Ayn Rand, 1938 (amazon.com link)
The book opens with each “individual” referring to him/herself as “we,” and the direction of Rand’s use of language becomes clear rather quickly. It makes for a pointed conclusion, highlighted in the third and fourth quotes below:
“We love you.” But then they frowned and shook their head and looked at us helplessly. “No,” they whispered, “that is not what we wished to say.” They were silent, then they spoke slowly, and their words were halting, like the words of a child learning to speak for the first time: “We are one… alone… and only… and we love you who are one… alone… and only.” We looked into each other’s eyes and we knew that the breath of a miracle had touched us, and fled, and left us groping vainly. And we felt torn, torn for some word we could not find. –
. . .
I am. I think. I will. My hands… My spirit… My sky… My forest… This earth of mine….
. . .
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: “I.”
. . .
And here, over the portals of my fort, I shall cut in the stone the word which is to be my beacon and my banner. The word which will not die, should we all perish in battle. The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory. The sacred word: EGO.
She expands on the following theme in Atlas Shrugged, that the evil socialist/communist state will prioritize the needs of the many over individual invention and innovation and new ideas. Thus the state will forbid innovative changes which might disrupt existing industries. One need only watch the first few minutes of the Uber TED Talk regarding Jitney regulation to see how often this happens in our own world. Here in the book, the elders of the world banish the invention/discovery of the electric light, as “it would bring ruin to the Department of Candles,” and therefore must be destroyed:
“And if this should lighten the toil of men,” said Similarity 5-0306, “then it is a great evil, for men have no cause to exist save in toiling for other men.” Then Collective 0-0009 rose and pointed at our box. “This thing,” they said, “must be destroyed.”
When asked, a friend and mentor mentioned he hadn’t read Ayn Rand but that in his experience, she seemed polarizing: most either adamantly loved or vehemently hated her work. Oddly, I have no strong opinion, but this is likely because I’ve read quite a bit in my adult life. Were this one of the first few books I’d ever read, I likely would have fallen into the “adamantly” love camp, prizing individualism unequivocally over collectivism and the “self” over the “we” and others in every moment. Then, my “Objectivist” world view would likely have been shattered at a later point in my life, likely my 20s, and I’d have “woken up.” I’m far happier on the middle path.
Anthem is a good introduction to her style of writing and general ideas. I’m glad I read it after I began Atlas Shrugged, as, if I decide not to finish the latter, it saved me from spending the time on the book while giving me a way to understand her silly philosophy. Atlas Shrugged currently sits at about 15% read, and if I read it this year or next, it’s likely to be read with Brave New World, 1984, and any other major western dystopian fictions.
Rand’s religious zealots would do well to read Sam Anderson’s article Mrs. Logic, an overview of Rand’s life from Anne Conover Heller’s book Ayn Rand and the World She Made for the cold, objective truth. The truth is that Alissa Rosenbaum was a human person, a Russian Jew, born into a hard life, and not long to move to America as a young adult. She seems to have been rather egotistical and ungrateful for the help others’ provided her during her life, and although all philosophies have their merits, hers is not without glaring flaws.
Again, I neither demonize nor idolize Rand. I simply think she would have been better off spending a period of time in her life alone in the woods like Thoreau or typical monks and nuns. She might have opened up a little bit more to the inherent connectedness in the universe: that “I” cannot so much as breathe, think, or exist, without affecting the entire universe. Parenting, an act which changes us all, would have had the same effect.
I must prioritize myself, to be sure… “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others,” lest I prioritize others so much that I fail to maintain my own body, and so die. But at some point in my life – for moments here, for years there – my sense of “I” actually includes other people: the Chinese circular sense of self actually grows to encompass others. This is especially true in the early decade(s) of life, when we must learn all we can so that we may apply and adapt these skills in countless variations to earn our keep in the world and provide for our offspring…but alas, most of us selfish folk understand as parents that core truth: if we parents prioritize our own family, but do so at the expense of others, gifting to our children a world which we have destroyed and pillaged, have we really done the best for the ourselves and our children, or have we doomed us by our actions? Rand writes decent fictional stories, but they should not become a religion.
All are one and one is all; the “I” that Rand prioritizes and the “We” she despises are both but perspectives, temporary shapes seen in an afternoon cloud.
Still, understanding her work should help me to understand these powerful, mesmerizing, often brainwashing ideals within our culture. Yet I wish the Americans who idolize her work understood the culture in which she was raised and against which she rebelled: of course when “we the people” or the government is prioritized at the expense of the individuals, we must rebel for our individual groups and families and relationships and persons. But all in balance.
I enjoyed her joke about the feminine obsession with mirrors, which seems to happen across multiple species:
We did this work alone, for no words of ours could take the Golden One away from the big glass which is not glass. They stood before it and they looked and looked upon their own body.
We go on and we bless the earth under our feet. But questions come to us again, as we walk in silence. If that which we have found is the corruption of solitude, then what can men wish for save corruption? If this is the great evil of being alone, then what is good and what is evil?