ayn rand, eckhart tolle, the power of the novel, and the power of critical reading

I love listening to books on tape, books on cd, and books on my iPod. I love to read of course, but there is something very comforting about being read to. About having the words wash over me and keep going even if I missed something. Even if i didn’t comprehend every word perfectly. The story continues. Life continues. I am alright.

The library was closed. I went on an application on my iPod that downloads free audiobooks that are older and in the public domain. I chose at somewhat random. I happened to choose Anthem by Ayn Rand.

I recognized her name from the bookshelf in the bookstore where I work. I could picture where her books sit relative to the other last-names-starting-with-R fiction writers. But I knew nothing about her as a person or a writer.

I began listening.

At first I was reminded of 1984 by George Orwell, which I have not read for many years but has stuck in my brain stronger than most books I have not read for many years. A future dystopia, this one thousands of years into the future. Complete control by leaders, to the extent that the characters of Anthem refer to their own individual self as “we.” The word “I” does not exist in the language. Everything is done for the good of the brotherhood, with no questions asked.

Then I kept listening. I began to get suspicious about what this author was trying to say. As the narrating character began to transgress, get caught, and escape into something described very much like “The Forbidden Forest” in the Harry Potter books, I became more suspicious. Then I saw it: one extreme to another. Showing communism gone completely wrong to suddenly showing individualistic capitalist ideals at their most heightened and dangerous:

“Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a bandage for their wounds. I am not a sacrifice on their altars. I am a man. This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before! I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom. I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them. I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others. I covet no man’s soul, nor is my soul theirs to covet. I am neither foe nor friend to my brothers, but such as each of them shall deserve of me. And to earn my love, my brothers must do more than to have been born. I do not grant my love without reason, nor to any chance passer-by who may wish to claim it. I honor men with my love. But honor is a thing to be earned.” -Ayn Ran, Anthem

Just as the word “I” was banned from the language early in the book, in this second-to-last chapter, (quoted above), the narrator suggests that the word “we” be banned.

I finally did some research on Rand’s other writing and her legacy. it is no wonder that she has been such an inspiration to libertarians and American conservatives. From one extreme to another. Oppression of strict individualism moves suddenly to the obliteration of any value in community, working together, or any common sense of responsibility to or justice for others.

 And this is just her novella. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are much longer, considered to be her masterpieces.

This whole experience has gotten me thinking about the power of text interpretation. And the power of fiction to push a strong agenda, whether or not the reader is consciously aware of it. It is rare these days that we read something written by someone we know nothing about—such is the digital age. I am glad I had the opportunity to discover for myself that there was something inherently very problematic in the message of the novel, before my research confirmed my fears.

We must read critically. We must realize the many ways texts can be interpreted (for example, at several moments throughout reading, the passages felt like beautiful and spiritual testimonies to solitude, something I care deeply about. But the entire text, and eventually the context in which it has been written and used, must be taken into account).

The novella ends with this passage:

“And here, over the portals of my fort, I shall cut in the stone the word which is to be my beacon and my banner. The word which will not die, should we all perish in battle. The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory. The sacred word: EGO.” -Ayn Rand, Anthem

This was a terrifying and chilling end. I immediately felt Eckhart Tolle’s presence with me, and I felt safer. I will end this piece with Tolle’s words about the ego, so that I can walk away from this exploration with a feeling that I have put Rand and Tolle in conversation. That is my hope.

“No ego can last for long without the need for more. Therefore, wanting keeps the ego alive much more than having. The ego wants to want more than it wants to have. And so the shallow satisfaction of having is always replaced by more wanting.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth 

“The moment you become aware of the ego in you, it is strictly speaking no longer the ego, but just an old, conditioned mind-pattern. Ego implies unawareness. Awareness and ego cannot coexist.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth 

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