the Little Red Reviewer

Anthem, By Ayn Rand

Posted on: January 11, 2014

first published in England in 1938, Anthem is eligible for the Retro Hugo awards. This book certainly won’t be found in the science fiction section of the bookstore, but it does take place in a dystopian future.

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Anthem, by Ayn Rand

published in 1938

where I got it: have owned this copy forever. probably purchased new.

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There is a future where you and I do not exist. A future in which only we and us, the collective, exist.  A future in which man finds joy and satisfaction in working with and for others and for the society. All are equal, all are taken care of and none ever yearn for anything beyond their station. None ever need to think about anything, because the collective does their thinking for them.  In this future, everyone is safe, and freedom doesn’t mean what you think it means. In the times before, horrible things happened, with large groups of people fighting against a small group of people. It was decided afterwards that this collective society was best for all.

Equality 7-2521 is a sinner. Those sins include that of ambition, preference, and being alone, among many, many others.

Anthem is an epistolary story, told from Equality 7-2521’s writings. Not exactly diary entries, these are more confessions, a record of what’s been done and what’s been discovered. Equality hopes to one day show these writings to the city scholars, to earn their mercy and respect.

Instead of joining the others at evening theater shows (all of which promote the goodness of toil, equality, and brotherhood), Equality 7-2521 sneaks out to the edge of the city to a secret underground cavern.   With it’s smooth floors, tracks, burned out lightbulbs and other detritus, I think the underground cavern is a subway station, but Equality 7-2521 has no way of knowing that, having never seen a train track or light bulb before.  Equality 7-2521 steals books and candles, and indulges in a love for the physical sciences, joyously learning about electricity and magnetism, sometimes completely by accident.

While working on the edge of the city, Equality 7-2521 meets Liberty 5-3000, and commits the ultimate sin of thinking of this new friend, of finding joy in those thoughts, of wishing to spend more time in the company of Liberty 5-3000.

Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 admit their feelings for each other, and Equality 7-2521 brings working light bulbs and new knowledge to the Council of Scholars, and everything goes horribly wrong. Instead of being rewarded, Equality 7-2521 is imprisoned and threatened with death.

You’ll notice I’ve used no personal pronouns so far in talking about this book because the language used in this dystopia doesn’t have any personal pronouns. Equality 7-2521 doesn’t use   “I” and “you”,  but instead refers to himself as  “we” or “us”, and refers to groups of people or others as “them”.  This is a political way of erasing the individual, and erasing the concepts of personhood that go with them.   The point of the weird syntax is that this society is so obsessed with the collective that the individual has ceased to exist. Removing the words from their language enforces the erasure of the individual, and of the concepts of personhood that go with the words I, me, and my.  People are told by the leaders of the society what their jobs will be, where they will live and sleep, what they will wear, and who their mate will be.  There is no such thing as individual decisions, and disagreement is not allowed.  As the scholars say when approached by Equality 7-2521:

“What is not done collectively cannot be good”

And a few lines later, as they realize Equality 7-2521’s lightbulb would disrupt the status quo of the candlemakers:

“it would bring ruin to the Department of Candles. The candle is a great boon to mankind, as approved by all men. There-fore it cannot be destroyed by the whim of one”

Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000 run off into the Unchartered Forest, discover their singular nature, and live happily ever after, with Equality adopting the name Prometheus and Liberty taking the name Gaea. Like all Rand books, the novella ends with a philosophy laden soliloquy, but don’t worry it’s a short one (not like that torturous thesis that kills the end of Atlas Shrugged).

Anthem allows for only the extremes – extreme collectiveness, and extreme selfishness. I didn’t understand it when I was younger (or didn’t want to), but Rand uses her fiction to promote her philosophy that selfishness is all good, and that working for the collective is all bad. She too only allows for the extremes.  I don’t know about you, but I happily live in the inbetween: I am selfish about some things, and generous about others. Some things I do because I want to do them for myself, and  other things I do because it’s good for the people I care about, or random other people who I share my society with. It’s a reasonable balance.

I saw something on twitter the other day (and by “other day” it could have been last month) about does knowing personal details about the author’s beliefs color how you view their work? In high school, I founded a battered copy of The Fountainhead on my parents’ bookshelf. My parents both trained as architects, so of course, someone had gotten them “that book about that architect”.  The Fountainhead isn’t really about architecture. The first time I read it I didn’t understand it. But I knew I liked it. Atlas Shrugged came next, followed by We The Living. I knew nothing about the author, except that I liked the way she wrote. I liked how I felt when I read her words.  Atlas Shrugged had a profound influence on my personal work ethic. I am not ashamed of any of that, knowing that in some circles Ayn Rand is a bad word, and in other circles, a sacred word.  I had never heard of her philosophy at the time, and even if I had, nineteen year old me would not have understood it, or had any interest in understanding it.  Ignorance is bliss, and I was able to enjoy her novels with no knowledge of what lay behind them.

After college, my husband bought me a copy of her biography.  I never finished it.  I learned enough about her to know that if she and I had met, we would have hated each other. Her philosophy sure sounds nice in the pages of a novel, but in real life I do not believe it would work. If she and I were in a Venn diagram, there would be only the slimmest overlap. I don’t know if my first reading of Anthem came before or after my failed reading of Rand’s biography.

That was a very long and round about way of saying that Yes, you can still enjoy someone’s fiction when you vehemently disagree with the opinions, philosophy, and lifestyle of the author.  Especially when you discover their fiction before you discover their personal life.  I can’t help but giggle a little when I see the advertisements at the end of the books for The Ayn Rand Institute.

11 Responses to "Anthem, By Ayn Rand"

I was inspired more by Ayn’s methodology in writing fiction than nodding my head at her objective philosophy. I have her art of fiction book that criticizes several classic pieces and proclaims the merits of Romsntic writers like Victor Hugo.

She has a rigid form of writing, but it still works for me. Anthem, nice and short, is worth reading too.

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I’ve never read any of Rand’s work, but I’m all to aware of the reputation that surrounds it. And I think that would colour my reading if I were to pick one her books up. Not that I’m ruling it totally out, just it is something that I would have to be aware of.
Ignorance, as you say, can sometime be bliss🙂

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I’ve had this on my Kindle for at least a year. I have every intention of getting around to it…eventually

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I have owned this book forever, too. I really want to read it one of these days!

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Reblogged this on The Thirst of Tantalus.

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I don’t know about you, but I happily live in the inbetween: I am selfish about some things, and generous about others.

Actually, the issue isn’t selfishness vs. generosity, it’s selfishness vs self-sacrifice. Why compromise between doing things that are good for your overall well-being (happiness) and doing things that are bad for your overall well-being?

…other things I do because it’s good for the people I care about…

Are they good people that contribute to your life and overall well-being? If so, then doing things for their good is selfishness on your part.

Some things I do [for]…random other people who I share my society with.

Why and what kind of things? Are they large acts that are self-sacrifices, or are they little things done out of benevolence? The latter are perfectly consistent with egoism. (See: The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes.)

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Actually, the issue isn’t selfishness vs. generosity, it’s selfishness vs self-sacrifice.
you are absolutely correct on that. In my rush to write this article, I did confuse generosity with self-sacrifice.

Why and what kind of things? Are they large acts that are self-sacrifices, or are they little things done out of benevolence?
not sure, without knowing what defines “large acts”.

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I’m glad you can read these, because I’d never survive.

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it was only 90 pages. 😉

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That’s probably 89 too many for me, but if I say that I’ll get bombed by Libertarians. :p Keep my secret safe!

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your secret is safe with me.🙂

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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