Thursday, 20 September 2012

√ -1 = Reason Without Reason: A review of Zamyatin's "We"

"We" - 2006 edition from Modern Library (New York)
ISBN 0-812907462-X
Yevgenny Zamyatin was a revolutionary: a Bolshevik agitator against the Czar, he was arrested and beaten up by the police in 1905, kept in solitary confinement and then sent on internal exile - the punishment of choice of the Romanov authorities: Russia was large enough to send dissenters far enough away to neutralise them, but still within the purview of the God-anointed Father of All-Russia.

After the collapse of the Imperial regime in 1917, Zamyatin's hopes were high as the social liberal experiment of the Soviets began - initially unsullied by the dogmatic centralism of the Leninist Bolsheviks. He enthusiastically participated in Maxim Gorky's House of Arts at Ryabushinsky in Petrograd, blazing a trail with others in developing Soviet "NeoRealism" in writing - the florid, repetitive language of the Old Days was to be swept away. The Revolution was not just about breaking down the old barriers and extreme inequalities; it was also about a new way of thinking, living and expression - rational, efficient, and all the more powerful for it. One word should convey what in the past a dozen were used to describe; "written with 90-proof ink", as he put it.

But like many artists and thinkers who initially supported both the liberal and socialist revolutions, Zamyatin began to diverge from the strain of Bolshevik thinking that placed the Party at the centre of all things. This vanguard of revolution not only crushed the bourgeois liberals and Kadets, but also turned on fellow socialists in the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties before weeding out wrong-thinking Bolsheviks, such as Kollontai and those in the Workers Opposition. It is no coincidence that his completion of "We" in early 1921 coincided with an upsurge of strikes by trade unions and leftists across Russia against the privations of the increasingly repressive Bolshevik regime - a cycle of unrest that concluded only with the extermination of the Social revolutionary sailors at the Kronstadt Fortress as Lenin reasserted his authority. Later that year, all factions within the Bolshevik Party were abolished, apart from his own.

Sensing where these changes were leading, Zamyatin penned "We" as a breathtaking combination of science fiction, political allegory, mathematics and romance. Set a thousand years after the tribulations of the Two Hundred Years' War swept away current society, this unlikely combination resides in the mind and, as the story develops, the soul of the protagonist, a cypher (as people are called by then), D-503. In a glass city hermetically sealed from the natural world, men and woman are designated with a letter and reference number; children are raised by the One State under the benevolent guidance of the Benefactor; sex is reduced to a series of appointments via pink slips; people march in step with each other and everyone lives and works to times set out in the Table of Hours. All mail is read by officials and everywhere, the Aeros of the Guardians with their proboscoid cameras hover above the city, watching and listening, seeking out any remote sign of dissent, any threat to order - even the cyphers' rooms have glass walls and ceilings, a true police-state Panoptican.

Ryabushinsky - site of Gorky's House of Arts
George Orwell clearly owed a great debt of the imagination to Zamyatin, but that is a side-issue: "We", written as a series of notes left by D-503 as he struggles to come to terms with the challenge his love for the mysterious I-330, is a fast-paced assault on the senses. Zamyatin's NeoRealism may reduce people to curves (D-503's regular sex partner is O-90, who is described as a circle) and angles (the exciting new I-330 is portrayed as an X), but at the same moment it captures humanity at its most intimate and genuine.

D-503's battle to reconcile his role as the Builder of the One State's great scientific project, a space machine, "The Integral", and his painful physical and emotional reactions to his growing love for I-330 is contrasted with his lifelong anxiety as a mathematician of being unable to determine the square root of minus one.This is a torture begun by his school teacher that has plagued him ever since. In a world built on reason alone, how can there be such a conundrum as the square root of minus one? If maths can explain everything, how can there be a question with no answer? And if cyphers are to exist efficiently and happily, surely the irrationality, the emotions of love, can only be a malady - D-503 turns to his doctor to get a sick note for his love.

Zamyatin's dystopia was founded on the centralist drive of the Bolsheviks who, by 1920, had seen off their White, Black and Green opponents in the Civil War at huge human cost (a price, to be fair, exacted by all parties in the conflict). Lenin and his cohorts were already tarnishing dissent of any hue with the badge of counter-revolution, and hence in "We", part of the debate is about whether there can ever be a final revolution: Zamyatin clearly saw humanity functioning in continually evolving cycles, never reaching any End of History, while Lenin's interpretation of Marx was that the communist revolution would mean the final phase in the history of social relations had been entered.

As part of his pretty idiosyncratic interpretation of Marx, one rejected by the vast majority of socialists before and since, Lenin truly exalted the collective above the individual - not only in terms of social equality and security, an objective that IS shared by most socialists - but in terms of valid existence and free will. To this end, he was initially repelled but then fascinated by the writings of the US labour theorist Frederick Taylor. This proponent of the then-nascent field of scientific management saw the most efficient organisation as one which broke the means of production of goods and services down to the lowest single process-step. Workers would be trained to repeat the same tasks over and over endlessly. In this way, reducing the individual to mere cogs in a huge machine, Taylorism argued that maximum efficiency of production and design would be achieved - the worth and needs of the individual human within this no longer mattered.

Lenin had taken a similar approach in the brutal days of the Civil War, sacrificing millions of civilians and military to combat, cold and starvation for the sake of the Revolution, and he extended this into the functioning of the new Soviet State. Taylor's thinking (much loved by arch-capitalist Henry Ford) was transposed to the USSR and developed further by Alexei Gastev, head of the Institute of Soviet Labour, who advocated workers as "proletarian units" and came up with the idea of exchanging names for cypher designations. There was no compassion, no humanity - these were old, bourgeoisie concepts, necessary sops to the need to survive in Czarist times but at best diversions and at worst obstacles to progress in the New Era . Logic and reason, cold but ultimately True, come in replacement of the former barbarism.

Taylorism Triumphant - Cyphers at work: from Fritz Lang's Metropolis
In "We", Zamyatin refers to Taylor as the spiritual guide of the all-powerful One State: children are taught to revere him and he is central to the lives of the cyphers. Thus, D-503's love-sickness juxtaposes as powerfully as anything the world-views of Zamyatin and Lenin. Just as Bolshevism originated to create a fairer society but was warped by ideologues, so the One State's ultimate purpose was originally benign, aiming to free its citizen-cyphers from the chains of uncertainty and unhappiness: "What", asks the Benefactor, "have people prayed for, dreamt about and agonized over? They have wanted someone, anyone, to tell them once and for all what happiness is - and then to attach them to this happiness with a chain..."

Yet while the novel takes the political philosophy of Lenin to its logical conclusion of a de-humanised state, its final objective epitomised by The Operation, which will isolate and remove the imagination of all cyphers, it is not by any means a pessimistic tale. Unlike Orwell, there is no boot stamping forever on the face of humanity - rather, even after a full Millennium of the One State, people's essential humanity is intact, no matter how suppressed or self-controlled or, as D-503 contemplates his hairy hands, how frighteningly misunderstood.

"We" was almost never published in the Soviet Union - its allegory meant it did not get past the newly-reconstituted censors and a single manuscript had to be smuggled out to be published in Czechoslovakia. Zamyatin was himself twice arrested by the Soviet police under suspicion of counter-revolutionary activities. "We" was finally released to his compatriots to read legally only in 1989, in the dying days of Lenin's state. In a fine demonstration of their ideological bigotry and narrow-mindedness, the Soviet authorities by their actions completely validated Zamyatin's case.

As Stalin assumed power in the years following Lenin's death, Zamyatin disagreements with the new Communist state and his fears for his personal safety grew. With the intercession of his friend and patron, Maxim Gorky, he successfully requested permission to leave the USSR in 1931 and settled with his wife in Paris, where he worked on script-writing with film director Jean Renoir. He died in 1937.

The Twentieth Century owes a huge debt to this little known author, both for the creation of a genre of science fiction which is powerful in its warnings for the future, but also for a message that is ultimately deeply humane and optimistic. His arguments may have been forged in the chaos of revolutionary Russia, but they speak as much to us today with societies gripped by the supposedly irreplaceable system of capitalism and under surveillance whether electronically or by Aero-like drones. Just like the cyphers of the glass city, our lifestyles are increasingly geared to ignoring and sealing us away from the seeming unpleasantness of natural reality - from the weather to our food, to the plight of our fellow humans.

The One State, with its fixed elections and social conformity, is not unknown to any of us - but equally, the cri de coeur for change remains, as does the inherent power and potential that is within our species. Even in the dark winter streets of frozen, starving 1920's Petrograd, Yevgeny Zamyatin saw this and in "We", his Opus Magnus, he released the true spirit of revolution - one which may indeed be guided by the thoughts and writings of scientists and moral philosophers but ultimately is born in the soul, in the beating compassion and great love of the human heart.


"True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics" - Yevgeny Zamyatin

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