Monday, February 14, 2011

Apocalyptic Lit: Anthem

I think an appropriate follow-up to Brave New World is Ayn Rand's novella, Anthem.  Written in 1937, Rand's story shares some noticeable similarities with Huxley's earlier novel.  However, for Rand, the greatest problem in the apocalyptic future is the loss of individualism.  Huxley certainly alludes to this problem, but it is absolutely the central issue in Anthem.

Right away, readers learn that the word "I" has been removed from society's vernacular.  The narrator refers to himself as "We," which can be a bit confusing but has a powerful impact on the reading.  We also learn that nobody has an individual name.  People are identified by an idealized noun like "Equality" or "Liberty", followed by a serialized number.  As in Brave New World, babies are raised without families and later assigned their occupations by the government.  The narrator then guiltily confesses his great sins of spending time alone, forming a friendship, and writing down his thoughts.

Despite the similarities with other apocalyptic literature, Rand has nevertheless explored this concept in a unique way.  She takes notions that are essentially good in concept, such as equality, and illustrates what would happen if such concepts were actually fulfilled.  Equality, for example, is a nice idea.  We would like to think that everyone is equal.  However, Rand shows that having a preference for some people over others is not only good but necessary in our society.  A friendship, for example, means that you like someone more than most people in the world and enjoy spending time with them in particular.  Likewise, a romantic relationship means that you prefer one person more than everyone else and want to be with them alone.  Rand also shows that allowing for differences in people is fundamental for progress.  When we are allowed to be individuals, we can be leaders and inventors.  On the other hand, when her protagonist brings his potentially life-changing invention to the House of Scholars, he is scolded and rejected because he dared to think of something on his own.

I have to say that this book caused me to rethink some of my beliefs.  I have often been critical of the severe individualism in our culture, which I think has affected politics, community, and religion.  And although I still think these effects have some detrimental aspects, I feel more strongly that individualism in its essence is a good thing.  There is something beautiful about the discovery of the self or "ego" in Anthem as the protagonist continues to push the boundaries of his society.  His friendship and romance are pure and inspiring.  His courage and innate leadership are challenging and wonderfully admirable.  It's quite a short story, but I think it nevertheless holds some important truths and demonstrates a future apocalypse without people's vital senses of individualism and identity.

9 comments:

Ben said...

The way you're reviewing it, it seems that she makes a better point in this book than in Atlas Shrugged. I always wanted to go back to Rand, but never found the strength to wrestle with my frustration when I read her. You might have just helped!!!

christina said...

I read Anthem & Fahrenheit 451 in 9th grade for my first literary research paper. They both blew me away and really raised the bar for my enjoyment of dystopian fic.

Becky (Page Turners) said...

I didn't even realise that there was a follow up to Brave New World. I have to try and remember that!

Amy said...

Ayn Rand is usually a lot to tackle, and this is very, very manageable. I like the term "dystopian fiction" as well; that's a good way to put it.

Also, I don't think this was intentionally a follow-up to Brave New World; I just find their similarities to be appropriate for comparison. But in my opinion, it's definitely worth considering them as a pair!

Brian Bither said...

I haven't read this one, and you are giving me a strong desire to do so. I was profoundly influenced by both "the Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" (which is definitely apocalyptic), and it has taken me years to "recover" from the impact those narratives, particularly the latter, had on me.

Having wrestled with Rand for years now, I guess I would respond by saying an overly-strong individualism or an overly-strong collectivism is unhealthy. Rand, fleeing from the developing Soviet Union, was particularly sensitive to the dangers of the latter. Her other two books underscore the dangers of succombing to social pressures uncritically and losing a sense of distinct selfhood. However, she simply overlooks how selfhood only makes sense in the context of community. Moreover, as the omnipotent narrator, she can paint a picture of self-interest that doesn't reveal the ways in which total self-interest is harmful both to others and to oneself.

So, I would say left-leaning people need to read Rand, and right-leaning people should avoid her. But that tends to be the opposite of what happens. Left-leaning people find themselves too irritated to finish her books, and right-leaning people assign her novels some kind of divine inspiration. Good for you for letting it challenge you without abandoning all your other beliefs!

Amy said...

Ok, I have to confess that I have not read Rand's massive twin novels. I can imagine, however, that if she expanded some of her ideas in Anthem to such a great quantity, she might get carried away and lose some of her readers. It sounds like some of you have experienced that. Yet I think her ideas are good in essence and worth considering.

Brian, you mentioned that Rand "overlooks how selfhood only makes sense in the context of community." Interestingly, the protagonist in Anthem feels a strong compulsion to reach out to the other people in the society he abandoned and build a new community. The ending scene of the story is his plan to retrieve these alienated souls and rebuild a better place together. Because of this, I find it strange that Rand didn't incorporate that idea in her more fully developed stories.

the Crow himself said...

Interesting comparison to 'Brave New World,' but you're right, 'Anthem' stands on it's own.
I listened to a decent recording of the story from Librivox a couple of years back. Because of the pronoun shifting it's a strange one to hear read aloud.
http://librivox.org/anthem-by-ayn-rand/

Ben said...

Save yourself the trouble AMy and don't read Rand's massive twin novels :P

Brian Bither said...

Amy,

I guess that feature isn't entirely absent from the other novels. (At least, it emerges toward the end of Atlas Shrugged; it's a little harder to discern in the Fountainhead.) Certainly, Rand does not suggest that we retreat into isolation. However, in terms of "logical priority," her later novels argue that we begin as individuals who have our own thoughts, interests, uniqueness, etc., and only after this do we engage in society. This is what is a bit naive. She fails to realize how much thinking is linguistically rooted in a culture, interests are historically rooted in a culture, uniqueness is rooted in the values of a culture (i.e. I derive my sense of identity from the divisions that the academy has established - I am a theologian, you are a literary scholar - and these set the boundaries out of which my creativity emerges).

Still, I think the books are worth reading. Honestly, though, I think you could just get away with reading Atlas Shrugged. The Fountainhead is enjoyable, but Rand herself acknowledged that Atlas Shrugged accomplished everything she wanted to accomplish in the Fountainhead, only better. I expect a review on this book by this time next year!