Literature Commentary: Anthem

21 Oct

Ayn Rand is the founder and principle advocate of Objectivist thought: the belief that man is an end in himself, and the pursuit of happiness is the highest end of his life. After reading and pondering her two landmark novels, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” I was interested to see whether her early work reflected the same sentiments. I subsequently downloaded the eBook version of “Anthem” onto my iPod touch, and finished it this morning.

(Note: the following review does contain some spoilers.)

Fans of “1984” “City of Ember” or “The Giver” will find much to like in “Anthem.” It’s a postapocalyptic novel set in a society of unchecked collectivism, where individuals refer to themselves in the first-person plural as a reflection of their “brotherhood.” Each person is assigned a task in society by a supreme Council, which governs all aspects of their daily life.

Equality 7-2521 is a Street Sweeper, forbidden to pursue knowledge. One day, he discovers a sinkhole leading to a hidden cavern, which in turn contains an assortment of objects from the “Unmentionable Times” (our current era). He constructs a simple electrical circuit, planning to offer it to the World Council of Scholars as a gift to mankind. Before the Council is held, however, he is ruthlessly interrogated and tortured in the Palace of Corrective Detention, in an attempt by the local Council to discover what he has learned. When he finally escapes and presents the circuit to the World Council, Equality 7-2521 expects to be praised and honored. But to his horror, the Council orders that he be burned alive for daring to defy the system. He promptly escapes and flees into the wilderness, turning his back on society.

“Anthem” also has an emotional dimension. Equality 7-2521’s romance with a beautiful young fieldworker closely parallels Winston’s relationship with Julia in “1984.” Equality 7-2521 and his lover are both free spirits who refuse to be held captive by the world’s chains, and instead declare their independence from the totalitarian state. Their relationship is a beacon of light in the midst of society’s darkness.

The climax of the novel comes when Equality 7-2521 dares to utter the Forbidden Word: “I.” He thus asserts his own individualism, forever renouncing the collectivist ideology of the state. He proceeds to name himself “Prometheus,” signifying his role as a torch-bearer for humankind.

“What disaster took their reason away from men? What whip lashed them to their knees in shame and submission? The worship of the word ‘We.’…Thus did all thought, all science, all wisdom perish on earth.”

He also states:

“Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy: I will it!”… I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.”

Rand cleverly conveys a very humanistic philosophy within a moralistic story. The “ideal society” of total collectivism is obviously oppressive and evil. The reader’s heart exults when Equality 7-2521 finally asserts his independence and renounces the social order. However, the philosophy Rand conveys is just as subversive, if less obviously so.

For example, what if the Council’s definition of “happiness” conflicts with Equality 7-2521’s definition of “happiness”? For the Council, a carefully planned totalitarian society may be the perfect idea. By what measuring stick should we judge the merits of these conflicting definitions?

Secondly, Rand renounces all “oppressive” moral systems, but nevertheless, her characters abide by an ethical code. The philosophy of Objectivism does not account for the existence of a universal “moral law” or give any reason why individuals should uphold it. This is the Achilles heel of Rand’s line of thought – by divorcing behavioral morality from universal moral standards, Objectivist ethics are left without a foundation.

From a purely artistic standpoint, “Anthem” is excellent. All of her books seethe with tortured energy, as the indomitable human spirit wages war against a repressive society. It’s a gripping, compelling read…much more so than “1984.” It’s a great book for any fans of postapocalyptic literature.

Should you read it?

Anyone who’s read “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead” has already been exposed to a full dose of Objectivist philosophy. There’s nothing especially different about the worldview outlined in “Anthem” – rather, as one of Rand’s earlier works, it reflects a stage in the evolution of Objectivism. It’s a good story, and I’m surprised it hasn’t already been adapted for the screen. “Anthem” is worth reading for anyone interested in humanistic philosophy or postapocalyptic novels, and will likely help thoughtful readers attain a better understanding of one of society’s prevailing worldviews.

A masterfully crafted, thought-provoking philosophical odyssey.

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Posted by on October 21, 2009 in Sci-Fi


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