Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ayn Rand: Sing Us a Song, You're the Overman

With royalties from Night of January 16th providing a steady income, Ayn Rand set about writing what would become The Fountainhead. In writing it, however, especially when it came to devising a climax to tie everything together, Rand found herself blocked for the first time in her life. To occupy her time and free her mind she turned to various side projects; she spent months writing and working on an abortive stage version of We the Living, entitled The Unconquered. She also turned one of her novellas, Ideal, into a stageplay that was never produced.

A breakthrough of sorts came when she traveled with her husband Frank O’Connor in July 1936 to Stonington, Connecticut where Frank was playing “Guts” Regan in a summer stock production of Night of January 16th. (Regan is a gangster who is in love with and helps Karen Andre, who he knows loves Bjorn Faulkner; that Frank should play the hapless vertex in a love triangle was a sad anticipation of his forlorn acquiescence of Rand’s later affair with the imposing and twenty-years-younger Nathaniel Branden.) There, inspired by a Saturday Evening Post short story originally entitled The Place of the Gods, a dystopic tale of a man in a primitive future stumbling upon the remains of a 20th century city, she produced in mere weeks her own dystopic fable.

In Anthem’s distant future, “collectivism” has won out and all of society is organized around a single state, so much so that individual identity, the very word “I’ itself, has been erased. The people spend their days in assigned labor and are not given proper names, but rather designations like Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000, those of our protagonist and his eventual female partner. E, as I’ll call him, happens upon an old tunnel from the Unmentionable Times, where he rediscovers electricity and the light bulb. He shows his discovery to the Council of Scholars, but is rebuked for thinking himself above them, and he flees into the woods. Liberty 5-3000 follows him, and they eventually come upon an old cabin on the side of a mountain. It is from reading the books inside that E, now rechristened Prometheus, rediscovers the word “I.” The book ends with a paeon to the ego and a vow to create a world “where each man will be free to exist for his own sake.”

Anthem recalls not so much 1984, to which it is often compared, or Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, the prototypical dystopia from which both Orwell and Rand drew liberally, as much as it does The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both works are narrated by naïve beings, one a child, the other child-like due to his upbringing. Both take place in slave societies. And both hinge on their protagonists consciously risking damnation to free the enslaved (in this case it is the protagonist himself and his mate). The details are obviously far different, but in these respects they are most similar.

Mark Twain, however, was dealing with actual slavery. Ayn Rand only thinks she does. In her preface she sniffs,

The greatest guilt today is that of people who accept collectivism by moral default.... They expect, when they find themselves in a world of bloody ruins and concentration camps, to escape moral responsibility by wailing: “But I didn’t mean this!”

Those who want slavery should have the grace to name it by its proper name.

That this talk of moral responsibility for concentration camps and serfdom was written in 1946 is rather appalling, and Anthem, seen in this light may well seem unreadable but for another crucial difference from Huckleberry Finn: humor. Twain’s book is shot through with scabrous irony, right down to the affection Huck uses in such a self-evidently crude epithet as ‘Nigger Jim.’ Its humor is bone dry, but it’s there.

Anthem is quite funny, too, but without meaning to be. For all its celebration of happiness as the individual’s highest good, its solemn, self-consciously biblical style, with shades of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is utterly mirthless, treating everything about its world with the utmost seriousness. In certain passages, especially the ending, this has a certain effectiveness:

But I am done with this creed of corruption.

I am done with the monster of “We,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame.

And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, 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:


It has the same grandiloquent appeal, an awesomeness in its desire to overwhelm, as much Soviet art, such as “The Motherland Calls.”

But this tone is sustained no matter how ridiculous the circumstances. And they are most ridiculous. People are given names such as Collective 0-0009, Democracy 4-6998, and Unanimity 7-3304. Workers, the Old Ones, retire to the Home of the Useless at age forty, and if they survive, they become Ancients at age…forty-five! It took twenty men to invent the candle, and “fifty years to secure the approval of all the Councils for the Candle, and to decide upon the number needed, and to re-fit the Plans so as to make candles instead of torches.” At one point Equality 7-2521 imitates a retarded child, “Union 5-3992, who were a pale boy with only half a brain,” in order to fit in. The prose apes Nietzsche’s stentorian bravado but has none of his wit, and that is deadly.

If Rand had had a sense of humor, she might have had some Tom Stoppard-esque loopiness on her hands to use against her declared enemies. This is supposed to be bleak satire, and so the gross exaggeration is most certainly intended. But satire needs some basis in reality, some plausibility, in order to bite, and there is nothing plausible about a group of collectivists this face-palmingly stupid being able to regress all of humanity back to the somewhen between prehistory and parable. The book mistakes reducto ad absurdum for clairvoyance, and so instead of laughing at the foolish collectivists, one is expected to fear them and has to giggle at Rand’s apocalyptic fervor for thinking such ridiculousness a serious threat.

As such Anthem is a minor camp classic: incredibly mannered, artificial, deadly earnest, and all to extraordinary comic effect. It’s also possibly Rand’s best work; it lacks the stiltedness of We the Living and the sexual authoritarianism and misanthropy of Night of January 16th, and it makes its point far quicker than the mammoth Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Its kitsch quotient saves it from being completely repugnant, and there is undeniable style to its prose, albeit to unfortunate ends; it is like watching a swimmer swan-dive into an empty pool.

Like so much of Rand’s early work, though, Anthem would not find an audience for some time. Unable to find a publisher in America (one reader rejected it in on the grounds that Rand “didn’t understand socialism”), Rand was able to have it published in England in 1938 under its original title Ego. It would not appear in America until 1946, by which time its author had attempted prophecy again with somewhat greater success by turning her predictive eye on--who else?--herself.

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