Anthem: Ayn Rand’s Dystopian Masterpiece

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.


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