Tuesday, December 25, 2012

An Anthem to Individualism

Before Lois Lowry wrote The Giver, Ayn Rand wrote Anthem, another dystopian tale that concerns a collectivist society and its suppression of individual liberty.  Both books are short and plainly written, but profoundly thought-provoking in their simplicity.

Anthem is even shorter than The Giver at a mere 100 pages, which makes it a welcome alternative for those who are intimidated by Rand’s 1000-page whale of a novel, Atlas ShruggedAnthem is unique in that it’s told mostly through the first-person plural perspective; this voice reflects the utter extinction of the individual in the story’s universe, where collectivism has so influenced society that men are now incapable of identifying themselves as singular beings, instead referring to themselves and their brothers as “we” and “they”.  The book’s protagonist, named Equality 7-2521, inhabits an unadulterated socialist community ruled by a elite class known as the Scholars, who assign to each member of the country a position at the age of 15 which they must hold until their bodies break and they enter the house of the Useless.  Equality 7-2521 has been taught to worship the body of mankind, to respect all men equally as members of the community, to faithfully adhere to the laws of sameness, and to condemn all ventures that promote individuality.  Special friendships between individuals, whether they be casual or romantic, are also forbidden, for only two entities can share such relationships that exclude the state at large, and the Scholars preach, “What is not done collectively cannot be good.”  By the time he turns 21, Equality-2521 has already committed several criminal acts, including befriending his fellow street-sweeper International 4-8818, falling in love with a beautiful woman, asking questions about science, and surpassing his peers in intelligence.  It’s only a matter of time before he tries to break his bondage to the state and pursue the prosperity long denied to him.

While Anthem contains a lot of weighty, philosophically challenging material for its brevity, it’s inferior to The Giver for several reasons.  Rand tends to be overly heavy-handed in her defense of capitalism, and Anthem comes across as especially smug.  An adamant left-winger who reads Rand will likely find her condescending, arrogant, and narrow-minded, while a dedicated conservative/libertarian will judge her style to be unsubtle and preachy.  On the other hand, the conservative themes of The Giver are only accentuated by the subtlety of Lowry’s narrative and the lack of a clearly provided “right answer” to the book’s philosophical questions.  Rand often makes the mistake of telling her readers what to believe, but Lowry never stoops to lecturing in The Giver.  On another note, Anthem feels less like a novel and more like an extended sermon on Rand’s man-centered religious beliefs.  The book consists of a thin plotline that exists mainly to convey Rand’s message about the individual and the collective.  Having reached the 200-page mark, I can say that Atlas Shrugged has far better character development than Anthem, but on the flip side Atlas is 20 times as long and the length is palpable.  Lowry, in contrast, delivers narrative and political philosophy simultaneously in The Giver, never compromising her characters or stories for a message.  To compare the two novelists with a visual analogy, Rand writes lectures and wraps them in a story, whereas Lowry writes stories and wraps themes around them.  The Giver reads more like a harmless work of fiction than Anthem, and so it’s probably been responsible for converting more liberals than its predecessor of 50 years.

Nevertheless, Anthem is a fine introduction to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism that one could read through in about 2 hours.  It immerses the reader in a strange but frightful setting and invites one to ponder the role of a government in shaping its citizens’ lives.  75 years before our time, Rand wrote a passionate rebuke to the belief that “we are in this together”, and unless Americans heed her warning against collectivist utopia, slavery to the community is their future.

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