March 31, 2006

A Conversation with Kira Argounova

I just finished reading We The Living by Ayn Rand [thank you, Sara, for the Ayn Rand Collection]. There are several questions that I want to ask of Kira Argounova, the protagonist of the story. Unfortunately, Alissa Borisovna ... I mean Kira Argounova is dead. So, I resurrected Kira... no, Alissa...heck, what's the difference... and had a quiet conversation with her. Here is the complete transcript:
Fool: At Andrei's grave you had wondered if you had killed Andrei Taganov. Did you kill Andrei, Kira?
Kira: Yes, I think I killed Andrei…I was definitely an accomplice to his murder.
Fool:What was Andrei Taganov to you?
Kira: Just a friend.
Fool: And you were just Andrei's friend, too?
Kira: No, I was Andrei's love, his life, his only one, and his highest reverence.
Fool: Kira, you killed your friend, who held you in his highest reverence and to whom you were his life? Why?
Kira: So Leo could live.
Fool: Leo Kovalensky? What gave you the right to destroy Andrei's life to save Leo's?
Kira: I loved Leo. Do you understand, what Leo meant for me, what I wanted for Leo, who is my highest reverence? Andrei didn't mean…I couldn't have saved Leo if…
Fool: Yes, I understand what Leo meant for you, and what Andrei didn't mean for you. What I do not understand is why?
Kira: Why I held Leo in my highest reverence? Why I loved Leo and not Andrei…
We The Living
Ayn Rand
"We the Living" is an intriguing narrative that revolves around the lives of three people - Kira, Andrei, and Leo - in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Kira is deeply antagonistic to the ideals of the nascent communist state. Andrei is an equally idealistic protagonist for the state. The friendship between Kira and Andrei, that lasts lifelong despite the ideological gulf that separated them, is a testament to the complexity of human relationships painted in the story. Nothing describes it better than Kira's own words: see, if we had souls, which we haven't, and if our souls met - yours and mine - they'd fight to death. But after they had torn each other to pieces, to the very bottom, they'd see that they had the same root...You see, you and I, we believe in life.
In an absurd, chance encounter, Kira meets Leo Kovalensky on a dark night in a seedy neighborhood. She finds Leo to be an extremely attractive man, with a free spirit only to be matched by her own. It's love at first sight for Kira, and she unflinchingly throws herself at Leo. Leo, who initially takes her to be a prostitute, is also strongly attracted to her, and soon they start living togther.

Andrei's affection and respect for Kira knows of no bounds, and is slowly transformed into love, while he progressively becomes disillusioned with his ideals and the Party. In a Nietzchesque reversal of values, Kira, desperate for money to treat Leo, who had contracted turberculosis, agrees to become Andrei's mistress. This relationship between Andrei and Kira persists even after Leo had been healed, and Kira no longer needed the money.Kira keeps her relationships with Andrei and Leo secret from one another.

Leo, unable to face the severity of life in Communist Russia, starts an illegal trade. Andrei, tipped off by a colleague, soon arrests Leo. In the process, Andrei discovers the nature of relationship between Kira and Leo. In the climactic confrontation between Kira and Andrei, and their subsequent reconciliation, they realize not only what they had destroyed, but also what was left that would endure with them for ever.

The story ends in a tragedy for all the three. With the release of Leo at his behest, Andrei looses his position in the Party, and shortly thereafter, commits suicide. Leo, having lost any moral sense that he may have left, leaves Kira to begin a new life as a gigolo. After Leo's departure, Kira makes a final attempt to cross the border. When she is almost in sight of freedom, she is shot dead by a border guard.

Fool: Yes, Kira Argounova, why?
Kira: I…I don't know why…
Fool: Do you know why Andrei held you in his highest reverence?
Kira: Yes, I think I know…for my ideals, convictions, and values, perhaps?
Fool: But wasn't he against all those? Didn't he loathe your ideals, just as you loathed his?
Kira: Yes, but stripped of all those ideals - his and mine - we shared a common root - a belief, an unshakable belief in life. I was his life, his only one.
Fool: But he was not your life, and you didn't hold him in your highest reverence?
Kira: No, I wonder why I did not.
Fool: Did Leo share your belief in life, too?
Kira: I do not know. We never talked about it. Andrei was the only one with whom I could think and talk about my thoughts.
Fool: What is it, then, that bound you to Leo?
Kira: Nothing... I don't know… perhaps as Leo said, I... "just liked to sleep with him, like all other females"?
Fool: Kira, I wouldn't be surprised, if you were like the hundred and fifty million people you fought against. But you, with your ideas, your convictions, and your values, presuming the right to rob Andrei's life to pay for Leo's, just because you liked sleeping with Leo?
Kira: But I think Andrei understood why, he knew. He wouldn't have done what he did for me - and for Leo - if he had not known.
Fool: Ha, that makes the puzzle a little more complicated, does it not?
Kira: What do you think? Why did I love Leo, revere him more than anyone else?
Fool: Kira, the last time you saw Andrei, when you ran after him in the snow, without a coat, without a care about what Leo might think, you were going to tell Andrei something that you couldn't tell him in Leo's presence. What did you want to tell him?
Kira: I was afraid of losing Andrei…for ever. I was afraid that I would never see him alive again. I couldn't bear the thought of losing him. Andrei was everything I thought Leo was, Leo could have been. I didn't see it so clearly until then, what might have been between Andrei and me, but it was too late. I wanted Andrei to know that.
Fool: Is that what Andrei meant, when he said, "If we don't say anything - and just leave it to… to our silence, knowing that we both understand, and that we still have that much in common?"
Kira: Yes, I think Andrei knew, and I knew that Andrei knew. That was our common understanding. It's still not clear to me though, how I could have been so wrong about Leo, about what I thought we were for each other.
Fool: There are two kinds of people in this world, Kira. There are these few men and women who are passionate about what they think, what they do, and whom they love. The Kiras, Andreis, Irinas, and Sashas, the sublime amongst us. Then there are the others - the masses. To quote you, "…millions of dull, shriveled, stagnant souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the words others put into their brains…" They are the trivia of the human race, the Victors, Pavels, Antoninas, and Leos.
Kira: Leo?
Fool: Yes, Kira, Leo too. Remember Irina's sketch of Leo - "standing erect, full figure, and naked" - and what she said to Leo - "That's the state that fits you best," she had explained. "And don't tell me that my imagination has flattered you - because it hasn't. Clothes hide nothing from a - well, yes, an artist."
Kira: Irina, perceptive, as she has always been!
Fool: Every once in a while, a sublime meets a trivial, amongst the other trivia, in a dark street. In that fleeting moment, after a quick exchange of glances, a few words spoken that meant nothing to the voices that spoke them, a fluttering of the butterfly, and the sublime, embracing the trivial passionately, plunges into an abyss that we call love. The sublime, for once, does not stop to think or question; all its ideals, convictions, and values are submerged by a quick surge of hormones, never to surface again to question the object of its love, its passion.
Kira: That's a very dark picture of love that you paint. Haven't you ever given thought to love?
Fool: I'd echo what you said to Victor, "No, I haven't. And I never will. And I don't like the word." Remember that?
Kira: Yes, but love cannot be...
Fool: Yes, Kira, it's an accident. Like all other accidents in life, it defies an explanation. More often than not, you are condemned to live loving that, which you should never have set your eyes upon in the first place. What has been merely an accident, then becomes your life, your highest reverence, because you are the passionate one! To have that, you'd throw all your ideals to the wind, and even claim the right to break another man's life! That his life is the most sacred thing that he has, which, as you once said, "must not be touched by any collective, by any number of millions", would mean nothing to you. Blinded by your passion, Kira, you, who is revered for your ideals and values, would then choose to break Andrei's life to mend Leo's!
  1. beautiful contemplation......yeah! this r the same questions which i wanted to ask kira......

    kira is a fighter who is being lil selfish and wants to save the intelligent leo .....andrei for his principles belongs to the other genre.....where people shud be all equal......kira brings in revolutionary changes in andrei n he realises it lil late.....leo was the first man voicing her opinions......her love is so pure tat she goes to the extent of sacrificin her body for him......

  2. i think kira loved andrei as well

  3. I believe you don't understand the simbolism of Leo to Kira. Leo was the ideal man, the way a man should be. He is independent, unbending to his principals, does only what he pleases not what others say and works only for his own satisfaction. This type of person is the ultimate being and was in a sense Kira's religion: what she worshipped. In sacrificing herself for Leo is her way of keeping everything she hold true in life alive, just like Andrei sacrificed himself for Kira and keeping her spirit alive.

  4. Kira Argounova is one of the great literary heroines, if not protagonists every in all of literature. Her beauty shines through the story!

  5. Kira's story was about the evil of socialism and what it does to individuals. Great individuals like Andrei, seduced by the false pretenses of socialism, and Leo, destroyed by the practice of it. And the disgusting individuals like Victor and the way socialism provides a means for his parasitism. You may have liked Andrei better in this story because of what he WAS versus what Leo WAS. But Kira loved Leo for what he should have been; what he COULD have been. Andrei was all that Andrei could be around Kira, but Leo had the potential to make Kira all that she could be when she was around HIM. It was a love traingle that she never would have considered, if not forced by her circumstances. Andrei only considered Kira as a friend until she let him believe more. And she wouldn't have, if she had realized before page 405 what she was doing to him. She didn't know, the same way that Andrei couldn't have known what he was doing to her by arresting Leo. In a good situation; a right world, they all would have been dear friends and if she had met one and not the other in a normal life she probably would have had a satisfactory life with Andrei and an amazing one with Leo. In socialism neither could have existed. What Kira did to Leo was just as horrible as what he did to her, it just doesn't seem as severe from OUR standpoint, free as we are to really live the way all three of them dreamed. Kira didn't have to talk with Leo about real life, they understood eachother without the words. She only voiced it with Andrei to explain to him what it was that he also felt.

  6. I agree completely. I just read the book again and felt that unease I used to when I thought about Kira. I've heard it said often that she is an amazing woman and heard people comparing themselves to her, which again left me uneasy. So I googled and found this article. You've pinpointed exactly everything that needed to be.
    I have seen people like her in real life. I think there is a danger in people typecasting themselves into a level higher than 'the masses'. What you call the sublime. Being different,loftier, higher...perceiving themselves to exist in a layer slightly above the rest. What Kira did to Andrei and what Victor did to Irina are not very different, when it comes right down to it. Irrespective of the reverence she claims to feel for life, that she implies people like Victor lack.

  7. Wanted to add- even little things about her character bothered me. That she was the only person in the house with a bread card but she didn't get any and her family starved because she was so wrapped up with a handsome face. The strong implication throughout the first half of the book that she is a being somehow above common bestial tendencies like hunger. "That's right, we didn't have any dinner, did we?" she deigns to notice. "I never notice what I eat." when Irina gushes about grapes....

  8. I read an analysis by Peikoff in a Foreword of some kind. It said that among the - to use your word - sublimes, there are four types. The first, who don't recognise their own principles. That's Andrei. The next recognise their principles and are perfectly willing to let anything go, kill, die, starve, torture, be tortured, bend in public and remain untouched in private... as long as the principle is inviolate. That's Kira. The next, who cling so hard to their principles that they cannot bend; they can only break. That's Leo.

    It's hard to tell which one is the best, and since all three die at the end (I really don't think that Leo, the man Kira fell in love with, survives) none of them wins per se. Leo simply refuses to pretend that there is another way to live life other than the perfect world. That's completely incompatible with Soviet Russia, which is why Leo turns to crime and stops being, well, LEO. It seems like a good idea, in principle, to hold on to your beliefs that firmly. But in practice, doesn't work.

    By the way, the dialogue was brilliant - thanks!! :)


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