This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."
Rand and the Silver Age
I have found the subject-matter of our CyberSeminar to be both fascinating and provocative, and while I have not been regularly contributing, I wanted to thank all of our participants and Stephen Hicks and Will Thomas especially, for the enlightening discussions.
As we have now turned to the relationship of Ayn Rand and Nietzsche, I wanted to make a few points of historical interest. As many of you are no doubt aware, I wrote a book called Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. In that book, I argue that Rand absorbed a certain dialectical method from her Russian teachers. But I also explored a historical link between Rand and the Russian Silver Age. For our purposes here, I want to recommend to all of you a more intensive study of that era from which Rand emerged because it may help us to understand the context and substance of Rand’s fascination with the German writer.
Ayn Rand credited Aleksandr Blok, a Nietzschean-influenced writer, as her favorite poet.
Bernice Rosenthal has edited a volume called Nietzsche and Russia, which features some excellent essays on the Nietzschean motif of much Silver Age thought. She is also the author of Nietzsche and Soviet Culture, and has a third book on the way dealing with the Nietzschean impact on Russia. What emerges from these studies and others is the vast influence of Nietzsche on many different intellectual traditions, including the neo-Idealists, the Russian Marxists, and--most importantly--the Russian Symbolist poets. I am currently working on a longer-term writing project that deals with the links between Rand and at least one of the Symbolists: Aleksandr Blok. Rand credited Blok, a Nietzschean-influenced writer, as her favorite poet--and this is one interesting intersection that has yet to be explored comprehensively.
Ironically, the Symbolists stressed the “Dionysian” elements in Nietzsche’s work; there are definite parallels between Rand’s ultimate view of Nietzsche and the Symbolist view: the fundamental difference is that Rand rejects in Nietzsche that which the Symbolists celebrate.
The connections between Nietzsche and antiquity are also of interest. In fact, while Ayn Rand never took a formal college course on Nietzsche at the university, she was probably exposed formally to Nietzsche’s work in some capacity in courses that she took on the History of Greece and the History of Rome. (This would have made her among the last students to study Nietzsche in ANY formal capacity prior to the Soviet’s banning of Nietzsche’s works from People’s Libraries.) For example, F. F. Zelinsky, one likely teacher of such courses (and a big influence on other historians in the Petrograd history department) interspersed his discussions of ancient literature, mythology, and civilization with those of Nietzsche’s works that “recovered” the values of antiquity. Zelinsky (and other teachers influenced by him) was well-known for his championing of Nietzsche’s “Dionysian” impulse as a corrective to Judeo-Christian morality.
Curiously, the Symbolists, somehow, integrated Judeo-Christian symbols and Nietzschean imagery, projecting artists as Supermen, self-integrated “God-builders” who would re-create the world in art and literature as a preface to social change--a theme that finds expression in writers as diverse as Volsky, Gorky, Trotsky, and Ayn Rand .
It is not my purpose to make this a forum for the discussion of my own interpretive work; but I do believe that Rand’s interest in Nietzsche was both philosophical, and of a particular time and place, and that it can be read as a manifestation of the whole Silver Age engagement with Nietzsche. For those who are interested in the history of ideas, this remains an open invitation to further research.