good as any man but in fact better, better than almost any man you’ll ever meet, in fiction or out of it.


Did the ’60s radicals hold a dim view of the military-industrial complex? They would find nothing in Atlas Shrugged to teach them otherwise. If one were to judge the worlds of government, big business, and the scientific establishment purely by reading Atlas Shrugged, one would have to conclude that almost all big businessmen are parasitic incompetents who owe their profits to special deals worked out for them by politicians, that the scientific establishment is nothing but an arm of government, and that the principal function of government is to use its stolen resources in the invention and manufacture of loathsome weapons of mass destruction. …


In the late 1970s, a pair of young journalists, Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman, teamed up with a professional pollster and conducted a wide-ranging opinion poll of self-identified “’60s people.” (Sixty-two percent of the respondents reported that they had considered themselves “hippies” during the ’60s, and most of the others had been sympathetic to the hippies’ cause.) …


One of the questions Weiner and Stillman asked their respondents called for them to list the names of individuals they had “admired and been influenced by.” One respondent in six listed Ayn Rand in reply to this question. She came in 29th out of 81. And if the entertainers and politicians are eliminated so that the list contains only the names of the authors that hippies admired, Rand comes in tied for sixth place with Germaine Greer, behind Kurt Vonnegut, Kahlil Gibran, Tom Wolfe, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (who tied for fourth), and Allen Ginsberg, but ahead of Rod McKuen, Hermann Hesse, Paul Goodman, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer, and LeRoi Jones. …


If a cheap, reliable solar converter had been perfected a decade ago, the young inventor will tell you, it would have meant “about ten years added to the life of every person in this country—if you consider how many things it would have made easier and cheaper to produce, how many hours of human labor it would have released for other work, and how much more anyone’s work would have brought him. Locomotives? What about automobiles and ships and airplanes?…And tractors. And power plants. All hooked to an unlimited supply of energy, with no fuel to pay for, except a few pennies worth to keep the converter going.”


As the initiated know, all these quotations I’ve attributed to the young inventor come from Atlas Shrugged and pertain to John Galt’s motor that runs on atmospheric electricity. But the rough equivalent of that young inventor really exists somewhere. And despite his long hair, his faded jeans, and his work shirt, he is a true Randian—just as thousands of the pursuers of self-realization who made the 1970s the “Me Decade” are true Randians—just as thousands of the militant feminists, gay activists, and untraditional businessmen (dope dealers, headshop owners, street artists) who have won so much media attention over the past few years are true Randians.


All of them are truer Randians by far than grim, humorless, regimented, robotlike “students of Objectivism” who are ordinarily regarded as the truest of the true. These wretched conformists, so lacking in self-esteem that they willingly enslave themselves to someone else’s ideas on every conceivable subject, so obedient intellectually that they turn their backs on a culture literally teeming with Randian ideas and denounce that culture as evil and irrational merely because they are told to do so by their mentor—these Randians are not representative of the spirit of Atlas Shrugged.

It was the rebels of the ’60s who were the true children of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Disowned children, certainly—cast out of the house and into the cold world for the sin of taking their mother’s injunctions too literally, for adopting her ideas and ignoring her personal prejudices. But they are her children nonetheless and unmistakably. They are hers. And she is theirs.


So impressed was I by Jeff’s keen insights into the ways in which a thinker’s ideas filter through a culture, affecting even those whom that thinker might have “disowned,” that I was ecstatic when he later agreed to write a couple of articles for The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which I co-founded in 1999 with Stephen Cox and Bill Bradford. He contributed a wonderful essay to the first symposium on Rand’s aesthetics ever published (Spring 2001), and then went on to write a wide-ranging, deeply insightful piece for the first of our two symposia celebrating the Ayn Rand Centenary: “Ayn Rand: Literary and Cultural Impact” (Fall 2004). In “Ayn Rand’s Influence on American Popular Fiction,” Jeff surveyed a remarkably diverse group of writers upon whom Rand had exercised a substantial influence, including former associates such as Kay Nolte Smith and Erika Holzer as well as Gene Roddenberry, Ira Levin, Terry Goodkind, and other contemporary purveyors of science fiction and crime fiction.

Getting to know Jeff through the years was a hoot; he was a perfectionist in his work, and even when you disagreed with him, he was always a gentle man—with me at least!

This morning, I learned that Jeff died. I know he was battling serious health problems and I have been deeply saddened by the news, having just posted on January 12th, on his Facebook Timeline: “Miss you, Jeff! Happy birthday…”

RIP, my friend. And my deepest condolences to Jeff’s family and loved ones.

JARS: Our Twentieth Anniversary Celebration Concludes

I am delighted and deeply honored to announce the publication of the second of two issues celebrating the twentieth anniversary of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. The December 2020 issue will be making its debut shortly on JSTOR; print subscribers should expect the second of these two historic issues in the weeks thereafter.

Issue #40 (Volume 20, Number 2) – December 2020

As I mentioned back on June 5, 2020, we decided to devote two issues to reviewing those works in the general area of Rand studies, which have never been critically appraised in our pages. The list of works reviewed in this second issue of volume 20 are:

The Vision of Ayn Rand: The Basic Principles of Objectivism, by Nathaniel Branden

Think as If Your Life Depends on It: Principles of Efficient Thinking and Other Lectures, by Barbara Branden

The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom, edited by Roger E. Bissell, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, and Edward W. Younkins

Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins

Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy, edited by Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew

Culture and Liberty: Writings of Isabel Paterson, by Isabel Paterson (edited by Stephen Cox)

Myth, Meaning, and Antifragile Individualism: On the Ideas of Jordan Peterson, by Marc Champagne

Ayn Rand: An Introduction, by Eamonn Butler

Atlas Rising: Ayn Rand and Silicon Valley by The Atlas Rising Institute

Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed, by Lisa Duggan

Bucking the Artworld Tide: Reflections on Art, Pseudo Art, Art Education & Theory, by Michelle Marder Kamhi

The Soul of Atlas: Ayn Rand, Christianity, a Quest for Common Ground, by Mark David Henderson

The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics, by Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen

***

As is the case with every issue, we have introduced at least one new contributor to the JARS family. This issue brings debut pieces from four new contributors: Onar Am, Alec Mouhibian, Molly Sechrest, and Amos Wollen.

Here is our Table of Contents for Volume 20, Number 2 (the abstracts can be found here; contributor biographies can be found here):

The Man Who Would Be Galt – Dennis C. Hardin

Something That Used to Be Objectivism: Barbara Branden’s Psycho-Epistemology – Robert L. Campbell

The Dialectics of Liberty – Allen Mendenhall

Free Market Revolution: Partial or Complete? – Chris Matthew Sciabarra

From Defiant Egoist to Submissive Citizen: Is There a Bridge? Why the Hell Is There a Bridge? – Roderick T. Long

Goddess of the Republic – Alec Mouhibian

Peterson, Rand, and Antifragile Individualism – Onar Am

Introducing Ayn Rand – Edward W. Younkins

Silicon Rand – Troy Camplin

Ayn Rand: Mean Girl? – Mimi Reisel Gladstein

Bucking the Artworld Tide – Molly Sechrest

Ayn Rand and Christianity: The Virtuous Parallels – Amos Wollen

The Perfectionist Turn – David Gordon

Eudaimon in the Rough: Perfecting Rand’s Egoism – Roger E. Bissell

Index to Volume 20

Those seeking to subscribe to the journal should visit the sites linked here. And—as we march into the third decade of this remarkable journal—those wishing to submit manuscripts for consideration should follow the instructions here.

Once again, I wish to express my deepest appreciation to my co-editors, our board of advisors, our contributors, and most of all, our readers, without whom we would never have been able to publish this grand finale—the longest single issue in the history of our journal—to our twentieth anniversary volume.

As I said in the Introduction to Volume 20, Number 1: “Here’s to another two decades and beyond of JARS triumphs . . . two decades, or until such time as Rand studies have so penetrated the literary and philosophic canon that specialized journals of this nature are no longer required.”

#ProudBoys: Stand By … :)

Leave it to my friend Irfan Khawaja, to post this one on his blog “Policy of Truth”:

We’re #ProudBoys, and we’re not standing down at all–we’re standing by. OK, we’re sitting by. But #ProudBoys nonetheless, having a gay old time.

Boy, I hear that chatter all the way in Brooklyn! (And he got me that Blondie shirt!  😉 )

Check out his post, #ProudBoys: Stand By …

“Layers”: A Nathaniel Branden Novel

For those who are not yet aware, a new, posthumously published novel, Layers, written by Nathaniel Branden, has been released in both a Kindle and paperback edition.

The book was the subject of a fascinating article by Stephen Cox, which was published in a trailblazing 2016 double issue symposium of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies: “Nathaniel Branden: His Work and Legacy” (also available as a Kindle edition). Cox’s contribution to that symposium, “Nathaniel Branden: In the Writer’s Workshop,” explores how “Nathaniel Branden was both inspired by imaginative literature and ambitious to create it himself. The history of [Cox’s] literary relationship with [Branden] provides important insights into his intellectual character, his aesthetic interests, and his literary ability.” At the heart of that article was Cox’s discussion of the various drafts of the novel that Branden shared with him—which eventually became Layers.

Nathaniel had sent me various drafts of that novel many years ago, and I was astonished by both the depth of its psychological insights and literary quality. As the book finally neared publication, six years after Branden passed away, I was asked to provide a back-cover blurb, which appears below. I encourage readers to check out this important work.


Layers – By Nathaniel Branden

Here are those back-cover blurbs:

Layers is a remarkable work by a remarkable human being. Nathaniel Branden was a leading psychotherapist who inspired thousands by his work with individual patients and his influential books about the psychology of self-esteem and personal growth. At his death he left a work of fiction—Layers—that reveals what patients seldom see: the agonizing conflicts within the therapist’s own mind. Layers is a work of compelling psychological insight, a story of one man’s intrepid search for the truth about himself. Branden tells this story with the drama and suspense and sudden beauty that readers expect and deserve from an important work of fiction.”
– Stephen Cox, University of California, San Diego

“This thought-provoking novel reveals yet another ‘layer’ to the complex, interwoven fabric that constitutes Nathaniel Branden’s life and legacy. A must for fans of his famous associate, Ayn Rand, and for those who may be encountering Branden’s insightful work for the first time.”
– Chris Matthew Sciabarra, author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical

“This story vividly illustrates, as none other I’ve ever read, how centrally important it is to do what you most deeply love and want to do in life, and how badly your life can go awry if you don’t.”
– Roger E. Bissell, Research Associate, Molinari Institute

Looking at Cleveland Tonight!

Tonight, it starts! In Cleveland!

Does a die-hard Yankee fan watch the Yankees-Indians first postseason game in this off-the-wall 2020 baseball year?

Or do I switch the channel and watch that other sporting event taking place in Cleveland: The First Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden?

I mean, I’m so passionate about both baseball and politics. I can switch between one and the other, I guess. Still, I’d rather watch a baseball game live. If I absolutely must watch that other match, out of civic duty or a streak of masochism, I can always take a look at it on DVR after the game.

What a dilemma! 🙂

Postscript (30 September 2020): On the Facebook thread, one of my pals stated “Support the Mets – then you will never face this kind of dilemma,” and I admitted, that “in truth, as horrible as this might sound to my fellow Yankee fanatics, if the Mets get into the postseason, I root, root, root for the home team. Unless they’re up against the Yanks in a ‘subway series’ (as in 2000).” But this morning I made this observation:

“What a mess in Cleveland last night, eh? Yeah, those Indians lost 12-3 to the Yankees. Now y’all know why I thought it better to watch the game, given that OTHER mess on the stage at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in the same city. SMH”

I do have to say here on this blog that what I watched last night in that first presidential debate was one of the biggest shit-shows I’ve ever seen in all my years of watching political debates. The cringe-worthy moments were coming from both sides of the stage. But I have to admit that this one from The Don probably took the cake:

Asked by Wallace and Biden to condemn white supremacy, Trump said “Sure” but then declined to do so. Biden named the Proud Boys, a far-right group, and Trump replied: “Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by … Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left. This is not a right-wing problem!” The group celebrated his response online and began using the phrase, “Stand back and stand by.”

As a friend of mine said: “If that doesn’t unsettle you, I don’t know what will.”