Anthem: Ayn Rand’s Dystopian Masterpiece

by on October 25, 2012 at 7:35 am in Books, Philosophy, The Arts | Permalink

Rod Long offers a very insightful reading of Ayn Rand’s Anthem:

The book’s most striking feature, both stylistically and in the substance of the story, is the absence of the first-person singular. The idea of a totalitarian state suppressing subversive ideas by banning or distorting the language needed to express or even formulate it has been made generally familiar by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its fictional language, “Newspeak”; but Rand’s treatment precedes Orwell’s by more than a decade (and may possibly have influenced it).

In Rand’s dystopia, the first-person singular pronoun — the word “I” — has been abolished in order to prevent people from thinking of themselves as individuals with identities distinct from that of the collective. The struggle of Equality 7-2521 (Rand modeled her characters’ names on telephone exchanges of the “Pennsylvania 6-5000” form) to discover his own individuality is mirrored in his, and the text’s, struggle to move from “we” to “I.”

…If the book’s linguistic center is the first-person pronoun, its imaginal center is light — the guttering candlelight of the collectivist dystopia, contrasted with the electric light that the protagonist reinvents, the latter symbolizing the fire that Prometheus of Greek myth stole to give to the human race, and, consequently, symbolizing as well the creative fire of the unfettered individual mind.

…Rand was a dedicated Aristotelian and a lifelong critic of Plato, and many of the features of Anthem’s dystopia, such as government assignment of professions, state regulation of breeding and reproduction, and abolition of private property and the family, seem drawn from the recommendations in Plato’s Republic. The prohibition of the word “I” in favor of “we” is likewise a natural development of Plato’s dictum in the Republic that all citizens should say “mine” and “not mine” about the same things — a proposal criticized by Aristotle, who warns in his Politics that the attempt to give a community the same degree of unity as a single individual is doomed to disaster.

…Moreover, Equality 7-2521’s journey down into an abandoned subway tunnel to discover an artificial light source turns on its head Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which the wise man ascends from the cave of physical reality, lit by the artificial light of the senses, to discover the “real” world of abstract Forms, lit by a sun of pure ineffable intellect. By reversing Plato’s parable, Rand, in Aristotelian fashion, reorients the pursuit of knowledge away from the supernatural and back to this world, to empirical reality.

Read the whole thing.

M George October 25, 2012 at 7:43 am

Although rand is visionary and a aleader of the pack in many respects, I must point to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” (1921). The also dystopian, russian work predates Rand by more than a decade.

Greg G October 25, 2012 at 9:12 am

Rand “reorients…back to this world” only in the most limited way.

There is a reason why she needed to develop her philosophy in works of fiction. Only imaginary characters can make it work.

Adrian Ratnapala October 25, 2012 at 1:59 pm

I don’t see why we are trying to compare apples with oranges. Yes they are both dystopian science-fiction novels written in a minimalist style. By Russians. The philosophies, styles and plots are totally different.

And in the end, I disliked “We” a bit more than I disliked “Anthem”.

TJIC October 25, 2012 at 8:23 am

Ideally, queue up Rush’s album “2112” before reading the essay…

Arnie October 25, 2012 at 12:58 pm

+1

dearieme October 25, 2012 at 8:34 am

“Read the whole thing.” Certainly not: practically nobody outside the US pays a moment’s notice to Ayn Rand.

Andrew' October 25, 2012 at 8:47 am

That’s fine. In fact, do you guys have any other under-appreciated thinkers or scientists you’d like to send our way?

Brandon October 25, 2012 at 8:52 am

/haughtily throws scarf over shoulder, walks briskly back into Henry James novel/

Brian Donohue October 25, 2012 at 10:36 am

hilarious!

Anon. October 25, 2012 at 8:58 am

Your chance to be an international hipster!

“What are you reading?”
“You’ve probably never heard of her…”

RPLong October 25, 2012 at 9:09 am

Man, the responses to dearieme above me really delivered! Hahaha…

Three Pipe Problem October 25, 2012 at 9:28 am

And we have a winner for the most pretentious comment evar. Let me guess, dearieme, you live in the US?

BTW I tried all of Ayn Rand’s fiction as a youth, and Anthem was the only one I thought was any good.

Yog Sothoth October 25, 2012 at 9:39 am

+1

lords of lies October 25, 2012 at 10:10 am

dearieme has a chip on his shoulder about american exceptionality., particularly the american brand of wet humor which so sourly contrasts with his own country’s drollery. therefore it was a true pleasure to see him thoroughly slathered above.

that said, he’s basically right. rand is an autistitard’s philosopher.

Andrew' October 25, 2012 at 11:03 am

Don’t be hard on him. Plenty of people ignore Ayn Rand in the US. In fact, many are barely aware they live in America, or are aware with an awareness that is wrong.

American exceptionalists are the guys with the brand of arrogant narcissism that lets them pull of misunderstanding America and the rest of the world too. Blind faith in anything that might make us exceptional is the shortest path to killing it. Ayn Rand saw that. That is one reason why the rest of the world is irrelevant.

Three Pipe Problem October 26, 2012 at 9:24 am

Someone (RA Wilson?) once said that believing in every conspiracy theory is just as easy in disbelieving every conspiracy theory. The same is true of American exceptionalism IMO… while I find the use of the term by our politicians pretty disgusting these days (everything that is unique about America is great), dearieme does not seem to realize he engages in the same level of thinking (nothing that is unique about America could be great).

rz0 October 25, 2012 at 8:53 am

Woo. Deep.

Tom October 25, 2012 at 9:00 am

This post is a good example of why GMU will not become a top school. Why a school would want to push the philosophy of a woman who taught her young male cultists that all women want to be raped? Well, on second thought, that could fit in with a number of Republican (white male) politicians beliefs. Keeps the Koch money coming, I suppose.

Three Pipe Problem October 25, 2012 at 9:29 am

For mentioning Ayn Rand, your school is doomed! No one will even talk about it outside the US.

8 October 25, 2012 at 11:03 am

Ayn Rand taught game!

Mork October 25, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Tom knows all about “Keep[ing] the Koch money coming”, unless I am confusing homophones here.

Ted Craig October 25, 2012 at 9:12 am

It’s a really poorly written book.

Orange14 October 25, 2012 at 10:27 am

+1, as are Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead. I couldn’t get through the first 50 pages of Atlas but did finish the Fountainhead. Had she not been so headstrong and found a good editor, her books might be better in terms of their literary style. Her books will continue to sell because of the vapid philosophy that is espoused but not the actual writing. If one is prone to following that type of philosophical outlook it’s better to read Hayek who at least is not pretentious.

DocMerlin October 25, 2012 at 11:17 am

Hayek and her were very much at odds philosophically. Hayek believed that no one could be a “great man” in the Randian sense. He believed in a a very deep sense of humility about the world and what it was possible to know.

Adrian Ratnapala October 25, 2012 at 2:03 pm

@Thank your for making your argument clear.

I take issue with Rand’s melodramatic language, she refuses to use a scalpel when a bowling will do. But after a chapter or two you become de-sensitsed, and after that is there to complain about?

RPLong October 25, 2012 at 9:20 am

One of the great things about reading Roderick Long’s analyses is how even-handed he is with respect to the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments advanced by the thinker he’s analyzing. It is refreshing and rare to read an article about Ayn Rand that neither demonizes her as an intellectual pariah nor extolls her as a saint.

Like every other important thinker in human history, Rand made terrific contributions as well as significant mistakes. But for whatever reason, Rand’s ideas have thus far seldom been subjected to the kind of objectivity that most thinkers garner. Whether it’s because she became such a polemicist later in life, or because she existed outside of academia, or because she ticked-off Murray Rothbard, I guess we’ll never know. At any rate, that was a great write-up!

dead serious October 25, 2012 at 10:24 am

Ayn Rand is not “an important thinker” – she’s a Cmaj-Amin-Dmin-G song played over and over again with slightly different lyrics.

RPLong October 25, 2012 at 10:51 am

Oh yeah? Then why do I keep hearing augmented sixth chords, huh? Answer me that!

dead serious October 25, 2012 at 11:39 am

French or Italian? It’s important.

George McCandless October 25, 2012 at 9:44 am

As a teenager I thought Ann Rand’s Anthem was an inventive book until I read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We” (1921). Plagurism is an ugly word, but it was the one that came to mind then and still does. Even the method of numbering the members of the community (including the dash) is the same (Rand does add an additional digit, one must give her credit for that inventiveness). Since this early Russian literature was (and still is) relatively little known in the US, Rand gets the credit. Too bad, IMHO.

Brandon October 25, 2012 at 10:49 am

“Plagurism” is indeed an ugly word. Glad we settled on “plagiarism” instead.

Urso October 25, 2012 at 11:07 am

Don’t you attempt to force your collectivist notions of spelling on me.

Andy October 25, 2012 at 6:35 pm

We likely influenced other works, such as Brave New World (with which it shares many other similarities). But this is not plagiarism; authors have borrowed ideas from each other since the beginning of literature.

BL October 25, 2012 at 10:08 am

This is why I don’t read posts by Alex. I liked Ayn Rand in high school, but then my taste improved. Grow up.

Bill October 25, 2012 at 11:14 am

Ayn Rand is an adolescent puberty ritual. The ESTABLISHMENT and BEAURACRACY of my high school made it assigned reading in ninth grade. My wealthy doctor, a confirmed McCarthyite and John Bircher, had orgasms over talking about her. There is either some irony here–that the high school administrators, and my wealthy family doctor–were the pushers, or perhaps they were getting you ready to live in the machine, and be happy with it.

Only George Orwell would know the answer to that question.

Brian Donohue October 25, 2012 at 10:46 am

There is much to snicker at in Rand- she always struck me as a bit melodramatic, but then again, I never lived in the Soviet Union.

The best critique I have heard is that her heroes are not particularly likable people. And while I have Libertarian sympathies, there does seem to be something to this charge against Libertarians generally.

So, her occasionally cartoonish stories are easy to dismiss, particularly by highbrows. I think this is a mistake. Her legacy will always be a damning critique of collectivism much moreso than embracing her prescription- kinda like Marx.

And the very accessibility of her novels will ensure long life for her memes. As far as I can tell, she is unique among thinkers on the modern ‘right’ in using melodramatic stories to advance her arguments, while, on the left, these melodramatic narratives are ubiquitous and heavily-relied-upon.

DocMerlin October 25, 2012 at 11:20 am

“So, her occasionally cartoonish stories are easy to dismiss, particularly by highbrows.”
I used to think so… then I grew up and started watching C-span. I saw entire scenes of C-SPAN, plagiarized right out of her books.

Scout October 25, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I think the melodrama (and self-aggrandizement) was fueled by her use of methamphetamines. Watch her interview with Mike Wallace on youtube. Shifty eyes.

The other problem I have is the paucity of her ideas. She doesn’t come off as well-read or a student of history. Pursuit of self-interest isn’t original either. I can think back to Spinoza as a clear statement of the idea.

Walt G October 25, 2012 at 10:47 am

I found this book at 13, at the second hand store where books were a dime, often with the cover torn off.
I guess I didn’t have the proper moral stance toward Rand because I enjoyed it; fun, fast and a little mind-stretching. It turns out to not be the absolute first dystopian work of fiction and this should invalidate anything I got from it.
Unfortunately, it’s the youth that instructs the man and not the other way around or I could go back and correct my foolish error.

Orange14 October 25, 2012 at 11:31 am

You would have been better off reading Gaddis or Pynchon.

Brandon October 25, 2012 at 11:43 am

Yeah, pleb! Too bad your 13-year-old self wasn’t reading and totally getting Bukowski and David Foster Wallace. I can remember my 8th-grade teacher solemnly handing over a worn copy of Naked Lunch and saying half-ironically “this will change your life.” I was like “oooh, maybe you’re right–when is lunch?”

Will McLean October 25, 2012 at 11:49 am

For me, suspension of disbelief failed when the hero found the long abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house *and the roof didn’t leak.*

The Original D October 25, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Thread winner!

LarryM October 25, 2012 at 12:18 pm

I’m just not sure how relevant this is to the present day. People can disagree the extent to which we are threatened by overly intrusive government, but even if one believes (as one reasonably can, and as I do to an extent) that there are many dire trends in that direction, the dystopia that we – and by we, I’m parochial enough to be referring to the European democracies & their progeny – might be heading to would look very little like Rand’s dystopia. Collectivism as a serious ideology is dead.

I realize there is a cottage industry that wants to paint the “left” as secret communists, but that isn’t true even in Europe. There are plenty of authoritarian impulses on the right and the left, but they look very little like the real and imagined authoritarianisms of the 20th century.

LarryM October 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Heck, even China, as bad a it is from a freedom perspective, doesn’t look much like this anymore. And China is culturally a nation much more disposed to collectivism than the western democracies.

The danger is some ways is almost the opposite – a nation that gives people a panoply of superficial freedoms, yet at the same time grows increasingly authoritarian in core areas. The former prevents people from objecting to the latter.

Viewing this through the more narrow lens of the United States, we are, at the same time, a tremendously individualistic society and a society inclined to accept authority & to be perfectly happy with authoritarian measures when (perceived to be) directed at the “other.” A dystopian future for the United States, in my opinion, would not see the individualism swamped by the authoritarian, but a blending of the two.

dead serious October 25, 2012 at 1:11 pm

I.M. Pei = Howard Roark?

Anon. October 25, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Here in Greece we have ACTUAL Stalinists and Maoists in parliament…

And in any case, even if her specific vision of dystopian collectivism was inaccurate (which I’ll admit), the threat of neo-Platonism is very much alive. Just look at the power that the religious crazies have in the US.

LarryM October 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm

I think we would agree that Greece is, in this respect, somewhat sui generis. Even so, absent the current unpleasantness, one doubts that many Stalinist and Maoists would be in Parliament.

The comment on Platonism and the religious crazies is more well taken. I would, however, push back in two respects: Firstly, I think that ultimately the religious right in the United States has power only in the sense that they help enact right wing policies that are not part of their core moral agenda. When it comes to enacting their core moral agenda, their power mostly evaporates.

The other issue is the contemporary left. I’m not going to deny that the left has it’s authoritarian impulses, and don’ want to get into the whole “who’s worse for freedom” debate. But I would argue that the modern left, at least in these United States, and probably most of Europe, is not neo-Platonist. Far from it. In it’s own way, the modern left is by and large quite individualistic, albeit not necessarily in a way that would have pleased Ms. Rand, and do not please her modern adherents.

So Much For Subtlety October 27, 2012 at 12:00 am

Europe’s Parliaments are full of former Maoists and Stalinists. So don’t rule them out so quickly. The Latin countries have Parliaments full of thinly disguised former Stalinist Parties. So does Germany for that matter. What they lack is genuine liberals in the classical sense. You know, people who believe in freedom.

So the EU crisis is being presided over by the former Maoist Barroso for instance.

On the whole, while agreeing Rand’s works are dreadful as books go, I would rather have my government run by people who were inspired by Roark than by Mao.

Martin-2 October 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm

I’ve only read The Fountainhead so far and I thoroughly enjoyed it. These criticisms are great, but I wonder if Rand would fare better if she were contrasted with other fiction writers instead of philosophers. I found her treatment of collectivist ideas about as insightful as Joseph Conrad’s treatment of colonialist ideas, for example.

LarryM October 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I think she comes off worse in that sort of comparison. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you are correct that, as a critic of collectivism she is insightful as Conrad is as a critic of colonialism. Do we read Conrad now because of his insightful critique of colonialism. No. We read him for his artistry, which is lacking in Rand’s works.

Let me just say that, as disdainful as I am of Rand as an artist or as a political philosopher, I’ll readily concede that she was an effective and insightful critic of collectivism. But as I said above, I just see collectivism as a threat in the twenty first century.

Andrew' October 25, 2012 at 1:25 pm

No, contrast her with other novelist philosophers.

It’s why George Lucas is the greatest artist…

LarryM October 25, 2012 at 1:33 pm

A little cryptic, though your second sentence makes me think (hope?) that you are being ironic.

But taking the first sentence literally … in the narrow sense that she compares well as a novelistic political philosopher with outer novelistic political philosophers, you may have a point. But it’s a little like saying that someone is a very good painter of astronomy. Or nuclear scientific sculpture. I mean, yeah, okay, but so what? When I read novels, good political philosophy (good, that is, relative to other novelists) isn’t high on the list of qualities that I look for. When I want to read political philosophy, I do that.

GiT October 25, 2012 at 12:57 pm

It doesn’t matter how much half-assed sycophantic lit crit one bloviates about Ayn Rand, she’s a crappy writer and there’s nothing remarkable about writing a book without the use of the pronoun “I”.

dirk October 25, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Georges Perec wrote an entire novel without using the letter “e”. Which is the more impressive feat?

RPLong October 25, 2012 at 1:38 pm

I before E. Everyone knows that.

dead serious October 25, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Except after C. And Rand definitely comes off as a C.

Maria November 16, 2012 at 11:27 pm

TO: AllRE: ‘Heh’I’ll believe it’s a thraet…a REAL thraet….when people like the blogfather start acting like it’s a thraet.Until they start treating it as such, it’s not worth the trouble of trying to spearhead the resistance. In the meantime, I keep asking him when he’s going to start treating it as a ‘threat’ instead of some sort of political ‘bun fight’.Regards,Chuck(le)[Nothing is ever done in this world until men are prepared to kill one another if it is not done. — George Bernard Shaw]

Scout October 25, 2012 at 4:39 pm

There is a chapter in a work of Sanskrit literature where the narrator has to avoid using labial consonants http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Da%C5%9Bakum%C4%81racarita

Alan October 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Rather than Ayn Rand, it would be better if adolescent boys read the Lord of the Rings trilogy: they usually outgrow it by the time they are 20.

stuhlmann October 26, 2012 at 4:48 am

I didn’t read Ayn Rand until I was in my 40s, and I likely would have different feelings about her works if I had read them in high school/college. Having read them as an experienced adult, I found them to be mostly unbelievable, like fairy tales whose descriptions of good an evil have little relevance to real life. Perhaps it would have helped me if some of the leading characters would have had wives and children. Would Howard Roark have gone to work in that quarry if he had had a wife and kids to support, or would he have been a little more compromising in his dealings with clients? Families are the main hole in Rand’s philosophy. We do have obligations to our families. This is part of and a strength of being human.

My other problem with some of Rand’s works, like Anthem and Atlas Shrugs, are the totally unrealistic endings. Again I say this as an older guy who has been around the block a few times. In Anthem, the hero chooses to make his home in a house high in the mountains. This was all very dramatic, but I have to wonder how he fed himself and his woman after the first snowfall. The grand plan of John Galt and all his highly intelligent friends was to destroy civilization in order to rebuild it. How practical is that? When the lights go off, and food shipments stop, and public order breaks down, do people just quietly wait for some hero to come along and set the world to right? No. They riot and pillage and set up their own little societies, often under local warlords. Look at what happened in Albania and Iraq after the central governments fell. People also look for someone to blame for their losses – someone like John Galt. And these local warlords will have their own opinions regarding what the new world order should be. I doubt that their opinions would line up with Galt’s. All in all, the Galt plan doesn’t seem like it would work in the real world.

brone October 26, 2012 at 11:32 am

A flippant, contrary view of ‘Anthem’, that might provide one possible answer to your question:

http://bradhicks.livejournal.com/393124.html

I real Atlas Shrugged when I was 31, and found it somewhat interesting, even though it was written so abominably. Nevertheless, I was actually quite enjoying it for a while – it reminded me a bit of `Illuminatus!’, only without the same depth of characterisation – and I thought I spotted slight touches of Animal Farm and 1984 here and there. And then I hit part III, and the book suddenly turned wild-eyed frothy-mouthed insane, with barely more than 2 pages of warning. But I’m no quitter, so I slogged my through, including all 188,000 pages (conservative estimate) of John Galt’s rantings, all the way to the finish line. I could see myself re-reading 1984 and Animal Farm, but I’m not so sure about this one.

And writing that, it suddenly occurred to me just now – I might have actually taken Atlas Shrugged more seriously than I did, had it starred talking animals.

John Rogers October 26, 2012 at 9:56 am

““There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.” – John Rogers.

Stuart October 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm

It’s a shame that not a single commentator actually said anything useful about the article Alex linked to which really is very good.

Tangurena October 26, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Brad Hicks does a wonderful takedown of Atlas Shrugged by suggesting that Anthem is the 3rd volume in the Atlas Shrugged Trilogy. And that unwritten 2nd book in the trilogy would be “Shrug Harder”.

>Because she died without telling anyone, it’s not entirely clear how Shrug Harder would have ended. We know that at some point, at least one of the Strikers does leave Galt Valley. He built a high-tech home, stuffed it with a library and all the wonders of the Strikers’ science, and then (apparently) set out to make contact with the nearest survivors’ village, assuming that they’d worship him as a god for his technological superiority, assuming they’d cheerfully feed him and provide him with anything he wanted for the products of his labor. And, rather obviously, they did what anybody would do: they executed him for crimes against humanity. His technological redoubt was never found. Did other Strikers meet the same fate, or are they all holed up in Galt Valley still? We’ll never know. But that brings us to the book that would clearly have been relabeled once the trilogy was complete … Atlas Shrugged 3: Anthem.

>Anthem is actually the best book of the three. And it’s a credit to Rand that she realized just how monstrous the real results of the Strike would be. Many, many so-called Objectivists and Libertarians, who only read the first book, thought they were supposed to cheer for the Strikers, believed the Strikers’ personal delusion that the Strike, and the resulting mass genocide, would usher in a techno-libertarian paradise on earth. No, in Anthem we get a view of John Galt’s Earth from the viewpoint of someone who grew up in the next generation, never having known a technological world, knowing only a world in which selfishness is labeled the ultimate sin. The massive die-off from John Galt’s strike has resulted in the rise of the most vicious and backwards and cruelly unfair totalitarian regime in human history. And our nameless hero slowly has it dawn on him that the ruling council is so afraid of selfishness that they’re retarding any attempt to restore human technological civilization, no matter how miserable and stunted low-tech life is, until they figure out some way to integrate technological progress into their civilization without anybody being able to claim credit for it. Which cannot possibly work.
http://bradhicks.livejournal.com/393124.html

Brian Donohue October 26, 2012 at 6:06 pm

When it comes to fantasy wish-fulfillment, Ayn Rand ain’t got nothing on Brad Hicks.

At bottom, responsibility for the sins of collectivism are laid at the feet of Libertarianism/Objectivism. The end. Just beautiful.

In Brad’s next installment, he shows how Jews have no one but themselves to blame for the rise of Nazi Germany.

Chester White October 27, 2012 at 7:56 am

“In Rand’s dystopia, the first-person singular pronoun — the word “I” — has been abolished…”
.
Obama would be speechless under that regime.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: