on Neil Peart and Ayn Rand

THE UNDERLYING THEME

Legend has it that Neil Peart found a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead on the London underground. He denies it, saying he bought it at the station. Less romantic as it may be, the fact remains that the reading of that and subsequent Rand’s works highly influenced his own future writing and, in a way, marked his future life and career. While there may be a lot of idealization and “ideologization” in the fandom legends surrounding Neil’s return to Canada and the early years of his work with Rush – attributing his leaving England and the alleged decision of not making drumming the source of his income at any cost (i.e., at the cost of his artistic freedom) to the adaptation of her ideal of integrity, for example – what remains irrefutable is the one word that has been marking the Rush career for 25 years now, appearing on each recording they release: ANTHEM.

Ayn Rand wrote the novelette Anthem in 1937, but didn’t publish it until 1946, which was still before the Orwellian 1984. It’s a grim vision of a future world, a world of new Dark Ages, where the word “I” has been wiped out of existence. Everyone lives for the sake of his fellow brothers – i.e., in effect, for no one – and every aspect of life is controlled by a proper council. You have no right to be better than anyone else, otherwise you will be punished. Needless to say, the more talented, more imaginative, more able aren’t happy with the situation… but don’t dare to rebel until Equality 7-2521 – that’s the name of the hero – enters the scene. After many ups and downs he manages to escape and to find the remains of the old world – an old house with electricity, stylish, comfortable furniture, and books, where he discovers an unknown, strange, beautiful word: “I”. It’s only then that he manages to find the words to say to his beloved woman, who didn’t hesitate to risk her life sharing his unpredictable fate. These words are “I love you”.

Anthem is a short book, both in size and in content much less impressive than the two great novels that followed, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Still, it is a clear, bold statement of Rand’s beliefs that weren’t to change throughout her life – the praise of individualism, inventiveness, rationalism, the idea of man as a heroic being, as an “end in himself”, with no other god than his own ego – as well as a great prelude to Atlas Shrugged. From the literary point of view Anthem is incomparable with the two mentioned above, but maybe it was its very conciseness and clarity that prompted Neil to use it as the basis for the lyrical line to 2112.

The comparison between Anthem and 2112 reveals two main differences, only one of which I now consider meaningful. The difference is in the ending: in Rand’s book the hero succeeds, in Neil’s lyrics – fails. Is it pure “poetic licence”, a device to make things look more dramatic, or a statement of lack of faith in final success or lack of strength to continue the fight? In view of the commercial failure of the previous album, the latter might seem possible; still, it requires both faith and strength to make an album so clear-cut, so definite, so good as 2112. If Rush hadn’t had faith in what they were doing, they’d probably have gone back to short songs, to potential hits, giving up the experiment with “pretentious” suites. Instead, they decide to continue on it, attributing the lack of success suffered by Caress of Steel not to its noncommerciality, but – quite rightly – to its flaws, combined with the general atmosphere of the times (in mid-seventies they were a bit behind them with 20-minute pieces). As they couldn’t do much – at least not at once – to change the latter, they knew they had to eliminate the former – which is to say, to make as good an album as it was possible for them at the time. No leniency, no maybes. They succeeded – maintaining their artistic vision.

Thus, if the failure of the hero of the title track was meant as a “funeral dirge” for the author and his band, he received a pleasant surprise, finding out that it is easy to succeed once you have set your mind on something and proceed to do it regardless of the consequences. Why so? A quotation from The Fountainhead may shed some light on the issue:

 “Do you know most people take most things because that’s what’s given them, and they have no opinion whatever? Do you wish to be guided by what they expect you to think they think or by your own judgement?”

“You can’t force it down their throats.”

“You don’t have to. You must only be patient. Because on your side you have reason (…) and against you, you have just a vague, fat, blind inertia.”

 (Roark to Mr. Janss. p.155, HarperCollins edition, 1994)

The other difference I once regarded crucial is the discovery made by the hero. In Rand’s book he discovers, or re-invents, electricity; in Neil’s lyrics he finds a guitar and discovers music. If we associate the invention of electricity with intellectual enlightenment and the discovery of music with the resurrection of sentiments, we obtain the traditional antinomy heart vs. mind. Such antinomy, however, doesn’t exist for Rand; neither does the antinomy between two other traditional enemies, body and soul (or matter and spirit). Feelings are a function of the brain, just like thoughts – after all, I don’t suppose anybody actually thinks that a person with an artificial heart has artificial feelings – while the spirit and the body are two inseparable variations on the same theme. In Anthem the liberation of the protagonist consists of three stages, just like his slavery is triple: physical, emotional, intellectual. The re-invention of electricity stands for intellectual liberation. The discovery of love – for emotional liberation. The discovery of sensuality – for physical liberation.

Thus, there is no reason to attach special importance to Neil’s substitution of an electric bulb for a guitar: the latter appeals more to a rock fan, while the deeper meaning remains intact.  Its essence is captured in the sign of Starman: a naked man facing the red star of the Solar Federation, an individual fighting the collective. The collective can take many forms, from communism to Catholicism, but the role of an independent mind stays the same at all times: think for yourself, make your own decisions, don’t let anybody change your ways.

That, in essence, is why I believe Rush have remained faithful to Rand’s ideal to this day. The references to her work were most direct and easiest to track in the 70s: besides Anthem and 2112, her spirit is evidently present in the lyrics to Beneath, Between & Behind, Something for Nothing, A Farewell to Kings, The Trees, Freewill – to name a few. They drop the Starman logo around 1980, as if they didn’t need that prop anymore. It’s not a rejection of their ideal – it’s a confirmation of their independence. You don’t follow someone’s idea of intellectual freedom by becoming an intellectual slave to them. It’s a contradiction, and contradictions don’t exist. Independence is uniqueness (or the awareness of one’s uniqueness), with one common theme (Halley’s Fifth?) playing quietly on the edges of the fellow minds.

That common theme – the bridge between Ayn Rand’s work and Rush lyrics – can be perceived in many Rush songs throughout the 80s and the 90s. Here are a few quotations by way of illustration:

from the obvious His mind is not for rent,

to perverse Those who know what’s best for us must rise and save us from ourselves,

to Everybody got to elevate from the norm,

to I’m not giving up on implausible dreams,

to Curves and lines of great designs,

to A spirit with a vision is a dream with the mission,

to Show me don’t tell me,

to I’m young enough to remember the future and the way things ought to be,

to my favourite: Hero is the voice of reason against the howling mob.

I won’t attempt to prove that Neil is still as big an admirer of Ayn Rand’s as he was 25 years ago. Intellectual development, which lasts, or should last, the whole life, involves constant modifications. The older you get, the more critical of external influences. Still, your independent mind is in fact a product of many past influences, and vice versa – you only let in the influences from those whose ideas you like, i.e., with whom you already have something in common at the very start. If you don’t like somebody, you send them to hell or ignore them rather than try to absorb their ideas into your mind. Thus, if Neil one day was seduced by Ayn Rand’s ideas, it’s because he chose to be seduced, because he felt the two of them had something important in common. That something, I believe, still exists within him. And maybe it’s not her ideas altogether, but only her ability and courage to put in words something that simply exists, within her, within Neil, and within all the others who say “yes” to her works.

I published it somewhere, sometime. I think it was the great late fanzine „The Spirit of Rush” in the early 2000s. Am I still an admirer of Ayn Rand’s? In a way I am. I’m an admirer of her storytelling, her courage and her devotion to integrity. I’m not an admirer of her narcissism and her manipulativeness. When I think of her now, I experience what they call a cognitive dissonance: how can one preach freedom and honesty and yet be so manipulative in her works? The hero is unblemished, you have to accept all he does, you can’t question his motives, you can’t question anything. The villain is so disgusting that you can’t imagine anyone like him to exist, so it’s easy to condemn him. She claims to be an advocate of freedom, and yet her underlying message is: „Do as I preach and think as I think, for otherwise you’ll do and think wrong”. 

And yet, and yet… I still think her books have done good things to my life, and I’ve heard many people say the same of their lives.

©Iwona Michałowska-Gabrych


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