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We The Living

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In We the Living (1936), the reader learns of heroine Kira that she “was born in the gray granite house on Kamenostrovsky. In that vast mansion Galina Petrovna [Kira’s mother] had a boudoir where, at night, a maid in black fastened the clasps of her diamond necklaces; and a reception room where, her taffeta petticoats rustling solemnly, she entertained ladies with sables and lorgnettes. . . . / Kira had an English governess, a thoughtful young lady with a lovely smile. She liked her governess, but often preferred to be alone—and was left alone. . . . / . . . The first thing that Kira learned about life and the first thing that her elders learned, dismayed, about Kira, was the joy of being alone” (36–37).

At eighteen the eyes of Kira “looked at people quietly, directly, with something that people called arrogance, but which was only a deep, confident calm that seemed to tell men her sight was too clear and none of their favorite binoculars were needed to help her look at life” (35). It seemed that her body’s “sharp movements were the unconscious reflection of a dancing, laughing soul” (35). 

Rand’s Kira is one who feels the heat in things that feel cold to everyone else: 

“She stopped suddenly, as they walked down a street in the evening, and pointed to a strange angle of white wall over battered roofs, luminous on a black sky in the glare of an old lantern, with a dark, barred window like that of a dungeon, and she whispered “How beautiful!”. . . . / . . . She had the same feeling for white statues of ancient gods against black velvet in museums, and for steel shavings and rusty dust and hissing torches and muscles tense as electric wires in the iron roar of a building under construction.” (38–39)

In 1922 after five years of revolution and civil war, the Argounova family in We the Living returns from the Crimea to Petrograd in a boxcar. In all the mud, fear, crudeness, and destitution of this city in those days, Kira Argounova, age 18, returns to Rand’s fond city, with the thought “Isn’t it wonderful!” (23). She is wearing homemade wooden sandals. She smiles at the greeting of an old friend, the bell of a tram outside the station and smiles at the adventure of life before her. At the train station exit door, there is a poster with welcoming words above a rising sun, “Comrades! We are the builders of a new life!” (22).

As a child, Kira had read a story about a conquering Viking who respects neither throne nor altar. This story was Kira’s favorite, high above all others. This conqueror is never defeated. At the end of the story, looking over a city he had conquered, the Viking raises a goblet of wine and speaks: “To life, which is a reason unto itself” (40–41).

Kira had entered life, not with head bowed in religious awe, nor with “a cold skin crying for the warmth of the herd. Kira Argounova entered it with the sword of a Viking pointing the way . . .” (42–43). The sword-point of the Viking in the childhood story is the point to which he looks no farther, “but there was no boundary for the point of his sword” (40). 

Kira did not aspire to be a Viking, though the line of her mouth when silent “was cold, indomitable, and men thought of a Valkyrie with lance and winged helmet in the sweep of battle” (36). She did not aspire to be a warrior or Valkyrie; neither did she aspire to a “life of discipline and hard work and useful labor for the great collective” (37).

“From somewhere in the aristocratic Middle Ages, Kira had inherited the conviction that labor and effort were ignoble” (41). She made good grades, but she would not learn to cook or darn. She balked at piano exercises, but chose for her future “the hardest work and most demanding effort. She was to be an engineer” (41). Over Kira’s bed was the picture of an American skyscraper. She imagined she would build houses of glass and steel, a white bridge of aluminum. She imagined “men and wheels and cranes under her orders, about a sunrise on the steel skeleton of a skyscraper” (41). 

“She knew she had a life and that it was her life. She knew the work which she had chosen and which she expected of life” (41). And she worshipped and expected joy (41–42).

Rand’s Kira does not look at the workers who would build her skyscrapers and bridges as subservient types; she sees them simply as carrying out her orders. She does not look down on the building trades. Kira’s author gives no indication of agreeing with Nietzsche’s view that the importance of allowing the existence of individuals aristocratic in spirit is to improve the type man by self-overcomings in the souls of such men.

Rand in We the Living adores Petrograd and the man who ordered its creation, but she does not adore it because it gave that man a higher state of being. Kira simply values great creations and their creators. She values the man-made, the making, and the makers, to the purpose of life and joy.

It is clear early in We the Living that Kira and her author stand in favor of much that the Marxists refer to as “bourgeois.” We often associate the bourgeois with the Epicurean, and that Kira is not. She takes scant notice that “the voice of the flesh cries, ‘Keep me from hunger, thirst, and cold!’” (VS 33). She does not take avoidance of pain as the right limit of pleasure and desire (PD 3, 11). Her appetite for life is great. “If one loses that appetite, why still sit at the table” (WL 55). She is no dray horse, but a racing steed (32).

With her hungry family, sharing their single wick of light, or standing in line for bread ration, Kira’s mind is fixed on her textbooks, particularly on her mathematics problems. At the Petrograd Technological Institute, where she is a first-year student, she does not pay attention to lectures of Bolshevik propaganda.

A student politician on the Communist side tries to enlist Kira in a Marxist Circle for young students “‘to learn the proper proletarian ideology, which we’ll all need when we go out into the world to serve the Proletarian State, since that’s what we’re all studying for, isn’t it?’ / ‘Did it ever occur to you’, asked Kira, ‘that I may be here for the very unusual, unnatural reason of wanting to learn a work I like only because I like it?’” (61).

Kira is drawn into a student assembly for student elections. A speech from a student Party member barking the right purpose of the Technological Institute concludes: “‘We have outgrown the old bourgeois prejudice about the objective impartiality of science. Science is not impartial. Science is a weapon in the class struggle. We’re not here to further our own petty personal ambitions. We have outgrown the slobbering egoism of the bourgeois who whined for a personal career’”(62).

In the 1936 version of We the Living, Rand has a line to display the type of mind and interests of protagonist Leo, who is Kira’s beloved. “When his young friends related, in whispers, the latest French stories, Leo quoted Kant and Nietzsche” (156) This line is included in Robert Mayhew’s study “We the Living: ’36 and ’59” (2004, 192). In the 1959 edit, Rand replaced Kant with Spinoza in this line. Dr. Mayhew naturally is struck by the clear indication that Rand did not hold her well-known antipathy to Kant in her early years. 

I wonder if Rand was not very familiar with Spinoza in her early years, and had she been familiar with him, would have used him instead of Kant. She would have known a smidgen of Spinoza simply from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Certainly she would have noticed Nietzsche’s opposition to Kant’s theoretical and practical philosophy. Naturally, one wonders why she did not use Aristotle in Leo’s line in ’36 or in ’59. Perhaps because there is a level of difficulty and sustained, rarified thought widely recognized to be found in Kant and Spinoza, but not so widely associated with Aristotle. She wanted to contrast the shallowness of surrounding people with the serious mind and inner life of Leo, an inner life far away from the crush of the Red boot on their society. Then again, perhaps she used Spinoza rather than Aristotle because the latter is not so strongly egoist in ethics as the former; the polis looms large in the ethics of Aristotle. Another possibility would be that in ’36 her knowledge of Aristotle was significantly less than her knowledge of Spinoza, and that in ’59 she wanted to keep to that knowledge context within which she had created the novel in ’36.

Rand’s use of Kant in her original 1936 version does not necessarily signal absence of serious disagreement with Kant at that time, but it surely does indicate an intensification of her contempt for Kant’s ideas as she learned more through the years. By the time of the reissue, in revision, Rand regarded Kant’s as the antipode of her philosophy in every fundamental. Under her later assessment of Kant’s system, she would not have used him in the line about Leo, however shy of perfection she took to be the character Leo in his original, undefeated state.

Near the conclusion of We the Living, Leo is arrested by Andrei, who is truest and best of Communists. Andrei is Red hero of the battle for Melitopol (1920) and son of Red father exiled to death in Siberia in the failed revolution of 1905. He is Kira’s second-lover and main philosophical interlocutor. (Andrei is my favorite male principal in the novel; he reminds me of Cimourdain, my favorite character in Hugo’s Ninety-Three.) In the arrest scene, Andrei throws this line at Leo: “A tendency for transcendental thinking is apt to obscure our perception of reality” (quoted in Mayhew 2004, 192). Rand cut this line in the 1959 edit. I do not think early Rand would have intended this use of transcendental to be an allusion to its full meaning in Kant’s transcendental idealism. It might be in parallel to Kant or to the American transcendentalists, such as Emerson, in meaning only that the ideals of Leo are on a plane that have become in fact impossible in their society. At the same time, Andrei’s charge of “transcendental thinking” definitely means thinking that penetrates truth not conformed to present social reality and the warped reality to which the Communist state would coerce all thought. 

In We the Living, Rand has Kira and Andrei converse on atheism. They each easily say they do not believe in God. Kira goes on to say belief in God means lack of belief in life. Furthermore, “God—whatever anyone chooses to call God—is one’s highest conception of the highest possible. And whoever places his highest conception above his own possibility thinks very little of himself and his life. It’s a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own” (WL 107). At the root of their selves, Kira and Andrei share belief in life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rand is not out to glorify the capitalist economic system at this stage of her development. In this novel, Rand portrays the narrower circumstance that private business and exchange free of government suppression make it possible for people to live.

The excerpt I quoted from the Red student speech (WL 62) is nearly congruent with the rhetoric of extreme Left proponents of proletarian culture who were, in historical fact, campaigning to bend the overwhelmingly not-Red (“bourgeois”) Petrograd Polytechnical Institute to their political vision. The important difference is that Rand has the speaker decry “egoism of the bourgeois.” The proletarian-culture movement would have gotten “bourgeois” into names of their enemy, but in place of egoism, they would have capitalism with its profit-taking. Rand’s entry of egoism and the issue of choosing a career whose allure is not its service to the masses are artifice folded into the speech for expression of the novelist’s deeper fathom of the characters and their historical situation.

The following exchange occurs between Kira and Andrei. The 1959 version is the same as this 1936 version, except for omitting “of right or wrong, for no reason at all.” (I am showing the two italics Rand added in ’59 because it makes the original meaning clearer.) Kira says to Andrei:

“I thought that Communists never did anything except what they had to do . . . .”

“That’s strange,” he smiled, “I must be a very poor Communist. I’ve always done only what I wanted to do.”

“Your revolutionary duty?”

“There is no such thing as duty. If you know a thing is right, you want to do it. If you don’t want to do it—it isn’t right. If it’s right and you don’t want to do it—you don’t know what right is—and you’re not a man.”

“Haven’t you ever wanted a thing for no reason of right or wrong, for no reason at all, save one: that you wanted it?”

“Certainly. That’s always been my only reason. I’ve never wanted things unless they could help my cause. For, you see, it is my cause.”

“And your cause is to deny yourself for the sake of millions?”

“No. To bring the millions up to where I want them—for my sake.”

(92)

Andrei’s words on his congruence of right, knowing it, and wanting to do it, is down from Socrates. This was probably Rand’s own view in 1936. In her mature philosophy, she stays close to this position, but adds a feature—operation under a choice to live—that enables her to avoid traditional problems with it.

Andrei’s wanting to bring the millions up to his vision of their potential, for his own sake, is idiosyncratic for a Communist. Here the author enters marks into the character atypical of his historical situation in order to set the character as a spiritual peer of Kira and to set the stage for playing out what the author sees as the irreconcilable profound conflict of human values in that society. There is an eventual poignant irony to the initial seeming seamlessness in the soul of Andrei.

In this novel, Kira champions wanting something in a self-authored way, not as a means to some further end and not to satisfy some standard beyond itself. Her wanting to be an engineer and her wanting to have Leo are in this category. In her developed philosophy two decades later, Rand will have, for all human beings, only one such wanting, which will be at the level of meta-values.

Having Kira speak of her values standing “beyond right or wrong” is a nod to Nietzsche. Kira’s self-standing values are down-to-earth, not anything near Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values. Kira says: “I don’t want to fight for the people, I don’t want to fight against the people, I don’t want to hear of the people. I want to be left alone—to live” (WL 81). She does not strive to create new values beyond all previous ones; she seeks to create bridges and skyscrapers and a relationship with Leo.

I should mention that Kira does not attack notions of right and wrong per se. She embraces certain things as right and condemns certain things as wrong. “Who—in this damned universe—can tell me why I should live for anything but for that which I want” (388). Come round to the view of Rand’s Kira, Andrei says “no one can tell men what they must live for. No one can take that right . . .” (391). In a draft for Anthem 1938, Rand includes, in the protagonist’s paean to his new world of freedom to look on and touch the woman he loves, these lines: “We know we had no right to this. But our heart laughed at all rights” (quoted in Milgram 2005, 15). This utterance was under shadow of the rights and right and wrong he had known so far, but such a statement could be construed as endorsing the immoralist school if the setting were ignored. Rand lined it out in the draft.

Early in their relationship, Kira and Andrei discuss Communism, for which he has sacrificed lives and his own blood too. Kira maintains that the ideal of living for the state is wrong. Andrei asks what better purpose there could be. Kira replies “Don’t you know that we live only for ourselves, the best of us do, those who are worth leaving alive?” (WL 210). Rand never thought that it is meritorious to center one’s life on valuing others. That is in step with Nietzsche (D 516). Kira’s phrase “those who are worth leaving alive” suggests Nietzsche’s chronic talk about the ways in which calamities like wars get rid of superfluous humans and raise the type man to greater heights (GS I–IV 1, 19, 92; Z I “On War and Warriors”). However, in the situation, it is types like Kira who are not being left alive. So one might have thought that Rand’s 1936 Kira was only pleading: If some people are to be sacrificed for the sake of others, do not sacrifice the best of people, the people who live for themselves.

That thought is quickly quashed. Andrei tells Kira that we cannot sacrifice the masses for the sake of the few. She replies: “You can! You must. When those few are the best. . . . What are your masses but mud to be ground under foot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it [deserve life]? What is the people but millions of puny, shriveled, helpless souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, . . . And for those you would sacrifice the few who know life, who are life?” (WL 93–94).  These words were committed to print prior to WWII and the Nazis’ burning of one race to elevate another, but even if Rand’s talk in ’36 were only of metaphorical burning, say the burning of lifetimes in manual labor for factory owners or mine owners, these were and are words for the trash can.

(Rand soon supersedes this grievous passage in We the Living [1936]. In The Fountainhead [1943], there is metaphorical feeding of bodies into a furnace, but without sacrifice of one spiritual class of people to another. At his office, the protagonist Howard Roark never speaks to his employees, except of their work. “The place seemed cold and soulless like a factory, until they looked at him; then they thought that it was not a factory, but a furnace fed on their bodies, his own first” [ET VI 268].)

Kira says to Andrei “What do you think is living in me? Why do you think I’m alive? Because I have a stomach and eat and digest food? Because I breathe and work and produce more food to digest? Or because I know what I want and that something that knows how to want—isn’t that life itself?” (WL 496). She speaks of Andrei’s Communism bringing its “new life” to men by telling them what they should want, what they must want, dictating what the hours and thoughts of their lives must be. Andrei’s Communism “forbade life to the living” (388).

Early Rand evidently held that value implies sentience. Life cannot become value until it can know of itself. This is not a denial that animal and vegetative life are life. It is a claim that preciousness of life enters the world only in sentient beings who know and culture their desires. (In her mature philosophy, Rand has value where there is any life, and only there).

Andrei learns things about himself from his relationship with Kira. The two of them had believed in life, a word, again, “‘that awaken the kind of feeling that a temple does, or a military march, or the statue of a perfect body’” (336). It was for that feeling that he fought against the Czar. His own existence had been “‘only the fight and the future. You [Kira] taught me the present’.” Andrei realizes he had “‘lived a life where every hour had to have a purpose, and suddenly I discover what it’s like to feel things that have no purpose but myself, and I see suddenly how sacred a purpose can be, . . . and I know, then, that a life is possible whose only justification is my own joy’” (336).

Life as the moral ideal in We the Living is life knowing itself. What it knows at its heart is not will to power, infamous mature doctrine of Nietzsche. What it knows is life undefeated, life self-directed and self-caring. Stopping that heart of human life brings humanity not new life, but death.

 

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Edited by Boydstun
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