Anthem

We are nothing. Mankind is all. By the grace of our brothers we are allowed our lives. We exist through, by and for our brothers, who are the State. Amen.

Anthem is a little collectivist dystopia from Ayn Rand, the champion of individualism. It’s set in a future when mankind has returned to a more primitive state (in terms of facilities and occupations) and where everyone lives for the collective, not for themselves. In fact, it’s come so far that the word “I” doesn’t exist in everyday vocabulary and, should some poor soul utter it, he/she will be sentenced to death. In this universe Equality 7-2521 develops a forbidden passion for science and falls in love. While fairly intriguing, it’s not the plot that’s really important here but Ms. Rand’s philosophy on the superiority of the self, the ego – and the climax of the story is (as Leonard Peikoff mentions in the Introduction) Equality 7-2521 discovering a house from the Unmentionable Times and in it – old books filled with long-lost knowledge and, more importantly, the word I. In chapter 9 (the one immediately following this discovery) “I” is repeated almost like a chant, and it’s really her anthem in its honor.

In the basic construction of this universe I saw echoes of Zamyatin’s We: the individual identifiers, the state prescribing every single activity, no matter how private etc. Rand’s hero will manage to escape in a way that the brainwashed D-503 couldn’t – but they both come from essentially the same place and, in the end, it’s only fitting for a book which reviles the notion of “we so much. I guess it’s not that much of a surprise, seeing has how both authors came from the USSR background, even if there’s 17 years in-between the books. If nothing else, this period would have served only to prove Zamyatin right and drive his point home.

I am done with the monster of “we”, the word of serfdom, of plunder of misery, falsehood and shame.

Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 have a bit of Roark & Dominique in them; at least I found the resemblance most striking when she was setting him apart, saying, among others “your mouth is cut of granite, but our brothers are soft and humble”. Not the same words, surely, but the same spirit is present in the relationship dynamic in Fountainhead. Turns out that both books were written at the same time, and Anthem was even a sketch of what was to come, her views on the world distilled and succinct.

What is not thought by all men cannot be true.

Early in the book, when we are introduced to this society, with its Homes of students (and various occupations), with its clear-cut activities for all its members, a world white and septic, I couldn’t help picturing the video for Don’t give up – a world of mindless clones (it’s a pretty crappy song, but I grew up with MTV😀 ).

To be free, a man must be free of his brothers.

This is the kind of thoughts on which Howard Roark was built and the more I think about it, the more I realize that he is quite the unique literary character. Sometimes his actions are absurd, sometimes almost despicable, but what redeems him is his consistency, his undaunted, undeterred faith in this credo. Even if you don’t agree with his philosophy, you have to admire him.

I’ve been wondering about something: in the world of “we” – should there be a “one”? should there be the notions of singulars, of uniqueness? It strikes me that these should have been forbidden along with “I” – is it an inconsistency or am I nitpicking?

~ by ameer on January 16, 2011.

3 Responses to “Anthem”

  1. Damn, I genuinely liked this review. If only for the Chicane reference, which I really did not see coming.

    So, as I stood there deafened by the mighty bang of individualism and intertextualism collinding:)… I was thinking that, well, I have read quite a few similar dystopias but somehow Rand manages to create one of the best inner representations of the ‘I’ caught in the ‘we’.

    I think that for any writer, one of the most delicate things is to represent the individual conscience of characters: it has to be credible, logical and articulate, unless profiling a madman. In most of the dystopias I have read, that ‘I’ is often constructed as simply opposed to ‘We’ (meaning that the ‘We’ is the reference point, and the ‘I’ a personified summing-up of things that go against the ‘We’).

    With Rand it’s somehow different, probably as a consequence of her lifelong allegiance to objectivism. She would treat the ‘I’ prioritarily, almost exclusively even, and would create a whole structure of knowledge, belief and behaviour that makes her character truly unique. I won’t dwell too much on that, but hey, I think it’s a great achievement.

    And hmm…you raise an interesting question: should there be a ‘one’ in the world of ‘we’?. Please correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I remember from her book, Rand (who is a very cautious and systematic writer) only uses the word ‘One’ when she mentions the object of affection of Equality, aka the awesome Liberty, the ‘golden one’, the ‘dearest one’, adding immediately after ‘never have men said this to women’. To be honest, that encounter between the two was one of the most romantic exchange ever written. And yes, I’ve even read Barbara Taylor Bradford… and translated Nora Roberts in college.

    Meh. Nitpick this.

    • In most of the dystopias I have read, that ‘I’ is often constructed as simply opposed to ‘We’ (meaning that the ‘We’ is the reference point, and the ‘I’ a personified summing-up of things that go against the ‘We’).
      I think it’s more a case where I (and by I – i mean the characters) is used only as a means to get to an idea. Which is what happens with Anthem – except that her idea is not just an idea, or a prediction of some kind of impending doom; it’s a philosophy that can be transferred into a way of life. But in the end, E. is still nothing more than a sketch – and Roark of Fountainhead (not a dystopia, i know, but my only other contact with Rand) is the fully fleshed version of E, and embodies a life lived by, like you said, her structure of knowledge, belief and behaviour .

      Rand only uses the word ‘One’ when she mentions the object of affection of Equality, aka the awesome Liberty, the ‘golden one’, the ‘dearest one’, adding immediately after ‘never have men said this to women’.
      In this particular situation I thought that dearest (instead of one) was the thing never spoken before – dearest, because it implied preference. As for one – it’s even part of the slogan over the Palace of the World Council: We are one in all and all in one./There are no men but only the great WE/One, indivisible, forever. (you left the book with us, I can do quotes😉 ). And even if you treat the great we as a one, you still get a sense of individuality, of separation from other collectives maybe. And from here it’s only a step to acknowledging your own separation from those around you. See – I’m nitpicking😛 (but I won’t say anything about nora roberts except that she shouldn’t really be in the same sentence as the word romantic😛 )

  2. …and nitpicker wins on points!

    Then your remark remains valid. ‘One’ in the world of ‘we’. As a numeral, it still works. I guess even in the most orthodox dystopias people still have to count stuff, so I can imagine the Council leaving the ‘one’ be. Still, your observation is brilliant: once you have the concept of ‘one’, the ‘I’ is not far. People would think of it.

    But well.. ‘I’ is forbidden, ‘one’ is not. In my mind, I reccon it’s quite possible that people before Equality would have thought of it fugitively (pun intended) but then erased the memory of the word, as the word itself. We don’t really know what happened before Equality…

    That’s another nasty thing with writers: the ‘character equation’ is never solved entirely, like Fermat’s last theorem, but just thrown out there for us to inquire and investigate. And implode our brains over tiny things. … So much fun!

    PS. Don’t be a nasty Alice, bow to the Queen of Romance.

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