Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: Ayn Rand Anthem

Oh, holy shit.

My kid came home with the news that they're reading Anthem in her English class.

I knew there would be risks involved in sending my kid to public school.  But this?

The inside cover of the book supplies the answer: The Andrew Lessman Foundation (a foundation started by a guy who made his fortune shilling vitamins and health supplements) has donated free copies of this vile piece of propaganda to the schools of our city.

I read the work this evening, to see what my poor child would have to deal with -- the first time I read this particular blight that Rand inflicted upon language.

I knew Rand was a terrible writer.  How terrible, frankly, I had forgotten.

This piece of work is just abysmal.

(Spoilers from this point on, for anyone who gives a shit.)

The thesis of this novel -- well, novel is putting it kindly -- of this little sermon is One Man Good, Societies of Men Evil.

We open in a dystopian society, where all the citizens are given names suitable to society that views unified men as a good thing -- Solidarity, Equality, Union.  But of course they all also have numbers attached to their names, because Rand has to make the point that in a world where people work together in a society, we can't possibly also have individuals.  Everyone must become a cog, a number, a thing, in such a world.

So the ego is lost!  Equality 7-2521 is forbidden to think of himself as I.  The very word I is forbidden, in fact!  Everyone must use the word We instead!

Blah, blah, blah.

The worst part about this book is how dull it is.  There are very few scenes.  The first twenty pages or so is just Equality 7-2521 ranting on and on about how misunderstood he is, and how mistreated he is, and how hard he fought to be stupid like he was supposed to be, and yet his brilliance kept shining through, because -- after all! -- he is just so smart and tall and blond and not like the idiots around him.

And he just loved science and thinking!  And this made the Teachers so mad at him.  Because no one is supposed to be different!  And he is so different!

So the Council who tells you want to be made him a Street Sweeper!  Instead of a Scientist!  And he was glad!  Because now he could repent and make up for his bad, bad desires!

And all of this is just stupid.

Because I know it's a metaphor, okay, but for it to work as a story it needs to be a story first and a metaphor second, and just how exactly is this world going to function if the teachers beat down all their best students for being good students? If they turn all their smart kids into street sweepers, then who, exactly, are their Council of Scientists and Council of Elders?  Would that not be the Kind Of Dumb Kids?

Would we then not have all the really smart kids sweeping streets and fixing plumbing?  Would we not then -- I'd say in about fifty years, tops -- have a revolution on our hands?

Not to mention, who is going to run your society?  Who keeps the books?  Who runs the Secret Police?  Who figures out who the smart kids are, in order to make sure they aren't the ones ending up in charge?

Beyond that, the structure is terrible.  Very few scenes, and a lot of exposition -- we're almost entirely in Equality's head; and Equality is (of course) a Superman.  He discovers electricity all on his own.  He withstands torture.  He gets Liberty 5-3000(a lithe and beautiful blonde seventeen year old girl) to throw off the chains of her communitarian upbringing and run away to be a Randian Superhero with him, pretty much simply by staring deeply into her eyes.

(Of course she is blonde.  Everyone who is of any worth at all in this book is tall and slender and white and blond, blond, blond.  What was that you said?  Aryan? Eugenics?  I can't think what you could mean!  Ayn Rand is TOTALLY against eugenics! She says so right here in the introduction!)

And, of course, the penultimate chapter is a lecture on the rights of man:

"Only three [words] are holy: 'I will it!"...I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them. I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others.

"For the word "we" must never be spoken, save by one's choice and as a second thought.  This word must never be placed first within a man's soul, else it becomes a monster, the root of all evils on earth, the root of man's torture by men, and of an unspeakable lie.

"It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages.

"What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it?  What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and the impotent, are my masters?  What is my life, if I am but to bow and agree and obey?"

Truly, what kind of freedom is it, if the "botched and impotent," the weak and poor and impoverished, are always going to be hanging around in your society, acting like they have a right to be there?  I mean, jeez.  Bunch of takers.

The opening line, by the way? "It is a sin to write this."

Truer words were never spoken, Ayn.


D Shannon said...

"If they turn all their smart kids into street sweepers, then who, exactly, are their Council of Scientists and Council of Elders?"

If the GOP is anything to go by, there isn't going to have a Council of Scientists. The Council of Elders will be made out of the children of previous leaders, such as the incompetent son of a former president, or the incompetent son and grandson of admirals, or the incompetent son of a former governor.

I'm also curious how Liberty became a permissible name in this dystopia. Isn't liberty supposed to be the opposite of what the leadership wants?

Perhaps Rand thought that liberty is only for the benevolent corporate overlords, and that liberty and equality are bad things for the people who actually do physical labor and make things because it would cause them to interfere with the actions of their superior bosses. Heck, put those ideas in their head, and they might actually want to get paid in money, thus violating the purely voluntary contract they made with their employers in which their wages would be paid entirely in scrip acceptable only at the company store.

Bardiac said...

What a nightmare to have to read in school!

delagar said...

Bardiac: Her teacher (who's a great English teacher, by the way -- she loves him, and he's engaging and up to now given them excellent reading assignments) is selling it as "the inspiration for The Hunger Games," which I just think NOT.

Shannon: Liberty struck me as a strange name, too. But other characters have named like Internationale, so maybe Rand was thinking it was an *ironic* name. You know, those French, with their Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, when REALLY, etc.

The Council of Scientists in her book has just invented candles. When our Randian Superhero invents light bulbs, all on his ownsome, with no industrial revolution to back him up, they reject his invention, because no committee has approved the invention, and also it would put candle-makers out of work.

So he takes his lightbulb, and his beloved Liberty, and they run off to start their own society (in Galt's Gulch, I assume) where they can build all the light bulbs they want.

Luckily, someone from an earlier generation of humans has left them a perfectly preserved house filled with books full of scientific knowledge and clothing and pots and pans and mirrors (all Liberty wants to do, obvs, is stare at her slender blond self in a mirror all day). So they won't have too much trouble building this new world all alone!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I really liked Anthem when I read it (as an audiobook) last spring. I thought I wrote a review of it on my blog, but I can't find the post right now. Anyway, I know about Rand's theory of objectivism and all that, so I'm not naive about her political project. But I take Anthem as a strong argument against the idea of Communist utopia. I thought her critique was really powerful, and although I was confused at first by using "we" instead of "I," I got used to it. I was listening to the audiobook on the road to a conference, and when the character switched to "I," I nearly ran off the road. That was how powerfully it struck me. Who knew a little pronoun could mean so much?

When Equality 7-2521 runs away with Liberty 5-3000, it mirrored the fall of man really closely, too. And it made me think of Paradise Lost, in which Milton depicts the tale as the "fortunate" fall of man. In Milton, Eve falls in love with her reflection, too, parallel to Narcissus. Rand would probably say that we should all be Narcissus -- self-focused to a fault. I don't agree with that at all. However, I can see the value of her work in relationship to its critique of Communism, which I do think is a system that cannot work as intended, unless it's in a tiny commune. Don't get me wrong. I think capitalism sucks, too. Any system run by humans is going to suck because humans are corrupt and often pragmatic to a fault. Even people who are the best among us have to make "tough choices," and they excuse themselves from ruining people's lives because that choice is best for "the many."

I'm just chiming in with a different opinion, and don't mean to offend or be a troll. If my kids read this book, I'd look at it as an opportunity for them to learn about the politics of the early 20th century. Even a book you don't like and/or don't agree with is an opportunity to learn. I, personally, thought the book was really interesting and made amazing connections to Milton. I don't agree with every word of it, and I don't feel indoctrinated. But I do see its value.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Ah ha! I found it!

The trouble was I misremembered when I read it. It was actually over the summer, not when I went to the conference. Anyway, you commented on this post, so you might remember it, but I thought I'd post it here if others wanted to see it, or if you wanted a refresher.

Unknown said...

I've never read the book so I really don't know much about it, but what's wrong with having blonde hair? Isn't it just a coincidence? Hair color is just hair color, a physical appearance and nothing more. If the hair colors were switched to brunette (or red) would there still be a fuss?

delagar said...

Fie: The abysmal writing is part of what I object to. I guess I'm coming from a whole raft of experience with other dystopian / uptopian books, and seeing what could be done with similar material. Herville, It Can't Happen Here, 1984, Le Guin's Dispossessed, Mieville's Iron Council -- even Hunger Games, to name just a few.

The worldbuilding in any of those is -- I was going to say better thought out, but the fact is, Rand didn't do any actual worldbuilding. Rand hasn't made the least effort to think about how her world would work. She's created a straw world, filled it with all the boogeymen she *thinks* socialism and communism would create, and called it her world.

That's my biggest problem with the book. It's filled with straw villains and straw politics. Her notions of what socialism / communism / unions are do not reflect anything in the real world. They're propaganda.

I am not saying it would not be possible to make a legitimate argument against socialism or communism or even unions in 1937. But Rand has not bothered to do so.

The other thing I don't like about it connects to this point -- I don't see Equality or Liberty as actual characters. I don't see any real characterization in the book at all. There are almost no scenes, and very little dialogue. Liberty isn't a person; she's a cipher. (A skinny blonde cipher, the object marked Desire which tells us Equality has succeeded in gaining his Manhood.)

I mean, why does Equality love Liberty? Because she's blonde and sparkly. Why does she love him? I don't have a clue.

For the record, I'm not *entirely* opposed to my kid reading this. You gotta know what the other side is saying and thinking, after all.

delagar said...

Billie: Nothing is wrong with Liberty being blonde. Or tall.

The issue is that *everyone* in Anthem who is virtuous and good, *everyone* who is a Randian hero / heroine is tall, and blonde, and slender, and has fine white skin.

Whereas all of our villains are squat and dark and ugly; or else horribly disabled. (One has "half a brain" and is subject to fits which repel our hero Equality.)

I'll also point out that names like Equality and Liberty and Union are all meant to be just terrible, terrible names to give kids.

Because Equality, like the word "we" is a deep, deep evil.

delagar said...

The ROOT of all evil, in fact.

delagar said...

Ack. Not Herville! Herland!

Herville is an excellent graphic novel by Barry Deutsch, which I highly recommend. But not a utopian novel!

Herland, by Charlotte Gilman, is either Utopian/dystopian, depending on who you ask.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Well, Anthem is not a full novel. It's an 80-page parable. Parables aren't meant to be well-built worlds. The writing is underdeveloped compared to other dystopic writers you mention, but also, those books are all much longer and some are series-length. I really think we're talking apples and oranges here. Plus, Rand seems to be operating within the stereotypes of what society considers to be valuable and makes a statement about the superficiality of relationships when individuals and their specific unique qualities are undervalued. I do think individuals are important. I also think communities are important -- a lot more than Rand did. But also, her family lost a lot under the communists, and she hoped that coming to America would save her. She was disappointed with what she found.

I really like her storytelling, actually. It's stripped down. No BS. Very like Hemingway, actually. But not everyone likes him either. Of course, he's very sexist, but I still like his short stories. His novels, not as much. Farewell to Arms is the only one I liked. Anyway, I don't mean to be a total Rand apologist, but I do think that she's an underrated writer. I don't agree with her philosophy entirely. I think she's too extreme. But I do think that her perspective on communism is interesting and valid. I really changed my mind about communism once I had met people who lived under it (Romanians, Bulgarians, and Ukrainians) and became friends with them. Their stories opened my eyes to the deep corruption inherent in their systems. Some would say that true communism has never been implemented and thus has never been tested. That may be. But the experiments that have happened over the years have ultimately been bad for a vast majority of people. At least, that's what I've heard from those who lived in the systems.

delagar said...

But it's entirely possible to create well-thought out worlds in novellas. Have a look at Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Or When it Changed, by Joanna Russ -- that one's Utopian, but still.

Also it's online, so you can access it!

To be clear, I am not opposing Rand's text on the basis on her opposition to Communism or socialism. I am opposing it because she does a terrible job of writing *about* Communism / Socialism.

There's nothing wrong with writing about politics. (All writing is political, etc, etc.) The problem arises when you write propaganda about politics, which is what Rand has done here. And -- to some extent -- in much of the rest of her writing.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I guess we'll agree to disagree. I think she's a fantastic storyteller. To me, it's just a matter of taste. If she's not to your taste, right on.

Alix E. Harrow said...

I know I'm real late to the party, but have you seen this? It's kind of...amazing.

delagar said...

Oh, God, Alix, that is perfect!

"...said Ron, like a poor person..."