Thursday, May 26, 2016

WE - Yevgeniy Zamyatin

Yevgeniy Zamyatin created his brilliant futuristic novel "WE" in 1919.  It was the first dystopia, and the author is considered to be a father of the dystopian genre.
            The novel is written as a diary of the main character who thinks that he lives in a perfect society, The One State.  So it starts as a utopia. Every member of the society has their job and their function in a well-oiled machine of life rationally organized by the Table of Hours. Some laws of The One State that he cherishes are The Personal Hour and The Maternity Norm. The peace and order of the society is guarded by the Green Wall surrounding the city and the great glass dome guarding it from nature’s extremes.  The goal, the mission of this society is to bring its perfection to uncivilized worlds in outer-space, for which purpose they are building a spaceship.  The main character is the main spaceship builder.  He is the best mathematician, and he adores mathematical precision and transparency of One State’s life.  Everybody lives in transparent glass buildings, wake up at the same time, march together in columns by 4 in a row to work, from work, at the Personal Hour, eat petroleum based food in common places and even chew it rhythmically (50 chewing movements per minute). 
Zamyatin is building this society based on the theory that was highly popular in his days called Efficiency Movement.  The main leader of the so called “industrial efficiency” was Frederick Winslow Taylor, who even used the stop-watch to identify the efficiency of his factory workers.  His name is mentioned in the main character’s diary not once, always with reverence.  If “WE” was written by Aldous Huxley, the name of Taylor would stand for God, like Lord Taylor. In fact, Zamyatin creates a powerful satire of Taylorism, developed to extreme Taylor’s obsession with time and movement efficiency.
In “WE”, the idyllic cycle gets disturbed by the interference of a woman who little by little opens up another world for the main character. The woman plays the role of Eve against the naïve Adam of the main character. Her forbidden truths break his peace of mind, his Paradise, and force him to look at his orderly life from a different prospective.  That is where the dystopia begins. Now we learn from his diary that his society has a ruler, the Benefactor, that there is a surveillance institution - Bureau of Guardians.  The transparency of the glass dwellings is a way to make surveillance by guardians easier. There is the Benefactor’s Machine for public punishments of those who disobey the One State’s laws.  The public punishments are furnished as a State’s celebrations, and the state poets read their poems to glorify the Benefactor and his Machine.  We also learn that the Green Wall is separating One State from the world beyond it with its birds, trees and "furry" people who were able to survive without this “civilization” and are happy with their freedom.  He finally discovers that his world of numbers, where citizens have no names, just a number instead, is not perfect. The doctor diagnoses him with "developing a soul".  He attempts to help the outsiders, but the Guardians and the medics already devised a way to stop the outbreak.  The disease is called a "fantasy", and the treatment is its surgical removal.  After the surgery, the numbers (citizens) subjected to it become walking machines able to do whatever is ordered.
Zamyatin was a naval engineer and a mathematician himself.  His main character often expresses himself in mathematical terms and formulas, sometimes in humorous ways.  The writer described the society of numbers where people have no names, no individuality (no I, only WE) and are forbidden to have an imagination.  The main character is called D-503, his friend, state poet is called R-13; they share an assigned sexual partner O-90, the woman that seduces him - I-330, the double agent official guardian S-4711 - all these "name-numbers" have their significance, their symbolism.  The number of digits in the names points at their corresponding social rank: the more digits in the name, the higher its social significance. The letter before the number gives out some physical appearance of the character, but nothing more personal.  They all wear blue overalls, and when I-330 appears to D-503 in a short yellow silk dress, he experiences a kind of a cultural shock.  His deviation from the order of "the law of multiplication table" costs him his "fantasy."  At the beginning, he describes his schooldays obsession with imaginary number (-1), which he couldn’t understand, couldn’t accept.  He is in total denial of such “nonsense” as imaginary number.  Ironically, at the end, he is being subjected to the surgical excision of his own imagination, just in time when he finally developed one.  (The word play between imaginary number and imagination is a good find in the English translation.  It does not play like that in the original Russian.)  D-503 is being arrested along with another user of the public toilet at the underground station (ironically and degradedly the only place he feels safe at the moment) - nothing personal.
 It’s interesting how Zamyatin reflected the official propaganda going hand-in-hand with contra-propaganda.  The lecture that D-503 is assigned to attend is focused on ridiculing the outdated old culture, the approach of Zamyatin’s contemporary artists of Futurism and Constructivism, along with the Russian Revolution, denying all values of the past.  As an illustration of the ridiculousness of outdated past, I-330 performs a work of Scriabin (one of the most sophisticated decadent composers of Zamyatin's time) on a grand-piano.  I-330 is dressed in a long concert dress of Zamyatin's times, with no sleeves.  The reaction of D-503 is completely inadequate to the rest of the audience - he likes the music, the beauty of the grand-piano, the elegant pianist - the whole entourage.  He really has to make an effort to join the rest of the laughing audience, and at the same time he notices that he is not the only one falling for the old culture.  What I-330 did to him (and some other listeners) was contra-propaganda under the mask of the official propaganda - the exact copy of Soviet double-dealing methods of working against (and with) "decomposing West".
Another significant figure in the novel is the figure of an informant.  D-503 knows that the security woman in his building is an informant who is watching him.  That is something Zamyatin probably witnessed in early Soviet Russia: everybody’s duty to inform officials on the neighbor.  D-503 does not like her, although he knows that she is doing the lawful deed.  In fact, he often fights his own urge to inform on I-330. After the extraction of the "fantasy", he becomes the informant without any qualms of conscience. He gives up I-330 and her comrades to the Benefactor, watches her being publicly tortured and executed, and does not feel anything, can't even clearly recognize her.  Although the rebellions took half of the city, the temporary high voltage wall is being erected to guard the old perfect order in the remaining part of the One State.  On the background of the One State destruction, the main character still believes that “Reason must prevail,” and it is the basis of One State’s future victory.

It’s amazing how Zamyatin, in 1919, foresaw so many traits of the future.  The dystopian  totalitarian "communism", the future Chinese “maternity norm”, the future Soviet KGB obsession with “foreign spies” and “enemies of the people”, the wide network of official and voluntary informants in totalitarian states of USSR, China, Germany and others, the fight between city and village (urbanization), the dangers of collectivism (future Soviet policy), even the Iron Wall policy and a physical Berlin Wall of the Cold War era, and their destruction in 1980-s, and – most of all – the danger of losing one's own individuality.  The One State of numbers is a warning to us all.  Each of us now have numerical IDs - SSN, driver license number, medical insurance ID numbers, employee ID number etc.  We are pushed to the limits by our educational machine to do everything fast, automatically, without thinking (post-Taylorism conditioning?).  We are so close to lose our names and individuality. "WE" by Yevgeniy Zamyatin is a good warning to watch over our souls.

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