Monday, January 20, 2020

From Things To Come into The Space Trilogy-A Final Aside

I'm still catching up on last year, on my reading and writing. After reading 1985 by Anthony Burgess late in the year, I read another dystopian novel, Anthem by Ayn Rand. This was the first time I had read either of these authors. As it turns out, my reading of Anthem was timely in two ways. More on that in a while.

First published in Great Britain in 1938, Anthem was Ayn Rand's second novel. It is not only dystopian but also post-apocalyptic: in its pages, a new dark age has descended upon the world after disaster has also descended. The book is brief. I have the Signet edition of 1961 in which the text of the story is only 112 pages long. It starts off well. In fact, it's fascinating. Like Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, from 1924 (in the English-language edition), Anthem takes the form of a diary of a young man caught in an oppressive, totalitarian, and thoroughly collectivized society. Also as in We, the characters lack names. Ayn Rand cleverly gives them codewords associated in her time and ours with the progressive/leftist/socialist/statist cause, followed by a numerical designation. The narrator then, is Equality 7-2521, but there also these alphanumerics: Union 5-3992, International 4-8818, Liberty 5-3000, Fraternity 2-5503, Solidarity 9-6347, Collective 0-0009, Democracy 4-6998, Unanimity 7-3304, Harmony 9-2642--you get the picture. It's kind of like a commie phonebook from the 1940s or '50s ("Beechwood 4-5789 . . ."). Significantly, Liberty--the only word among these untainted by the real-world collectivism of the twentieth century--is the name of Equality 7-2521's girlfriend, the woman who will inspire him to rebel against his condition.

Anthem goes downhill pretty quickly about midway through when the reader starts to realize that this is not so much a work of fiction as a vehicle for its author's wacky ideas. (There's even a postcard in my paperback edition that you can use to send away for more Objectivist wackiness. The whole business reminds me of Scientology.) Before you reach that point, though, you encounter some genuine power in the plight of the protagonist, in his struggles to assert his individuality, and in his yearning to love the young woman named Liberty . . . who kind of fades away once they have gained their freedom. Maybe it wasn't love after all that he wanted.

Before that, the collectivism in Anthem has reached a point where there aren't any singular personal pronouns. A person calls himself "We" (shades of Zamyatin's earlier novel) and the other person "They":
"Speak these words again," they whispered.
"Which words?" we asked. But they did not answer, and we knew it.
"Our dearest one," we whispered. (p. 60)
Only when they are free and living in a house from olden times do they encounter for the first time the word "I." But then it becomes "I", "I", "I," never "you," or better yet, "Thou." Like I said, the girlfriend fades away.

I found out not long after reading Anthem that Merriam Webster dictionary decided that "they" would be their word of the year for 2019. The context and meaning are different, but the purpose, it seems to me, is more or less the same: as in 1984, it is to change the meaning of words and language so that our perceptions of reality might be altered and so that we might be deprived of our ability to think independently and to dissent from prevailing thought: to call a man "he" and a woman "she" will soon be a thoughtcrime, if isn't already.

That's the first timely thing about my reading of Anthem. The other is that Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for the rock group Rush, died on January 7, 2020, at age sixty-seven.  (He was born on the day the Flatwoods Monster came to earth.) As it turns out, the late Mr. Peart was influenced by Ayn Rand, specifically by Anthem. Strange world.

* * *
Ayn Rand may or may not have read Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, but George Orwell read it. We know that because he wrote a review of it published seventy-four years ago this month, in January 1946. (It seems pretty likely to me that she read it, too, inasmuch as her own Dystopia resembles Zamyatin's, plus he was her countryman: she would surely have heard of him and his book. She would also have had the advantage of reading it in the language in which it was written, for whatever that's worth.) Orwell read C.S. Lewis, too. You can read his review of That Hideous Strength ("The Scientists Take Over") by clicking here. The British scientist J.B.S. Haldane also read and at least twice criticized Lewis' Space Trilogy. You can read his articles ("Auld Hornie, F.R.S." and "More Anti-Lewisite") by clicking here.

In case you're keeping score at home, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a former atheist who became a devout believer and Christian apologist, George Orwell (1903-1950) was a socialist, thus presumably also an atheist but also strangely enough a kind of conservative, J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) was an atheist and thoroughgoing Marxist (I guess he and Orwell would have been on opposite sides of the same side during the Spanish Civil War), Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was an atheist, a rabid individualist, an advocate of capitalism, and a kooky cultist, and Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) was an Old Bolshevik but also the first writer to have his work censored once the new Bolsheviks--you know, the killing kind--came into power in Russia in the early 1920s.

One more thing. (There's always one more thing in this Columbo universe.) George Orwell encountered We for the first time because of the poet and literary historian Gleb Struve (1898-1985) of the original Magdeburg Struves. (Gleb's father was Peter Struve, first a Marxist, then an anti-Marxist.) Well, Gleb's second cousin (I think, if I have my Struves lined up right) was Otto Struve (1897-1963), an astronomer who initiated Project Ozma, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence carried out at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, West Virginia (the same state in which the Flatwoods Monster came to Earth), in 1960. That led to many things, directly or roundabout-ly, including a good deal of science fiction such as "The Listeners" by James Gunn (1968), The Day of the Dolphin (1973), and Contact by Carl Sagan (1985).

There are not only six degrees of Kevin Bacon, there are six degrees of everything.

One more thing: These asides are getting to be longer than the original series.

One more thing and then I promise you I will go: Today, January 20, 2020, is the 136th anniversary of Yevgeny Zamyatin's birth under the old calendar, so Happy Birthday to Him!

Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1953. Cover story: "Anthem" by Ayn Rand. Cover art by Lawrence showing a hunky 1950s guy with a death grip on Reddy Kilowatt, and his hot girlfriend, whom he unfairly ignores here and in the conclusion of the novel, relegated to the background.

Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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