Going into Ayn Rand’s Anthem I had very little “real” knowledge of her, her writing or her politics. Everything I know about her is word-of-mouth and I’m sure exaggeration. I have no plans to change that. If I write something incredibly wrong please someone point it out, I’m just writing about my response to this story as a piece of literary fiction. And that response is wow.
I’m not sure why Rand’s masterpieces Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead get all the credit when this is a big piece of work in such a tiny package. I mean Rand was writing about post-apocalyptic dystopias before it was cool. She was contemporaries with Huxley and their bleak views really must’ve inspired modern-day writers or maybe I’m just seeing connections where I want to see them. Either way, I would be shocked to find that the likes of Atwood, Collins and Orwell to name a few hadn’t read this work.
What got me most was the physical shift of the language from “us” and “we” to “I” and “me.” It was very difficult to read at first and I struggled to remember that each individual was referred to in the plural because there were no individuals. When the narrator reached self-actualization (not sure if that’s what it is, but that’s what I’m calling it), in Chapter 11 “I am. I think. I will.” I was sold as a reader. We go from a society with names like “Equality 7-2521” and “Liberty 5-3000” to identifying the other with names like “The Unconquered” and “The Golden One” to end up at individualization with “Prometheus” and “Gaea.” I won’t go into patriarchy as I’m sure that creates an entirely different reading of this book, but I was floored with this transition and it’s eloquence.
What I constantly wondered while reading this was whether Rand referred to her time formerly spent in Russia and the USSR. Was she referring to the ideals of communism and socialism: the lack of individual, the group, the shared resources and common good? I mean how totalitarian are these descriptors: the “Unmentionable Times” and “Transgression of Preference.” She even goes so far as to write a prayer,
“We are nothing. Mankind is all. By the grace of our brothers are we allowed our lives. We exist through, by and for our brothers who are the State. Amen.” (5)
which could easily be a sworn oath of allegiance. Is it pulled from one, does anyone know? And she included one of the first signs of a totalitarian or even just an ignorant mass, book burning:
“And the fire which is called the Dawn of the Great Rebirth, was the Script Fire where all the scripts of the Evil Ones were burned, and with them all the words of the Evil Ones.” (30)
I have no idea who said it and could probably look it up, but it’s that idea of there are worse things you can do to books than burn them, you could not read them. There’s a scene where the narrator re-discovers something and presents it to the scholars and all hell breaks loose. It’s a poignant reminder of how easy it is to slip backwards.
Recommendation: I thoroughly enjoyed the story and Rand’s writing style. This book is just as harrowing as it was 80 years ago and serves as a cautionary tale whose flag is still being waved by the likes of Atwood and Collins. Seriously though, if you’ve got a spare hour-or-so check it out.
Opening Line: “It is a sin to write this.”
Closing Line: “The sacred word: Ego.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers.)
Additional Quotes from Anthem
“And those times passed away, when men saw the Great Truth which is this: that all men are one and that there is no will save the will of all men together.” (3/4)
“International 4-8818 and we are friends. This is an evil thing to say, for it is a great transgression, the great Transgression of Preference, to love any among men better than the others…” (13)
“The secrets of this earth are not for all men to see, but only for those who will seek them.” (35)
“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.” (63)
“And that night we knew that to hold the body of a woman in our arms is neither ugly nor shameful, but the one ecstasy granted to the race of men.” (68)
“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 an end. it is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.” (78)
“I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of those 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 cover 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.” (79)
“The word ‘We’ is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it. 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.” (80)
“And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: ‘I.'” (81)
“There is nothing to take a man’s freedom from him, save other men. To be free, a man must be free of his brothers. That is freedom. That and nothing else.” (86)