Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

20 Apr 2012

(Novel) Anathem by: Neal Stephenson

(Reaction) Cogito ergo sum res cogitans by: Antonio Conejos

There's a famous line from Jurassic Park that asserts that life will find a way. In the context of the movie this line develops the notion that life will break free of any of artificial obstacle in order to breed more life. The film then shows this breaking free in spectacularly vivid, T-Rex roaring fashion. Stephenson's Anathem does the same thing but not for life but for thought itself. Anathem makes the case that pure, rational thought will ultimately prevail over the irrational, the obfuscations, the ignorance.

Anathem takes the view that thought, coupled with the awareness that we are thinking, is the ultimate tool of discovery. Even without fancy equipment or even our basic senses, man's first and foremost means of discovery is the fact that we are aware of what we know and we can question how we came to know of this.

A World Divided

Despite the emphasis on discovery, the novel begins with scientific inquiry very much stunted. Scientists, avouts, have been ostracized, often times violently, from society and placed in restricted monasteries called maths. Larger maths are called concents.

The Mathic world was conceived as a restriction on thought, as a brake on the imaginative and creative powers of scientists: ...the avout were herded into maths because of fear of their ability to change the world through praxis... So praxis stopped, or at least slowed down to a rate of change that could be understood, managed, controlled.

Yet this brake fails. Indeed, each Sack is a reassertion of the fear generated by the work of scientists. Thus, each Sack attempts to constrain the avouts by taking away more and more of their scientific tools.

The First Sack was a revolt against matter manipulation (No more new matter...). The Second Sack was a revolt against biological manipulation (No more sequence work, no more syndevs [computers] in the concents...).

And finally the Third Sack was a revolt against mental manipulation, literally of work pertaining to mind over matter effects (it turns out that sufficiently smart people locked up on crags with nothing to do but think can actually come up with forms of praxis that require no tools and all the more terrifying for that. So we have a Third Sack - the worst of all, much more savage than the others.)

Inside the maths the avouts toil away, separated from everyday (Saecular) society by cultural taboo as well foreboding physical walls. It was the explicit intention of the avouts to be a world apart - in the very founding of the mathic world, Saunt Cartas herself emphasizes that it is not an accommodation to the Saculum but a land of opposition to it. A counterbalance.

In the mind's eye

Left with no (or very few) devices, the avouts of the present age rely on philosophical musings to further their knowledge of the world. The two main, rival, schools of thought (about thought) among the avouts are the Procians (Rhetors) and the Halikaarnians (Incanters). Both are concerned with the ultimate origin of meaning.

For the Procians meaning, indeed, thought itself is based on culture, on shared experiences, conditions and environments. We can talk about something because we both have an underlying experience of that something. The Procians then would agree with Derrida's notion that there is no transcendental signified; that meaning is acquired through usage and context, moreover that we build meaning. Without the necessary background of a fundamentally shared context, there can be no shared meaning. Thus, for the Procians meaning is literally what we make of it.

The Halikaarnians in contrast take a distinctively Platonic viewpoint (with a twist). As espoused by Plato, meaning is derived from an absolute form of that meaning which is found in the Eidos. For example, we have a concept of what a chair is because all the chairs in our world partake of the form of the ideal chair found in the world of forms - Eidos. Thus, for both Plato and the Halikaarnians, meaning is not created by context but by grasping or perceiving a reflection of the perfect form of the thought. There is necessarily then absolute meaning, which can be found in the Eidos.

Where Halikaarnians and Plato differ though is where this meaning emanates from. For Plato there is only one Eidos, one perfect world of forms. Yet the Halikaarnians theorize that there can be many Eidos, chains and strands of ideas flow downriver from these various Eidos which are further up the chain of the (in Halikaarnian parlance) Hylaean Theoric World.


Both schools of thought spend much of the novel in opposition but at Anathem's conclusion the reader derives the sense that both are correct, or at least, plausible. Indeed, the two sides are reconciled in the act of attempting to save their common world. Fraa Jad (Halikaarnian) sacrifices himself to prod the team to the worldtrack wherein the best possible outcome (peace) can be achieved while Fraa Lodoghir (Procian) works to sustain the peace won by Fraa Jad.

Even the very structure of the novel itself can be argued to be a reflection of both Procian and Halikaarnian thought.A reader quickly notices that the novel is divided into sections which are introduced or foreshadowed by a definition extracted from the The Dictionary. This introduction of a dictionary entry, right before a section of the novel that has thematical affinity with what is discussed in the word defined by the dictionary entry, neatly illustrates how both Procians and Halikaarnian's can be right.

A Procian would argue that the dictionary definition only takes on meaning for the reader in relation to the events of the section introduced by the dictionary definition. For instance, the dictionary can define dialog but the word only truly makes sense in the section following the definition wherein Oorolo is able to bring Erasmas around to his way of thinking.

As such, the events of each section share their meaning with the definition which comes before that section and in such a way both the definition and the section gain meaning through context.

A Halikaarnian would argue that the dictionary definition is an illustration of the HTW in that the events of the section are a reflection of the definition. The higher meaning of the HTW permeates the section, animating and even causing the events found therein.

Thus, the dictionary definitions are not mere helping hands for a reader to understand the underlying mythology of Anathem but are also examples embedded in the text of how two conflicting philosophies can both concur.

This movement towards synthesis can also be found in the greater events of the novel. Religion is often seen as contradictory to the scientific and the rational. This is clearly seen in the avouts reaction to the Deolaters. Deolater thought is at once literal and vague and this causes all sorts of consternation for avouts. Gnel, a passionate Deolator illustrates this, Truths not therein [the Book] we feel but we do not know.

Yet religion and science are reconciled in the very language of Anathem. Exceptional scientists are called Saunts, a corruption of the word saint. The avouts themselves resemble monastic monks, complete with many religious ceremonies and vows of poverty and obedience. To be an avout is to hear the call of a greater truth and this is exactly how Deolaters would describe themselves as well.

The reconciliation of seemingly opposite sides can also be seen in how the Saecular Power eventually unites with the Mathic World, resulting in the Magisteria. It cannot be overemphasized just how much distrust the people extramuros have for the avouts and vice versa. Yet in the end these two powers share power jointly, if uneasily.

Eternal Recurrence

Does Anathem then argue that opposition eventually coalesces into unity, that opposites can combine to form a better future? The novel does not fully support this notion of unified opposites. Indeed, Anathem is subtly less interested in Hegelian synthesis than it is in Nietzche's eternal recurrence.

The societal milieu of the novel is one that is at ease with the cyclical nature of society. Cultures advance, prosper and then decay in an orgy of war and advanced weaponry. Fraa Erasmas constantly points out in the ruins of former societies, which were built on the debris of yet even older societies. Moreover, he notes that at some times the concents were overshadowed by sky scrappers, in other times, the avout of the same concent only have the wilderness for company.

The cyclical nature of events also takes place on the Daban Urund, the alien ship. After having conquered a new cosmos, the Fulcrum political faction is ascendant. Yet as time drags on during the journey to the next conquest, the Pedestal faction slowly gains more power. After a world is subdued and the ship stocked once again for a new voyage, the Fulcrums again attain power.

If nothing else, Anathem is a reflection of how man falls, stands and walks again, and then falls once more.

Even the much vaunted unity of the Saecular Power and the Mathic World is not new, this synthesis also occurred a long time ago, Such a state of affairs has not existed since the golden age of Ethras.

Evidence of Things Not Seen

At the novel's conclusion a better society is born on Arbre. Yet the future is cloudy for this new society, much work remains to be done in Year Zero and beyond.

Even the central enigma of the novel, from whence does truth spring, goes unanswered. Fittingly, the only way to answer the question of self-awareness (how do we know what we know?), is to explore a mystery we barely understand, I do not know the answer, Fraa Erasmas. Nor will any born of this cosmos until we have taken ship on a vessel such as this, and journeyed on to the next.

The only truth affirmed after all the intellectual dialogue and planing of Anathem is that truth, in whatever form, still lies out there but that we are the better for seeking it in the here and now.


If man in Canticle for Leobowitz somehow managed to survive the second fall of Lucifer, the resulting society might resemble the Mathic World of Anathem. Indeed, Canticle and Anathem, share many of the same themes; the burden of knowledge, man's burning desire always for more of the forbidden fruit.

Anathem though is a very original take on the end of the world society. For one, the world ends, begins and ends, and begins again, multiple times. Two, the ostensible enemy in Anathem is a true alien, in the literal and figurative sense of the word.

If Anathem shares themes with Canticle, it shares some of its treatment of those themes with Mann's Magic Mountain. In Magic Mountain the characters talk, a lot. These conversations are extended philosophical discussions masquerading as plot. They don't work in Magic Mountain and sometimes feel quite stretched in Anathem. At least a basic knowledge of philosophy is required to begin to appreciate some of the ideas of the novel.

Admittedly these talks (and they are a lot of them) can get tedious over time. The last two hundred pages or so of the book though reward the reader who has made it that far. The sequence of how Fraa Erasmas and his band make it on to the alien ship is exciting and again, highly original. The climax and falling action as well put all the philosophical musings of the novel in context.

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