Ayn Rand, Communism, & the evils of sunflower seeds

Sunflower seed

FOR Christmas my mother got me a Kindle, which will certainly make a friend of mine who’s a dead-tree purist sigh “Harumph!”, but which is also a jolly convenient device to own if you’re not in the habit of keeping a notepad around when you read for pleasure or, much worse, scrawling in the margins of the book itself. It’s also enabled me, for the first time, to fulfill a long-held ambition: to record, in the name of whatever public interest there might be, the exact number of times Ayn Rand, the rummest old bugger in American philosophy, equates the chewing of sunflower seeds with the villainy of Communism, in her début We the Living. I noticed this idiosyncracy when I first read the book, three years ago: here’s a rather crude cartoon I made about the tendency on my tumblr, but, since I wasn’t yet a Kindle owner then, & since I didn’t feel like starting the book over again & making a note of each appearance, I had to sigh & wait, I suppose, for Christmas of 2014. So here, for the record, is every occurence in We the Living of Soviet villains chewing sunflower seeds:

1) pp. 1-2: “There were no schedules, no time-tables. No one knew when a train would leave or arrive. A vague rumor that it was coming rushed a mob of anxious travelers to the stations of every town along its way. They waited for hours, for days, afraid to leave the depot where the train could appear in a minute—or a week. The littered floors of the waiting rooms smelt like their bodies; they put their bundles on the floors, and their bodies on the bundles, and slept. They munched patiently dry crusts of bread and sunflower seeds; they did not undress for weeks.”

2) p. 11: “A young fellow leaned against a wall under the signs. A crumpled lambskin hat was crushed over his pale hair that hung over his pale eyes. He stared aimlessly ahead and cracked sunflower seeds, spitting the shells out of the corner of his mouth.”

3) p. 12: “From below, among the boots and swishing, mud-caked skirts, someone howled monotonously, not quite a human sound nor a barking: a woman was crawling on her knees, picking up the grain mixed with sunflower-seed shells and cigarette butts.”

4) p. 14: “Below, there was mud and sunflower-seed shells; above, there were red banners bending over the street from every house, streaked and dripping little pink drops.”

5) p. 40: “a sailor tottered unsteadily, waving his arms, spitting sunflower seeds.”

6) pp. 52-3: “The other faction watched them silently, with cold, unsmiling eyes. Its speakers bellowed belligerently about the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, ignoring the sudden laughter that seemed to burst from nowhere, and the impudent sunflower-seed shells sent expertly at the speaker’s nose.”

7) pp. 75-6: “A freckled boy with a soldier’s cap far on the back of his head, stopped his hurried waddle down the hall and barked at Comrade Sonia: “The hero of Melitopol? Ever heard of Andrei Taganov?” He sent a sunflower seed straight at a button on Comrade Sonia’s leather jacket and staggered away carelessly.”

8) pp. 77-8: “In the lobby of the Mikhailovsky Theater, among trim new suits and military tunics, a few felt boots shuffled heavily and a few calloused hands timidly removed leather caps with flapping, fur-lined ears. Some were awkward, diffident; others slouched insolently, defying the impressive splendor by munching sunflower seeds.”

9) p. 102: “A soldier cracked sunflower seeds and sang about the little apple.”

10) pp. 125-6: “High on the roofs, the snow was melting, gray with city dust like dirty cotton, brittle and shining like wet sugar, and twinkling drops dripped slowly, trickled in little gurgling brooks from the mouths of drain pipes, and across the sidewalks, and into the gutters, rocking gently cigarette stubs and sunflower-seed shells.”

11) pp. 157-8: “Tenants came bringing their own chairs and sat chewing sunflower seeds. Those who brought no chairs sat on the floor and chewed sunflower seeds.”

12) p. 192: “There were more leather jackets, and red kerchiefs, and sunflower-seed shells in the college corridors, and jokes about: “My parents? Why, they were a peasant woman and two workers.”

13) pp. 223-4: “In 1924, a man named Lenin died and the city was ordered to be called Leningrad. The revolution also brought posters to the city’s walls, and red banners to its houses, and sunflower-seed shells to its cobblestones.”

14) p. 296: “Acia sat on the floor, mixing sawdust, potato peelings and sunflower-seed shells in a broken bowl.”

15) p. 363: “An hour later, Pavel Syerov left his office, and—walking down the stairs, on his way to the street, chewing sunflower seeds and spitting out their shells—saw the man in the leather jacket again. He had not been mistaken; it was Andrei Taganov.”

16) p. 364: ““Well, I’m glad to see you. A rare person to see, aren’t you? So busy you have no time for old friends any more. Have some sunflower seeds?” “No, thank you.” “Don’t have the dirty habit? Don’t dissipate at all, do you? No vices, but one, eh? Well, I’m glad to see you taking an interest in this old station which is my home, so to speak. Been around for an hour or so, haven’t you?””

17) p. 364: “Syerov stood, frowning, an unbroken sunflower seed between his teeth, and watched Andrei descending the stairs.”

18) p. 393: “Pavel Syerov lay on the davenport, his stocking feet high on its arm, reading a newspaper, chewing sunflower seeds. He spat the shells into a pile on a newspaper spread on the floor by the davenport. The shells made a little sizzling sounds, leaving his lips. Pavel Syerov looked bored.”

19) p. 394: ““Sure,” said Pavel Syerov, spitting a shell down on the newspaper.

20) p. 394: ““Sure,” said Syerov, sticking a seed between his teeth.”

21) pp.395-6 “Pavel Syerov sat down heavily and his feet scattered the pile of sunflower-seed shells over the floor.”

22) ““Comrade, stop chewing sunflower seeds. It’s disrespectful.””

We the Living, published in 1936 in a pre-Cold War United States in which Communism was looked on favourably by the intellectual left, caused something of a small stir in its depiction of the nightmarish realities of life in the USSR which Rand knew only too well, having lived in Russia for eight years of her adolescene & early womanhood after the Revolution, before escaping to the States, & it is difficult not to see the novel’s heroine Kira Argounova as a thinly-veiled author self-insertion, the events & situations described mostly drawn from life. So naturally, it would seem that the distate for sunflower seeds that the authorial voice suggests is Rand’s own: notably every chewer of sunflower seeds is a party-line Communist, except for one instance involving a rabble who are, nonetheless, uncouth & distasteful. Twenty-two instances in a 400-page novel of unsympathetic characters chewing sunflower seeds seems not to be a coincidence or oversight, although it is true that We the Living has many more unsympathetic characters than sympathetic ones; the connection between Communism & sunflower seeds is in any case made plain in the thirteenth quotation above, in which the change of name from Petrograd to Leningrad fills the city with revolutionary banners & posters, which sounds plausible, & sunflower-seed shells, which sounds less plausible. Rand’s father, like Kira’s, was a middle-class Jewish business owner, which fact made life particularly hard for both young women, & it seems plausible to me that Rand never had much occasion in pre-Revolutionary Russia to associate with the working classes, which occasioned a certain distaste for them on her part, & given she has more experience to draw on than I do of life in the USSR, I can believe that the chewing of sunflower seeds is more common in the Russian poor than in its middle or upper classes: I’m no expert on sunflower-seed demographics. But it does not seem possible that Leningrad’s streets were strewn with sunflower seeds only after its name change. Why would that occasion a surge in their popularity? Did the pre-Revolutionary seed-chewers use to dispose of them politely, but after the Revolution, become sufficiently emboldened to spit them on the pavements? It seems a possibility, I suppose, but I wish We the Living had expounded on that point. Instead, we have in the medium-length novel twenty-nine instances of the word “sunflower”*, which is many times more than several words which seem appropriate to the novel’s anti-Communist theme, such as “Communism” (19), “Bolshevik” (2), “Marx” (13), “Engels” (1), “Trotsky” (8), or “USSR” (6). It is also 29 more times than it appears in the only other book I have so far downloaded to my Kindle, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, & it is, I suspect, 29 more times than in most novels. But maybe Ayn Rand knows something about post-Revolutionary Russia that I don’t, & perhaps Nineteen Eighty-Four might have been better with a line about a human face chewing a sunflower seed  forever.

*There are a few references to sunflower-seed oil, which is the reason for there being more instances of the word “sunflower” than examples of sunflower-seed-chewing.

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6 thoughts on “Ayn Rand, Communism, & the evils of sunflower seeds

  1. technicalities

    I am reliably informed that sunflower seeds are still a shorthand, but for Russians rather than dastardly collectivists – used by xenophobes in the Baltic states as synecdoche for a Russian, or as behaviour with a risk of turning one into a Russian.

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