Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book Bitch: Anthem.

So I saw my younger brother reading today. I know. Stunning, right? This is like the third Sign of the Apocalypse I’ve seen this week (the first two being a quarter inch of ice on EVERYTHING on Sunday and Unholy Bitch from work being nice to me when she came in for her shift). What stunned me even more, though, was what he was reading: Anthem, by Ayn Rand. Shocking. My brother, who never reads, was nose deep in a “real” book.


Maybe I should back up a bit and explain that first, though.  In my not so humble opinion, there are two kinds of book. There are, you know, just books. Sometimes these have weighty issues (C.S. Lewis exploring his theology in That Hideous Streingth, for example) and sometimes these do not (Sunshine, Horse and his Boy) but the heart of the story is, very clearly, the story, and the humble reader is supposed to sit there and go on a ride, and if they pick up a couple of good ideas along the way (Stephen King and The Hunger Games do this too) then more power to ya.

Then you have “real” books. Literature. Where the idea came first and the author built the story around it. Everything—the characters, the world, the plot—is constructed to portray some part of The Idea. Sometimes this works. The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters would be Lewis’s “real” books.  Room is probably a “real” book (I assume this because the plot DIES after Jack and Mom get out of Room).  There are some beautiful books that are “real” books (Til We Have Faces. Why yes, I am a Lewis fan) and there are some “real” books that just fucking suck (The Sword ofTruth series). Sometimes you get books where you can’t figure out if the author intended it as a “real” book or as a book-book, and you just kind of sit there and go with it (this is the best kind).

It might just be me, but even when this works and I agree with the philosophy being presented, even when I like the books themselves, there’s something … IDK, pretentious about “real” books. It’s like biting into a hamburger and discovering a soy patty instead of meat.  You’re not supposed to enjoy it, you’re supposed to sit there, think about it and agree that the author is right. In other words, it’s not about the reader experience. It’s about the author’s ideals.

I think that’s the part that pisses me off the most with “real” books.  It’s probably why I can’t enjoy Christian fiction very often. I want to sit down and be entertained. I want to look at a really well crafted story and enjoy it. I do not want to pay attention to the pretty sentences unless I want to, and I sure as hell do not want to trade a good ride for a good idea.

Good fiction is not about the author, his or her philosophies, or the ideas they’re trying to telegraph into the reader’s head. Good fiction is all about the reader. It’s about how the text effects them. It’s about manipulating their emotions and mindset so that they react the way you want them to, so they get excited at the good parts and weepy at the sad parts and drown in emotional fluffies at the romantic parts. Good fiction is a good medium for getting philosophy and theology across to the reader because the reader will have dropped their defenses, but if you’re going to write a story have the fucking artistic integrity to write a story the reader can enjoy and THEN figure out how you’re going to shove your philosophy in there.

So can you guess how much I liked Anthem?

The edition I have has what I call “REAL book syndrome”. I noticed it the first time I bought Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and had to wade through two forwards and a table of contents to get to the story. In this case there’s an intro, notes and a note from the author defending the story. Look, I know my taste is geared more towards entertainment than philosophy, but it’d be nice if the academic types would let the damned thing stand on its own merits and not bury it behind sixteen pages of stuff I don’t even care about yet. Also, apparently a one-hundred page story is not big enough, so half the book is a photocopy of whatever the hell it was Rand edited to make this edition of Anthem. Which is kinda cool, actually. I always wondered how much editing the pros do, especially if the stuff has already come out. I don’t know how much somebody else would care about it, though.

First line: It is a sin to write this.

Thank you for agreeing with me.

Our protagonist is Equality plus a number, and I will just call him Equality. He lives in a society that has become so collectivist that the singular form-I, me, my, he, she, ect—has been banned from language. As in you can be burned at the stake for using the word I. Equality refers to himself as first-person plural, and the subject-verb disagreements through the rest of this book drove me right up the wall. Using were, are, and the like to refer to a singular individual makes my teeth hurt. But I’ve been editing too long, so what do I know?

Seriously, the prose in this story irritates the living blue foam out of me.  Some of it is the way the text is formatted (line breaks between EVERY. SINGLE. PARAGRAPH. Why are you padding your bra so much, little book?) but some of it are the lines like this:

                It is only we, Equality (number), we alone who were born with a curse.

I read this as “I am isolated and alone and only I know the truth and blah blah blahmarysue blah.” Every line of prose drips with “look how poor and sad and downtrodden I am”, right up until the very end, when it magically changes into a towering pire of "FUCK YOU, I AM AWESOME!!!" 

Anyway, after rambling about how he was born with a curse for three pages, Equality starts telling us about his childhood, and I find myself interested for the first time. We have a society where everyone thinks of themselves as a plural, where schooling is assigned, your life’s work is assigned, and where we eventually find out men and women are segregated. Reproduction occurs once a year during a mass orgy, children are not raised by their parents, and I like this kind of stuff. I would like to see many incidents that illuminate the nature of this universe, how the government functions, how the social scene functions … and I’m not going to.  Rand blasts by all of this to get to Equality’s rebellion. Which … happens. There isn’t a plot to bitch about because there isn’t really a plot. Equality does stuff. He gets a girl. They go to an old house, rediscover the word “I”, Equality renames himself Prometheus because he shall bring life to the world (vomit), renames his chick Gaia because she shall give birth to the world (double vomit), proclaims himself awesome for using first person singular and … that’s it. So instead of doing a play by play of the plot, I’m going to pick at the stuff that really bugs me.

On a second read through, the worldbuilding is paper thin at best. Science has collapsed, but we’re not given a reason why. You kind of get the feeling that it’s because of the collectivism but … why? There’s a scene where Equality re-invents electricity. In a hole. Using shit he scavenged out of the garbage. In a civilization that has no electricity. Anyway, he brings this electric light to the scientists, who scream infidel and start pelting him with rocks and threatening his life and start talking about how it would put candle makers out of business, so I kind of think that “collectivism is bad” is how Rand explains technology going away, but it makes no sense.

First, lemme stand up for “children not raised by their parents” because that went right past me twice until I wrote that sentence out. Taking pot-shots at foster-parenting is Not Cool, and that is so very fucking much what this is. My parents were foster parents, in that they raised us, their biological children, along with kids whose biological parents did things like tie them up in ant nests and trade an hour or two of sex with the kid for drugs. Not making a word of that up. In the process, the kids did Not At All Nice things like steal, break stuff, swear, break more stuff, skip school, break even more stuff, BRING GUNS HOME, and my parents put up with it because they wanted to give these kids a home and a chance at a normal life. And yes, my parents got paid for it. All of the money went back into the house they bought specifically so they could run a foster home and when it was no longer wise to keep teenaged boys around their teenaged daughter, they sold the house and we moved. Parents have the right to raise their own children, but children have the right to be raised in safety by loving parents, and when these rights bump heads the kids’ rights should win every time.  I never, ever, ever want to see “right of the family to be safe” supersede “right of the child to be safe” because I know , thank god that it’s only second hand, that “family” can be a terrifying place to live.

Second, no society set up this way could survive past a generation. It is very clear in the story (VERY clear) that the best and brightest people with the interest in science are assigned menial tasks while someone else unfairly gets the best jobs. The point, I think, is to show how horrible a collectivist society is and how unfair it would be to you if you lived in one.

Except nobody would do that.

Look, there’s bad government, and then there is shit stupid government and this government is shit stupid. You need jobs like scientists and teachers and artists and doctors, and you need them to be good at their jobs. The only way to accomplish that is to let the people who LIKE doing the work DO it. If you had a society like the one in Anthem, the Powers that Be would be analyzing the shit out of their students, not locking them in cellars. They’d stick the kids with the proclivities into the sciences and jobs they have proclivities for, not because they want to be nice but because they’d want people who could do their jobs competently without having a breakdown.  I know that Rand wants to prove a point with this, but creating a literal paper tiger to shoot is lazy and it doesn’t accomplish anything.  Of COURSE people are going to be unhappy, have screaming nightmares and then rebel, but it isn’t because they live in a doomed and evil system. It’s because they live in an abusive system run by people who don’t know their ass from their armpit. Rand is trying to set up an argument that an abstract concept –collectivism, in this case—is the culprit of misery, when in reality it’s the concrete individuals in charge who are the problem and anybody with a functioning brain cell could see it.

It would have been far more effective to have Equality be in a good, challenging job that keeps him engaged and happy and THEN have him become dissatisfied and rebel. It would also be more interesting. This “story” is predictable as fuck.

Also. Reinvents electricity. In a hole. Using trash. When he’s never seen electricity. And he is inspired by seeing a frog twitch after he kills and dissects it. (Oh Jesus, I just realized that we have a dude that runs off at night and takes animals apart for fun and he is the novel’s protagonist.) So yeah. He sees a frog twitch, discerns that it’s the wires he put in it, decides to put copper and zinc in brine and apparently makes Froggy do the Macarena, and from there manages to rebuild the electric light. I have no idea how he does it without access to a generator or specialized equiptment, but blah blah blahmarysue blah. At one point he gets arrested and is tortured in an attempt to make him tell the guards where he’s been. The book wants us to assume it’s because they want to control EVERY FREAKING ASPECT OF SOCIETY EVILEVIL !!!111one!1 …but on the second read through it’s entirely possible the PTB want to make sure that Equality hasn’t cracked and started raping and murdering women and children.

So he intents the light and gets stoned by scientists for inventing something that would put the candle out of business. Okay, I get what Rand was doing here too. In fact, I get some of the cultural context. She was from Russia. One of the things that I know Russia did when it was the USSR was create programs so that the makers of anachronistic goods, like the Orenburg lace knitters, would continue to have a source of income. This cost the non-lace knitters money.This would be bad for the non-lace knitters.

But it ignores the deeper problem. In the example I gave, the Orenburg lace knitters saw their source of income UTTERLY FUCKING DESTROYED. TWICE. First by industrialized textile production (devaluing the whole handspinning/weaving/knitting cottage industry) and then when socialized government made the aristocratic class go away, and they were the people buying the shawls. You had an entire region of women, daughters, mothers and little old ladies who had dedicated their lives to learning one craft, who had neither education or access to education, lose the best source of income they had.  The Orenburg knitters were devastated a THIRD time when the USSR crashed and the Kombiant (the knitting collective) went down with it. Maybe having the government subsidize their knitting wasn’t the best solution to the problem, but the alternative was hundreds of little old ladies going without food. Hell, in the states the little old ladies don’t even have to do anything to get Social Security. The Orenburg knitters had to do insane, incredibly fine work to earn their checks.

So after he invents the light and gets stoned by scientists for doing so, he and his girlfriend run off into the woods, and the chick is just kind of … there. She gives him water, has his babies and gets renamed gaia. He worships her and doesn’t want her to go to the Eugenically Approved Orgy that year because he wants her all to his precious self. There’s a lot of negative stuff on Eugenics in the book … which I could completely support if there were not also a lot of negative stuff on genetically deficient people in the book. There’s one slow student described as having only half a brain. We don’t know if this is literal or if Equality is frustrated with being stuck with the slowest person in class. Apparently it is evil to be smarter than someone else.  And let me repeat myself because it really pissed me off:

NO GOVERNMENT, HOWEVER CORRUPT, WOULD EVER, EVER WASTE THE TALENTED PEOPLE IT CONTROLS. It might USE them, punish them, torment them and torture them, but it would not make smarts a negative because it NEEDS them. And yes, I know the point Rand is trying to make is Collectivism would do this because it is evil, and the point I am trying to make is no, they wouldn’t. EVEN SATAN WOULD NOT BE THIS STUPID. I accept that she wanted to prove a point, but she should have done it within sane human limits, because otherwise it just looks stupid.

One of the themes of this book, and I gather, Rand’s work as a whole is that the individual is god and should not be shackled to anything, including individuals not as talented, intelligent or flexible as you are. Which is okay when you’re one of the talented, intelligent and flexible individuals, but if you have an autistic kid you are officially SOL.  I firmly believe that everyone should have a chance to be successful on an individual level. I also, just as firmly believe that once you have attained success you have a responsibility to take care of those who aren’t as successful as you, or capable, or who have fallen on hard times. In other words, widows, orphans, refugees, foster kids, your mom and dad and other people’s mom and dad, if they need it and if you can spare it.

In the book, Equality, now called Prometheus, decides he will go back and liberate only those people who have proven to be as capable and dissatisfied with the system as he, and that when the worthy are free, he’s going to build a big, electrified castle and keep everyone else out.  Everybody worship the Ego for it is god.

In Anthem the unnamed evil society sends those who can no longer work to the Home of the Useless, a pretty good inflamitory title for a pretty nasty concept.  The problem? RAND PROVIDES NO ALTERNATIVE. Eventually Prometheus’s electric utopia is going to produce people who aren’t quite so intelligent or capable, and people are going to get hurt and grow old and be incapable of supporting themselves.  What will he do then? Kill them? Make sure they only mate with the less capable? Stick the old people into something rather like the Home of the Useless?

The deepest problem with Anthem is that the issue it presents (the marginalization of the individual) is not the problem it solves at the end (recovery of the individual identity and value). Prometheus will be marginalized again once he grows old, especially if he raises his kids to assign value to someone’s output, and not to someone’s existence. Valuing yourself as an individual does not, and will not force the society you live in to give you value.  Capitalism gives you the chance to prove yourself and earn value through your own merit, but if you are unable to earn value you’re still going to be marginalized. Devaluing everyone is not a viable alternative, but no one is trying to do that. The only reason socialism exists is because marginalized individuals are sick of having no value and they want to regain their identity as people of worth. In short, it is an attempt to force social responsibility upon the cult of the ego. I don’t believe socialism will fix the problem, but I don’t think it’s an evil tool trying to destroy the individual, either. What I do believe that the cult of the ego is self destructive because it is no more true than the shadow-puppet Rand creates to oppose it.

Rand presents an either/or scenario. Either you have value as an individual or you have value as a group that sublimates its individuals. Or to be plain, you’re either one of the sheep or you’re a wolf, and you can’t be anything else. But the reality is that the group only has value because of its individuals, and anyone managing the group will recognize this out of necessity.  An abusive group will ignore the individual value, and will suffer. The healthy group will recognize the individual and promote them.  Prometheus goes off to create a healthy group, but with a mindset and a level of egotism that will only create a second abusive group.  In essence, he discovers he’s Superman, but instead of donning the cape and being awesome, he runs off to the fortress of solitude with Lois and Jimmy, and tells the rest of us to fuck off.

Anthem is a book without a climax, a solution or a point. It attempts to present a hero for the ages and a solution to a problem, but it fails in both instances. If it were just a book, it would probably work because we would at least have a good adventure to wash the bad taste out of our mouths, but Rand is writing a “real” book intended to present her philosophy.  As far as I can tell, that philosophy is, “I am awesome. Fuck the rest of you.”

That was Ted Bundy’s attitude.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

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