15 July 2009

Ayn Rand, Anthem, 1938

Rand wrote this at the same time as she was working on The Fountainhead, so the two books share the theme of asserting individuality over collective living (the edition available today is her revised 1946 version). This is a very straightforward story but also a rather overworked parable, in which a future society populated by people who are numbered rather than named exists without the concept of ‘I’, instead only having ‘we’ with which to express themselves, and collectivism is enforced almost as a religion. The protagonist, Equality 7-2521, rather unbelievably gets to do everything all by his very resourceful self: stumble upon a lost source of ancient knowledge, make scientific discoveries singlehanded, suffer cruel punishment for his good fortune, escape from jail, win the most beautiful girl and discover the Unspeakable Word. And rather uniquely, because of Equality’s upbringing most of Anthem is told only using the first and third persons plural. Any atheist who has shaken off an earlier religion will, similarly, probably understand some of Rand’s antipathy to her roots, and her loathing for Russian collectivism informs the whole story. The influence of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is also there in the background, despite being thematically rather different. This is not a natural or free-flowing tale at all, it’s (necessarily) linguistically clumsy and way too earnest, but as a vision of a mind breaking free from imposed constraints it displays its own kind of self-conscious dystopian perfection.  PY


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