Saturday, May 17, 2014

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

My commentary contains major spoilers. I have revealed significant aspects of the book’s conclusion in order to make some of my points.

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, is one of the earliest dystopian novels. I recently read the Clarence Brown translation. Written in the Soviet Union in 1921, it precedes such important works such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty - Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Both of those and many other “Oppressive Future” novels draw heavily in terms of plot, characters and theme from this work.

Set in the 26th century, Zamyatin has created a world where the oppressive One – State, ruled by a paternalistic figure known as “The Benefactor,” controls a society whose goal is to stamp out individuality, freedom and genuine emotion. A major tenet of the dictatorship is that it is supposedly based on science and pure rationality. A two hundred year war has ended within the last century. Clues in the narrative indicate that a mechanistic, over controlling, city - based faction defeated a rural-based, naturalistic faction. One - State, a highly technological urban society, is now separated from the undeveloped, natural world by a seemingly impenetrable wall. Descendants of the survivors of the losing side live in relatively primitive conditions outside of the wall. This dark future was clearly influenced by Zamyatin’s reaction to living under Communist oppression. 

Our narrator is known as D – 503. He is an engineer who is chief designer of One - State’s first starship, known as the Integral. The narrative is presented in the form of D – 503’s journal. Relationships form a key part of the novel. Sexual and romantic relations in One – State are basically on demand, with anyone having the right, upon request, to sexual relations with anyone else. Initially D – 503, his poet friend R – 13 and a woman, O – 90, are involved in a romantic triangle. The three are emotionally close and there seems to be minimal jealousy involved.

Enter I -330, a woman who aggressively pursues D – 503. I – 330 is charismatic, bold and independent, but also controlling and manipulative. She turns out to be the leader of a rebel movement whose goal is the overthrow of One - State. She plans to steal the Integral and use it against the powers that be. Throughout the story, D – 503 is constantly wavering between his loyalty to One – State and the belief system that goes with it, and his increasing obsessive feelings for I – 330.

The story is engaging. D – 503 is something of a philosopher whose thoughts champion One - State as well as its mechanistic and uniform lifestyle and soulless existence. As he begins to fall for I – 330, breaks rules and has thoughts unbecoming of the conformist lifestyle, he begins to become disconcerted and at times disorientated. He starts to see the world around him as being off - kilter and distorted, as if reality itself was mirroring his thoughts and outlook. He imagines and describes himself and the world around him, in terms of numbers, equations and machines, but of numbers, equations and machines that have something going very wrong with them. At one point he observes,

“I'm like a machine being run over its RPM limit: The bearings are overheating - a minute longer, and the metal is going to melt and start dripping and that'll be the end of everything. I need a quick splash of cold water, logic. I pour it on in buckets, but the logic hisses on the hot bearings and dissipates in the air as a fleeting white mist.”

Philosophically, Zamyatin goes into some interesting directions here. The oppressiveness inherent in the society that he has fashioned is largely driven by a wildly overzealous belief in science and rationalism, at the expense of nature, natural behavior, authentic feelings and individuality.

Personally, I believe that twenty-first century popular and political culture tends to unfairly demonize rationality and logical thinking at the expense of unthinking feelings and intuition.  I believe that our current world would only benefit from more rationality and logical thought. Of course, this book was not written by a person living in a twenty - first century westernized nation as I do. The Russia that Zamyatin was living in was horrendously oppressive and operated under the pretension of super rationality that was supposedly leading down a path ending in ultimate human happiness. Like many generally positive things, supposedly logical ideologies, when taken too far, and when forced upon people, can lead to not just bad, but monstrous results. Communist Russia was but one example. Thus, Zamyatin’s book serves as a warning that needs to be heeded, even by those of us who champion rationality.

In the end, the author seems to be illustrating what he believes to be a timeless and universal struggle between the forces of naturalism verses the forces of logic. Both sides win victories, and there are great triumphs as well as disheartening defeats. The book ends with D – 503 giving in to his conformist instincts and voluntarily betraying the rebellion as well as I – 330. For her part, I – 330 valiantly resists torture and gains a great moral victory, but she will presumably be executed. The rebels have seized control of large parts, but not all, of One – State. The civil war rages on with no clear victor apparent. 

A Few Words on Zamyatin's View of Christianity

Zamyatin makes another interesting ideological connection between the operation, ideology and oppressiveness of One - State, and the history and ideology surrounding Christianity. On several occasions both D – 503 and I – 330 identify Christianity as a precursor to One - State. Parallels are drawn between the two belief systems in the shared messianic messages, the end result of a final, perfect happiness for mankind, as well as progress and eventual happiness through suffering.

At one point, D – 503 is actually called before the Benefactor himself, and the conversation centers around One State’s execution of dissidents. The Benefactor also draws parallels to One State and Christianity,

this same Christian, all merciful God, the one who slowly roasts in the fire of hell all who rebel against him – is he not to be called executioner? And those who the Christians burned at the stake, are they fewer in number then the Christians who were burnt?”

Others have connected Christian thought and Communist ideology. Recently, is his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker spells out many similarities, including those highlighted by Zamyatin. I believe that Communist thought systems have borrowed from Christian thought systems in ways that both authors have illustrated. However, in all fairness, Christian belief can in no way, except perhaps by its worst excesses, be blamed for the fact that Communist ideology was influenced by it.

In Conclusion

This novel is an extremely important and influential work. It has affected so much of what has come since. It is also an extremely enjoyable read, filled with interesting characters that engage in interesting relationships and thoughts. As usual, there is a lot more here than I have touched upon. I have only focused upon a few points that I found thought provoking. There are many more. This is a must read for anyone interested in the included themes, science fiction in general or in dystopian literature.

05/24/14 - I made some minor edits to the above in order to correct a certain error I originally made in regards to Russian history.


Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

That's a very interesting review, Brian. I didn't know this is the book that influenced 1984 and Brave New World, both of which I've read and enjoyed.

The parallel between religion and communism is something I never really thought about - coming from an ex-communist country I can say that people were religious but religion was not encouraged.
I always thought religion and rational thinking didn't really go together, but this is certainly something to ponder.

Violet said...

I-330 certainly does sound like a character with the attributes of Eve. I wonder why it's a woman who stirs things up and gets the blame? :)

I didn't know this novel was the precursor to Orwell and Huxley's dystopian fiction. It seems unfair to give them the credit for being the first writers of the genre and not acknowledge that they borrowed from Zamyatin's work.

Apparently Hugh Alpin has translated 'We', so I shall have to put it on my TBR. He's one of my favourite translators of Russian literature.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - The theory behind the Christianity parrallel does not presuppose that the ideologies are friendly tolerant to one another.

I also think that there is an assumption that Communism is not as rational a thought sustenance as it pretends to be.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I did not think of the Eve parallel. Several commentators that I have read make a Christ parallel as she is a charimastic leader who is betrayed by one of her disciples and is tortured and endures a martyrs death.

Insolent fairness I had always heard a lot of credit given to this book as being groundbreaking and influential.

Caroline said...

I've had this on my wish list for a few years now as I've read how influential it was. It sounds interesting indeed.
I agree, with you. Rational thinking has been demonized. I believe that the one without the other - emotions/thinking - are just as bad.
The problem is that many in the west don't really know untitnted emotions or feelings but are guided by neurosis, if you know what I means. All those would benefit from more rationality.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

An important novel, no doubt; as a fan of dystopias and science-fiction I'm curious to read it one day, to better understand the evolution of the dystopic genre.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Agreed that balance between clear thinking and rationality is the best path.

Neurosis is a part of what I am talking about. I also think that there is a kind of an intellectual out there, perhaps one can look at it as a popular culture, cheap reflection of Romanticism, that completely distrusts rationality and science while at the same time benefitting from its fruits.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - This had such an impact on what came after. The plot similarities to Nineteen Eighty - Four for instance are striking. There is the betrayal of the main character betraying the other main character, as well as the agent of the regime "watching over" the protagonist, to just name a few of them.

Guy Savage said...

I love Russian literature but I'm not that fond of dystopian novels to be honest. Probably because they make me bleak.
Anyway, if you'd asked me to hazard a guess (before reading the review) I would have said you'd like it. Sounds like the sort of book you really like to get your teeth into.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I did like this one. This was a bleak one, but somewhat less so the Nineteen Eighty - Four which in my opinion, may be the bleakest novel ever written. At times this one exhibits satire which is a relief.

James said...

I enjoyed your excellent commentary on Zamyatin's We a bit more than my reading of the novel itself. That does not mean I do not agree with your conclusion regarding the importance of the novel and especially its influence.
In my reading I found what you identify as "the pretension of rationality" in the Soviet Union to be one of the keys to appreciating Zamyatin. But I believe there is more in the complex culture and ideology of historical Russia underlying the novel, although I do not claim to understand it.
The issue of Christianity and Communist ideology is also important, but the roots of Russian Christianity (at least based on my reading of Dostoevsky) seem more mystical than those of the West (certainly far different than the Protestant culture in which I was brought up).
The result for me was a difficult and less successful reading of the novel than you experienced.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks for good word.

You raise some interesting points. I believe that there may be various levels to this novel. My commentary approached it on one of these, perhaps a more superficial level. That is, the conflict between rationality and emption, as well as the parallels between Christianity and Communism can be seen on the surface and seen as not all that complicated. (As I mentioned, Steven Pinker seems to share these views).

I think that you are referring to a deeper more subtle level, that does indeed exist in this work. Personally I would need help in the form of commentary or discussion with someone who understood them better in order to really get this stuff.

Suko said...

This early dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin does sound very interesting. Excellent, thoughtful commentary about We.

Tracy Terry said...

I'm not sure if my husband has read this but given his love of Brave New I'll be sure to mention it to him.

Another wonderfully intelligent post, thanks Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for your kind words Suko.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. This one influenced Brave New World in many ways.

Naida said...

Classic dystopia can be very interesting. I do agree, our current world would benefit from being more rational.
Fantastic post as usual!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida- Thanks for the good word.

I think that the current popularity of dystopian fiction makes the classic books even more interesting.

Lucy (Tolstoy Therapy) said...

This seems fascinating! I'd love to read it with 1984 and Brave New World in mind... it sounds like a really good way to get to know dystopian fiction a little better.

I also didn't know that Penguin Classics had an edition - I seem to own so many of these!

As always, thank you for bringing my attention to books I probably wouldn't read otherwise!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - It is actually striking to think just how much Orwelll in particular borrowed from this book for Nineteen.Eighty Four. Have you read that? I actually find it to be the most disturbing piece of fiction that I ever read. So much so that I will not read it again.

Lindsay said...

Wonderful analysis and thoughts on this book Brian. I knew little about it but I thought 1984 was a superb, haunting read, so I am interested to read of this book's influence on Orwell. The cover shown here is suitably menacing too.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lindsay - Thorough enormously influencial upon I found. This to be a bit lighter then Ninetee Eighty - Four. It had its dark moments but it also had more humor. Of course just about anything is lighter then Orwell's work.

So many books, so little time said...

I haven't read 1984 or brave new world although 1984 has come up in many booky discussions.

Very interesting and well put views, as always, I often leave here thinking I need to pick this up after reading your analysis and view of that particular title. Although I think most of them, on their own, I would pass over. Funny how one persons views can make you give something a second thought!


Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Lainy. I tend to think that when we all hear one another's views it tends to spark our interest in particular books.

As great as Ninteen Eighty Four is, it haunted be for a long time. As this has also been told to me by some, though not all readers ( I do think that many folks read the book when they were very young and thus missed just how terrible certain parts were), I am hesitant to recamend it to others.

Thus, We and Brave New World are my dystopian picks for recamended reading.

Richard said...

Brian, I've heard this book described as a satire. Is it possible that some of the dystopian elements were exaggerated for satiric effects rather than "just" a science fiction-y thing? Also, I'm not sure this really qualifies as an example of a Stalinist Russian form of literary protest since Lenin was still alive and at least nominally in charge in 1921 (although in deteriorating health).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard- You caught my error on the Stalanist reference! I may need to do some Soviet like editing after the fact. What Stalinist reference?

Nevertheless there was a definite reaction to socialism in the book. There was definite satire included in the story. It created a slightly whimsical feel to it.

Brian Joseph said...

I corrected the historical oversight as discussed above.

JacquiWine said...

I have this on my tbr pile, as it was recommended to me a precursor to Nineteen Eighty-Four (which you reference in your review). I'm glad to hear you say that it's an engaging story as I feared it might be too oppressive.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Thanks for stopping by.

I definitely did not find this one too negative or oppressive. It was somewhat dark however despite the satire.

I did find Nineteen Eighty - Four so depressing and disturbing that despite Orwell's brilliance, I am careful about recommending to folks.

Maria Behar said...

Awesome review, Brian!! Your analysis is a very thorough one indeed, and I greatly enjoyed it!

I had never heard of this author before, and it's fascinating that this novel actually influenced two of the greatest dystopian novels of the 20th century -- "Nineteen Eighty-Four", and "Brave New World"! I say 'two of them', because there's a third -- "Animal Farm", which is a direct satire of the Communist system.

I've just popped over to Amazon to sample "We" in the Amazon reader, and was very impressed with the prose style. Of course, I'm referring to the translation, since I don't know Russian. Lol.

The cover of the edition you own is a pretty frightening one, and I must confess that I can't look at it for very long. It's a very appropriate one, though, since dictatorships want to take COMPLETE control of their citizens. I'm sure this could indeed feel as if one were somehow possessed.

Now that I've brought this up, I have to tell you that, in the paranormal romance/urban fantasy genre, I have encountered at least one novel in which the main character, or one of them, is taken over by an outside entity. One of these novels is "The Host", by Stephenie Meyer. Now, I LOVE The Twilight Saga with all my heart, as you well know, but I won't read "The Host". I don't like to read about someone "being taken over by another entity".

It's frightening how totalitarianism aims to stamp out individuality. Ironically, the hippie movement, which railed against 'conformity', merely substituted the conservative conformity of 'the establishment' for another kind of conformity – that of the radical left.

From your analysis of this novel, I would venture to state that some of its themes have found their way into the beloved "Star Trek" series. Certainly the idea of freedom was of paramount importance there. (Please forgive the pun, lol.) After all, The Prime Directive was the Federation's most important rule.

Speaking of The Federation, it's interesting that, in spite of this organization's basis in science and rationality, it never degenerated into a 'benevolent' police state, as Russia did for so many years, as the fictional (or should I say 'factional'?) governments of these dystopian authors did.

The stifling of the mind and the soul is the deadliest result of totalitarianism. Of course, there are other terrible effects, such as the scarcity of needed supplies. But it is this horrible inner oppression that slowly kills, or reduces people to mere shadows of what they could be. This is precisely what my family fled, in leaving Cuba to come to the States.

The comparison of totalitarianism to Christianity is a rather uncomfortable one for me, but I must acknowledge it to be true to some extent. The Catholic Church, for instance, tolerates no deviation from certain traditional practices that really have nothing to do with basic Christian beliefs. I’m referring to the arbitrary prohibitions against women in the priesthood, and marriage for priests. Many Protestant denominations also frown upon women pastors. To me, these are dictatorial elements in Christianity. Of course, centuries ago, the Inquisition was a horribly oppressive and deadly institution. Ironically, Christians were persecuted in the ancient Roman Empire. Yet, when they gained political power, they then ended up persecuting others!

I will close here, before this turns into some sort of dissertation….lol.

Thanks for featuring this book, which I have now added to my Amazon wish list, as well as my Goodreads TBR shelves! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Great comments!

In terms of the cover I thought about using a different one, as the book often has a playful style, it is no where near as oppressive as the later dystopian works that it influenced.

A lot of movements that seemed to be based on anti conformity did unfortunately take on the aspects of totalitarianism. Some of the trends involving the French Revolution are also examples.

The Christian parallel with Communism is at least two fold. There is the oppression (I would argue that this is major part of the HISTORY of people who called themselves Christians, not part of New Testament Scripture, thus not an aspect of Christianity itself) , but there is also the promise of a paradise at the end of history that the two share in common.

I believe that something like the society of Star Trek may be the future of humankind (if we can get past Climate Change). That is, a society partially driven by rationality, science and Democracy. I believe that, ironically, such societies actually foster positive human emotions, ideals and actions such as respect for each other, kindness, non - violence, equality, empathy, etc. In fact, they do so much more effectively then religious based societies.

Like anything else, moving in the direction of rationality too fast and without caution can lead to disaster, hence the importance of this book.