Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Power of Words

One day during my junior year of high school, in a classroom that always smelled like coffee and pencils on paper, each student was given a sheet of white paper upon which various passages were printed for us to analyze. The first two were simple, sensical, but the third caught my attention.

The head of the Golden One bowed slowly, and they stood still before us, their arms at their sides, the palms of their hands turned to us, as if their body were delivered in submission to our eyes. And we could not speak.

Then they raised their head, and they spoke simply and gently, as if they wished us to forget some anxiety of their own.

"The day is hot," they said, "and you have worked for many hours and you must be weary."

"No," we answered.

"It is cooler in the fields," they said, "and there is water to drink. Are you thirsty?"

"Yes," we answered, "but we cannot cross the hedge."

"We shall bring the water to you," they said.

Then they knelt by the moat, they gathered water in their two hands, they rose and they held the water out to our lips.

We do not know if we drank that water. We only knew suddenly that their hands were empty, but we were still holding our lips to their hands, and that they knew it, but did not move.

My brow furrowed in confusion. Their two hands? Our lips? I struggled to make sense of the passage before me, trying unsuccessfully to determine how many characters were present in this scene.

Then my teacher explained to the class that the passage was from a book called Anthem by Ayn Rand. He held up a copy—a small paperback book with a big yellow light bulb on the cover. All he said about it was that it was not part of our required reading, but it was a quick read and worth our time, and if we like dystopias, we’d like this one. There were several copies in the back of the classroom that we could take home if we so desired. Intrigued, I stood and retrieved a copy, and that night, I opened to the first page.

It is dark here. The flame of the candle stands still in the air. Nothing moves in this tunnel save our hand on the paper. We are alone here under the earth. It is a fearful word, alone. The laws say that none among men may be alone, ever and at any time, for this is the great transgression and the root of all evil. But we have broken many laws. And now there is nothing here save our one body, and it is strange to see only two legs stretched on the ground, and on the wall before us the shadow of our one head.

So this was the great mystery of the plural personal pronouns. One body, two legs, one head. The speaker is one man, alone, but in he speaks in plural form because it is considered a sin to be alone. I was fascinated by the idea—it was a new twist on the idea of the dystopia that I had never considered. I read on.

The speaker, Equality 7-2521, spoke of times that had passed hundreds of years previously, when men erupted in war and flames covered the earth, and a new civilization was born from the ashes. In this new civilization, everyone was equal, all spoke and thought and acted as one. Yet this new civilization was archaic in technology—candles and glass had been invented “only a hundred years ago.” Rather than a futuristic setting, this civilization was primitive, set in the Dark Ages of the future.

One day, Equality 7-2521 discovered an underground subway tunnel, left over from the times before the “Great Rebirth”—left over from our time.

Subway Tunnel by David Galvan
So it was true, and those Times had been, and all the wonders of those Times. Hundreds upon hundreds of years ago men knew secrets which we have lost. And we thought: "This is a foul place. They are damned who touch the things of the Unmentionable Times." But our hand which followed the track, as we crawled, clung to the iron as if it would not leave it, as if the skin of our hand were thirsty and begging of the metal some secret fluid beating in its coldness.

I think I connected with Equality 7-2521 on a personal level here; although he knows he could be immensely punished for exploring the tunnel, he does it anyway. In some cases, I am the same way. I prefer not to leave any stones unturned, no options unexplored. Beyond connecting to the character, though, I was enraptured by the figurative language. The personification of his hand and the imagery of the metal when he says, “as if the skin of our hand were thirsty and begging of the metal some secret fluid beating in its coldness,” struck a chord with me. The description was so evocative; it brought the time of ancient men to life again through the cold metal, as if the lifeblood of the Times of old flowed just beneath the surface of the railroad tracks. Rand’s profound use of imagery is one of the things that held my attention most about this book.

More than the imagery, though, the actual use of language itself was what really struck me.

The words of the Evil Ones . . . The words of the Unmentionable Times . . . What are the words which we have lost?

May the Council have mercy upon us! We had no wish to write such a question, and we knew not what we were doing till we had written it. We shall not ask this question and we shall not think it. We shall not call death upon our head.

And yet . . . And yet . . . There is some word, one single word which is not in the language of men, but which had been. And this is the Unspeakable Word, which no men may speak nor hear. But sometimes, and it is rare, sometimes, somewhere, one among men find that word. They find it upon scraps of old manuscripts or cut into the fragments of ancient stones. But when they speak it they are put to death. There is no crime punished by death in this world, save this one crime of speaking the Unspeakable Word.

It would be another year before I finally read George Orwell’s 1984 and read about his theory that language controls thought, but even then, I understood this idea. For the first time, I had an awareness of the way that language manipulates thought—Equality 7-2521 could not conceptualize the idea of the individual because the individual did not exist within the language. And it then made me aware of the limitations of our own language; even if I learned every word in the English dictionary, surely there would still be concepts that I would struggle to describe, and never quite understand because of the lack of a word to solidify the concept. What are the words which we have lost, or never found? For the first time, I finally understood that language is power.

And Equality 7-2521 finally discovers that power himself when he stumbles across the Unspeakable Word: I.

            I am. I think. I will.

My hands . . . My spirit . . . My sky . . . My forest . . . This earth of mine. . . . What must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer….

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!

At last, he finds the power that his language has been lacking—the power of the individual. The repetition of the words “I” (“I am. I think. I will”) and “My” (“My hands… My spirit… My sky… My forest”) creates the sense of completion that comes with the discovery of oneself. Personally, I don’t agree with the sort of agnostic-humanist sentiment that Rand professes here, but at the same time, it’s true that man is a miracle, and the individual soul is of great worth.

Equality 7-2521 gives himself a new name: Prometheus. He finds himself, creates his own identity. And there, in that classroom, over the course of the year, I figured out part of who I am, too. I discovered a love for the subtle layers and formal elements of literature that I had previously never known existed. That was the year I began to read with depth and write with passion.

Anthem wasn’t the whole reason for this discovery, or even the main contributing factor. But it was a step in a year-long journey that has led me to my deep appreciation of English—both of literature and the language itself. And without that discovery, I probably wouldn’t be majoring in English here at BYU, pursuing an education that is centered on the power of words.


  1. So I think your writing style is beautiful. The only thing of Rand's that I've read is the Fountainhead, and I completely despised it. But reading your narrative, I want to open my heart to her again and try Anthem. So we talked yesterday about how you want to focus on the language aspect of Anthem and Alice, and after reading your narrative, I think you can totally do so. The language in Alice and Anthem seems to be used different, but I think one way you can totally connect them is through talking about identity.

  2. The premise for this story is so cool. I love stories that are set in the future. The idea of a primitive future is fascinating. I really want to read this book. Your analysis is very creative and helpful. I feel like now I could read the book with a better understanding of what is going on. good job.

  3. Juxtaposing the figurative language techniques used by Rand and Carroll would be very interesting. They are two entirely different genres and styles but investigating the way they manipulate language to create meaning and feeling in the text could pose to be an interesting investigation. You have a good way of expressing yourself by weaving your story of discovering this book together with an insight into figurative language and its effects.