Why Objectivists Don't Read We the Living

by Peter Saint-Andre (2002)

A continuation of the dialogue begun in Why is John Galt?

"'Hi, my name is Jason and I was a philosophy major.' Are you implying that means I can't appreciate literature?"

"Not quite," replied Alexandra. "But I do think that philosophers tend to appreciate literature for extra-literary reasons -- namely, philosophical ones. Unfortunately, Objectivist philosophers seem to be no exception."

"Maybe that's a reaction to literary critics, who evaluate novels solely based on their literary qualities and refuse to judge the ideas presented in works of literature, no matter how repugnant."

"Maybe. But I don't see the necessity for a dichotomy here, especially in a philosophy that is supposedly dedicated to integration. It doesn't help when those of a Randian persuasion consistently laud Atlas Shrugged as the greatest work ever produced in the history of world literature, when it's not even her best novel."

"I guess you think The Fountainhead is the better novel?"

"Actually, I prefer We the Living."

"Wow, I've never heard anyone say that before! What are your reasons?"

"Well, besides the fact that it's beautifully written, I think it's her best marriage of realism and romanticism. The characters are so real -- they're not just symbols for ideas as some of her later characters are. And she was writing from experience, following the old adage of "write what you know". So the romantic elements in the story are more grounded and less fantastical than they are in Atlas Shrugged or even The Fountainhead."

"I can see what you're saying, although I think The Fountainhead meets your same criteria."

"True. But for me there's something even more powerful about We the Living -- it feels like it was written in blood. The fact that Rand lived through the same kinds of things that Kira lived through gives it an almost primal quality. It's a cry from the heart. I think perhaps that's what turns off Objectivists about it -- it's too emotional in a way, not serenely rational like her later novels."

"I think a simpler explanation is that Objectivists don't like the fact that it has a tragic ending."

"I'm sure that doesn't help either. But despite the ending, I think We the Living is more alive than her other novels. It's about these characters fighting to live their lives. They're not fighting for ideas, but for the simple right to live their lives and pursue their values."

"Wouldn't you say that Howard Roark is trying to do the same thing in The Fountainhead, or even John Galt in Atlas Shrugged?"

"Sure, there's a bit of that in her later novels, but there's always an overlay of philosophical struggle in those novels, which makes the characters' efforts to live more abstract and less direct than what you find in We the Living. I don't know, it's hard to put my finger on."

"Maybe you could give me an example. I've read We the Living only once and that was a long time ago, so I don't remember the details."

"Well, there's the scene with Kira and Andrei in which he says that they both believe in life, but that he's willing to fight for it and even die for it, but all she wants to do is live it. Andrei wants to fight for the people, and some of Kira's fellow students want to fight against the people for the sake of freedom, but all Kira wants is to live. Here she's living in this society that is quickly disintegrating towards totalitarianism, and she's utterly a-political. In fact I'd go so far as to say she's a-philosophical. She's a pure individualist. Or even take away the "ism" -- she's a pure individual."

"Hmmm, maybe that's why Objectivists don't read We the Living: it's not philosophical enough -- it's intellectually agnostic in a way."

"Exactly! There's no system being presented here, just some extraordinarily alive individuals caught in a tragic situation. It's not an Objectivist novel, it's simply a novel. I guess that's why Objectivists don't extol it like they do Atlas Shrugged or even The Fountainhead (which in its own way is also pre-Objectivist)."


"I guess the thing that bugs me is there doesn't have to be this tension between individualism and Objectivism, between this primal pursuit of life and a philosophic system that claims to be a kind of humanistic individualism. Yet the tension always seems to crop up."

"I think it gets back to what you said about integration -- perhaps it's too early for people to have learned how to integrate these ideas into their lives."

"Perhaps. It probably didn't help that from all reports Rand herself didn't do a good job at that kind of integration -- she called herself "a writing machine" and didn't cultivate the kind of balance that would have enabled her to be a happy person. You could even argue that she was an altruist in her own life."


"Didn't someone once ask her if she would be willing to die for the sake of Objectivism, and she said she was already doing something more important -- she was living for it? I think that was in the interview Alvin Toffler did with her in Playboy magazine. I mean, here you have the founder of this philosophy of humanistic individualism effectively saying that the ideal is to live for the sake of Objectivism. If that doesn't introduce a tension between life and philosophy, I don't know what will!"

"And I suppose that message spread to her disciples in some subtle ways."

"Or not so subtle."

"Well, you and I are too young to have had personal contact with her -- maybe those attitudes will wither away over time."

"Like the Marxian state? We can hope. I guess the fundamental reason I like We the Living so much is that it provides an antidote to that kind of thinking. It's a large shot of 100-proof individuality -- perhaps too pure for some latter-day Randians who would prefer that people live for the sake of Objectivism."

"You mean the type of leaders who get up in front of the flock and say 'Repeat after me: I am an individual.'?"


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