Thursday, February 04, 2016

Rand's Novels 2 - Anthem

Anthem is a dystopian novella written in 1937. It is unique in Rand's ouvre in a number of ways. It is largely plotless (as Rand herself admitted) and it's much shorter than her other published fiction. It's more a parable than a story, and while it lacks the portentousness of her last novels, honestly, it's little more than a trifle. It's a short piece of fiction which has its basis, initially, in Rand's experiences during the early years of Soviet Russia. In Anthem, Rand took some of the high moral rhetoric that was used to defend communism in Russia and took these scraps of incoherent sentimentality to its logical extreme.
Yevgeny Zamyatin,a Soviet author who had become deeply disillusioned with communism, wrote a satirical novel in 1921, entitled We, that bears striking resemblance to Rand's Anthem. Wikipedia lists the following similarities:
  1. A novel taking the form of a secret diary or journal.
  2. People having numbers instead of names.
  3. Children separated from their parents and brought up by the State.
  4. Individualism disposed of in favor of collective will.
  5. A male who discovers individuality through his relationship with a female character.
  6. A forest as a 'free' place outside the dystopian city.
  7. The main character is a man.
  8. This character discovers a link to the past, when men were free, in a tunnel under the Earth.
The main difference between these two works of dystopian fiction is that in the world described by Rand has been reduced, by the prevailing collectivism, into a primitive society. In Zamyatin's We, the society has managed to hold on to the technology developed prior to collectivization. Despite this key difference, the similarities between the two works are surprising, and difficult to explain on the assumption that Rand never read Zamyatin's work. Superficially, it would seem that Rand must have read Zamyatin's dystopian novel. Yet oddly enough, it is not clear whether she did or not. Rand scholar Peter Saint-Andre explored both sides of the question in an essay originally published in JARS in 2003:

[I]t is unlikely that Zamyatin's fiction would have appealed to the young Ayn Rand.  Zamyatin's short stories and novellas are in the main rather gloomy and deeply ironic. Rather than uphold an ideal (what Rand called representing things "as they might be and ought to be"), Zamyatin usually explored human frailty and even spiritual ugliness in his stories, seemingly for the purpose of causing the reader to reflect on where his characters (and the society in which they live) went astray. Although often there is an implied ideal buried beneath the wrecked lives of Zamyatin's characters, that vision can be discerned only as in a photographic negative.

We should also keep in mind, as well, that Rand was hardly the avid reader. Indeed, she tended to avoid reading fiction she actively disliked. Nonetheless, there is evidence, on the other side, that she might have read We, regardless of any potential dislike for the author's irony and gloominess:

It also seems probable that Rand read Zamyatin's We in the English translation by Gregory Zilboorg published in 1924, for in a 1934 letter to her agent regarding the manuscript for We The Living she said "I have watched very carefully all the literature on new Russia, that has appeared in English."

If Rand did in fact read Zamyatin's novel, could she be accused of plagiarism? It really depends on how fastidious we wish to be on such matters. Rand may have derived some of her key notions used in Anthem from Zamyatin; but Rand's novella is hardly a carbon copy of Zamyatin's We. Despite attempts by her most fervent admirers to portray Rand as largely original and sui generis, Rand did depend on other sources for at least some of her ideas. However, once she pilfered a given notion or idea from someone else, more often than not she would put own peculiar (and sometimes quite eccentric) stamp upon it. Thus, for example, Rand's favorite little mantra,  "A is A," allegedly borrowed from Aristotle, but in reality pilfered from Isabel Paterson, who often used it in conversation. Once Rand got a hold of the phrase, she turned it into an axiom, and attempted to use it as one of the key principles behind her entire philosophy. So the real issue is not whether Rand plagiarized Zamyatin, but whether she created something unique and personal out of them.


advancedatheist said...

Rand apparently borrowed elements of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" for "Atlas Shrugged." Winston Smith's reading of "Theory and Practice of Bureaucratic Collectivism" by Emmanuel Goldstein, which analyzes the dysfunctions of Smith's Oceania, turns into Galt's Speech, which explains the dysfunctions of Rand's fictional United States. And Winston's "Do it to Julia!" moment under torture turns into Galt's calm instructions to the technician about repairing the torture machine, which has the effect of breaking his torturers, notably Jim Taggart.

Anonymous said...

Shoshana Milgram argued in her contribution to the Mayhew "Essays on Ayn Rand's Anthem" that should probably didn't read Z. She says some of these similarities were also found in other books at the time she might have read, such as those by HG Wells.


B.M.W. said...

"The main character is a man."

Dammmmn, people have been ripping this guy off left and right!

Seriously though, I know this is supposed to be taken in tandem with the other more striking similarities, but padding the list with this just makes the whole point look a little cheap and petty. (Especially since you added that one to the Wikipedia list. From that, I can only guess, or at least hope, that you put that in there as a little tongue-in-cheek joke. If so, bravo. If not, God help us all.)

Jzero said...

I dunno - it may seem like a minor detail, but conceivably if Rand had made the main character a woman it might have opened the story to a different set of perspectives and motivations.


I mean, there's a couple ways to look at it: one, if it didn't matter plot-wise to the story what gender Rand's protagonist was, then you can ask, why male and not female?

On the other hand, if a female protagonist would have had a differing viewpoint in some significant way, would it be necessary to keep the protagonist male in order to mimic We, assuming that was what was going on?

B.M.W. said...

Well, sure. She could have had a female protagonist. She could have done a lot of things. But it's a vast presumption to say that she insisted on a male protagonist because she was modeling the book after We. Countless hundreds of books have had male protagonists that could have been female. Apparently that's evidence enough that they were all doing it because they wanted their books to be just like We.

Besides, I'm not even saying that she wasn't influenced by We. She may well have been. Who knows? I'm just saying that two books having male protagonists isn't really a significant similarity between them. It's beneath mentioning really.

Gordon Burkowski said...

The central point: Ayn Rand's most important audience was herself. She has stated that her goal in writing was to present the ideal man. Not woman. And she meant it.

The Fountainhead starts with Howard Roark naked at the edge of a cliff. Not Dominique. Rand wouldn't have it the other way. Her two major novels may be many other things - but at their core, they are wish fulfillments.

Jzero said...

@ B.M.W.

"But it's a vast presumption to say that she insisted on a male protagonist because she was modeling the book after We."

Sure - but it's one drop of circumstantial evidence. You say it's trivial, and thus petty to even mention it, I'm suggesting it *could* be more significant. It may be unrelated entirely, too, but I don't think it ought to be dismissed out of hand.

@ Gordon

Good point. Not having read either We or Anthem I couldn't say, but if she did base the one on the other, possibly she could have been attracted to any qualities in We's protagonist that resembled her ideal man...?

B.M.W. said...

@Jzero: Well it isn't really merely the triviality or the "smallness" of the detail, but rather the general commonness of it. It would be like saying that I built my house to be just like yours and proving it by pointing out that we both have basements. Do all houses have basements? No. But does it really add anything in the way of evidence that one house was modeled after another by including the fact that they both have basements on the list? Not really, and in fact, it makes the whole thing look like a joke.

Now, in a sense, I do think I get what you're saying. If, say, we've already thoroughly established that my house is eerily similar to your house, then we can talk about whether my including a basement was an essential and indispensable part of the design. Could I have made my house so similar to yours if it were not for the basement?

That's fine. That's a perfectly legitimate line of inquiry, and could lead to a very interesting discussion. However, that's completely different than including the fact that we both have basements on the list of evidence for the original argument that I modeled my house after yous.

It kind of reminds me of that "Ancient Aliens" show where they get confused halfway between proving aliens came to Earth and discussing the implications of it and wind up trying to do both at once. You've got to establish the one and then move on to the other. You've got to have your meal and THEN your dessert. You can't pour hot fudge all over your meatloaf.

JG29A said...

"You can't pour hot fudge all over your meatloaf."

That would be a nice metaphor if millions of people didn't do the equivalent (putting pineapple on pizza_. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Whether or not Rand ripped off some dude doesn't matter. The important thing to remember is that Anthem was boring.

Anonymous said...

Possibly ANTHEM was a reworking and response to the earlier work, but "demonstrating" that a technologically advanced society would not, could not exist under extreme collectivism, and by being more optimistic: If so, such a response is not plagiarism.

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