I was primed by others, before reading this short story, to anticipate the sharp statements of the "moral" at the end of Rand's story. Rand does not disappoint, in style or power - my friends, however, left something to be desired in their criticism. Here I am, then, to try to make a simple observation about what the character Prometheus and Ayn Rand (and those readers to whom I spoke) got wrong together. It isn't that Prometheus has too high a view of himself - he doesn't.
If you haven't read Rand's Anthem, go away now and read it. There may of course be better uses for your time - but there is no point in engaging with this essay if you haven't read the story it is about.
So: to the story.
Rand's hero begins his life in a world with no reason to exist. The ambiguity in that sentence is deliberate. Prometheus (as he will later name himself) can find no reason to exist. This is seen most easily in contrast with his later experience: "we feel of a sudden that the earth is good and that it is not a burden to live." In the same way, the world in which Prometheus is born has no reason to exist. Men live to labor for other men - who likewise labor for other men. The social world is circular. The social world is a single biological organism, enforcing upon itself and all its parts the single activity of self-perpetuation, with no goal or intent. The Organism exists, and to exist as an organism is to exist as a set of self-maintaining processes. (This is not the last parallel to Nietzsche in Anthem. I could write a separate, much longer essay, on how exactly Nietzschian Rand's system is - but that would be a separate essay.) This is the first essential point- self perpetuation can exist without intended purpose. An organism need not be conscious of self perpetuation as a purpose in order to pursue something in its entire being. The structure of a system can be aimed toward something without any intent involved. This is more important and more basic than what the society of Anthem does to humanity: Even the society is not working toward anything. It is only working by self-perpetuating habit.
The self-defense mechanisms of the society assign Prometheus to be a street sweeper. It is clear that this is a self defense. The planners know that he is unruly, so they give him no power to organize, plan, or communicate. Prometheus knows this and accepts it - until he doesn't.
What happens to Prometheus? In a word, the Outside happens. He finds something Outside the world of his society. He finds something old, something buried - something that tells him in a moment about strange Power and Fascination and Wonder out there, somewhere. He has always been a malformed and abberant part of his society, but at this moment he becomes a rebel, a traitor, and an outsider. He becomes something different, and someone who in some deep way wants to be different.
At this moment though, we have to stop and talk about an essential stylistic point. I believe this is what threw off my friends in reading the story. The story is not neutral - it is narrated by a character. We are reading the diary of Prometheus. We should not see him (even in Rand's mind) as purely a hero. He is strong, of course, but he is also weak. How could he be otherwise? He was raised to be weak, by a world that excels in creating weakness. He is foolish. How could he be otherwise? He does not see (as the reader does) not to trust the Scholars of his native city. He still uses the collective "we," because he does not know better. He is not a Messiah figure- he is relatable. He is a kind of reverse Adam - starting in perfect depravity, and eventually swallowing a bite of goodness. This point will be essential when we reach the climactic revelation of the story.
For now, we are still underground with Prometheus, learning of the existence of electricity and of desire and of mistrust. Prometheus finds things outside of his self - and it is irrelevant which "self" we are talking about. Prometheus finds wonderful things outside his social "self," outside of the society that strives to be a single organism. He also, and at the same time, finds wonder outside his true individual self. The steel tracks and copper wires of a derelect train tunnel are the magical relics of an ancient world - and a better one. The eyes, the mind, and the body of The Golden One, Gaea, are a wonderland, foreign and marvelous merely to glimpse (and she is only an ordinary woman - extraordinary merely because she, alone among her sisters, realizes in some small part that she is indeed a woman). Prometheus finds something Good, and tastes that it is good.
That, however, is not quite right. It is misleading to say the Prometheus finds a good thing. This is what he concludes (and what Rand wants us to conclude), but it is not what happens. Prometheus finds many good things. It is easy to miss this, because they are all connected. The power of electricity is good because it is complicated and interesting. It is also good because it exists before and outside of man, and regardless of what he thinks of it. It is also good because it gives power to anyone who cares to learn it. None of these things are independent of each other, but they are not the same thing.
The old world before the fall is also good. It is not the same thing as the good of the electricity. Electricity is a thing one can have knowledge of, but the old world was made from that knowledge. The world was full of knowers, and of many good things that were connected to that knowledge, but all different from it. The knowledge is the root of the power and the power is the root of history. Also, history is the expression of power, and that power is the realization of knowledge. Still, none of these things are the same.
Knowledge is a good - and so is the curiousity so deeply connected to it. The pride in his discovery that Prometheus feels is a good - and so is his benevolence, his desire to share the knowledge simply because it is a great knowledge. All of these goods are related. All are connected, but none are the same. They are not all one thing, no matter what name we give to it (whether Self, or Experience, or Society).
We ought not skip over the most obvious case. Prometheus is an I. It is good that he exists - and he learns this, in the end. Gaea is an I. She exists, and it is good, and she learns this in the end. They each learn the importance of self. They learn that pure principle, not that they themselves are valuable, but that Selves are valuable, indepentently, because of what they are. Prometheus and Gaea are the same: they are each a self. They do not value themselves too highly. They each value themselves as themselves, but they also each value selfhood, itself (and this is a separate value). They each partake of selfhood, and they respect it - and to respect selfhood itself is to respect it in everyone you meet. Prometheus and Gaea are not the same, however. He is not only an individual - he is a man. She is a woman. It is not only Self that matters. Their otherness also matters. Their selfhood is not fruitful, by itself: their marriage is fruitful. It would not be so without Self, but it is never Self alone.
This, of course, is the entire point of this little essay. What is wrong with Anthem is not that it has too high a view of the Self. The problem is not that it makes an idol of Self. Of course, it does confuse the value of self; it is not the same thing to value oneself (because of one's own own innate experiece) and to value oneself because one is a self. This is a notable error, but it is minor in comparison to the real failing of the story. I should also say, the real problem is certainly not that Rand fails to be a worthless popular-evangelical-novelist (and have Prometheus find a Bible in the old house and become a good Post-Apocalyptic-Evangelical-Fundamentalist-American.) The problem is that Prometheus forgets his first love.
The first good he found was not himself. It was not his collective social self, and it was not his private individual self. It was the mundane, elementary knowledge of his childhood classroom. It was a knowledge he was given. Or, perhaps, it was that dark tunnel tunnel from Outside his world. It was a thing he found. Or, perhaps it was a woman he saw. Obviously none of these good things are things he could experience without being an Experiencer. No good thing is. Being an entity with personal experiences is not enough, however. There must be Good things out there (things that are good in themselves) for the Self to encounter in order for the Self to even find itself.
Rand clearly believes that the Self is the final word, because it is only the self that sees, pursues, or values things in the end. This is only because none of the other goods in the world would be fulfilled without a conscious self to see them. In this, Rand is not wrong. There must be a person to see the light, or the light may as well be darkness. There must be a self to inquire after knowledge in order for truth to be fruitful. There must be a mind to read in order for the letters to speak. Rand is not wrong about the towering, colossal importance of a self. She is only forgetful of the world outside the self.
We can forgive Prometheus for not building a more nuanced picture of the world. His primitive encounter with the world as it is (and not as Society says) is fundamental to the story, after all. He does not have the web of understanding the reader does. He can be forgiven for latching onto what the world had denied. We ought to be somewhat more strict with Rand. She has missed her own story. She has overlooked the elements she had to put into her world to make it believable.
The Self cannot be done away with - but the self is not all there is. It is obviously true that here must be a person to see the light, or the light may as well be darkness. It is equally true that there must be a light to see, or man may as well be blind. Rand cannot escape this. The ancient world needs Prometheus to discover it, and to bring it back to life. Prometheus just as truly needs that ancient world. It is no good to say that it is only Prometheus's unconquerable ego that made him escape the evil land of his birth: It is equally true that his ego was only unconquerable because he had things to Wonder at. His curiousity was only meaningful because there were curious things to find. Even in Rand's story, there must be a truth for the man to find, and it must be Good, independent of his finding it. Even in Rand's story, there must be a woman for the man to find, or the man may as well be impotent. It is not good enough that she be another Self, the same as him. She must also be different from him - and different in a way that is formed for him.
All of the Good things in the world may be connected, but they are not one thing. That is the root failure of Anthem. The One Good is not one self of society, and it is not one principle of self for everyone. The most we can say in one word is to express a kind of gateway out of the self and into the rest of the world. That is, we must at the same time say something of the Man Who Sees, and something of the World To Be Seen. There is a word for this. In the end, the one sacred word Prometheus should have written is not "Ego," it is "Wonder."
Addendum, sometime later:
I am not entirely satisfied with this essay, but I can think of no better way to amend it (short of a full rewrite) that to attach this quote from Chesterton onto the end.
“Do not enjoy yourself. Enjoy dances and theaters and joy-rides and champagne and oysters; enjoy jazz and cocktails and night-clubs if you can enjoy nothing better; enjoy bigamy and burglary and any crime in the calendar, in preference to the other alternative; but never learn to enjoy yourself.”