Notional "Anthem"

>> Tuesday, March 08, 2011

But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse "applicability" with "allegory"; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, "Forward To The Second Edition",
The Lord Of The Rings

So, I finished Ayn Rand's "Anthem" this past weekend.

The fundamental problem with the novella, perhaps ironically, isn't its philosophy, which is execrable, but the fact that it just isn't a good book. See, part of the problem with allegory is what Professor Tolkien pointed out all those years ago—that it's all about the author dominating the reader in a very passive-aggressive kind of way, trying to sneak the reader around into agreeing with the writer's point-of-view not by persuasion, but by trying to trick the reader into thinking that he thought of what the writer wanted him to think all by himself. It's horribly manipulative.

But you can maybe get away with doing that as writer, at least a little bit, if you at least manage to write a good story; and this is the reason most allegories suck, is that most writers seem to think it's sufficient for them to be allegorical and the audience will mistake that for being clever and forgive the lousy plot, shallow characters, contrived scenarios, leaden dialogue, etc., etc., etc. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe manages to be a pretty decent book and George Orwell's Animal Farm manages to be, possibly, a great one—because while both stories may be allegorical (indeed, Professor Tolkien's comments about allegory were probably a bit of a sideswipe at Lewis), even if you strip away the allegory you have interesting stories and characters you can't help getting involved with and so on. Lewis may have been thinking about Christian symbolism when he wrote Wardrobe, but he was also trying very hard to entertain his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield. And no matter what Orwell was writing, whether fiction, journalism, essay or memoir, he never forgot his first obligation as a writer was writing well.

"Anthem" is only an allegory, and a badly-written one. Our protagonist and narrator, Equality 7-2521, is a perfect human being in a dystopian socialist world of tomorrow in which nobody uses the first-person-singular personal pronoun (apparently using the first-person-plural as a substitute for the first-person-singular is degrading to the user; it's definitely irritating to the reader) and everybody lives in awful communal barracks based on their profession, which is assigned to each member of society by one of the all-powerful councils that's in charge of everything.

We know that Equality 7-2521 is perfect, first of all, because he tells us this throughout the book; for instance when he first sets eyes on his own reflection, he sees:

Then we [he's by himself—this is that pronoun thing] walked on. And we came to a stream which lay as a streak of glass among the trees. It lay so still that we saw no water but only a cut in the earth, in which the trees grew down, upturned, and the sky at the bottom. We knelt by the stream and we bent down to drink. And then we stopped. For, upon the blue of the sky below us, we saw our own face for the first time.

We sat still and we held our breath. For our face and our body were beautiful. Our face was not like the faces of our brothers, for we felt no pity when we looked upon it. Our body was not like the bodies of our brothers, for our limbs were straight and thin and hard and strong. And we thought that we could trust this being who looked upon us from the stream, and that we had nothing to fear from this being.

In addition to being prettier than anybody else, Equality 7-2521 is smarter, too, capable of reinventing the lightbulb in a subway tunnel using nothing more than stolen supplies and his own creativity. He also feeds himself at one point by throwing a rock at a bird and instantly killing it, and then he knows how to clean it and cook it in a fire he just happens to know how to make, activities he neglects to mention he's capable of at any prior point in the story and seems an unlikely skill for a street sweeper to possess, even one who has self-educated himself in the sciences and can make a fully working and apparently indestructible lightbulb (he carries the damn thing around everywhere, apparently in the hand that isn't used for rock-throwing, and it always works when he needs it to); then again, rock-throwing is a very intuitive skill, moreso than the bow and arrows he manufactures out of... well, I'm not sure, all he says is:

We [now he's with his girlfriend—see how annoying this is?] have made a bow and many arrows. We can kill more birds than we need for our food; we find water and fruit in the forest. At night, we choose a clearing, and we build a ring of fires around it. We sleep in the midst of that ring, and the beasts dare not attack us. We can see their eyes, green and yellow as coals, watching us from the tree branches beyond. The fires smolder as a crown of jewels around us, and smoke stands still in the air, in columns made blue by the moonlight. We sleep together in the midst of the ring, the arms of the Golden One around us, their head upon our breast.

Equality is always doing this sort of thing—that is, he's capable of doing whatever it is he needs to do at any time in the story, no matter how ludicrous or improbable it might appear to the reader. He tirelessly outruns pursuers, he's never frightened, he can make a deadly weapon out of sticks and possibly asshair (seriously, who knows) which he can use to kill not just enough food for two people who have been hiking all day but more than he needs (and what is he doing with the rest of these rotting bird carcasses, one has to ask) while holding his precious lightbulb in one hand (or maybe he hands the lightbulb off to his silent and obediently following ten steps behind girlfriend while he's hunting; I guess she can also carry all those dead birds and fruit).

Lest this seem overly nit-picky, here's C.S. Lewis writing allegorical fiction for small children:

"We shall need a camp fire if we've got to spend the night here," said Peter. "I've got some matches. Let's see if we can collect some dry wood."

Everyone saw the sense of this, and for the next half-hour they were busy. The orchard through which they had first come into the ruins turned out not to be a good place for firewood. They tried the other side of the castle, passing out of the hall by a little side door.... Beyond this they found a wide gap in the castle wall and stepped through it into a wood of darker and bigger trees where they found dead branches and rotten wood and sticks and dry leaves and fir-cones in plenty. They went to and fro with bundles until they had a good pile on the dais. At the fifth journey they found the well, just outside the hall, hidden in weeds, but clean and fresh and deep when they had cleaned these away... the girls went out to pick some more apples and the boys built the fire.... They had great difficulty in lighting it and used a lot of matches, but they succeeded in the end. Finally, all four sat down with their backs to the wall and their faces to the fire. They tried roasting the apples on the ends of sticks. But roast apples are not very good without sugar, and they are too hot to eat with your fingers until they are too cold to be worth eating....

- C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian

See what he did there? It's not great writing (even without the redactions I made), but it's fairly good storytelling: there are challenges for the characters and little mini-stories as the kids try to overcome the obstacles in their way, and the fact that their good ideas don't always work out (roast apples, yum! Ouch!) makes the characters relatable (and likable, though likability isn't necessarily an essential quality in a main character; George R.R. Martin is very good at that sort of thing, by the way).

It's hard to care about a Mary Sue character like Equality 7-2521 precisely because he's perfect—no, it's not the jealousy that the passive drones of Equality 7-2521's society feel whenever he comes around to show off how beautiful and smart and handy he is (poor, misunderstood bastard, it is to weep that they can't admire him and have to drag him down to their level); it's the fact that a character who can do everything he wants to and is perfect in every way and always lands in a better place whenever something does try to knock him down isn't the least bit interesting. If there was the remotest possibility that Equality 7-2521 might go hungry because he doesn't know how to clean a bird carcass or shiver because he can't get a fire started or might in some other way fail, perhaps I could come around to caring what happens to him. But since I know he's going to succeed any time it matters (the only times Equality 7-2521 "fails" is when he gets caught past curfew and subsequently tries to persuade the Council Of Scholars that lightbulbs are awesome—and without these utterly predictable and expected "failures," there's no plot at all, thin as it is, so you pretty much expect these events from almost the first chapter).

This brings us back to Orwell, you know. Animal Farm is often read, simplistically, as a scathing allegorical indictment of the Soviet Union, which is close to the mark, yes, but nonetheless a miss. Because what makes Animal Farm such a compellingly good read, allegory or not, is that it's really a tragedy about the rise to dominance of Stalinism and the purging of idealists like Trotsky who might have guided the country along a different path. I'm not trying to push a historical agenda there—whether the Soviet Union could have been a kinder communist state but for Stalin or the question of whether Trotsky, who oversaw his own share of butchery during the Revolution, would have been a better leader after all is really a whole 'nother (and very complex) discussion; and it's not even essential to Orwell's version, actually, because Orwell doesn't actually come out and say that Snowball would have been a better pig than Napoleon—the reader might indeed imagine that Animal Farm would have nonetheless fallen under Snowball's leadership, too, albeit in a different direction (e.g. perhaps it's Napoleon's very brutishness that allows the Farm to survive and coexist with its neighbors at all, and Napoleon's corruption is the price of survival, though the price might not be worth it to the animals suffering under the pigs' tyranny; or something—this is all left to the reader, actually, so perhaps part of Orwell's brilliance is in writing what Tolkien might call an "applicable" novel and not merely an "allegorical" one).

That is, it's the animals' imperfections and failings in Animal Farm that lead the reader to care and worry about their fates and whether they'll succeed or even survive, and leads the reader to some sadness when characters in the book neither succeed nor survive and some anger when other characters who could have been good creatures turn out to be no better than (or in the book's punchline, indistinguishable from) human beings. Uncertainty keeps a reader turning pages. "What's going to happen next? Oh no! But maybe so-and-so will get what's coming to him. Yes! So-and-so came through! No, don't--!" Etc.

The only uncertainty in "Anthem" is just how bored you will be when the inevitable finally happens.

One of the ironies in all of this is that Rand perhaps could have gotten away with "Anthem" as an allegory centered on an implausibly-perfect hero if she'd made the book so short that the defects in plot and characterization just slipped right by. A character in a short story, for instance, might well be able to master ancient science in a page with no questions asked because the story ends on the next page and so the reader isn't given time to ask. Indeed, this is a structural advantage of the short story and one of the things that can make it appealing from the writer's point-of-view: you can just focus on the gimmick, get it done, and be gone well before the reader even notices how unlikely the whole thing should have been or that the ending, however satisfying as a short story ending, actually leaves all sorts of plot threads flapping around in the breeze. The irony, of course, is that "Anthem" is short Rand: her other fictional works are all much, much, much longer, yet "Anthem" could stand to be around 14,000 words shorter (this isn't an arbitrary number—a quick-and-dirty word count of the text comes out to around 19,000 words).

One could try to make excuses for "Anthem"--English wasn't the author's first language, it was an early work, whatever, but those are the sorts of things that might be forgiven or passed over if "Anthem" were exciting or were populated by interesting people or places. Indeed, the bestseller lists are full of badly-written books that at least intrigue the audience.

I've said that the protagonist and narrator of "Anthem" has no appeal to a reader. This isn't strictly true: I'm assuming a reader who is sane and mature, but there are audiences for whom an über-protagonist is appealing. Children, for instance, although one can find plenty of children's books and comics aimed at young children which feature more nuanced and fallible characters than Rand offers in "Anthem". Sociopaths, for another, and it's impossible not to note that much of Rand's following seem to flirt with sociopathy in the form of a very selfish narcissism. It isn't merely that Rand, in "Anthem", and Randians elsewhere advocate somebody's right to profit from their own efforts or are opposed to taxes, though these are obvious features of Rand's libertarian philosophy. What sets Objectivism apart, or one of the things, anyway, is that the desire to enjoy the fruits of one's work and not see anything taken away is combined with an astonishing sense of entitlement and absolutely no consideration of the possibility that one might have any kind of obligation to any other human being.

This is Rand's philosophy:

I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.

It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world. It is my mind which thinks, and the judgment of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth. It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect.

Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy: "I will it!"

Whatever road I take, the guiding star is within me; the guiding star and the loadstone which point the way. They point in but one direction. They point to me.

I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.

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.

I am a man. This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before!

I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom.

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. I covet no man's soul, nor is my soul theirs to covet.

I am neither foe nor friend to my brothers, but such as each of them shall deserve of me. And to earn my love, my brothers must do more than to have been born. I do not grant my love without reason, nor to any chance passer-by who may wish to claim it. I honor men with my love. But honor is a thing to be earned.

I shall choose friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire. For in the temple of his spirit, each man is alone. Let each man keep his temple untouched and undefiled. Then let him join hands with others if he wishes, but only beyond his holy threshold.

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 man's soul, else it becomes a monster, the root of all the evils on earth, the root of man's torture by men, and an unspeakable lie.

This is juvenile twaddle. "I'm the center of the universe, I, me, mine! I owe nothing to nobody no-ways and no-how!" This isn't solely a political philosophy nor an economic one: it's also a moral philosophy, one that repudiates the social connections that human beings form as social animals. Setting aside the question of how much I should pay in taxes or whether I ought to be able to choose my own profession, there are considerations like whether I owe it to my neighbor to try to save him when his house is on fire, if I can, because it's a nice thing to do and I'd hope he'd do the same for me if our circumstances were reversed. Or even more mundane situations like letting someone cut in front of me in heavy traffic because their lane is closed off by a wreck ahead, or whether I owe it to someone to open a door for them when their arms are full of packages and they can't do it themselves without dropping everything—or even when their arms aren't full, for that matter. It's telling that the narrator of "Anthem" expounds the above-quoted nonsense while he's living in a house he's found in the mountains, alone except for his woman and with no connection to any other human being anywhere, isolated and by himself; every man in the Randverse is an island. Of course, it's also telling that Equality 7-2521—or "Prometheus" as he's presumptuously taken to calling himself by this stage of the book, because he is still infatuated by his wonderful lightbulb, like an obscure pop singer who can't help mentioning every time he opens his mouth that one hit tune he had for two weeks in 1985—as I was saying, it's also telling that he and his woman have found this house on the mountaintop, they didn't build it themselves, it's abandoned and they claimed it; yet he doesn't seem to feel much sense of obligation to the builders, either, or to the authors of the books he finds in a library in the abandoned old home.

The builders and those writers are presumably long dead, so it's not like Equality/Prometheus' moving-in can be called theft or that he has some formal obligation to give them anything; but that's not really why I mention it. I mention it, of course, because it turns out even Ayn Rand's self-actualized, self-educated, self-sufficient extraordinary übermensch isn't actually as self-sufficient and self-created as all that; he's taking what previous generations have left behind and freely used it with little or no credit to any of them, and then the only thing it occurs to him to leave behind to future generations is his lightbulb and accompanying credo of selfishness and narcissism. He'll teach his son to say "I" and never "we," but apparently that's all he owes anybody and fuck you or anyone else who suggests there might be something more, or that his own achievements are a direct result of people thinking collectively and saying "we"; not to say that all those previous thinkers and builders were socialists or anything like that, merely that one of the main reasons for writing anything down in the first place is so you can give it to someone else, perhaps many, many, many years (decades, centuries, millennia) after it's possible for you to personally profit from it anymore.

Anyway, if you're terribly selfish, I suppose it's nice to feel someone is validating you. Especially if they use lots of words and are trying to sound smart.

There's one final, overreaching irony in "Anthem" that I think begs to be pointed out. What we have in the novella is this narcissistic self-made genius idealist who is explaining how he realized his society sucked, how he broke away from it, how he will one day return to lead away like-minded men to his compound in the mountains, where it seems he will continue to lead them towards a better society, etc., etc., etc. What's really amusing as you read the last few chapters is how much it all sounds like the sort of rant a totalitarian leader might write in his manifesto. Contrary to what Rand might think, leaders of totalitarian communist regimes love to write about how free and wonderful all men will be, much as their counterparts on the fascistic far-right love to in their corresponding manifestos. They may quibble over whether the way to establish the ideal society is by nationalizing the mills or crushing the socialist unions, but what they all have in common is how the komissar or führer is the most brilliant and noble of all men and how he will bring all men to greater glory if they follow him. In other words, "Anthem" ultimately sounds more like the kind of thing it's ostensibly opposed to than it does an actual repudiation.

When I shall have read all the books and learned my new way, when my home will be ready and my earth tilled, I shall steal one day, for the last time, into the cursed City of my birth. I shall call to me my friend who has no name save International 4-8818, and all those like him, Fraternity 2-5503, who cries without reason, and Solidarity 9-6347 who calls for help in the night, and a few others. I shall call to me all the men and the women whose spirit has not been killed within them and who suffer under the yoke of their brothers. They will follow me and I shall lead them to my fortress. And here, in this uncharted wilderness, I and they, my chosen friends, my fellow-builders, shall write the first chapter in the new history of man.

Here, on this mountain, I and my sons and my chosen friends shall build our new land and our fort. And it will become as the heart of the earth, lost and hidden at first, but beating, beating louder each day. And word of it will reach every corner of the earth. And the roads of the world will become as veins which will carry the best of the world's blood to my threshold. And all my brothers, and the Councils of my brothers, will hear of it, but they will be impotent against me. And the day will come when I shall break the chains of the earth, and raze the cities of the enslaved, and my home will become the capital of a world where each man will be free to exist for his own sake.

And everything was wonderful until somebody had a problem with something and then the screaming and the purges and the enemy lists and public executions and secret disappearances with hidden mass graves started, and then everything was awful.

In short? "Anthem" fails on every conceivable level. It's poorly-written, it's a lousy story, it's too long, and as an allegory it fails because (a) it's an allegory and (b) it ultimately comes off as the deranged tract written by exactly the sort of person who ultimately sets up a dysfunctional dystopian totalitarian society based on democratic ideals like the one Rand is ostensibly ripping on. One almost hates to apply the obvious Internet cliché, but here is "Anthem" in a word (one that could be carved in stone and hung over the front door, the word which can never be taken from "Anthem" for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory):



Janiece Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 7:24:00 AM EST  

See, this is why you're a big ole masochist.

I can't believe you FINISHED that piece of excrement, and thought enough about it to write this analysis. I myself would have taken out my own eye with a spork about 25 pages in simply to get away.

The literary version of "Coyote Ugly."

Eric Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 7:53:00 AM EST  

Ah! But Janiece, this part was worth it: I did enjoy writing this post! And this is also the reason it's good to occasionally read bad books: so you can think about why they're bad and perhaps gain insights into what makes a good (or at least better) one. I enjoyed thinking about "Anthem" in terms of a craft I have some pretensions about. "Anthem" and Animal Farm are both allegories inspired by Soviet communism: why is one banal tripe and the other something close to a masterpiece? It's not merely differences in their philosophical outlook, which is something I hope I got across in the post.

And I do hope the post was as interesting to read as it was fun to write!

timb111 Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 10:24:00 AM EST  

I tried reading Anthem when I was about 15. I never saw a reason to try again.

My father gave me Animal Farm just before a vacation when I was 13. I was very disappointed that he'd think I was interested in a kid's book and didn't open it until he asked me about it and explained that it wasn't. Since then I've read pretty much everything Orwell has written. I've never finished anything Rand wrote, though I've tried a couple of times.

Carol Elaine Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 1:01:00 PM EST  

After reading 1984 in 1984 - the year I graduated from high school - I instantly checked Animal Farm out of the school library in the morning and returned it that afternoon. I read it every available moment on that school day. And even a few non-available moments where I was supposed to be paying attention to the teacher. Damn, I love that book.

I read The Fountainhead about six or seven years ago. I didn't hate it, but I didn't like it either - I saw no reason to read any other Rand works. Remarkably immature.

Janiece is right, Eric. You're a masochist.

Seth Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 3:09:00 AM EST  

Ah, Eric, I love this. By chance, a couple of weeks ago I decided not to read Atlas Shrugged and instead review it based on the trailer for the upcoming movie, the Wikipedia article, and John Galt's famous speech. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I reached many of the same conclusions you did.

John the Scientist Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 9:20:00 AM EST  

An excellent piece, Eric, and it captures much of the resoning behind my horror of the dominance of Objectivists in the Libertarian party.

I'm not sure if you saw this piece, but it linked to a Slate article you might have read here.

That piece captures the other reason that I have a horror of Objectivists - they, like the National Socialists, became exactly the mirror image of their arch-enemies, the Communists, with Rand and Objectivism admirably playing the part of Stalin and Socialist Realism:

As her books became mega-sellers, Rand surrounded herself with a tightly policed cult of young people who believed she had found the One Objective Truth about the world. They were required to memorize her novels and slapped down as "imbecilic" and "anti-life" by Rand if they asked questions. One student said: "There was a right kind of music, a right kind of art, a right kind of interior design, a right kind of dancing. There were wrong books which we should not buy."

Rand had become addicted to amphetamines while writing The Fountainhead, and her natural paranoia and aggression were becoming more extreme as they pumped though her veins. Anybody in her circle who disagreed with her was subjected to a show trial in front of the whole group in which they would be required to repent or face expulsion. Her secretary, Barbara Weiss, said: "I came to look on her as a killer of people." The workings of her cult exposed the hollowness of Rand's claims to venerate free thinking and individualism. Her message was, think freely, as long as it leads you into total agreement with me.

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