Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not Quite a Book Review: Anthem by Ayn Rand

Full disclosure: I didn't actually read the book.

First I purchased a graphic novel of the book.  I have always had a love for graphic novels, moreso than regular episodic comics in that a graphic novel will usually either draw together an entire storyline from a regular superhero title and publish it all in one go, or else it will render a more conventional story in a pictures-and-word format that is, if not as complete as the original text-only version, maybe more fun.

There are also certain titles, epic titles, that have never been offered as anything else.  Love and Rockets by the Brothers Hernandez has, since 2008, only been published as a graphic novel.  Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman tell his father's reminiscences as a Jewish Pole before and during the Jewish extermination in World War II, and of surviving the concentration camps and a strained life afterward.  It is a gruesome, fascinating tale and oddly continues to fall under the heading of fiction.  It is Spiegelman putting his father's words on paper, his own family's history, but the people are portrayed as talking animals.  Perhaps that's where the problem lies.

But this is about Anthem.  Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was originally from Russia, born into what was about to become the Soviet Union.  As a young girl she was bright, intelligent and not especially challenged by her education.  She went on to college but was purged as a member of the bourgeoisie, only to be reinstated long enough to officially graduate.  She made a trip to the US in 1925 and made it her goal to live there as it was much more to her taste, basking in the individualistic and self-deterministic ideals of "Americanism."  Rand, an atheist, went on to found her own ersatz religion. I use the word guardedly because in fact "Objectivism" as it is called is more correctly described as a philosophical system, which isn't as fun to say knowing Rand's own religious bias.  Objectivism insists that there is nothing more than one's own perception of things as they are, and that the highest moral imperative is pursuing one's own happiness.

This leaves room for argument, if one's happiness comes from eating live kittens or blowing up shopping malls full of frightened tourists.  I haven't dug deeply enough into Objectivism to determine whether there are any asterisks that allow the greater populace to overrule certain individuals' happiness.  God (oops, sorry Ayn, my bad) forbid that the needs of the many might supercede the needs of the one.

In Anthem the protagonist is a bright young man by the unlikely name of Equality 7-2521.  That's his entire name.  That implies that there are a great many other Equalities and in the world where the story takes place, that's to be expected.  Individuality is quashed vigorously, to the extent that unrepentant declaration of individuality is punished by burning at the stake.  Yipes.

Equality 7-2521 is curious, intelligent, and asks difficult questions.  He does not like the answers he receives by the officials of the town or, later, the World Council.  Personal achievement is not striven for and where achieved, frowned on with great prejudice.  In this dystopic vision of the future, the invention of the candle - which was done by a committee! - took decades, and wasn't implemented by the people at large until the candle's impact on the greater economy had been pored over for a similarly lengthy period.

When Equality 7-2521 discovers a long-forgotten underground bunker, and within it tools and devices whose purposes he doesn't know, he is starting from scratch.  He undertakes experiments and explorations, working from a ground state of complete ignorance, until finally, after years of quiet tinkering he discovers electricity and eventually cobbles together a crude light bulb.  He brings his invention to the Council to give it to the world.

As you might imagine, it is rejected utterly.  Its impact on the world cannot be guessed at, and so it must be immediately suppressed and Equality 7-2521 imprisoned.  But again, these are people who are singularly lacking in imagination and Equality escapes.

He runs into the deep forest where no one ever goes.  Why don't they go?  Because it just isn't done, and no one has enough imagination to wonder why not.  Rand hammers on this point a lot, that the population is led and when led hard enough for long enough, the entire mass will eventually blindly go - or in the case of the forest, not go - and, satisfied to not have to think for itself, the population's will to ask, to debate or wonder, withers.

Along the way Equality meets up with Liberty 5-3000, the fetching young lady he has admired during his quiet rebellion.  She observed his escape and followed and now they together continue to wander through the forest until they discover a house.

The house is an Aladdin's cave of wonders full of archaic light bulbs - Equality recognizes them for what they are now - books and clothes, and the two of them marvel in particular when they come to the realization that this house was only intended to house two people.  At his initial discovery of the place, Equality had believed that the house had been intended to house only a dozen, and was almost criminally roomy for so few.

Because this is a work of fiction, the house is exactly what Equality needed.  The books are books of philosophy and science, by which the couple become much more conversant in the language that has fallen away from their peers, the words "I" and "me," and answers to difficult questions like "why not?"  Why not, indeed.

Rand was clearly disgusted by the anti-individual pattern of development of the early socialist country that ultimately became the Soviet Union.  In an ideal world a truly socialist nation could achieve great things without destroying individuality.  That, of course, is not how things came to pass.  Humans are riddled with weaknesses, greed being strong among them and socialism is desperately vulnerable to corruption from within in the absence of a system of checks and balances.  This is the space into which the Soviet Union evolved, enormous power wielded by the heady few, and the surging sea of impoverished humanity holding up the economy that drove the ambitions of those few.

Anthem came about eight years after her first landing in the United States, after she had had sufficient time to drink in the highly individualistic tone of the country, how each person is expected to shift for himself, to sink or swim.  Interestingly, it also came about 13 years after the publication of a similar story, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.  Zamyatin had also lived in the early communist Russia, and I have to wonder whether Rand had read We before she wrote Anthem.  If so, that would make Anthem unoriginal at best and render Rand a hypocrite of the first order.

Before I decided to publish a review of the story, I decided I needed a bit more exposure to it.  So I listened to it as an audiobook.

I downloaded it for free from Librivox.  I will say again that I love Librivox as much as anyone can love an inanimate website.

Anthem's message of individual effort for the sake of one's own individual reward, beholden to none, lands very flat in the context of a freely-provided, jointly produced recording of people volunteering their time and effort to read from a public domain text.  The irony is deep, grand and delicious.

And finally (I am inserting this addendum months after originally writing the review, I had intended to make this point then and forgot it, such is the life of the scatterbrained writer) Equality makes the terrible mistake of claiming unto himself his successes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Equality relied heavily on the deus ex machine of the exact thing he needed, a house for him that is full of books written by other people who came before.  His idea of reinventing the light bulb came out of his observation of ancient light bulbs that had been made by people before him.  Even the house was an artifact left behind by other people.  So even as Rand is hammering on the point of individual success and the indomitable triumph of ego, she is actually subverting her own message.  Equality would likely have never succeeded as well as he had, were it not for the myriad efforts of untold people before him.   Ego is good, but community is crucial.  A man unto himself is indeed an island...a desert island, devoid of life, lacking context or potential.

Rest in piece, Ayn Rand.  You provided me with a good chuckle and you never even knew it.

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