© 1938 Ayn Rand
In a dark future, the triumph of collectivism has created a global society deteriorating to near-medieval conditions. Man is utterly broken by the state, dominated by institutions from birth onward. Raised in cohorts in government offices, not by families, children come of age at fifteen and are assigned their lot in life by the governing authorities. They toil as drones for the next thirty years before being consigned the House for the Useless, where if they are lucky they will find some meager pleasure in the social programs before being execution as a burden to society. The state and society are all, so triumphant that even the pronoun “I” has been extinguished. The human spirit, however, is irrepressible.
Equality 2521 is a sinner in the hands of a suffocating state, a young man who yearns to study the ways of the world and perhaps even to become a scholar, but who is consigned to be a street-sweeper. After stumbling into an abandoned subway tunnel, Equality finds himself for the first time alone, and there in the dark with just his thoughts for company, a psychological journey begins. The tunnel, which he and a couple of sympathetic friends keep hidden from everyone else, becomes their sanctuary, a place for Equality to read books and experiment with the things he finds in the rubbish, a place where he eventually discovers that there are things not written in the Global We’s philosophy. There is Electricity, and if he can realize its power he can make the world a better place. Breathlessly he takes his findings to the convention of Scholars, who promptly imprison him for many manifold presumptions (among them, threatening to put candle-makers out of work). Happily for him they are incompetent at incarceration, since so few people have ever rebelled against them, and soon he’s escaped to make his fortunes elsewhere.
Anthem is a short work, a novella of no more than 90 pages; I read it chiefly because it was available for free on Amazon, and the delicious irony of something of Rand’s being offered for free was too good to pass put. Altogether it’s the tale of an individual’s self-realization, his struggle for consciousness. Eventually he does, and as in 1984 his rebellion is urged onward by forbidden love for Liberty 5-3000, and given safe harbor by the wild; the rugged forests outside the bleak We-ruled cities are teeming with life and energy. But among the wild are grown-over homes, and inside them books which reveal how much was lost. Ultimately Equality and Liberty shed their old identities and emerge as Individuals, and here the book descends into preaching. All of the lost passion of twenty years comes bubbling up into Equality’s realization that the individual is sovereign, the individual makes the world, and so carried away by it is he that when Liberty professes, “I love you,” he replies with a half-page speech about the importance of names and the individual.
I have never Rand before, and will own a bias against her, one I’ve had since listening to a radio interview with her years ago. Even so, I enjoyed this work for the most part; any tale of man versus the state, of the natural vs. the contrived, is sure to win me over despite the overweening pronunciations of the last few pages Considering that the union of the happy couple results in a pregnancy, there is hope that the book’s heroes will learn what the childless Rand never did, that people are born into society as surely as fish are born into the ocean. It is a society of the family, however, a natural one, where we are reared by the bone of our bone and the flesh of our flesh, not an artificial and imposed “Global We”. Even so, this is a fascinating little book, well worth the time spent reading it; regardless of my animosity toward Rand’s praise of selfishness, hers was a quick and artful pen. The similarities between this and 1984 make it a beacon of hope after Orwell’s singularly depressing work about the triumph of the state.
- 1984, George Orwell
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Anthem is an interesting novella that seems like a myth in some ways. Your review covers the main themes well. Among them I wonder about the importance of the individual. As an individualist myself I value the this concept. Ayn Rand may have over emphasized this in Anthem, perhaps to make her argument strong–too strong for some. But I think that the family and society could not exist without the individual.
I used to be more staunchly individualistic, when I like Equality 7-2521 was escaping a domineering worldview. There must exist a balance between the rights of individuals, who are the sparks that keep humanity adapt, and the interests of the people they are born into. Traditionally we were born not just into families, but into tribes, something that manifests itself in our obsession with sports, our easy identification with groups. The family as a unit could not exist without the individuals who compose it, but what is marriage except a partial and voluntary denial of selfishness? It is in that act of mutual selfLESSness that parents are able to nurture children who become not beasts, but men who can act with integrity.