Ayn Rand’s Anthem

I have this problem: I’ve been trying to research the work and “ideas” of Ayn Rand, the better to satirize them in this story I want to write. The painful thing is, well… reading Rand is painful. It really is. I read 100 pages of The Fountainhead and couldn’t understand how or why it blew away people who are supposed to be intelligent, educated, and so on. It’s a embarrassingly bad book, mainly because, besides clunky, boring prose, it’s something that could only be a sensible argument if what it were arguing against weren’t a complete and utter strawman.

Anthem struck me as less egregiously unreadable: the pronoun issue does beat you over the head with her ideology, but I found that somewhat interesting. And I can even see how such a book could appeal very strongly to young people: at a certain age, I would also have been all about the kind of resistance to power, to dehumanization, to deindividuation inherent in the systems in which I was forced to participate. (Like school, church, and so on.)

But then you look at her fans — the Tea Partiers and Death Panel jokers — and you ask yourself whether you’re better off not having read her work at “the right time of your life.” I don’t know.

The problem is that I’m not a teenager, and it’s not so clearly me-against-the-authorities; the world looks more complex, and Rand’s future socialist gulag world just looks too contrived to me. It’s a strawman, and the most obvious part of that is the simplification of all community as oppression, of all help as burden, and of the authorities and socialism as the necessary erasure of individuality. (Sorry to break this to Rand’s devotees, but human beings aren’t anywhere near the kind of blank slate that Rand suggests in this novel.) It’s easy to believe that snake oil will cure any illness, as long as you don’t know anything about illnesses, I suppose.

That said, I am very curious about whether Anthem has been translated into Korean. Despite the fact that any teenagers who read it would probably go on to read more of (and maybe get into) Rand’s work, I suspected that they might find it less strawmannish in respect to their own experience of schooling and social life here than I do coming from my own Western experience. I also found myself wondering how such a book could be translated. For one thing, it repudiates the pronoun “we” — a pronoun that actually gets used in Korea way more (and a lot of the pronouns in the novel wouldn’t be used in conversational Korean anyway); the fact that some of those usages of “we” in the novel reminded me of some of the usages in Korea, and way the narrator is so invested in what others see in, or make of, him, reminded me of a lot of situations and experiences I’ve encountered in Korea.

I listened to the Librivox edition, which wasn’t perfect but was passable for a free product. The reader, Chere Teriot, seemed annoyed to have to make the copyright announcements at the beginning of each chapter (I was listening via the Itunes Store, where it’s available for free). But she does a pretty good job on the reading, minor missteps and oddities aside. It’s volunteer work, so I feel like she deserves more praise for the good stuff and a pass for the stuff that could have been better.

In general, I can say that I suspect the more one looks into Rand, critically thinking and questioning while doing so, the more one cannot help but puzzle at these strawmen, and why she was so invested in beating them to death. I suspect it’s not her politics and ideology so much as personal experiences… and that the politics and ideology were driven by personal experiences, and of course personal damage. Which is why the biographies discussed here are of great interest to me. Also, Justin Howe wisely pointed me at this article by Nick Mamatas, wherein he argues the zeitgeist of today is not a Randian one, but a Heinleinian one.

Cue shudders.

But Mamatas does make a bunch of good points, and especially one similar to the point made in John Kessel’s piece on Ender’s Game: that the protagonist, for both authors, is inherently good (and the villains are just plain bad.) People seem to like that sort of thing.

Cue shrugs, sighs, scheming, and the rest…

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