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 Writings of Ayn Rand
Philosopher Robert Mayhew on Ayn Rand's novel "We the Living", interviewed by Scott Holleran
Capitalism Magazine, United States Monday, January 11, 2010

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. The theme of We The Living is man against the state. Ayn Rand had done a wonderful job in making Andrei as noble and heroic as possible. We The Living is badly needed at presents, says Robert Mayhew, in an interview with Scott Holleran.

When did you first read We the Living?

In my twenties.


Any thoughts on Leonard Peikoffs 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 1925its 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 Livings universalityand he does it very concisely.

... ...

What is We the Livings theme?

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


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 hes heroic and passionate and hes responding to all the rights qualities in Kira. Ayn Rand regarded Andrei as an impossibility in a way.


Is Andrei a hero?

To the extent a Communist could be a hero. Theres a sense in which all of the main characters may have been heroes in another type of society. The unconflicted hero is Kiraher soul is not damaged by Soviet Russia. Thats why shes able to smile at the end.

Is Leo a tragic hero?

I think so. They are each a tragic figure because they dont actualize their potential. But the key point is that it doesnt reflect Ayn Rands sense of life; the tragedy in every case in We the Living is the nature of a dictatorshipthey require freedom. The first time we see Leo, hes seeking a prostitute, and its a form of suicideLeo is already spiritually crushed. But theres nothing inherently malevolent about reality and this is not a story of Leos destructionhes already there. In effect, a dictatorship creates a malevolent universe.

... ...

Is We the Living respected in academia?

They dont even know about. Theyve heard of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead but they havent even heard of We the Living. They should be aware of this novel. Even Cold War historians are not aware of it.

... ... ...

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?

Theres 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 wouldnt hold out for a brilliant cinematic adaptation.

... ...

Why does We the Living matter?

I would go back to why I like Leonard Peikoffs new preface; America still doesnt 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.


This article was published in the Capitalism Magazine on Monday, January 11, 2010. Please read the original article here.
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