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Boydstun

Ayn Rand: Her Life, Her Philosophy

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Shoshana Milgram contributes a chapter to the newly released A Companion to Ayn Rand (Blackwell). It is the second chapter of the volume. It is titled “The Life of Ayn Rand – Writing, Reading, and Related Events.” This chapter is 23 pages, including endnotes (about 10,000 words without endnotes). It is organized into these sections:

Leaving Russia (1905–1926)

Early Career as an American Writer (1926–1936)

The Fountainhead: The Creation of Her First Ideal Man (1936–1943)

Atlas Shrugged: The Mind on Strike (1943–1957)

Objectivism: A Philosophy for Living on Earth (1957–1982)

Appendix: Concerning Biographical Sources

“The most important year of Rand’s youth was 1914: at the age of nine, she decided to be a writer. She had been writing stories for several years at this point. One night, in a London hotel room, when she was entertaining her sisters by inventing a story about the chorus girls she had seen on a theatrical poster, she realized that this task of devising interesting narratives about human lives was a writer’s life work—and the very career she wanted.”

. . .

“On June 8, 1958, she began to make notes for a projected non-fiction book Objectivism: A Philosophy for Living on Earth, . . . . She would work to support and defend the novel [AS] that had been misjudged and misunderstood, and also to crusade for reason (her top value, she said, ever since she could remember). . . .”

. . .

“‘I read a few of those modern philosophy essays that Nathan gave me, and all the questions that Leonard [Peikoff] was bringing home. And my conversations with Leonard. I began to see that what I took as almost self-evident, was not self-evident at all. . . . Leonard began to realize the importance of my statement that “existence is identity,” and he explained to me in what sense no philosopher had claimed it, not in this form. I had thought of it as what I said in Galt’s speech, that it’s merely clarification of Aristotle. I began to realize in what way it wasn’t. And it was that that was the turning point in my decision. I knew then that I could not write another novel for a long time.’ [AR] (Biographical Interviews)”

. . .

“In this chapter I draw on research I have done, much of it in the Ayn Rand Archives . . . toward a book-length study. . . . / For the facts of Ayn Rand’s life, I have relied on primary sources, including . . . an extensive series of biographical interviews conducted by Barbara Branden in 1960–1961 . . . (Biographical Interviews).” 

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The book is interesting in part for what it tells us of the current state of the party line. It's the first time I've seen an orthodox source credit Barbara Branden, not "a biographer", as Rand's interviewer. She, NB and David Kelley get extensive mentions in the index. Lennox and Hunt have both spoken at TAS events.

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It's fun to compare Kira's scene of first lovemaking, which was with Leo, to Dagny's first time, which was with Francisco, and to the lovemaking scene for Dagny and John in the rail tunnel. I'll show text from the Kira scene below. I'm pretty sure the bridge in the scene is the Dvortsovy, which is shown in construction (1912-16) in this drawing by Anna Petrovna Ostroumova-Lebedeva.

construction of dvortsovy palace bridge Ostroumova-Lebedeva-Litografiya-008.jpg

“On the quay, at the Admiralty, Leo stopped the sleigh and they got out and walked along the parapet. The Neva was frozen. A solid coat of ice made a wide, white lane between its high banks. Human feet had stamped a long road across its snow. The road was deserted.

“They descended down the steep, frozen bank to the ice below. They walked silently, suddenly alone in a white wilderness.

“. . . And the golden spire of the Admiralty held defiantly a disappeared sun high over the dark city.

. . .

“They stood alone in the middle of the river. A tramway clattered, rising up the bridge, shaking the steel beams to their roots in the water far below. . . .

. . .

“‘You know what I wanted to tell you’, he said, his face very close to hers.

“And without a thought, without a will or a question, in voice that was someone’s order to her, not her voice, she answered ‘Yes’.

“His kiss felt like a wound.

“Her arms closed around the frightening wonder of a man’s body. . . .

. . .

“Leo took her arm and led her away, on perilous ground, through the deep, unbroken snow, to the bridge.

“They stood in the darkness of the steel vaults. Through the black webbing above they saw the red sky dying out slowly.

"She didn't know what he was saying; she knew that his lips were on hers. She didn't know that her coat collar was unbuttoned; she knew that his hand was on her breast and his hand was hungrier than his lips.

“When a tramway rose up the bridge over their heads the steel clattered convulsively, a dull thunder rolling through its every joint; and for a long time after it was gone the bridge moaned feebly.” (Rand 1936, 106–8)

Edited by Boydstun

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Roderick Long has lately tracked down the song “John Gray” that Rand employed in We the Living. He reports it was written in 1923 by Matvei Blanter (1903–1990). The lyrics coincide with those translated by Rand. They are by Vladimir Mass (1876–1979).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LX7bF5mEBnA

“Petrograd had known sweeping epidemics of cholera; it had known epidemics of typhus, which were worse; the worst of its epidemics was that of ‘John Gray’.

“Men stood in line at the co-operatives—and whistled ‘John Gray’. At recreation hour in schools, young couples danced in the big hall, and an obliging pupil played ‘John Gray’. Men hung on the steps of speeding tramways, humming desperately ‘John Gray’. Workers’ clubs listened attentively to a lecture on Marxism, then relaxed while a comrade showed his skill on a piano out of tune, playing ‘John Gray’." (1936, 178)

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The transcription of Rand’s epistemology seminars (1969–71) included in the second edition of ITOE, contain some deep exchanges between Rand and Gotthelf (Prof. B )  and Peikoff (Prof. E). Outside those, the most sustained dialogues (in the transcription) are the penetrating exchanges between Rand and John O. Nelson (Prof. D).* Prof. Nelson had contributed an article on matters political to Rand’s The Objectivist in 1969. A note listing therewith some glimpse of Nelson’s academic stature included: “Professor Nelson agrees with the basic principles of Objectivism in ethics and politics.” That expresses perhaps too much concord even in those areas, but anyway, that statement rightly indicated that Nelson was of another perspective in areas of theoretical philosophy.

Jeff Broome, an acquaintance of John O. Nelson (1917–2005), writes in the Preface to a couple of Nelson studies on Hume:

“It wasn’t just Wittgenstein who was impressed by John’s penetrating philosophical mind. Ayn Rand would also become friends with John and Edna, inviting them to her Manhatten apartment for weekend exchanges of philosophical ideas. John was impressed with the depth of Ayn’s intellect, especially her ability to talk in depth about nearly countless topics and ideas. John proved her equal in conversations, a rarity among Rand’s inner circle of close friends.” (2010)

Edited by Boydstun

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When Rand first began working on We the Living in 1929, its title was to be Airtight: A Novel of Red Russia. Clearly, one of the objectives of her novel was to exhibit the moral, economic, and technological inferiority of communist Russia in comparison to America and Europe. The main writing and rewriting of the novel was in 1933–35. By 1933 America was at the depth of its greatest economic depression. There was much clamoring from business and labor leaders for “economic democracy,” for the cartelization and socialization of major industries, and for central planning of production and consumption.

The picture of communist Russia that Rand was exposing in We the Living was as in the early 20’s. By the 30’s Russia was not Russia in the immediate aftermath of revolution and civil war. There were large construction projects underway over there, which were being touted by Stalin’s government to show the superiority of communism. A scene in Rand’s novel retained through her first couple of drafts to May 1934 was one in which Kira’s lover Leo mentions to her that in New York there are six million inhabitants and that they have subways. “It must be delightful—a subway” Leo remarks to Kira who adores such things (Milgram 2004, 13). That was cut from the novel by November 1935. There are additional reasons for removing the passage, but I think one was that Stalin’s Russia had completed its first underground metro, in Moscow, in May 1935. Rand’s use of the lack of subways in cities of communist Russia as illustration of its technical stagnation would not have been effective by 1935.

Canal

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When André Gide got back from the USSR in the 30s, he recounted a conversation with a writer he'd met. He'd submitted a story for official approval and was told to change the roads to paved - they're sure to be in by next year.

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Atlas Shrugged was published on 10 October 1957. A brief interview with Rand by Lewis Nichols was published in the New York Times three days later. On the writing of Atlas Shrugged she remarked:

“‘It goes back a long way. I was disappointed in the reaction to The Fountainhead. A good many of the reviewers missed the point. A friend called me to sympathize, and said I should write a non-fiction book about the idea back of The Fountainhead.

‘While I was talking, I thought, “I simply don’t want to do this. What if I went on strike?” My husband [Frank O’Connor] and I talked about that all night, and the idea was born then.

‘. . . From the first night idea of the thinking people being on strike, it was natural to move to the mind on strike. With this as a theme, I decided to touch on industry, and to use a railroad as the connecting link for the story.

. . .

‘In front of the desk I had a plain railroad map of the country, and marked in the Taggart lines on that. There also was a furnace’s foreman’s manual, which I studied for steel making, and I had one very pleasant ride in the engine cab of a train.’

‘. . . The greatest guarantee of a better world is a rational morality . . . the collectivist cause is really dead. The capitalist case never has been clearly presented. . . . The doctrine of Original Sin is a monstrous absurdity, a contradiction in terms. Morals start only when there is a choice. . . .

‘The fault of the American system goes back to the Constitution. It is so vague on general welfare that the looters get in.’”

“Looking into the future a bit, into the new world beyond page 1168 {the last page}, Miss Rand would see the Taggart lines being rebuilt, first between New York and Philadelphia, then, in ten years, across the continent. . . .

“And Miss Rand herself? She will be sitting still for a long time, now, resting and playing records. Not her invention, the Halley’s Fifth Concerto, which runs like the Third Man Theme through Atlas Shrugged, but Rachmaninoff.”

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Back on December 31st, 2019 a mention of the book Calumet K came to my attention. As an aside, the word 'calumet' had crossed my awareness back on July 19th, 2018 as the 'word-of-the-day' Put that in your calumet and smoke it.

An e-book version was available on project Gutenberg, and provided the opportunity to enjoy what was touted to be one of Ayn Rand's favorite novels. The book added another unique portrayal to the grain harvest disaster illustrated in Atlas Shrugged by concretizing an antithesis. It was based on one of the author's father's life experience.

Calumet “K” was based on an event in the life of Webster’s father, Towner Keeney Webster*, who in 1897 constructed a grain elevator under pressure similar to that experienced by the book’s hero, Charlie Bannon. Thanks to Dr. Shoshana Milgram for sharing with me the transcript of a talk in which she mentioned this fact: “Calumet ‘K’: Ayn Rand’s Favorite Novel,” delivered at Objectivist Conferences, June 7, 2017.
* per the referenced wikipedia entry, the actual purpose of the structure built can readily be called into question.

With Illinois being one of the two states currently sporting a geographical location identified as Calumet, at this point, one can only speculate as to why it was selected to be included as part of the tale's title.

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I got into Merwin & Webster a very long time ago at the now-defunct Acres of Books in Long Beach CA. Favorite of the ones I've read is Comrade John , at once a satire and an adventure story that pits an architect against a flimflamming prophet based unmistakably on Elbert Hubbard. I suspect it was where Rand got the idea for the architectural ghosting that Roark does for Keating.

(In the NYT interview that Boydstun mentioned, Rand also said that Dagny and John would marry. One of the Objectivist forums once had a thread on what practical difficulties the characters would face in picking up the pieces and building a new order.)

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