The laws say that none among men may be alone, ever and at any time, for this is the great transgression and the root of all evil.
This is my first time with Ayn Rand. I’m aware of the general sentiments regarding her philosophies but am unfamiliar with the finer intricacies of her arguments. This review is solely based upon my personal reading of “Anthem”. Giving this book a definitive rating is also rather difficult. I found the first half of the book quite fascinating in terms of world-building and prose style. The second half of the book ran contrary to all notions I had formed of the dystopian world portrayed in the first part. Towards the end, the story became “pure evil”, leaving us with a forceful and outrageous message. It is undoubtedly an incredibly written book which makes the moralistic contradictions even more shocking!
We were guilty and we confess it here: we were guilty of the great Transgression of Preference. We preferred some work and some lessons to the others.
Our narrator, Equality 7-2521 recounts the story of the life he has lived in a world where all notions of individuality have ceased to exist. Absolute collectivism is the norm of society which is heavily integrated. Use of pronouns such as I, me or you have been replaced by “we” and “them”. Men toil for the sake of fellow brothers and sisters, and they accept that which is already planned for them. There is no concept of individual thought or creativity which are considered to be highest form of transgressions a man can commit.
It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we were speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone.
The protagonist begins his account by admitting to the sins he has indulged in – sins of inquiry, curiosity and desire. He has acquired the ability to write that which he cannot share with others, and has also stumbled upon an underground tunnel, a discovery he cannot disclose to anyone. He had desired to join the Home of Scholars owing to his tendencies towards learning but was condemned to a life as a mere sweeper of the city. The tunnel provides him with respite where he can indulge in free thought and writing enables him to give definitive form to internal doubts and inquiries which remain hidden within him.
We think that there are mysteries in the sky and under the water and in the plants which grow. But the Council of Scholars has said that there are no mysteries, and the Council of Scholars knows all things.
He also encounters The Golden One, Liberty 5-3000 who is a seventeen year old peasant girl working in the fields. They develop a silent understanding of each other which eventually moulds into love. Since it is forbidden to form alliances with other human beings (unless directed to), they keep their attachments discreet. In the tunnel the protagonist also discovers a piece of wire which emits light upon heating. His inquisitive nature and happiness overpowers his will for secrecy and he aims to share his findings with members of Home of Scholars. The elder members take deep offense at his actions since he was consigned to be only a sweeper. He then flees into Uncharted Forest which borders the city.
Our protagonist realises that he is indeed damned since he has forsaken his brothers, yet he enjoys the freedom of the wilderness around him. He is joined by his beloved, The Golden One who had followed him into the forest after his escape. After days of exploration they find a house from the Unmentionable Times where they decide to settle in. Equality comes across manuscripts written ages ago, finds out about the “I” and rediscovers individuality which was lost upon them.
World Building and Prose Style
We went on, cutting through the branches, and it was as if we were swimming through a sea of leaves, with the bushes as waves rising and falling and rising around us, and flinging their green sprays high to the treetops. The trees parted before us, calling us forward. The forest seemed to welcome us. We went on, without thought, without care, with nothing to feel save the song of our body.
Probably the only aspect of this book which have stayed with me is the epistolary style which documents workings of a well-crafted dystopian world. We see the world through Equality’s eyes which lends it greater credibility and concreteness. Simple prose style makes the world-building even more haunting. His journal entries feel real and plausible, his inquisitive nature is apparent through persistent admission of guilt of having committed sins.
All the great modern inventions come from the Home of the Scholars, such as the newest one, which was found only a hundred years ago, of how to make candles from wax and string; also, how to make glass, which is put in our windows to protect us from the rain
Thinking is confined to certain houses such as Council of Vocations and Home of Scholars. Each phase of life scribes to a specific house such as Home of Infants where children are raised, Home of Useless where they elderly are sequestered, and each vocation has a separate house such as House of Leaders out of which emerge political leaders, Home of Scholars where members deliberate upon various tangible and intangible notions. Then there are various councils which regulate and authorise thought and exploration, assign specific tasks and designate mating partners.
They called the Students’ names, and when the Students stepped before them, one after another, the Council said: “Carpenter” or “Doctor” or “Cook” or “Leader.” Then each Student raised their right arm and said: “The will of our brothers be done.”
Life in this world is austere and scheduled, controlled by a systematic approach to eating, entertainment, sleeping and working. Savage punishments are accorded for the most minor of offences. Singling out one human over entire brotherhood to receive one’s affections, preferring specific jobs, exploring the city one is not authorised to, or doing anything for oneself are all considered mighty sins and are heavily penalised. Complete submission of mind and body for collective benefit for all humankind is the highest and only attainable goal, worthy of toiling and sacrificing entire lives for.
Upon reading first half of the book, my conception of Anthem’s world where control is relegated to fixed strata of society was reflective of our capitalist society where corporations have absolute influence on all workings of the world. Much like the Homes and Councils of the story, corporations have confined human thinking and creativity to a great extent. We are no different from the nameless men and women inhabiting Rand’s world, surrounded by material fatigues which are showered upon us every day.
From the isolation of social media to being imprisoned by advertisements, we are confined to lives driven by corporate agenda. Wilful ignorance is spread by deceitful media practices, quality of education and its accessibility are limited to uppermost echelons of society. Individual ambition based upon mercenary attitudes garners more integration in society than ambition based on true forms of creativity and goodness. Liberal thinking is misused to justify oppression, collective goodness is squandered on protecting the most powerful among us.
And yet there is no shame in us and no regret. We say to ourselves that we are a wretch and a traitor. But we feel no burden upon our spirit and no fear in our heart. And it seems to us that our spirit is clear as a lake troubled by no eyes save those of the sun. And in our heart—strange are the ways of evil!—in our heart there is the first peace we have known in twenty years.
With this backdrop in mind, Equality’s choices seem profoundly courageous. He intends to question in spite of the repercussions. He lets his mind wander in order to find true freedom and liberty. For him, settling into a dictated life does not work. He is aware of his potential and does not shrink from searching the true meaning of life. He puts to use his faculty of reasoning which has been grounded into obedience through societal norms. He revolts through an outpouring of creativity and curiosity since he is not entirely satiated with his life.
Only the glass box in our arms is like a living heart that gives us strength. We have lied to ourselves. We have not built this box for the good of our brothers. We built it for its own sake. It is above all our brothers to us, and its truth above their truth.
This is where the story takes a shocking turn. Having once tasted true liberty, being cognizant of the “I”, having given names to himself and his beloved (Prometheus and Gaea), our narrator becomes intensely rigid about his individuality. He exclaims the power of the self and ego and vows to live only for himself. He claims to be the most supreme of being since he alone has discovered the true meaning of life and has experienced emancipation of thought and action. He makes conceited statements about futility of “we” and that his will alone shall be his sole guide.
The story leaves a sour taste. Given the mass oppression faced by inhabitants of Rand’s world, the final message on notions of liberty and free-will are tragically appalling. She seems to rationalise egoism and greed – two ideas which have frequently ravaged our world.
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.
The problem, as I see it, lies in Rand’s depiction of extreme ends of spectrum of collectivism and individualism. Anthem’s world is a highly integrated society where individual rights are forfeited for the sake of collective good. This tapers off creativity and resourcefulness, two hallmarks of human distinctness through which men progress. Hence ideas such as altruism and sacrifice are cast in a negative light.
I understood that centuries of chains and lashes will not kill the spirit of man nor the sense of truth within him.
Towards the end of the novel, Rand propagates the idea of individualism which is extremely harsh. She endorses a life lived for none other than oneself where the self is given absolute power and control over one’s own life. No regard for others are to be taken into consideration. One’s “ego” is the only thing one must yield to in all matters. Nothing is more significant than one’s own will. Through this one can formulate own judgements and decisions. This effectively renders the fine line between good and evil as unnecessary. In Equality’s opinion, nothing else matters but him.
It is my mind which thinks, and the judgement 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.
Rand’s theory is inherently fallacious. Equality is keen to bring up his children with notions of individualism. He intends to go back to the city and bring back some fellow citizens to his new home. He wants to share his experience with others. He expresses interest in imparting others with the wisdom he has acquired so that they too can live a boundless life, free from shackles of authority. Does this not confirm man’s innate need of companionship, of leaving a legacy behind? Admittedly, the morals he wants to impress upon others are not exactly ethical, yet the fact is that he relies on others to share with him his newfound life.
Any group, no matter how small, only flourishes through dissemination of ideas and cooperation. Cooperation requires accommodation which is only possible through some degree of selflessness and kindness. Communal living, to which Equality aspires can only be attained through a correct balance of altruistic goals and collective goodness. But this utopian dream is already fated for destruction owing to Equality’s supreme egoism. He relies on himself for ultimate gratification.
Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy: “I will it!”
Ayn Rand aims to portray the protagonist as a saviour but to me Equality becomes ruthless and vile. I detest his self-proclaimed greatness, his deliberate villainy, his absolute pride in himself. I loathe The Golden One for her subservience to Equality, “Rather shall we be evil with you than good with all our brothers,” she says, exonerating herself from difference between goodness and evil.
I feel absolute contempt for the implications of this story, its blatant propagation of selfishness and materialism, its brazen disregard for goodness, nobility and selflessness. Ayn Rand’s final message is as much appalling as it is a cautionary tale for those who can see through the evil. I would never recommend this book to anyone owing to the maliciousness it advocates towards the end.