The Dystopia Files: We
Yergeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We is not the first dystopian novel. There was The Iron Heel (1905) by Jack London and The Sleeper Awakes (1910) by H.G Wells, Russian translations of which Zamyatin edited. It is, however, regarded as “the archetype of the modern dystopia”—or so says the back cover of my Penguin Classics, 1993, Clarence Brown edition. We is fundamentally a political satire of the nightmare of total control. Its dreamlike scene shifts, fantastic imagery and atmosphere of confusion and apprehension set it apart from those earlier novels. And it introduces what have become standard dystopian themes: rule by authoritarian rationalism, hyperbolized technological advancement, love as a catalyst of dissidence, and, as a final outcome, the crushing of that dissidence, literally, under the cast-iron hand of authority.
Zamyatin delivers his fable in journal form, or first-person “records” ostensibly written by his hero, D-503. Basically, what happens is that D-503, a mathematician and engineer working for OneState to build a spacecraft (the INTEGRAL) with which OneState intends to extend its hegemony, falls in love with a musician and revolutionary, I-330, who seduces him to secure his cooperation in her plans to hijack said spacecraft and overthrow OneState. Eventually, OneState quashes the revolt, executes I-330, and subjects D-503 to The Great Operation, a surgical brainwash for the removal of his soul.
Compared to those earlier dystopian novels, Zamyatin’s writing is wildly expressive. This is, in part, due to his narrator’s intensifying derangement as an effect of his love for I-330. Yet, from the start, the writing is almost wholly composed of spontaneous impressions, narrative ellipses, historical and philosophical tangents and bizarre and fantastic images. The hallucinatory quality of We, its distortions and projections, its fantasizing and jagged pace, blur the distinction between real and imagined, objective and subjective. And this is partly what makes it satirical: its effect, its actual quality, is at odds with its narrator’s espoused beliefs. Thus the book’s style is antithetical to the domineering rationalism and crystalline logic propounded and brutally enforced by OneState.
Beyond mocking the hypocrisy of perfect logic and absolute control, Zamyatin employed some very advanced literary technique in this book. He knew what his Parisian contemporaries—Breton and the surrealists—were up to. He’d lived in London and Paris and had served on the editorial board of the World Literature project with Maxim Gorky and Alexander Blok to edit Russian translations of these writers. So in We he turned expressionist and surrealist technique into a parody of the involuntary absurdity of the oppressive political and industrial regimes that gained power after WWI.
The irrational quality of the narrative against the narrator’s fundamentalist rationalism is just one of a number of dualities that Zamyatin paradoxically clacks together. He populated his ostensibly homogeneous OneState with grotesque physiognomies: gills, bat-wing ears, S-shaped postures, spoked faces and sundry beast-machine combos. Technology versus nature, order versus chaos, reason versus passion, collective versus individual—the dualities paradigmatic of Western Judeo-Christian culture are everywhere parodied in We. OneState’s Pink Tickets, Sex Days, Sexual Bureau and Maternal and Paternal Norms mock political and religious institutions that regulate sexual conduct. Its Green Wall (fortress), Benefactor (ruler), Guardians (police), Machine (electric chair), Iron Hand (rack) and Gas Bell (gas chamber) mock the political power machine and its enforcement. Its Table of Hours (time clock) and Taylor exercises (an allusion to the efficiency expert Winslow Taylor) mock the social-improvement and productivity programs that are a regular feature of post-industrial culture. Its Anthem, Musical Factory, Day of Unanimity and State Gazette mock the State media machine. Finally, the narrator’s own indoctrination takes the satire further: “Isn’t it absurd that a government (it had the nerve to call itself a government) could let sexual life proceed without the slightest control?”
D-503′s mindset occupies the control end of a chaos-control paradigm that degenerates as his love for I-330 intensifies. Taking him on a clandestine visit to the Old House, a ruin of the “Christian savages” who lost the 200-Year War, I-330 has unscheduled sex with him (the way the Christian savages did) and on a second visit gets him drunk. This unsanctioned sex-intoxication-learning destabilizes his faith in OneState. So does she secure him as an ally in an organized revolt. And so does love serve as a catalyst of revolution and an instrument of cooption.
D-503′s fall from innocence and I-330′s defiant liberty follow a familiar cycle: defiance, consciousness, disillusionment and punishment. The Biblical Myth of the Fall is not just alluded to but is integral to the book’s storyline and core philosophy. R-13, an “old friend” of D-503, interprets both the meaning of the myth and its relationship to the plot: “Those two in Paradise, they were offered a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness and nothing else. Those idiots chose freedom.” He then refers to D-503 as Adam and I-330 as his Eve. While The Fall may serve as an analogy of how we mature and why we suffer, Zamyatin saw it as an analogy of revolution against an oppressive and conformist regime that demanded ignorance and innocence at the cost of love and liberty. The analogy works because The Fall places the origins of the human condition in an act of defiance, which defiance resulted in consciousness of our mortality, shame of our nakedness, and the painful difficulties of survival.
Zamyatin himself lived through two revolutions: the Czarist Revolution of 1905, in which he participated as a Bolshevik, converting his student lodgings into a printing press, and the October Revolution of 1917, during which he edited several journals and published the critical writings that got him arrested and exiled again. His 1914 book, At the World’s End, a parody of Russian military life, led to his arrest and that book’s complete eradication. Throughout the twenties Communist cultural officials banned and burned Zamyatin’s work and stymied his cultural involvement—specifically, they made him renounce his leadership of the All-Russian Writers’ Union. In the end, Zamyatin chose to die free, exiled and impoverished in Paris, which exile Stalin granted at Zamyatin’s request in 1931. We, written during Zamyatin’s earlier 1920 exile, is a unique record of writing as an act of revolt, an attempt to shake the terror and brainwashing of an authoritarian government. Its importance to the genre lies in its establishing the modern dystopian novel as a literature of revolt against modern totalitarianism.
© Copyright 2010, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.