A Chilling Indictment on Modernity and Its Effect On Symbols
29 October 2010
Anthem, Atom Bombs, Ayn Rand, Conformity, Cosmos, culture, Essay, Idealism, Individual Will, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Literature, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Politics, Power, Public Education, Science, Totalitarianism, Trinity
Any writing pertaining to Ayn Rand should be short, yet tragically it never is. It’s rather fascinating that in recent times the woman’s writing has become praised by certain politicians as guiding lights of behavior and moral fortitude, while their would-be legislation seems to be nothing more than an attempt to create a moral imposing government system which leaves the individual with little to any real power. The irony unfortunately is lost upon them. I would not be so ridiculous as to suggest that contemporary politicians would desire anything like the cultural system painted so efficiently in her, graciously short novella, Anthem, but it does beg the question: why does this philosophy, clumsily disguised as literature, possess the cult following that it does?
Before we continue allow me to impart to you an axiom that will never fail you: Trust not any human being who professes great fondness for the novel Atlas Shrugged.
The average reader most likely could not stand Anthem, or any of the philosophical tomes Ayn Rand produced over the course of her life, because the idealism that shines through them is overbearing. It becomes clear after only a few pages of one of her texts that Rand is interested first and foremost with creating an ideology, art is merely the delivery mechanism. The Objectivist movement is rooted in the power of the individual, and so, working with the environment she had, totalitarianism would serve as the ultimate enemy. In a charitable summation of Rand’s Total body of work: Collectivism is the greatest vice to humanity. There’s a reason Equality 7-2521
The beginning lines of the novella echo the Orwellian Nightmare (though technically this book did precede the wretched vision).
It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon 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 there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone.
As is customary with the negative-utopia literature, there is the presence of thought crime, in which no one is truly free to feel, think, or behave inwardly for fear of legal and physical consequence. Rand paints the portrait clearly that in this system, no one can truly win. The basic plot of the novella Anthem is as follows. A twenty one year old man named Equality 7-2521 lives in a world, we are lead to believe, sometime in the future in which society has taken a massive step back. The technological boons to which our society currently enjoys have been seemingly abandoned for unknown reasons and all personal self-hood has been erased. All names are reduced to a single ideal term (equality, liberty, union, etc) followed by five numbers. Equality 7-2521 as we see, possesses intelligence and suffers, for the society he inhabits does not trust intelligence, in fact it penalizes him for it. Assigned the job of street sweeper, instead of scholar as he desired, he eventually stumbles upon a long lost subway tunnel and there begins to study electricity. While doing so he falls in love with a young woman named Liberty 5-3000 and the two carefully develop a relationship(I will give Miss Rand her dues, for she understood well that dictatorship always fears the sexual response). Equality’s talents eventually lead him to re-discovering the power of electricity by creating a light bulb (society at this point only uses candles). When he attempts to show his findings to the scholars of the world he is condemned and seeks refuge in the forest where he and Liberty eventually discover and abandoned house and begin to create a new society.
The great conflict with Anthem is that the characters revert back to the most basic archetype so that character identification becomes almost impossible. That is not to suggest that this book shouldn’t be read (I read it in the eighth grade and, like many experiences at the time, did not appreciate the raw power of the text). In fact it should, for it demonstrates the importance of individual power in society. The culture that Equality 7-2521 finds himself accommodates no individual pursuit. It controls sexuality thereby stunting the balm a physical release, it manipulates the mind preventing intellectual development, and attempts to promote their backwards moving culture through intense psychological and physical pain (one of the horrific passage in the text is Equality’s punishment at the Hall of Corrections where he is whipped by two men described as “naked but for leather aprons and leather hoods over their faces).
In short Rand provides a go-to example of a totalitarian state. The problem arises as we consider interpretation and analysis. The perennial lecture of professors and teachers may remain at the dictatorship that governs every aspect of the society and only teach that lesson. The greater conflict of Anthem, is the restriction of the imagination, particularly in scientific inquiry. The modern day covers of Anthem seem always to place the image of a light bulb beside the title and author’s name, suggesting that a new and more important contemporary interpretation may be made from the work. The question of science has never been more important than it is right now, for our current educational system falls far too short in the education of children. I grew up at a private school that required four years of science or four years of math. Faulty in the latter, that is a charitable summation I assure you, I chose the four years of science and devoted myself to the study of biology(I liked the teacher, he beat the students with rulers when they asked stupid questions and took us out for long rides in the swamp in the trunk of his yellow Toyota truck). Since that time I have married a biologist and tutor-teach biology to college freshman. All of this has led me to the fact, that science demands of its participant’s imagination. A scientist must ask “why?”
And questions give us no rest. We know not why our curse makes us seek we know not what, ever and ever. But we cannot resist it. It whispers to us that there are great things on this earth of ours, and that we can know them if we try, and that we must know them. We ask, why must we know, but it has no answer to give us. We must know that we know.
This drive is the true embodiment of scientific inquiry. Before this passage however, it is important to note the context of this impulse.
We learned that the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it, which causes the day and night. We learned the names of all the winds which blow over the seas and push the sails of our great ships. We learned how to bleed men to cure them of all ailments.
The scientific knowledge of Equality 7-2521’s society has been reverted to a pre-Industrial age standard. They have adopted egocentricity as their cosmological model, they possess no combustion engine, and the medical standards of blood-letting (the strategy that ultimately killed Byron in Greece) are almost hysterical if they were not so pathetic. These accomplishments of the society seem farcical at first, but then fester into something far worse.
All the great modern inventions come from the Home of Scholars, such as the newest one, which we found only a hundred years ago, of how to make candles from wax and string; also how to make glass, which is put in our windows to protect us from the rain.
Candles and glass? To quote my lovely lady wife when I forget to buy toilet paper and instead buy books, “Fucking seriously?” The invention of glass, I will admit, would possess some difficulty to early humans, however human cultures have producing glass for centuries. Indeed, archaeologists have suggested that glass production appeared in Mesopotamia, the “Fertile Crescent” since 3500 b.c.e, the emergence of recognizable human society. We will let this pass and instead note it is the first (candles, in case you forgot) which is the most troubling. It becomes clear that Equality 7-2521’s society is several centuries in the future, and in a hundred years it took a whole collection of scholars to realize they could place a string in a tube of wax. It takes Equality only a few months to create a light bulb through his own personal initiative. Equality 7-2521 exemplifies the ability of what a scientist can accomplish when properly motivated. It is the individual will that pushes the great rewards that the rest of society takes advantage of. Anthem demonstrates that if our society is to flourish, then it trust in the individual imagination.
Reading Anthem I was prepared for the heavy handed philosophy that made finishing The Fountainhead impossible. I admit this to my great shame. But I do believe that despite Rand’s overbearing will, she accomplishes an effective critique of totalitarian willpower in the state by demonstrating that it is not just bullying and physical annihilation that such systems employ to enforce their will, but a narcissistic step backwards. They are ridiculous and self damning. It becomes difficult not to laugh at the reaction of Equality 7-2521’s light bulb to the Home of the Scholars.
“This would wreck the Plans of the World Council,” said Unanimity2-9913, “And without the Plans of the World Council the sun cannot not rise. It took fifty years to secure the approval of all the Councils for the Candle, and to decide upon the number needed, and to refit the plans so as to make candles instead of torches. This touched upon thousands and thousands of men working in scores of States. We cannot alter the Plans again so soon.”
“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.”
Italics are my own
My those “Plans!” How great are those “Plans?” Who could imagine altering the “Plans?” This farce is as hilarious as it is pathetically familiar. In our own time the advances and discoveries of science tend to be ignored or infuriating. One summons the words of Mr. Rzykruski from Tim Burton’s latest, and recently most tolerable, film Frankenweenie “They like what science gives them but not the questions science asks.” As the political situation in this country pushes further towards extremism, in both camps before you start, the role of science in our society becomes more daunting. Scientists who even begin the conversation of climate change or solar energy are bombarded with abuse before they even have the time as ask the question, “why?” The question of stem cells has recently faded into the background of socialized medicine, yet the ever present debate of teaching evolution is a battle that seems without end. On one side note I take great pride in announcing that my university’s biology program has altered their degree plan requiring Evolution courses to be taken before graduating can commence. Most recently, the efforts to re-kindle the inspirations of young minds towards science via the wonderful television series Cosmos, has been met with mutual celebration and horror. Christian parents were dealt a serious blow as Neil deGrasse Tyson looked unashamedly into living rooms across America during the second episode of the series and states, “Evolution is a fact.” In reaction to this, in my opinion unfortunately shocking and profoundly brave action, numerous parents sat their children down and instructed their children that the facts presented on the show were false(further demonstrating the inadequate educational system existence in this country not to mention the unfortunate consequence of blurring societal and scientific colloquial phrases: “It’s just a theory.”). Returning to the novella, the reaction of Equality 7-2521’s society to his invention is perfect. Rand accurately conveys the pitfalls of scientific investigation in a totalitarian state. The government and the masses coordinate together to enjoy the “story” of their society. The scientist, in any culture, demands more from his or her culture and offers up a means of bettering the situation. The case against their discoveries or proposals? It’s hard. It’s like…really hard. We’d have to change stuff. The pathetic attempts to stymie the efforts of scientists result only in the further stale potential of said society. Those in power will attempt to sway progress, because the vision suggested does not fit to their particular fetish of the society they envision (fetish in the spiritual sense, not erotic, though this does tend to overlap). Stephen Hawking has commented that in our time Scientists have been forced to assume the position of philosophers. His statement is not far off the mark.
If unconvinced, consider if you will the power of the atomic bomb. There is no experience on earth as humanizing as witnessing an atomic blast. Nowhere near the potential or power of the light bulb, and yet the image of the mushroom cloud has become a symbol in the public consciousness of utter extermination or world chaos. No book captures this spirit better than Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. A historical/scientific/cultural/anthropological study of the making of the atomic bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the graphic novel chronicles the human reaction to the actual pursuit of the bomb and the concluding success of it. While there is no central character in Trinity, other than the bomb itself, the book does take special note of the figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer, both as the coordinating constructor of the bomb, and also its greatest opponent. A passage from the graphic novel cites one of his speeches,
“We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world. We have made a thing that, by all the standards of the world we grew up in, is an evil thing. And by doing so we have raised the question of whether science is good for man. The pattern of the use of atomic weapons was set at Hiroshima. It is a weapon for aggressors…and the elements of surprise and of terror are as intrinsic to it as are the fissionable nuclei”
Would this not then cancel your argument? My contester speaks. It was because of scientific inquiry that we eventually discovered, manufactured, and employed nuclear arms. That is true, and damning evidence that perhaps the “greatest generation” was not as imperfect as the history books and war movies would lead us to believe. Nevertheless, from the discovery of nuclear fission, new energy sources have been produced that are both clean and efficient, despite the naysayers nuclear power is remarkably clean, when done right. The power of the bomb has lifted mankind out of the infancy of our species and shown our true potential, while also handing us our own mortality to our hands. The progress of science is an effort to aid mankind, both technologically as well as morally. With each new discovery mankind is offered a new choice. They move forward and learn to adapt to the new advancement, or else they may reject it and remain static.
In the case of the bomb, humanity had to decide how they wished to behave with their fellow men: through diplomacy or mutually assured destruction. In the case of the light bulb, it is a question of whether our “plans” are really so great. Equality 7-2521 becomes an essential character for the twenty-first century, for in our time science will advance further and further while forces in power will attempt to negate it. As a species and a culture, it is up to us to decide whether we are willing or able to accept these changes. If society is to be allowed to continually enjoy the products of science, they must be open to the questions science asks.
I must interrupt these regular broadcasting for an important announcement and apology to my readers. Recently I have been re-reading Christopher Hitchens (I use this word far too often) essential and wonderful book letters to a young contrarian. Going at one chapter a day, every day as I first wake up(a better jump-starter has yet to be discovered in my experience), it has been marvelous to be reminded what it takes to be a true dissenter as well as an opportunity to regularly challenge myself to see if I still follow the course of my own path.
This morning as I was reading my chapter I came to the end and was terribly shocked when I came to this passage:
P.S. A note on language. Be even more suspicious than I was just telling you to be, of all those who employ the term “we” or “us” without your permission. This is another form of surreptitious conscription, designed to suggest that “we” are all agreed on “our” interests and identity. Populist authoritarians try to slip it past you; so do some kinds of literary critics (“our sensibilities are engaged) Always ask who this “we” is; as often as not it’s an attempt to smuggle tribalism through the customs […]* Joseph Heller knew how the need to belong, and the need for security, can make people accept lethal and stupid conditions, and then act as if they had imposed them on themselves.
Shocked is too pale an adjective for my reaction to these words. Mortified is more appropriate. For the past month I have posting these essays, an attempt to legitimize literature and demonstrate its social relevance to society while warning of the dangers of conformity and authoritarian control. Yet it appears I’ve been employing a ridiculous and base rhetorical device. The word “we, our, and us” now echo through each of these essays calling you the readers into a club of thought that you might not even want into and calling myself to a label of mediocrity that is humiliating and yet rewarding for the wisdom it awards me.
The role of my work has been to encourage individual thought, not conscription into one frame of mind. My reader can freely accept or reject my writings at any time, as is their sanction. In short I apologize to my readers if it appears that I have given them no other option but to believe the sum total of my writing.
I do not mean to sound sycophantic to Mr. Hitchens as I write this, however as I have admitted time and again to be an admirer of the man, if it should emerge that I have missed such an obvious tenant I would have the proverbial “egg on my face.” Totalitarianism demands and insists upon the collected “we” and “us” in order for an individual-void society to flourish and blossom into its own. (Any who have the stomach for such thick material should consider Ayn Rand’s most bearable text Anthem to see the full effect that pronouns can place over psychology).
If a writer has made a mistake they should and must atone for it, lest it become a weakness that dogs their career and drains their voice of sincerity. I have a made a mistake and it is likely one that I shall continue to make in the future. If I should employ the “we” again, understand that is meant only to mean those that have read the text or are willing to participate in this momentary discussion. It does not dictate alliance to my academic philosophy and penchant. (On a brief note I find it fascinating how literature develops a sensitivity to words, simply writing the word alliance sends a chill down my spine and a sour taste in my mouth).
Totalitarianism is not a distant threat known only to those unfortunate enough to be born in the Middle East. Dictatorship has emerged in our lifetime as both a physical and psychological state; therefore those of us that possess liberty must be constantly on guard lest such influence begin to infect us. Some may feel that my shock and disgrace is simply an over-reaction, but all it takes is a single laps to dictate further behavior. How often have I employed “we” or “us” (and not just in the previous sentences of this paragraph) in these essays, automatically assuming that any casual reader may arrive at the same conclusions? That assumption of will is an impulse to manipulate and control another’s psychological state and bring them over to my line of thinking. In short I have been an ass.
Like Mr. Hitchens, and many writers before him, the purpose of writing is to generate independent will, and in my next essay I will discuss the importance of that will as demonstrated through two brilliant texts: The Stranger by Albert Camus and Batman: Year One by Frank Miller. I will continue to defend literature as a viable and important institution, necessary to sustain and encourage healthy development in human beings. For this I will never apologize. What I will account for is making the assumption that you automatically agree with me and that my will is unalterable, for that is the root of all dictatorship.
Thank you again as always Mr. Hitchens for reminding me that sometimes the greatest jeopardy to the ethos is our own mistakes. See, I made it again.
We now return to our regularly scheduled program, or, if you prefer allusions to brilliantly written and produced British comedies: “And now for something completely different.”
The […] indicate continued text that have been carefully excised from the above quote due to their lack of direction for the argument. The material I did not include is a small tangent on Hitchens part to demonstrate the use of the “us” as a conscriptive tool, as opposed to a rhetorical aid. However, ff you should desire to know what it is(reading good writing is its own reward and keeping authors accountable is deliciously fun) that I have removed, go to the last two pages of chapter XIV (fourteen for those uneducated with roman numerals, don’t feel bad if you are I usually don’t make it past fifty myself) and you will find this wonderful quote at the end.