A man without a name sneaks stealthily into deserted underground tunnels carefully hidden when the world was overturned. He reads forbidden manuscripts, and presses strange wires together—watching them glow with wide eyes. He has never seen his own face. He speaks using only the pronoun “we”—his identity tied to his role of “street sweeper” and the collective “brotherhood.” Edging further and further away from the safe common knowledge shoved down his throat throughout 15 years of schooling, the man comes closer to discovering the “forbidden” word of his ancestors who have been erased. It is a word to be killed for—a single syllable with too much power for the world leaders to contain. It is against the law to be alone or step outside of the carefully considered zones of society. “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” they utter every night before they fall into 100 separate white beds in bare white rooms. This man will break the system of the brotherhood in two. He will re-discover electricity, dare to love, and thrive in prohibited independence.
This is the portrait of subject Equality 7-2521 that author Ayn Rand paints in her short ingenious dystopic novel Anthem. Set in a future world of carefully defined roles, complete dependence, and no knowledge of the evil and forbidden word “I,” Rand offers up a vision of what a society would look like if we simply started over. Reading her intricately detailed description of this “back to the future” society as the wheels spun beneath me on a Greyhound bus, I was reminded of our discussion in class today about the complete re-structuring of the system. Referencing McDonough’s article, we talked about the metaphor of traveling 100 miles per hour in the wrong direction and how important it is to turn around rather than merely slow down. Ayn Rand paints a picture of what would happen if this were taken literally. What if, completely disillusioned by our abuse of technology and its negative impact upon our environment and time-impoverished and meaningless relationship filled lives, we decided to get rid of it all and opt for a do-over? Would we come to the same conclusions over time? Are we destined to destroy when we inevitably discover ways to make life more “efficient?”
Rand gives us a society that functions on the basis a strictly enforced declaration of dependence. It is a society where the candle is a revolutionary invention, and where the release of technology is limited. All work together, and the environment lies nearly untouched. Rand’s main character is a rebel in this society—a man who dares to spend time alone, discovers electricity, and runs away to the mountains to work toward re-structuring society yet again—this time using the knowledge of the hidden past. Knowledge of individuality. The book is set up to have us rooting for Equality 7-2521 to succeed in his rebellion. We see him as a hero—a man repeating the history we have come to worship in a world where it has been undone. Though I supported him in his romantic escapades with a woman he called “the golden one” and urged him on as he escaped his suffocating and pre-determined life to find solace and knowledge among the trees, I wondered if there were some things we could learn from the society he escaped. I do think that we need to acknowledge our dependence—not just in our own small communities, but across the globe.
There is a tribe of people in West Africa called the Kabre whose entire lives are centered upon exchange and the formation of relationships. They raise their children to be incomplete—always conscious of their debt to their parents, communities, ancestors, and of their connections to cultures all over the world. We in the “civilized” and “first” world look at them as “backward” and “traditional.” We don’t take the time to realize that we and they are completely intertwined. There are connections in history, commerce, identity, and modernity.
Rand’s world is extreme, but there’s still something appealing about it. I don’t think that we should all become mindless mantra-chanting people without the ability to refer to ourselves in first person, but I do think that learning to understand our dependence on one another could be useful in the long run. If we stopped competing for the right to deplete the earth’s resources, and we worked together to find solutions to turn this metaphorical car around, perhaps life seven generations down the road would look a lot brighter.