Wonders of the world they wrote

So, the other night on a whim I read Ayn Rand’s Anthem. I’ve looked into Objectivism as a philosophy as a few times, though never with any particular understanding of its appeal to some people, but this was my first serious foray into the fiction of the often verbose Ms. Rand.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. A couple of years back, I saw a high school production of her play, “The Night of January 16th.” I was not particularly impressed with the script, though the actual performance was pretty good.

Anyway, Ayn has become something of a running joke among my peers. There was a period of time where a copy of The Fountainhead was rolling around the backseat of my friend’s car, and we’d occasionally read random passages of pretentious dialogue or florid descriptions out of it for a laugh.

Anthem, owing to its short length, avoids many of those problems; the story is so short that the printers have done everything possible to pad it out–the font size is enormous (and changes about twenty pages in), the columns are narrow, the leading is huge, and there’s an extra space after every paragraph. As if that weren’t enough, a second version of the novella is included, photocopied from an earlier manuscript, complete with the author’s handwritten editing. They really wanted to justify charging 7.99 for a story that weighs in at 90 pages, padded out.

About 15 pages in, my overwhelming impression was that I preferred this story when it was “Harrison Bergeron.” Halfway through, I realized that Rush’s “2112” concept album was a closer adaptation of the story than their song “Anthem.”

And before I knew it, the book had devolved into a chapter or two of soapbox lecturing, and then it was over. It wasn’t a bad story, mind you. And I’m always a sucker for a good dystopia story. But there were some significant problems with it, which cast harsh light on Objectivism as any kind of viable philosophy.

First, and perhaps least relevant to the philosophy, is just how blatantly anti-feminist the story is. The only female character follows around the protagonist like a lost puppy looking for guidance. I understand that Ms. Rand was a bit of a sub, but this is ridiculous. She barely had a personality; she was purely object.

Our heroic protagonist, Prometheus (née Equality 7-2521), was the pure, unfiltered Randian hero: brilliant, willful, and instantly skillful at whatever he puts his hands to. In his post-apocalyptic quasi-medieval society, he and another lowly street-sweeper manage to find an abandoned subway tunnel. Through pure trial-and-error experimentation with the remnants of 20th century technology, he rediscovers steel and electricity, and he singlehandedly reinvents the lightbulb. Ultimately, he decides to share this discovery with the scholars, but is refused and threatened with death. He flees into the woods, where he proves to be a fantastic hunter (his first flung stone kills a bird, and he’s able to fashion a bow and arrows–and use them with great skill–with no apparent prior knowledge or training). At some point, the one girl he knew in the city shows up, having followed him. Eventually, they come across an abandoned centuries-old cottage in the mountains, with its own generator (which our hero is able to repair). He reads voraciously from the cabin’s apparently prodigious library, then comes up with names for himself (Prometheus) and his bride (Gaea). He decides that community and altruism are evils, designed to keep folks like him from achieving their potential, and leading to the stagnation of society and the stifling of independent thought. He determines that he needs no one else, and so he will return to town eventually to liberate the other free-minded ones like himself.

Yikes, where to begin? I’ll leave aside the evolutionary benefits of altruism at this point, they’re purely incidental to the problems with Prometheus’s reasoning. Isolation and independence are all well and good for him, but they don’t translate into a real-world viable option. See, Prometheus is only able to become self-sufficient because he is the luckiest man on the damn planet. He literally falls into advanced technology that, for whatever reason, still kind of works, and then fumbles his way through several centuries worth of scientific progress. He manages to leave town with little problem, despite his violation of various serious laws. He manages never to eat anything poisonous while living in the wilderness for a fairly extended period of time, bumps into his girlfriend in the vast woods, and finds a pristine, untouched, undamaged house from centuries earlier. This might make for decent fiction, but you can’t count on such wondrous luck in the real world, and that’s a nail in the coffin for Objectivism as a viable way of life. Sure, selfishness works when you’ve got everything else going for you.

You know, except when it doesn’t. Somehow, in his rant at the end of the book, Prometheus fails to recognize that it’s dependence on others and their altruism which got him to this point. He found the entrance to the subway with his friend, International 4-8818, needed his help to open it, and had to trust him to put himself at risk in order to keep the finding (and their subsequent experimentations) secret. He needed Liberty 5-3000 (who he’d later rename Gaea) to keep their conversations and interactions secret. He needed the humans of the past to share their innovations with the rest of the world, so that he might rediscover them. And, you know, if Gaea’s going to fulfill her role in recreating an individualistic human society, he’s going to need her around too. Selfishness only works when you’re actually self-sufficient, which no one, not even our dear Prometheus, is.

Anthem, to an astute reader, is more an indictment of Objectivism than a promotion of it. Prometheus’s speech at the end reeks of sour grapes and undeserved feelings of superiority, and it utterly ignores how much he’s relied on other people to get anywhere near self-sufficiency. And then, after decrying altruism and denouncing society, he resolves to return to the city to liberate others like him and bring them to his mountain home. Last I checked, that sort of action qualified as altruistic, and a collection of people living together was the necessary component of a society.

It really demonstrates the problem with Objectivists: they claim that altruism is a general negative and that people ought to be able to get by on their own skills and merits. Then they run headlong into reality, in which people actually do need one another. They’re ultimately put into a position of perpetual complaining, that they’re better than society and they don’t need other people and altruism is bad, but not actually being able to do anything about it. Objectivism is a philosophy of inevitable cantankerousness.

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3 Responses to Wonders of the world they wrote

  1. Kazim says:

    Tom, thanks for bringing the post to my attention. I haven’t read Anthem, but I enjoyed it a lot.One of the things I wished I could spend more time on for the show yesterday, is just how much Rand relies on the use of fantasy illustrations to make her point. So for example she creates something like Galt’s Gulch, or Howard Roark’s self-imposed unemployment, but she always uses the device of her fiction to eliminate all of the problems that could come out of a scenario. The heroes are guaranteed to win and their hare-brained schemes are fated to work perfectly, because in the end they’re just mouthpieces for Ayn Rand in an Ayn Rand universe. So that bit about Prometheus become a first rate hunter with no training really hits home, and strikes me as typical wishful thinking.

  2. Bronze Dog says:

    It’s been a while since I last read this post.

    Our heroic protagonist, Prometheus (née Equality 7-2521), was the pure, unfiltered Randian hero: brilliant, willful, and instantly skillful at whatever he puts his hands to…. Through pure trial-and-error experimentation with the remnants of 20th century technology, he rediscovers steel and electricity, and he singlehandedly reinvents the lightbulb…. He flees into the woods, where he proves to be a fantastic hunter (his first flung stone kills a bird, and he’s able to fashion a bow and arrows–and use them with great skill–with no apparent prior knowledge or training).

    See, Prometheus is only able to become self-sufficient because he is the luckiest man on the damn planet.

    Now I’m reminded of what got me using the phrase, “Randian Marty Stu” for a while. The absurdity really seems to come out to me on that point. It seems like Rand took a superman and built a world specifically so that he could be persecuted and then “proven” right. If this were a comic book-type universe, I could accept some weird strokes of luck and suspend disbelief. But I don’t apply superhero logic to the real world. (I suspect there’s a Miller joke in there, somewhere.) If you’re going to expound a moral philosophy for the real world, it would make more sense to avoid extremes like that, and focus on much more ordinary people.

    He needed the humans of the past to share their innovations with the rest of the world, so that he might rediscover them.

    That’s one thing that also stands out to me: It’s a way to “cheat” to knowledge. It also strikes me as how a lazy, unimaginative CEO would look at science and technology: Someone else produces it through arcane processes, but he gets to exploit the knowledge. In the real world, we don’t advance by scavenging Atlantis or Lemuria, we advance by the generally altruistic scientific community: They get research grants, often from the government, to “gamble” on their hypothesis. They publish results for other scientists to read, and then others build on the work. Randroids will need to propose something better unless they want technological stasis.

    Anthem, to an astute reader, is more an indictment of Objectivism than a promotion of it. Prometheus’s speech at the end reeks of sour grapes and undeserved feelings of superiority, and it utterly ignores how much he’s relied on other people to get anywhere near self-sufficiency.

    That’s one thing that always hits me about Randroids and trollish libertarians. They never seem to grasp the everyday things that are made possible by altruistic/government actions. We need “altruistic” organizations like the FDA just so that I can trust the food I eat not to have rat droppings in it. I shouldn’t have to privately research which companies are cutting corners for their own benefit. Of course, moving into medicine, I doubt we’d maintain long lifespans if the medical community shifted to pure self-interest. DSHEA has shown us that much with the altie supplement industry.

    Essentially, the only people who could live healthy lives and get the most out of their money would be the Randian Marty Stus who’d have the omnidisciplinary science skills necessary to do the market research themselves. And how many people are really that knowledgeable and have the free time to spare for that research? If I ended up stuck in a Libertopia, I’d have low buyer confidence in all their products.

    It also goes into the problems with so-called “Social Darwinism.” A big reason first world countries are first world is because they have altruistic public school systems and laws against child labor. Without those, children would more likely be recruited into grunt work to help the family get by instead of having a chance to live up to their potential. A kid with “genius genes” or whatever born into poverty simply can’t prosper as much as an average kid born into wealth without something to even the playing field. The current system still has a lot of problems, but it’s a hell of a lot better than anything that came before. “Social Darwinism” and Rand’s Marty Stu fantasy expect that someone born into destitution will somehow bootstrap themselves up, despite not having access to education. Without public education, social mobility becomes heavily dependent on luck, which would explain why Prometheus needed so much dumb luck and the work of past humans to live out Rand’s fantasy.

  3. Pingback: Anthem’s Preliminary Failure | The Bronze Blog

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