A woman I once worked with described reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. She complained of the length of the book and said she from time to time skipped several pages ahead. At the time, I’d not read any Rand and didn’t know much about her save that she wrote big fat books, books of impressive weight and girth, the kind of books I loved. This seemed a terrible thing to me.
Until I read a book by Ayn Rand.
I didn’t even read a long one. And I didn’t even read it. I listened to the shortest book, Anthem, a two-disc “dramatization” (really just a reading with occasional synthesized music) and felt an overwhelming urge, stronger than any I’ve ever felt, an urge to press the fast forward.
The scope and breadth of Rand’s ignorance is rather breathtaking when you consider how worshipped she is among the self-proclaimed intellectuals who call themselves libertarians. (Dipwad TV blowhard John Stossel considers himself a Randian.) Anthem is a book about a primitive totalitarian society built on the ashes of the old world (ours) after a major war. It’s most likely meant as a philosophical fable, but it’s so deadpan serious that its metaphoric content lies flatly without any spark or warmth.
Rand’s presentation of this society is totally corny and ham-handed. Society there is so backward they actually teach that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it. So, of course, everything else they teach must be just as flat out wrong and nonsensical. And they teach in this society that people are interconnected and depend on each other.
Of course, for dramatic purposes, this is exaggerated and tarted up as the nanny-state evil libertarians consider all government to be. These proto-commies aren’t satisfied with interdependence; no, they work tirelessly to smash individuality, crush the human spirit, and work their citizens to death. You know, like that red communist enterprise Wal-Mart.
And despite this society being so primitive that their only sources of illumination are the sun and candles, that they teach bleeding patients as medicine, and they haven’t rediscovered movable type yet, there are councils for every category of thought and activity. How could such a primitive society be so completely organized sociologically without any religion save community? How could a society so primitive as to only have in the last “one hundred years” invented candles have a Council of Eugenics or even know what eugenics was?
It makes no damn sense and it represents a total a failure of imagination in favor of polemics. It’s clear Rand had little grasp of anthropology and sociology when she imagined this world (which would make her philosophy of reorganizing morality and community rather ignorant and ill-conceived). Even as a fable, it just doesn’t cut the mustard.
The narrator of Anthem has this hokey sci-fi name Equality 7-2521, as do others like Union 5-3992. He becomes friends with International 4-8818, which is, of course, a crime, that of showing preference for one person over the group as a whole. What underlines this absurdity is that Equality 7-2521 falls in love with a woman named Liberty 5-3000, despite this also being against the law, and he rechristens her The Golden One. This is apparently against the law too, as having or giving a name distinguishes one person from another.
Um, okay. Aren’t Liberty 5-3000 and Equality 7-2521 different names that would distinguish them from each other? It’s as if the society wants to be like that Dr. Seuss story about the woman who named all her sons Dave, but can’t quite make it to that yet. If this were Rand’s intentional derision of this ultra-egalitarian society, this contradiction might be turned for comic or ironic effect, but Rand’s too much of a fundamentalist individualist to take that route. There’s simply no room for humor in Rand’s world so mockery is out of the question.
Another clumsy element of this aspect of the story is how the narrator refers to himself and other individuals in the plural sense. (When he tells us something International 4-8818 says, he says “They say” and he only means that one single person. In a scene where a criminal is burned, the book reads “The transgressor were young.”) This is supposed to be part of society’s brainwashing so that people can’t think of themselves singularly. While that might be a logical part of this nightmarish society that Rand demonstrates, it makes the book hard to understand at points when you need to know if Equality 7-2521 is doing something by himself, or if he’s doing it with International 4-8818 and Union 5-3992. And, if society would go so far as to keep you from using singular pronouns, why would they give you individualistic names — even if they were numbers?
Eventually, Equality 7-2521 flees this society, after the Council of Scholars rejects his brilliant invention of the light bulb and decides to kill him. He escapes to the Uncharted Forest and lives for a while in a natural state, laughing, jumping, gamboling, and seeing his face as a reflection in water. Apparently, rainwater only pooled and collected in lakes and rivers in the Uncharted Forest because this is the first time ever he sees his reflection. He is followed into the wilderness of the Uncharted Forests by Liberty 5-3000. Their reunion is as corny as any romance novel. Here the story goes all out for metaphor. They are Adam and Eve; they are American settlers on the frontier. He picks new names for them, Prometheus and Gaia, respectively.
Together, they traverse the Uncharted Forest over hill and dale. “We climbed paths where the wild goat dare not follow,” Equality 7-2521, er, Prometheus writes. With this hyperbolic statement, either Rand or Prometheus demonstrates a profound ignorance of zoology, to add to the list.
Over these mountains, the pair discovers a house left over from the old times, a house filled with windows, mirrors, and books. Luckily for Prometheus, he speaks the same language as the books were written in. How convenient is that, that hundreds of years after society has been almost totally erased from the planet, a new society arises antithetical to that old world but speaking the same language? Some New World founders have all the luck. This newfound library allows him at long last to learn the dark, dark secret that totalitarian society worked so hard to keep hidden: first person singular pronouns. Hot diggety.
Chalk another item up for Rand being totally ignorant of. In this house in the forest, Equality discovers his individuality. Child development specialists have demonstrated entirely conclusively that the first principle of consciousness is that you exist, you yourself. You do not believe, as the saps in this book, that you are part of everyone else, but that they are part of you. One’s own psychological existence is never something that can be lost save by irreparable brain damage. You can be brainwashed into believing differently, but you can’t be brainwashed into receiving sensory stimulation communally.
When Prometheus tells us of his discovery, Rand embarks upon an anthemic rant about how great I am, I the individual who owes nothing to anyone and who stands alone, an island. The New Agey synthesizer music swells in the background and the reader’s voice at times rises almost to a preacherly shout. Here’s a taste of the selfishness that he descries:
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 in 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 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.
Short version: Jesus was an asshole; fuck your neighbor. Rand makes her hero call the word “I” a God. It’s quite clear from this that Rand never had kids or a meaningful sharing relationship with any other human beings even if she did marry Frank O’Connor.
Rand and her worship church, The Atlas Society, pretend like her sermon on the individual and the doctrine of selfishness were somehow revolutionary, but in reality it’s just a third rate de Sadean philosophy; it is Nietzsche without humanity, wit, intellectual rigor, or poetry. The end of the book is one ridiculous speech on how tough and real selfish people are, how one day they’ll kick everyone’s ass and then free the world from altruism. It builds, the reader’s voice getting louder and booming, the synthesizers wheezing out their most prodigious major key hums, and amplifies to the sacred word “Ego.”
Ego is fucking a-right, Rand. The book ends with such overweening egotism that it’s truly repulsive. It’s a testament to how idea poverty stricken Rand’s Objectivism is that this school has produced exactly one big name thinker, the founder herself. That’s a fine argument for a cult rather than a real school of philosophy.
It is as simplistically stupid to say that super individualism is the key to worldwide happiness, as it is to say that only through communal living can humanity advance. Both viewpoints have their strengths and weaknesses. Collective power can help smaller organizations stand up to bigger ones; while at the same time, group decision making can be a paralyzing experience that turns out homogenized pap (see, screenplays, Hollywood). Individuals can make amazing discoveries that revolutionize our world and our thinking, but they don’t do it tucked away in cabins in the Montana woods being isolated and totally self-sufficient (see, Bomber, Una). It’s quite clear how affected Rand was by her family’s losses during the Russian Revolution and this grudge apparently poisoned her life against even decent charity.
The mind reels when you consider someone bought the rights to this book and is hard at work producing a film version of it. Of course, unless they sex things up a bit, say add some gratuitous nudity of Liberty 5-3000 and a motorcycle chase, I can’t see this film doing quite the same box office as any Hollywood turd, Air Bud included.
For a better, shorter, sharper version of the story without the conservative revulsion against others, simply read Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” It has everything you could take away good from Anthem (what precious little there is) and it can be read in fifteen minutes.
As far as readers go, I’ve got no gripe against Paul Meier save that he read this shitpile of a book, this festering bilge. That he could get his start reading Of Mice and Men for the BBC and lead up to this, his most recent work, is a strange factoid about that man that I find oddly fascinating. Even if he does get a bit overwrought, he is about the only bright spot in the whole thing, save for Rand’s hilarious widespread ignorance.