Monday, January 04, 2016

Rand's Novels 1: We the Living

Of all of Ayn Rand's published fiction — and, indeed, of nearly all her writing, published or otherwise — We the Living is the easiest for the non-Objectivist to appreciate. Most of her chief faults as a novelist are absent from the book. The characters and situations of novel are more or less real, (and all the more vivid and powerful for being so). The prose is largely straightforward, direct, unadorned. It may be the best Russian novel written in English. I wish Rand had written more novels like We the Living. But, alas, that was not to be.

Oddly enough, We the Living was the most reviewed of any of Rand's books, receiving more positive than negative notices. H. L. Mencken, who, in the twenties, had been one of the leading literary critics in America, described Rand's first novel as "a really excellent piece of work." The novel, however, struggled to gain an audience in the 1930's, and Rand's publisher, Macmillan, destroyed the plates after a modest print run of 3,000 copies. In 1959, Rand issued a second, revised edition of the work. Rand insisted that "all the changes [she made] are merely editorial line changes." This view has been challenged. It seems that Rand indulged in a little more than mere line changes, that she sought to edit her former self in order to conceal some of the views she had flirted with in her youth.


It appears that, early in her adulthood, Rand went through a quasi-Nietzschean phase. There are only two groups that think this is a big deal. The first are those intellectual lazy people who wish to use Rand's early allegiance to a kind of vulgarized Nietzsche as a way of dismissing her out of hand. These people want to believe that Objectivism is merely a Nietzchean offshoot, and that Rand secretly was a kind of right-wing elitist, dripping with social darwinism and eager to stomp all over the masses. But Rand, under the influence of Isabel Paterson, had thrown off the last vestiges of her early quasi-Nietzchean not long after completing We the Living. adopting, instead, a view of human nature and a kind of hyper-moralism that was poles apart from Nietzche's incendiary elitism and his positivistic immoralism. 

Oddly enough, the other group that think Rand's Nietzschean phase are her most ardent and orthodox admirers. These people wish to deny that the Nietzschean phase ever existed, or that Rand ever had opinions that weren't strictly Objectivist in the orthodox sense of the term. The problematic passage in the first version occurs when the protagonist of the novel, Kira (an idealized version of Rand herself) says "What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?"Rand apologist Robert Mayhew attempts to deflate the implications of this passage with the following piece of rationalizing palaver: 

We should not conclude too quickly that these passages are strong evidence of an earlier Nietzschean phase in Ayn Rand's development, because such language can be strictly metaphorical (even if the result of an early interest in Nietzsche).

I would argue for a completely different approach. I'm not one of those politically correct zealots who gets all offended because some fictional character in a novel entertains, speculatively, dubious opinions. Nor do I look to fictional characters for ideological guidance. What the real issue should be: what would a woman of Kira's type living in Soviet Russia in the early twenties most likely believe? Would she be a perfectly "correct" and orthodox Objectivist? Or would she more likely spout some sort of vulgarized version of Nietzsche, as an antidote to the soul-crushing collectivism of the Soviet state? I find the Kira of the first version of the novel to be more genuine and real than the sanitized Kira of the second version. Nietzsche was a popular author in the first decades of the twentieth century, and vulgarized versions of Nietzsche's philosophy were quite rife among young, philosophically illiterate individualists. Kira's scorn and contempt for the masses is an understandable  over-reaction to the Soviet deification of the proletariat. Seen in that light, it really isn't that big a deal.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Since the consequence of applying Rand's laissez-faire economics is to grind the masses underfoot anyway, it's fair to say that not only does We The Living express Rand's own views but that after We The Living she not so much changed as did a better job concealing -- or at least being less explicit about -- her quasi-Nietzschean sentiments.

Being a good propagandist, Rand knew she had a problem. Fixing that problem was Objectivism's raison d'être: to conceal Rand's hatred of man via rationalization.

Atlas Shrugged presents the suffering of workers as noble and desirable. It fools wage slaves into believing they're part of the in-group of capitalists when they're not and serves as a salve for soul-crushing working conditions, offering philosophic and practical support to their corporate masters.

Rand's sentiments never really changed. She always held Kira's vulgar scorn and contempt for the masses. Her philosophic system depends upon it. Her lifelong enterprise never wavered in its support of a system that treats people as "mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it".

Jzero said...

Having not read We the Living, I can't speak to Rand's evolution as a writer, but I didn't come away from Atlas Shrugged thinking Rand had any particular love or respect for "the masses" - at best, a grudging acknowledgement that the factories and train stations weren't going to run themselves by virtue of her protagonists' sheer genius... it's still elitism, just dressed in different clothes.

But I am intrigued by the notion that her earlier works contained more realistic and believable characters, considering how improbably cartoonish some of her antagonists' motivations and reasonings in AS come across.

B.M.W. said...

"Since the consequence of applying Rand's laissez-faire economics is to grind the masses underfoot anyway..."

Hmm, didn't we have a long conversation about unqualified assertions under the last post?

Michael Prescott said...

"What the real issue should be: what would a woman of Kira's type living in Soviet Russia in the early twenties most likely believe?"

That wouldn't be the question Rand would ask. It's a purely naturalistic approach. Rand, as a romanticist, would be concerned with what Kira ideally ought to believe.

Gordon Burkowski said...

“Rand, as a romanticist, would be concerned with what Kira ideally ought to believe.”

Absolutely correct. Which leads naturally into a discussion of Rand’s revisions to the 1959 edition of We the Living. In the Foreword to that edition, she wrote that some passages in the novel “reflected the transitional state of a mind thinking no longer in Russian, but not yet fully in English.” She then stated:

“I have changed only the most awkward or confusing lapses of this kind. I have reworded the sentences and clarified their meaning, without changing their content. . . I have cut out some sentences and a few paragraphs that were repetitious or so confusing in their implications that to clarify them would have necessitated lengthy additions. In brief, all the changes are merely editorial line-changes. The novel remains what and as it was.”

Most people who check the differences between the two editions are likely to find this explanation a bit unsatisfactory. In the first edition, Leo reads Nietzsche at University; in the second edition, he is said to read Spinoza. Calling that an editorial line-change is a bit of a stretch.

However, one of the most shocking - and revealing - passages in the first edition is a conversation between Kira and Andrei Taganov, who is a Communist. Kira says to him: “I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except that I don’t know, however, whether I’d include blood in my methods.”

The 1959 edition includes the words: “I loathe your ideals.” The rest of the passage I quoted is deleted - along with the paragraph which follows. An editorial line-change? Yeah, right.

More to follow. . .

Gordon Burkowski said...

But let’s return to Kira’s statement that she admired the methods of the Commmunists. When I first read that passage back in the 1960's, I took this to be something Rand used to believe and had later discarded. However, today I am far more inclined to believe that she continued to admire Communist methods - decades later and perhaps until her death.

When Ayn Rand came to America in the 1930's, the political left was dominant. She regarded their ideas as evil and unworkable - but that meant that she had to explain why they were winning the battle for hearts and minds. Her conclusion: they were superior in organization and propaganda. So she ended up copying their methods on both these fronts.

Consider the well-documented practices of the Objectivist movement in New York in the 1960's - which look disturbingly like a right-wing version of the methods of the Bolsheviks. Some examples:

* An utter contempt for compromisers or any form of "deviationism"; close surveillance of the statements and actions of adherents; in other words, “party discipline”;
* "Trials" of members judged ideologically unsound;
* A near-totalitarian insistence on agreement not only with the broad outlines of Objectivism, but with approved types of art and even approved behaviours (Objectivists had to smoke, because Rand did);
* A "cult of personality" where Rand herself was regarded as morally perfect and her views as inerrant - rather like a right-wing Lenin or Stalin;
* A completely ideological approach to politics and political action, combined with a deep disdain for the experimental, pragmatic character of western democracies.

Rand herself also grudgingly admired the Communist use of novels and movies as propaganda vehicles - she once described The Fountainhead as “propaganda for capitalism”. The description of artists as “engineers of the human soul” - frequently quoted by Stalin - perfectly describes the aims and style of Rand’s own theory of art.

Finally, note Kira’s remark qualifying her admiration of the Bolsheviks: “Except that I don’t know, however, whether I’d include blood in my methods.” In spite of all the talk about “non-initiation of force”, this ambivalence about the use of force runs strongly through the writings of Objectivists to this very day. Note the admiration of Ragnar Danneskjold. Note too some of Peikoff’s loonier suggestions - such as calling for bombing of New York mosques if they’re built too close to the 9/11 site.

Over the years, many people have noted with discomfort how Objectivists combine an alleged commitment to reason with a profound authoritarianism and a deep-seated intellectual intolerance of even the slightest differences of approach or opinion among their adherents. Look no further than Kira. After 80 years, Objectivists still loathe the ideals of the Bolsheviks - but admire their methods.

Michael Prescott said...

Interesting analysis, Gordon. I think it's certainly true that Rand had an authoritarian personality. It went along with her all-or-nothing style of thinking. Her way was not just the right way, it was the only way.

It's probably true that Rand was being coy about the philosophical alterations to We the Living. But I don't have a problem with her description of the changes as line editing. Changing Nietzsche to Spinoza or even cutting a few sentences of dialogue is line editing. That's what I'd call it, and I've been a professional writer for (God help me) forty years. When you turn out hundreds of thousands of words, small alterations and cuts do not assume much significance. And she did say she'd cut passages that were confusing in their implications - a semi-honest, slightly weaselly way of covering herself.

Neil Parille said...

The Companion to Ayn Rand is out. Our very own Michael Prescott is mentioned in passing concerning his discussion of Hickman. "Romancing the Stone Cold Killer" is "oddly gloating."

Neil Parille said...

I have a preliminary review of the Companion. Only 5 of 22 positive votes . . . .

http://www.amazon.com/Companion-Rand-Blackwell-Companions-Philosophy/product-reviews/1405186844/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_btm?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1&sortBy=recent

Gordon Burkowski said...


Thanks for your comments, Michael. It's especially enlightening to see how the whole thing looks from the viewpoint of a professional writer.

I should point out, however, that your argument is essentially a quantitative one: weighing a couple hundred edits against a 500 page novel. That's valid as far as it goes; and I'm sure Rand looked at it that way. However, there's a qualitative side to be considered too: some line-changes are far more significant than others.

After all, what if one heard a U.S. Senator say: "Look, I have contacts with hundreds of organizations. And 20 years ago, one of those contacts was a Ku Klux Klan membership. What's the big deal?" I suspect that most people wouldn't be impressed.

Rand said she cut certain passages that were "confusing in their implications". I'm more inclined to think that she cut them because their implications were all too clear. As you say: "a semi-honest, slightly weaselly way of covering herself."

Michael Prescott said...

I don't mind their describing my Hickman piece as "gloating," but I would hope they address the substantive issues raised by the young Ayn's peculiar hero-worship of a sociopathic, sadistic child-murderer. It's like having a crush on Peter Lorre's character in "M." A bit out of character for a woman who is claimed to be the apex of rationality.

gregnyquist said...

That wouldn't be the question Rand would ask. It's a purely naturalistic approach. Rand, as a romanticist, would be concerned with what Kira ideally ought to believe

No, it's not a question Rand would ask (particularly in the 1950s, when she was "line-editing" We the Living), but it's the question I, as a reader would ask; and it's how I would evaluate the character and Rand's line editing. In short, the larger point I was trying to make is that I don't think we should care all that much whether Kira's views align with Rand's, but rather, we should be focusing on what makes sense in the context of the novel itself (i.e., whether Kira's views make sense in terms of the logic of her character).

Keep in mind as well that Rand's peculiar brand of Romanticism was only nascent in We the Living. Just compare the hero of the novel, Leo, with Roark and Galt. There's really not a whole lot of Randian romanticism in poor Leo. He's actually based on real person, and his portrayal is far more realistic (or "naturalistic") than what we find in Rand's later work. Indeed, I would contend that its the realism of We the Living which makes it Rand's most successful, least flawed novel.