One of the basic criteria for deciding the greatness of a writer and a piece of writing is whether a reader is being given some new method of understanding life. Generally it is called a theory of life. Whenever I think of this great canon, I am reminded of the tall figure of Ayn Rand. Agreement and Disagreement are peripheral, subsidiary, and supplementary. The central work is to give an Idea. Criticism is reaction but the creation of an idea is action. This is the domain where Ayn Rand excels.
There is no need to completely accept the ruthless philosophy that life is driven by doers (genius); and life is sabotaged by copiers (passive recipients). If we take this philosophy to its logical conclusion, naturally there will be some cruel consequences. We will come to the conclusion that the parasites (passive recipients) are a burden on earth and therefore perhaps they do not have even the right to live. This will become anti-human. This will also become a harmful glorification for the genius that will block her or his own progress.
Having said the above point, now we can freely adore the power of Ayn Rand wherein she creates a very strong world of her own and convinces the reader about the categories of human beings. Ayn Rand's ‘Anthem’ is exceptionally short for a writer who easily writes two to three thousand pages in a novel. But this extra ordinarily short book (87 pages) is also an extraordinarily charged book. It is soaked in black humor. It is driven by cynicism - "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." (P. 17)
Strangely, Rand has used the pronoun 'We' for a singular person called Equality 7-2521. The names have lost all fancy of yore days. Every name has a digit attached to it. The digit perhaps mocks the obsession of the present generation with identification and the endless list of digital cards. The idea is to give the reader a feel of the cosmetic, unreal and completely artificial civilization that human beings have carved out for themselves. Ayn Rand speaks very strongly against the tyranny of the masses. The human society has a tendency to iron out all differences. The pressure is to create a society where all are alike. Originality of thinking is considered to be the biggest crime. The modern society has lost the precious possession of introspection, loneliness and deep thinking. "We are alone here under the earth. It is a fearful word, alone. The laws say that none among man may be alone, ever and at any time, for this is the great transgression and the root of all evil". (P. 17) Of course, these words are soaked in bitter irony.
Change, variation and difference have become the fearful words. Everyone must fit in the rigid frame cast in iron by the society. There is a council, a committee, an institution or some formal organization for everything. Home for children, education, corrective detention, home of the useless, home of the students, councils and home for the old age- these are the powerful institutions that squeeze the individuals into pigmies.
There is even a hint that people are allowed to speak when they become useless. It is a kind of cynicism similar to what we saw in the famous classical movie 'Pyasa' where the dead are respected and the very same dead people, when they come alive are rejected by the society. Nursery classes until 5 years of age, school and training until 15 years of age 4 after that work for livelihood - this is the prescribed prescription for everyone. Individuals are allowed to live by the concession made by others. "We are nothing. Mankind is all. By the grace of our brothers are we allowed our lives. We exist through, by and for our brothers who are the state. Amen." (P.21).
Strangely enough the chief character of ‘Anthem’, Equality has the flaw of being sharp and intelligent. He is especially quick in science. He understood his lessons quickly and never forgot them. He was in fact more sharp than the teachers themselves and so justice demanded that he was beaten more often than other children. Such is the cruel style in which Ayn Rand goes on writing this book. Leave alone the joy of learning, there is phobia for learning. Those who learn much, suffer much.
But the history of human kind is such that there have been rebellions. There have always been revolts against established authority. This is the reason, why truth comes into the light from time to time. The tendency to question is fundamental to human nature. It is bound to find expression in some manner or the other. This urge to raise questions cannot be suppressed for long. Even if vegetation is crushed, it finds hidden spaces to sprout. Human beings are, after all, living and breathing. How can anyone imagine, that the original thought processes can be throttled? It is not possible.
The protagonist of the novel has an insatiable urge to know, to know more and to keep knowing. As the novel progresses, we realize that it is a cruel mockery of the communist ideology. The ideology that began with Karl Marx and taken forward by the likes of Lenin, Stalin and Mao is perhaps the cruelest ideology, perpetuating itself in the name of social welfare. The conditions are really scary where the state takes care of all its citizens, their feeding, clothing, sleeping and even there entertainment. Nothing unnecessary exists in the place, everything in measured and as per the rules. The cold cruelty reaches the high point where all those who show an inclination towards a particular field are punished by being sent to the house of the street sweepers. The brightest are given the jobs of the street sweepers. ‘Anthem’ is a commentary on the mechanical existence and monotony of the communist dream.
But the wonder of human possibilities in such that even at such a place the protagonist goes for the unimaginable act of discovery. Even at such a place he finds a comrade, International 4-8818 "But International 48818 are different. They are a tall, strong youth and their eyes are like fireflies, for there is laughter in their eyes. We cannot look upon International 4-8818 and not smile in answer." (p. 29)
International wanted to become an artist. While Equality was punished for trying to become a scientist, International was punished for painting. Together these two form a strong bond and venture into the unknown. They find a cave of older times. They find a safe abode, unknown to the world. It is at this place, they carry out their experiments. Their process of learning gets its wings at the hidden tunnel. In simple terms, we can say that the message is very basic-a human being is not an animal or a machine. The first time they enter the tunnel, they experience freedom. It is ironical indeed that such a wide and big thing like liberty is experienced in an underground hole. It is at this place, the great mission starts. It is here, that these two unfortunate men realize that learning in an end in itself. The joy of learning is a complete mission in itself, "We have come to see how great is the unexplored, and many life times will not bring us to the end of our quest. But we wish no end to our quest." (p. 36).
The second of part of the novelette turns to the basic attraction between the male and the female. It is as though the writes is on the mission to demolish the philosophy of equality and socialism. Some would say that it is the pet agenda of the Americans to demonize the Russians and the Chinese. All the Hollywood stuff revolves around secret agents and hackers being either Russian or Chinese. The angles are always Americans. Therefore it is understandable that many would consider ‘Anthem’ as part of the systematized agenda against communism. But in my opinion to attribute such sweeping opinion regarding such an original, unique, powerful and individualistic writer like Ayn Rand would be wrong. I see the whole book coming out of her conviction. We may say that the method of communication in this book is that of utter extremes. It is even intimidating at times. Many would say that it is far from reality. But when we turn the history of iron curtain ages and the actual happenings of spying by the state into the common domestic life of the citizens, we are bound to say what Milton said ages ago. "It is better to reign in hell, then to serve in heaven." There is nothing like freedom on this earth. A sparking soul like Ayn Rand will definitely not stop at conditional freedom. She will talk about absolute freedom, whatever may be the consequences.
Now our protagonist Equality falls in love with a girl called Liberty 5-3000. He privately calls her the Golden one. The description is intense as the boy succumbs to the fearless eyes of the girl. As she walked, "The earth was a beggar under their feat." (P. 39). He experiences pain as pleasure in love. There is a stark encounter between the two, despite the rules. Their eyes touched each other. They evolve newer means of communication in absence of words - they use the language of gestures. For them, the world becomes a happy place; even if temporarily.
In the ironically called ideal state, the meeting of yin and yang has been reduced to human breeding. We can say that the lovers realize the cruelty of fate, and yet they cannot help themselves. In these pages, fear becomes a person, whose presence can be physically felt, "There is fear hanging in the air of the sleeping halls, and in the air of the streets. Fear walks through the city, fear without name, without shape. All men feel it and hone dare to speak." (P. 46). People suffer from psychological ailments resulting from suppression. The protagonist is haunted by the scenes of the ultimate sacrifice the public burning of a young boy that he witnessed at the age of ten.
By all indications, it appears that Equality will meet a tragic end. He is living in the joy of learning. He invents a bulb and calls it the power of the sky. The Golden one gives Equality the name "The Unconquered." It describes the true character of the person. His invention, the bulb also symbolizes light. But, he is caught is his silent and hidden escape. Just as Galileo paid the price of discovering the true motion of earth, Equality too pays a very heavy price. He is beaten almost to death, and then he is thrown into the wild forest for beasts to eat him up.
The cruelty of the society is brought out effectively. But strangely enough, the Golden one follows him into the forest and they are united as two natural forces of the earth. It is only in the last two chapters XI & XII, that the message is finally conveyed. The mystery is solved as to why "We" was used for a singular person.
The end of the quest is the individual identity. "We" is false; "I" is true. Ayn Rand brutally brings home the message that sin begins and ends in collective work. One's own identity, distinct individuality and differences from others are one's most cherished treasure. This is God. The last word of the book is "EGO". Ayn Rand has stood for the ego of the individual where as everyone else wants the ego to be finished. This ego is the seed. It is the reason why an individual is motivated to work, to learn and to live. The society has a corrupting influence on the individual. Even in our day to day life we often see the collective branding of an individual. If you ask someone, "to who have you married your daughter?" the most likely answer would be, "to an engineer or a doctor or a teacher." Such normal conversation signifies as though all teachers or doctors or engineers are the same. We all know that this is not true. An engineer can be a devil and another engineer can be an angel. The society has the natural tendency to iron out differences and create the same brand of individuals, which may be socially acceptable.
According to Ayn Rand, nothing can be more evil than this. She propagates a highly individualistic philosophy. The society must allow, accept and appreciate individual differences, otherwise the society will perish. Human race depends on individual brilliance. All inventors, on whose toil the humanity thrives, were freaks, and loners. They were highly individualistic. Brilliance blooms in isolation. The highest point of human civilization would be where individuality is respected, protected and allowed to flourish. The tyranny of the collective will must not prevail. The odd one out must be allowed to go her/his ways.
The choice remains with us, the readers, to accept or to partially accept or totally reject the proposed philosophy. Nevertheless, it's a powerful philosophy. It underlines the power called Ayn Rand.
All the references have been made from the following edition:
Rand, Ayn. 1995. New York: SIGNET (Penguin Group, USA)