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Totalitarianism and the Politics of Sex

April 26, 2010

Tags Media and CultureInterventionismOther Schools of Thought

[Review of We • by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Natasha Randall • New York: Modern Library, 2006. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]

We

The time is a far, far future, 2600 AD. The One State has had total control over the lives of millions for at least one thousand years. Every alphanumeric person (no humans have names any longer) lives only to perfectly and obediently perform assigned machine-like functions exactly in synchronization with others. This existence provides the highest service, the highest happiness — the ultimate in production and cooperation. Or so the propaganda functionaries keep assuring all. Having conquered the world, the One State intends to conquer the solar system.

One obedient mathematical engineer, building the spaceship for that mission, unwillingly discovers that he cannot experience the unsettling emotion called "love" without nearly drowning in the treacherous and treasonous waters of individualism: pure poison. From an inbred devotion to the Benefactor, D-503, our hero and narrator, writes a confessional diary for the good of all and the future edification of other populations in space. He confesses to total confusion.

Can the perfect One State persist without a glitch if he, chief engineer of its giant glass spaceship, has a torrid affair with a woman from the wrong side of the tracks? The wrong side of the Wall? The wrong side of the dogma? How long can the hero, D-503, go without sleep, miss work, break all the rules, foil the strong-arm men, betray the pink-ticket cipher who wants to have his child, have carnal knowledge of the head rebel, and even use the spaceship as his own tool?

We, this satirical and heretical dystopian futurist book, ends by resolving whether D-503 ever again finds penultimate happiness in the cocoon of the One State even as his lover faces execution, or whether the cruel regime is so broken that it cannot be put back together.

We is a universal classic. The promise of hope and change electrifies young student activists. The Bolshevik rebellion in Russia in 1917 certainly did. That is, it did until it morphed into unrecognizable nightmares of state control, censorship, and cruelty.

Sharing the hope and then the horror of Petrograd in the 1920s, Yevgeny Zamyatin and Ayn Rand (Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum) were contemporaries. Rand was entering Petrograd (Leningrad) University where she majored in history and took a minor in philosophy. Zamyatin, with a predilection for entering prisons, was doing time. A student activist, Zamyatin was convinced that "true literature must be created by madmen, hermits, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics," so he used his incarcerations creatively. In 1921 he wrote the book that would inspire Rand to write Anthem, Orwell to write 1984, and Huxley to write Brave New World.

And what a book it was. What a book it is.

We is Zamyatin satirizing both capitalism and communism. He perceived these social systems to be turning humans into soulless machines. To Zamyatin, capitalism created automatons through the Progressive Era's Efficiency Movement, led intellectually by F.W. Taylor, the father of scientific management. Communism bludgeoned the new Soviet Man into cruel and unthinking "dead-alives."

In We's future society the entire population is comfortable only in fetters. Even before their imaginations are removed, these millions are gratified by chewing in unison a meticulous 50 times to a metronome each petrochemical food cube. No freedom exists. No desire for freedom exists — until the mathematician D-503 meets I-330. The sparks that fly on a regulated Sex Day, when the blinds can be lowered, ignite D-503. D is never quite sure what he is, but he is never the same again.

Zamyatin could have been the original texting man. He writes in short sentences and cryptic, mathematical code. Zamyatin was an engineer; Randall is a physicist. Her fresh translation in 2006 makes good use of her understanding of the coded subtext. Randall asserts that if the author were writing We today he would have had the narrator D-503 "put the story in the form of a blog. It is funky, punky language."

Bruce Sterling claims in his foreword that, "We is one of the first attempts to write about the future through the consciousness of someone born there and living there." It is also possibly one of the first dystopian works ever written. Sterling, a science-fiction writer in his own right, was duly impressed that Zamyatin in 1921 had created such sci-fi staples as

hermetically sealed cities, synthetic food, unisex suits, Metropolis-like crowds of drones marching through cyclopean apartment blocks, whizzing, roaring trips in giant spaceships, and mind control through brain surgery.

$14

"Zamyatin's book was the first to be banned by the newly created censorship board."

Sterling notes that the author, who had been an ardent Bolshevik supporter, was crushed by Stalin; Zamyatin died poor and unheralded in 1937. Zamyatin's book was the first to be banned by the newly created censorship board. We was never even published in Russia until near the fall of the wall, in 1988. The story of the "cruel descent of the Bolshevik rebellion into frozen dogma and totalitarian stasis" only made its rounds in his homeland as a tattered manuscript passed from hand to hand. The first publication in English in 1924 was the version that made its way into the imaginations of Rand, Orwell, and Huxley.

Zamyatin would probably be amused to know that his codifications, supercharged brevity, and syllogisms have combined to make We the "second most studied Russian novel of the twentieth century among Western scholars." But he would be downright enchanted to know that his own embrace of revolution and human action over entropy is uncannily relevant today.

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