Review. Anthem, Ayn Rand.

Given a choice between Anthem and Atlas Shrugged, which would you pick? I know, I know, I make the same choices when it comes to Bartleby the Scrivner and Moby Dick, and Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses. I read the slim volume that isn’t the masterpiece. And in some cases I’m probably the better woman for it.

Anthem was worth the time it took to read, but I don’t think Atlas Shrugged would have been. I don’t buy the philosophy behind Ayn Rand’s work, apparently. I accept that collectivism tends to go bad. Check out the remains of the Soviet Union; ask students in China. Nevertheless, the opposite of something bad is not something good. Good and evil, as strange as it may seem, are not the opposite ends of the spectrum. Extremes tend to cause suffering, pain — for example, alcoholism is hell. Contrariwise, puritanical teetotalling is its own hell. Both can be satisfying traps — nevertheless.

The opposite of collectivism is pure selfishness. Pure selfishness, fully considered, can be paradoxically generous — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Pure selfishness, driven to its extreme, is just as bad as collectivism. Imagine capitalism unsullied by democracy, and you have it. Even the selfish (individual, non-collective) love sketched out in Anthem is petty: the main character, eventually calling himself “Prometheus,” gets jealous and possessive, and chooses the her name for her (“Gaea”)rather than allowing her to choose her name for herself. Hypocrite.

The reason I say that reading Anthem wasn’t a waste of time was contextual. While Anthem strikes me as extremist, bigoted, sparsely written, and inferior to We and 1984, it’s like a philosophical juggernaut unsullied by the things that make fiction worth reading — it’s more like well-written political propoganda than anything else. Which makes sense, given the title.

But give me The Unbearable Lightness of Being any day, if you want to protest communism.