I spent part of this past weekend reading Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem. It’s not one of her books that I’d heard of, much less read, until recently, but it sounded like a short science fiction story that I’d loved as a teen (more of that later) so I decided to give it a try. Anthem is a dystopia of the future presented through the secret journal of Equality 7-252, a street sweeper with a curious mind. Humankind has entered another dark age and lives in a collective society in which candles provide light, books are on scrolls, children are raised by society rather than parents, and everything is done in the best interest of the many. Individuality has been largely eliminated from society – people speak in the first person plural rather than first person singular-- and happiness consists of an unreflective middle of the road life.
Despite the draw of what I hoped would be a good story, I was hesitant to read any more Rand. I find lots of flaws with her philosophy and in her life. (When I think of Rand, I automatically think of her delight in testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities) back in the 1940s. But Anthem was written several years before such testimony. In fact it was earlier than The Fountainhead and doesn’t have the fully developed ideas of Objectivism found in the latter and in Atlas Shrugged. The last chapter of the book begins to develop the objectivist ideas by having Equality 7-2521 (now calling himself Prometheus) explain that from that day on he would pay attention first and foremost to his own self-interest without any concerns for others (“To be free, a man must be free of his brothers.”) Part of that speech makes sense in the context of the extreme collectivism in which he has previously lived (“Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a bandage for their wounds. I am not a sacrifice on their altars.”), but part is Rand’s philosophizing on justice (which for her is using reason—always reason—to judge people by their value to you) and the immorality of selflessness. But I’m not sure the ending works very well, though it did remind me in many ways of the recent ending of the TV series Battlestar Galactica and captures the American promise of a new world as Rand probably intended it to do.
Some of the book is wonderful. My favorite description, for example, is of Equality 7-2521 explaining what being in the dorm at night with his brother sweepers is like: “as we all undress at night, in the dim light of the candles, our brothers are silent, for they dare not speak the thoughts of their minds. For all must agree with all, and they cannot know if their thoughts are the thoughts of all, and so they fear to speak. And they are glad when the candles are blown for the night.” But there are a whole series of major problems with it. The book is loaded with sexism, suggesting that Rand was unable to make a space for her idea of objectivism in women’s lives. At the end of the story, the Golden One (Equality/Prometheus’ love interest who has left the collectivity to follow him) is renamed Gaia because her job is to be the mother of future society. He reads all the books they find and tells her about them while she is to bear and raise children. Prometheus looks forward to “the sons” she will bear him. Rand pushes for reason as a way to decide everything but none of these things—or even Equality’s relationship with the Golden One- is decided by reason. And, in his final speech, a speech that Rand means to reflect freedom and independence, Prometheus sounds very dictatorial.
I was originally drawn to Anthem because the summary of it reminded me of a story that I’d first read and enjoyed in 9th grade and have reread several times since-- Stephen Vincent Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”. That short story was also a dystopia set by the Ou-dis-sun (the Hudson River) some time in the future after the “great burning” when a bomb had been set off in New York City. It’s always struck me as a more symbolic, better done spin on the movie Planet of the Apes. Now that I’ve read Anthem I see even more similarities between the two stories: information presented as entries in a secret journal; an “illegal” love interest in a society where reproduction and child-rearing are heavily regulated; people known by number rather than name; and the discovery of an earlier society of individuals that was destroyed by a major catastrophe that they brought on in one way or another. Since Benet’s story was written before Rand’s novel, I wonder whether she had read it and was building on it in Anthem. If she had, while some of the new storyline is interesting, I still prefer Benet’s telling of such a world.