My freshmen economic students are currently reading Anthem, a novella by Ayn Rand. We read it not to indoctrinate students; it acts as a foil for how to differently think about personal freedom. I tell my students that they will often not agree with her, but that's not the point. The point is to take what she says and figure out what, if anything, applies to humans in an economy.
I would not call myself a Rand fan. Her Objectivist philosophy has some intriguing points, but on the whole, I find it all very bleak and contrary to human nature. Her writing style isn't that much better, in my opinion. I find some entertainment in classics like Atlas Shrugged (more so than The Fountainhead), but they simply don't appeal to my taste. Anthem, though, is fascinating to me and tells a wonderfully simply yet rich narrative (probably because it is so different from all her other works).
For those of you that haven't read it, do so. It will take you probably less than an hour to get through the whole thing; how I'm able to string it over 2-3 weeks in the classroom is beyond me. It's the story of a society where all of humanity is the same, governed by the Councils, where individuality is suppressed, and people refer to each other and themselves as "we" and "us." Instead of "I spoke with her," it's "We spoke with them." The story follows and is written by Equality 7-2521, a street sweeper who has an urge to discover and study, though he is forbidden. I'll let you read the book, but I want to focus on one particular aspect of the story.
Men and women are forbidden to look upon each other except at the Time of Mating. Having friends is a crime, for all of man is your friend. But Equality gazes upon a woman, Liberty 5-3000, who has blonde hair. He names her the Golden One, another crime, for to name someone and to befriend them is to commit the Transgression of Preference. He thinks about her constantly, her never seeing him. Until:
One day, [Liberty 5-3000] came close to the hedge, and suddenly they turned to us. They turned in a whirl and the movement of their body stopped, as if slashed off, as suddenly as it had started. They stood still as a stone, and they looked straight upon us, straight into our eyes. There was no smile on their face, and no welcome. But their face was taut, and their eyes were dark, Then they turned as swiftly, and they walked away from us.
But the following day, when we came to the road, they smiled. They smiled to us and for us. And we smiled in answer. Their head fell back, and their arms fells, as if their arms and their thin white neck were stricken suddenly with a great lassitude. They were not long looking upon us, but upon the sky. Then they glanced at us over their shoulder, and we felt as if a hand had touched our body, slipping softly from our lips to our feet.
I don't know why, but this moment reminds me of a painting called "Girl with a Pearl Earring," by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, seen below. It evokes a certain mystery and awe for me, a moment that captivates and compels you to look. You have no choice but to wonder who the girl is, what does she want, what are her slightly parted lips trying to say. When I pondered this, I finally realized what was happening between the characters.
Equality and Liberty were indeed sharing intimacy, that shared bond of understanding and closeness. It's that feeling you know how the other person is feeling or even thinking without exchanging words. It's more than a sensation of trust, though it is that. Intimacy is a connection that isolates two people from the rest of the world, giving them a feeling that there is no world but what they share, for that one moment.
When you read the first dialogue between them, you can feel the tension they have. Liberty asks if Equality saw her among a score of women would he look at her. He says he would look at her if she were among all women of the world. Talk about a romantic. This raw attraction isn't just "falling in love" or even romance. It's pure, even holy, desire.
As the story goes on, Equality and Liberty develop a sort of companionship. Equality has a friend, of sorts, among his fellow street sweepers. But Liberty is his first (and only) companion. I had to think about what that means, companion. As I have come to understand it, a companion is different from a friend in that, while a friend is someone you have an attraction for a share some experiences or interests, you can go years without seeing them and they still be friends. A companion though, shares everything. On the paths of life we take, a companion is one who shares the path with you, going through all experiences, feeling most emotions you feel. Spouses are often called life companions because they are with and know each other until they die. I have often seen and heard that, in an elderly couple, when one spouse dies the other dies soon after. Why? Because for that whole person's life, since they were like 23, they've had a partner to be there. And now…that strength, that source of energy from another human, is gone.
These themes--intimacy and companionship--have been on my mind for some time, now, and not necessarily with me knowing it. I cannot put to words everything I've thought and experienced, but put simply, life is confusing. It is more than tough or difficult. Life has a way of ignoring the logical and sequential order of events. Instead, life continually puts before us decisions and themes that we have experienced in the past, and refreshes them as if they happened not ten minutes ago.
And life is showing me again that I have not done well to manifest intimacy with others, that I have refused the call of companionship. I know what these things are in my head, and maybe even my heart. But, as life is revealing, my words and feelings have not given way to action. By what I have done (or not), I rejected moments of intimacy with people who should easily be called companions. But companionship has suffered, as my actions conveyed that I did not want to share in the path those people followed.
This reflection makes my heart heavy, for I love these people. When we love others, we should find times and ways to be intimate, to share those moments. Perhaps companionship is not in the cards for all of those individuals that I love; that's hard to accept, too, because I want to take people I love with me in all my life! The question--the truly difficult question--is discerning what level of intimacy you can sustain, without force. What is best for you and those other people?
I haven't figured that out yet. But the image of Equality and Liberty gives me hope that though I'm not always perfect to others, trying to be what they need, and not what I want, is better than doing nothing. And doing nothing, as life has shown again, is the worst thing you can do.