Robert Mayhew on We the Living

Robert Mayhew

Robert Mayhew, a philosophy professor at Seton Hall University, is the author of Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato’s Republic, The Female in Aristotle’s Biology, and Ayn Rand and Song of Russia, and the editor of Ayn Rand’s Marginalia, Ayn Rand’s The Art of Nonfiction, Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living, Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Ayn Rand Answers, Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. His latest book, Plato: Laws 10, was published by Oxford University Press in 2008. Dr. Mayhew earned his PhD in philosophy at Georgetown University in 1991.


When did you first read We the Living?

In my twenties. I had been on this anti-utopian kick in junior high—reading Brave New World [by Aldous Huxley], Animal Farm [by George Orwell], 1984 [Orwell], and my mom had suggested reading Anthem by Ayn Rand. So, I read it. In high school, I was reading a lot of anti-Communist literature and I became anti-Communist, but, oddly, I did not read We the Living until later. I also read The Fountainhead [by Ayn Rand] in high school and, in college, Atlas Shrugged [Rand]. A bit later, I read We the Living—I can picture the book, a used copy of the 1959 hardcover—and I enjoyed it. I saw that it was better, more effective, than the other anti-Communist literature, though I was shocked by the ending, which didn’t seem like an Ayn Rand novel’s ending.

How many times have you read We the Living?

Six or seven.

How did it compare to the other novels?

One of the things I loved about The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged was that [the heroic characters] woke up in the morning thinking of their work. I really loved that and I admired their productivity. That of course was missing from We the Living.

Any thoughts on Leonard Peikoff’s new foreword to the first trade paperback edition of We the Living?

Dr. Peikoff stresses a very important point; namely, that We the Living is not about Soviet Russia in 1925—it’s a novel about any dictatorship, anywhere, and hopefully it will prevent one in the United States. And he lays out in very essential terms that there were two things that make totalitarianism possible: the rejection of reason in favor of something else, normally faith, and the rejection of egoism in favor of self-sacrifice. Then, he goes on to set that in the present-day context, so, he really stresses We the Living’s universality—and he does it very concisely.

What are the main differences in the 1936 and 1959 editions of We the Living?

Broadly, I would say word choice, awkward phrases, and grammar and use of commas—for example, she mistakes as and like. She used the word pulpit when she meant the word lectern. What amazes me is that the editors at [the book’s publisher] Macmillan missed it. There were also some passages in the original that were either ambiguous or seemed to contradict her own philosophical views. There are sometimes what’s called the [German philosopher Friedrich] Nietzschean passages, for example, surrounding [heroine] Kira [Argounova]’s rejection of Communism, where she seems to be saying sacrifice the many to the few, which is not part of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Is the 1936 version worth reading?

For someone like you, I would say yes. I think it’s worth reading and I would love to prepare something like what was done with Anthem where you see Ayn Rand’s actual corrections; there’s a kind of compression that she practices and you could learn a lot from those changes. I would not recommend it for a first time reader.

What is We the Living’s theme?

The individual versus the state—especially the evil of statism. I think that’s how Ayn Rand talks about it in The Art of Fiction. It would never be the evil of Soviet Russia. That’s why I think We the Living is so much more effective than something like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, where you come away thinking the Soviets are evil, sadistic bastards but there’s no sense of what is the alternative. In We the Living, it’s clear why any dictatorship is evil. It’s not just a critique of Soviet Russia. Solzhenitsyn, in effect, says Soviet Russia is evil—Ayn Rand says why it is evil.

What surprises people that read We the Living?

The tragic ending, the conflicted nature of [aristocrat] Leo [Kovalensky]—the hero with flaws—and the conflicted nature of [Communist] Andrei [Taganov], a villain who’s in some sense heroic.

Did Ayn Rand consider a different ending to We the Living?

I don’t know. When she was asked, in later years, she was very adamant that, given the theme, We the Living had to end that way—there was no other possibility. I don’t know whether she ever tried to get out of that situation. I would be surprised if that were the case. It is interesting that [Ayn Rand’s screenplay] Red Pawn, which is comparable to We the Living, has a similar theme but with a more positive ending. It’s been suggested to me that that’s because she was writing for Hollywood. I think Dr. Peikoff mentions that Ayn Rand started with the climax of the novel—the arrest scene—when she began writing We the Living. She wanted a plot twist on the sort of standard, trite plot like [Giacomo Puccini’s opera] Tosca, where a woman sells herself to a villain to save the man she loves. Ayn Rand asked what if the villain turned out to be someone [with heroic qualities] like Andrei? That’s a really interesting plot.

Did Kira have evidence that Andrei would have understood her dilemma and might she have been better off letting Andrei in on the secret?

I think her main concern was saving Leo, though, in a sense, Andrei does respond favorably when he learns what happened. It’s Kira and Leo vs. 150 million people and Kira’s main concern was what this [Communist system] would do to Leo. This was the only way of saving the person she loves and Andrei is glad of it because it affirms his values. Andrei actually offers to take Kira out of the country and Kira isn’t even tempted—she’s always trying to save Leo’s soul, because he is her highest value.

Why do people respond to Andrei?

Because Ayn Rand does a wonderful job of making Andrei seem heroic and he describes Communism in terms that we know to be impossible in reality, so she manages to show he has integrity and he’s heroic and passionate and he’s responding to all the rights qualities in Kira. Ayn Rand regarded Andrei as an impossibility in a way.

Is the secondary character Stepan Timoshenko a villain?

I think he’s mixed. He’s unsavory in some ways—he boasts about having bastard children all over the Baltics—but he has this other element and I suspect Ayn Rand admired some things about him. There are rungs in hell and there’s something scummier about people like Victor and Comrade Sonia, who talk about Communism and then sell out even their own ideals. Timoshenko didn’t do that—he was a loyal soldier to the extent one could be. Also, he failed to make the distinction between overthrowing the Czarist regime and what was going to come in its place. Andrei wanted to “bring everyone up” [by establishing Communism]. What’s interesting is that one of the stories about [Atlas Shrugged’s hero] John Galt as Prometheus is that you can’t bring everyone up by dragging everyone down. And Timoshenko has the same fate as Andrei. He realizes that fighting for Communism was a mistake. Timoshenko’s the one who spares Leo and Kira—but he’s also the one who stops them from going abroad.

Is Andrei a hero?

To the extent a Communist could be a hero. There’s a sense in which all of the main characters may have been heroes in another type of society. The unconflicted hero is Kira—her soul is not damaged by Soviet Russia. That’s why she’s able to smile at the end.

Is Leo a tragic hero?

I think so. They are each a tragic figure because they don’t actualize their potential. But the key point is that it doesn’t reflect Ayn Rand’s sense of life; the tragedy in every case in We the Living is the nature of a dictatorship—they require freedom. The first time we see Leo, he’s seeking a prostitute, and it’s a form of suicide—Leo is already spiritually crushed. But there’s nothing inherently malevolent about reality and this is not a story of Leo’s destruction—he’s already there. In effect, a dictatorship creates a malevolent universe.

Is Leo worthy of Kira?

We can’t overlook the fact that Kira responds to him—you can’t go outside the data we have, which is the novel. As Dr. Peikoff writes in the afterword, “If Leo had been born in America, he would have become Francisco D’Anconia of Atlas Shrugged; that is, the measure of his heroic potential.” Leo really is defeated [by the Communists]. It’s not a big leap to admire him.

What is the original title?

Airtight. The idea being that, in any dictatorship, human beings who want to live, not merely survive, are choked when it’s made impossible for them to live. There is a sequence in which Kira uses that term while speaking to Andrei.

Why did she change the title to We the Living?

I don’t know. But I like the title We the Living—the living refers to the individuals and the ‘we’ in the title is ironic because the Communists want to put the ‘we’ before the ‘I’. It’s using the word ‘we’ against the advocates of ‘we’. It’s like it’s written on behalf of Ayn Rand and Kira.

Essays on We the Living

Is We the Living respected in academia?

They don’t even know about. They’ve heard of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead but they haven’t even heard of We the Living. They should be aware of this novel. Even Cold War historians are not aware of it.

How did you approach editing the compilation, Essays on We the Living?

I’d come to the conclusion that the culture and academic publishers were ready for secondary literature on Ayn Rand that wasn’t garbage. I had reached a point where I could get a [book] proposal to some academic publishers and another thing is that we’d reached a point in the movement that there were enough good people who could write about We the Living. I knew there was a lot of good stuff in the [Ayn Rand] Archives and that this novel, in particular, had a rich history that would be worthwhile to include in a collection of this kind. The first thing I did was ask what I would want in the collection. I definitely wanted an essay on [Ayn Rand’s] drafts, and Shoshana Milgram came up with a brilliant one. I asked some people what they would want to cover and, with others, I made suggestions.

Have you seen the movie?

Yes. I saw it twice in theaters—once with an intermission in Washington, DC, and once without an intermission in London—and I’ve watched the video three or four times. I think it’s wonderful. I think Alida Valli is excellent as Kira. I really like Rossano Brazzi in the role of Leo, though I don’t think he looks the way Ayn Rand envisioned the character. Fosco Giachetti has the granite face Andrei would have had he lived into his thirties. And the actor who plays Timoshenko is very good. I’m really looking forward to the DVD. It’s been five years since I’ve seen the movie. This is a film with a rich history. It really deserves a book.

Both We the Living and Song of Russia, which you wrote about in Ayn Rand and Song of Russia, were made in 1942, one with top values, one without. Have you seen Song of Russia?

Absolutely. I saw that more times than any human being deserves to be exposed to it. The film adaptation of We the Living was supposed to be a work of fascist propaganda [under the dictate of the Italian state] but it couldn’t be done because the novel was so good. Whereas the conservatives and liberals alike were claiming that Song of Russia was not [Communist] propaganda and it is. I can’t recommend seeing Song of Russia for thematic value—because it’s trash—but if one is interested in the history of Communism in Hollywood, films about Soviet Russia, or Ayn Rand’s [House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)] testimony and an evaluation of her testimony, it has to be seen.

Ayn Rand and The Song of Russia

You make the point in Ayn Rand and Song of Russia that Hollywood never did portray Communism as it was in Soviet Russia. Do you think a remake of We the Living is possible?

There¹s more likely to be a negative portrayal now than there was then, though there are no serious anti-Communist films as such, only movies with Communist villains and those aren't coming out of Hollywood; they're usually made in former Communist countries, such as Burnt By the Sun and East/West. If I heard tomorrow that some big budget director was planning a remake, I wouldn¹t hold out for a brilliant cinematic adaptation.

Any major omissions from the film version of We the Living?

What amazes me is how close it is to the novel—though the ending as it’s been edited is different. Also, the subplot of Irina and Sasha has been cut.

Some Objectivists refuse to read We the Living. What are they missing?

Everything we’ve talked about. I may have been initially reluctant for some of the same reasons that people refuse to read it. But I get something from We the Living that I don’t get from the others. I need a little Kira in my life. So, they’re missing Ayn Rand’s characters, her conflict, her presentation of a certain view and an angle on her distinct sense of life—the benevolent, ‘tiddlywinks’ sense of life in the face of horrible tragedy. It’s confirmation that this benevolent sense of life can survive anything—and that’s something. It can be emotional fuel despite the tragic ending. I need to read We the Living for the same reason I read Les Miserables [by Victor Hugo]—it’s a unique world and you can’t get it from reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged over and over again. You need We the Living, too.

Why does We the Living matter?

I would go back to why I like Leonard Peikoff’s new preface; America still doesn’t get it that freedom requires a devotion to reason and self-interest and Americans do not understand that if you denounce self-interest in the name of self-sacrifice as a virtue, as President Obama does, inevitably there will be totalitarianism. We the Living reminds us of the importance of freedom and the fact that it is incompatible with irrationality and self-sacrifice; in that sense, We the Living is needed. It matters.

How should the reader regard the work?

As the first Ayn Rand novel; a promise of what’s to come. It’s a great, romantic novel—there’s  certainly not enough of those—with a universally important theme that’s connected to everything in the novel—plot, characterization. And it’s the closest thing to an autobiography she would ever write—the closest to seeing Ayn Rand in her youth.

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