How God Redeems Atheistic Literature: a book review

I thought I may be stepping out of my usual reading fare when I picked up our copy of Ayn Rand’s Anthem last week.  I thought I wouldn’t like it, you know?  Ayn Rand.  Even her name is tricky.

In the introduction, Leonard Peikoff discusses how the title Anthem came to be:

Ayn Rand chose the… concept ‘anthem’ for her present title.  In doing so, she was not surrendering to mysticism, but waging war against it.  She was claiming for man and his ego the sacred respect that is actually due not to Heaven, but to life on earth.  An ‘anthem to the ego’ is blasphemy to the pious, because it implies that reverence pertains not to God, but to man….

And that’s exactly what Anthem tries to do — give glory to man.  Ayn Rand, having left Communist Russia, published her work in Britain and America, praising capitalism, praising individualism, condemning any ties to a body of people.  Every man for himself is the theme of the book.  The narration comes from the voice of one man — Equality 7-2521 — but he refers to himself as “we,” as he has always been inextricably linked to the others in his society.  There is no room for creative thought; only the whole society matters.

So when Rand’s narrator discovers electricity — a light bulb, in fact — beneath the streets that society has dictated that he sweep, he is excised from society.  For years, society has worked to achieve and has collectively embraced candlelight, and he dares to present this new thing to their council and disrespect everything society has worked together for.  And fleeing to the forest to live in exile, the narrator discovers that he enjoys independent thought — that he has no need for a governmental body to choose his destiny.  Away from the pavement, he — along with a woman who has fled with him, basks in the freedom of the forest, discovers a house also from a bygone era with technology he has never experienced.  Among the vast library in the house, the narrator discovers the word “I,” and launches into his “anthem” to self, the god within him, free to think and live without limits.  He condemns everything contrary to freedom:

I ask none to live for me nor do I live for any other….For the word ‘We’ must never be spoken, save by one’s choice and as a second thought.  This world must never be placed first within man’s soul, else it becomes a monster, the root of all the evils on earth, the root of man’s torture by men, and of an unspeakable lie.

And one more quote before I attempt to write my way out of blasphemy.  The narrator ends his anthem to “I” thus:

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.’

How can a Christ-following woman appreciate a work such as this?  Because the truth is, I did appreciate it.  Loved it, in fact.  I think Ayn Rand is wrong, at least as far as the worship of man is concerned.  But I am inclined to libertarian ideology, so it’s easy to find something to love in the escape from society, in the full genius potential of creative humankind.  And creativity is birthed by created ones, who live in the image of God, the Creative One.

But the number-one reason I love Anthem is this: As a creative work, as an expression of art, God wrote Himself into the story.  Ayn Rand, if she could, would turn in her grave to hear me say so.  However, it’s hard to ignore the moments of the story which are most liberating to the narrator.  How does God redeem Anthem for Himself?

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1)  Our narrator escapes society, and instead of exulting in the solitude of it, Golden One — the woman he has pursued and named, ends up coming along, too.  So even when the man is supposed to be at his freest, joy is played out when he is actually with mankind, sharing the discoveries with someone outside of himself.  It is not good for man to be alone.

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2) Isn’t it perfectly Adamic for our narrator to name his beloved?  When she finds him in the forest, her devotion to him is profound: “We have followed you,” she says, “and we shall follow you wherever you go.  If danger threatens you, we shall face it also.  If it be death, we shall die with you.  You are damned, and we wish to share your damnation.”  For a man so entranced with his own power, surely he would be sickened to see her kneeling, bowing, swearing her bond to him in words like that of Solomon’s bride.  Where is her independence, her own self-worship?  But instead, he says he “had never known what joy is possible to men.”

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3) The electric light bulb the narrator has discovered is a strong symbol throughout the story.  Before the Council of Scholars, the narrator proclaims: “Let us throw away our candles and our torches.  Let us flood our cities with light.  Let us bring a new light to men!”  Of course, and why wouldn’t we?  But the morning after his escape (which, ironically, is to the forest — to nature — God-breathed creation), the narrator declares:  “It has been a day of wonder, this, our first day in the forest.  We awoke when a ray of sunlight fell across our face.”  Sunlight, did you say?  From the sun?  It was a light source that spawned his self-worship, but even he cannot but wonder at this place, dappled with rays from a light source the scope of which is unfathomable.

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4) Capitalism, democracy, libertarianism — whatever political stance Rand promotes through this story is clear.  (Well, ahem… to lots of people anyway.  I’m clearly a little fuzzy on the intricacies of each of those schools of thought.  They’re pretty interchangeable for me.)  Each man for himself — that’s the ideal in Anthem.  But I suggest that it is not possible for every man to simultaneously function apart from authority.  For if each man is truly for himself, who can fault the man or men who placed communist ideals into this dystopian society?  Are they not free to implement whatever government seems best to them?  Of course not.  It puts others under slavery.  So then, each man for himself?  Is that the rule of Ayn Rand’s prescription for society?  If so, it is incomplete, because even freedom cannot function without the moralistic add-on:  “…as long as one’s freedom doesn’t harm or enslave another.”  True liberty cannot exist without a moral code.  Morality cannot exist without some code of truth outside of man.  Even the narrator is forced to live by morals.  There is always “we.”

.          .          .          .

Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand, your proclamation tells on itself.  I fell in love with you as I read Anthem.  I’m sorry if I didn’t get it at all.  If you wanted me to get a grasp of man-worship as I read, I would just say, God wanted something different.  More God-worship is what I got out of your amazing novel.

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