Rebirth of Reason

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Post 20

Sunday, November 22 - 1:33pmSanction this postReply


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.


In this atheist perspective, Rand had some in common with Nietzsche. “The Christian idea of God – . . . is one of the most corrupt conceptions of God the world has ever seen . . . . God having degenerated into a contradiction of life instead of its transfiguration and eternal yes! God as declared aversion to life, to nature, to the will to life! God as every slander against the ‘here and now’ . . .” (AC 18). 


Nietzsche can concur with the Red student speech in the idea that the objective impartiality of science is a delusion (GS 107; cf. BT 15, 18; D 423, 431; contrast HH I 6, 264; AOM 206). He would deny, however, that the delusion of the objective impartiality of science is a delusion and error confined to a bourgeois outlook; it is wider and more deeply entrenched than that. “We simply have no organ for knowing, for ‘truth’: we ‘know’ (or believe or imagine) exactly as much as is useful to the human herd, to the species. . .” (GS 354; further 344, 112, 12). Science arises from the will to know, but this is a refinement of “the will to not know, to uncertainty, to untruth! . . . It is precisely the best science that will best know how to keep us in this simplified, utterly artificial, well-invented, well-falsified world, how unwillingly willing science loves error because, being alive,  – it loves life!” (BGE 24; also 230; GS 110, 344).


Though science is ultimately error, Nietzsche concedes that, surprisingly, science has been able to discover things that stand up to examination by all investigators (GS 46). Science has proven capable of undercutting traditional moral values, and it may be able to deliver new ones (GS 7, 123; D 453). Nietzsche would see the Red goals as old ones in new robes. “The aristocratism of mind has been undermined at its depths by the lie of the equality of souls; and when the belief in the ‘privileges of the majority’ creates (and it will create) revolutions, do not doubt for a minute that it is Christianity, that it is Christian value judgments these revolutions are translating into blood and crimes!” (AC 43; also 57; BGE 202; BT 18). 


As to Rand’s unity of personal ambition and egoism with pursuit of objective science, a unity parried in the Red student speech, Nietzsche would allow that pleasure in scientific knowledge is at least covertly tied to the pleasure of honor and bread (GS 123; BGE 6, 230; cf. D 195). Vanity is a promoter of the conviction of the scientist that all other values are secondary to truth, but unlike Rand, Nietzsche sees such conviction as self-abnegation, as self-alienation (GS 344; AC 54; BGE 206–7; cf. WS 179; D 547).


Nietzsche has science as removing value as something given by nature (GS 301; D 108). Rand’s Kira has science to her personal end of material construction, as value surpassing nature. In a line straight from Oscar Wilde, Kira comments, looking at a natural landscape, “How beautiful! It’s almost artificial” (WL 39).


Early in their relationship, Leo asks “‘Is it worthwhile, Kira?’ / ‘What?’ / ‘Effort. Creation. Your glass skyscraper . . .’.” Kira does not answer in her immediate response. Leo continues “‘What is worth it? What do you expect from the world for your glass skyscraper?’ / ‘I don’t know. Perhaps—admiration’. / ‘Well, I’m too conceited to want admiration . . .’” Leo replies (WL 74).


Notice that Kira replied tentatively “admiration” (Nietzsche’s “honor”), but not “bread” or “gold.” Rand is not out to glorify the capitalist economic system at this stage of her development, and in that, her vision expressed is not so far from Nietzsche as it will be later. In this novel, Rand portrays the narrower circumstance that private business and exchange free of government suppression make it possible for people to live. (See also Mayhew 2004a, 203–5.)


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 (79) is the same as this 1936 version (92), except for omitting “of right or wrong, for no reason at all” (quoted in Milgram 2004, 39–40). (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.”

(WL 1936, 92)


In this exchange, Kira is speaking Nietzsche, though only so far. As her own philosophy matured, Rand halted this line of Nietzschean thought in her own philosophy even farther from Nietzsche. It is not only Nietzsche that Kira is here speaking, but Nietzsche’s life-long, more innocent book-companion Emerson, who writes: “He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. . . . Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to this or that; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (“Self-Reliance”).


Andrei’s words on his congruence of right, knowing it, and wanting to do it, is not Nietzsche, but Socrates. This was probably Rand’s own view in 1936. In her mature philosophy, she stays close to this position, but adds a feature 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 (BGE 260; GS 301; cf. D 102). 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” (WL 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 . . .” (WL 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.


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Post 21

Sunday, November 22 - 1:36pmSanction this postReply


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?” 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.”


Life as the moral ideal in We the Living is life knowing itself, but what it knows at its heart is not will to power. 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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