What little I have heard about Ayn Rand has been positive, so when I saw a little book by her I decided to gamble away my 50 cents in hopes of an intellectual jackpot. Another factor that swayed me was the slim size of Anthem. Why it is called Anthem has continued to puzzle me to this moment but I comfort myself with remembering other good reads with obscure titles.
The story presents a futuristic society with an all encompassing socialist government. In this society the individual does not exist, there is only "we" and "us." The very word "I" has been forgotten. The effect that the loss of this word makes on what would normally be considered a fictional autobiography of the hero is eerie. The main force of the book is derived from this constant omission and replacement of "I" with "we."
The oddball hero of this story is different from his peers; he is disappointed by the robot like education that "we" received, angered that "our" assigned profession is street sweeper, and saddened that communication between the farmer-woman and "us" is forbidden. And so the stage is set for Equality 7-2521 to begin breaking the inviolate laws of the people. Eventually he is condemned to death for inventing something that the "World Council of Scholars" blindly despises because he, Equality 7-2521, a street sweeper, without his peers in the "Homes of the Scholars," has make something that would leave those employed in the "Department of Candles" without work. He escapes to the "Uncharted Forest" and finds there a house from the "Unmentionable Times." In it he finds books that use the strange word "I."
This book delivers a heavy blow at socialism and even, to some extent, democracy. It presents the horror that the majority can bring into the world. A bleak, lifeless society ruled by councils elected "by a free and general vote" (21) from the "Homes of the Leaders." But I think the solution Rand puts forth errs in exactly the opposite direction. It is true that individuals are important, more important than any state or special interest group. C.S.Lewis comments somewhere that the entire history of a nation is but the blink of a eye compared to the eternity a man's soul will live. But Rand seems to advocate throwing off all law and all restraint and to declare oneself a god--unaccountable to anyone--a pride comparable to Lucifer's.
After reading (and rightly rejecting) the first part of the book it is tempting in the second part to worship at the shine of "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" (112-113). Those who elevate the self seem to have forgotten the creator of every individual; that behind every "I" stands the great "I Am."
Was the gamble worth it? Lets just say I am willing to risk 2 or 3 dollars at a used bookstore for Atlas Shrugged. Still, there are some clods of dirt in this bag of gold.
Rand, Ayn. Anthem. Signet 1946. eighteenth printing.