Yevgeny Zamyatin - We

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marvelous caricatures. Wit, imagination, and, always, most meticulous craftsmanship are combined in much of his work with a profound sense of history and a prophetic vision. This is particularly true of We, a searing satire, among other things, on schematic—hence, necessarily, totalitarian —society, written in 1920-1921. We was not admitted to publication. Read, as the custom frequently was in those years, at a meeting of the AllRussian Writers' Union in 1923, it elicited a new wave of violent a
  marvelous caricatures. Wit, imagination, and, always, most meticulouscraftsmanship are combined in much of his work with a profound sense ofhistory and a prophetic vision. This is particularly true of We, a searingsatire, among other things, on schematic—hence, necessarily, totalitarian —society, written in 1920-1921. We was not admitted to publication. Read,as the custom frequently was in those years, at a meeting of the All-Russian Writers' Union in 1923, it elicited a new wave of violent attacksfrom party-line critics and writers.Zamyatin wrote this remarkably prophetic novel when the totalitarian futurewas just becoming discernible. Like all great satirists, he projected frompresent trends and intimations to an encompassing vision of the society tocome. His method, as he defined it in We, was reductio ad finem—a.method later applied with powerful effect by such master satirists asWilliam Golding (The Inheritors, Lord of the Flies) and Anthony Burgess(The Wanting Seed, A Clockwork Orange).Poet, mocker (laughter, he wrote, is the most devastating weapon),heretical fighter for freedom and independence in art and in life, Zamyatinwas a consistent enemy of all canonized ideas, all coercion, all thepurveyors of compulsory salvation. He mercilessly attacked and ridiculedthe emerging totalitarianism, its fawning mediocrities, its reign of brutality,its violation and destruction of the free and creative human spirit Heforesaw it all: the terror, the betrayals, the dehumanization; the ubiquitous guardians ; the control of thought and action; the constant brainwashingwhich resulted either in unquestioning automatons or in hypocrites who liedfor the sake of survival; the demand that everybody worship theBenefactor, with his huge hand that literally liquidates, reduces all whodissent, all who passionately want to be themselves to a puddle of clearwater. He also foresaw the subjection of the arts. His hero boasts: Wehave harnessed the once wild element of poetry. Today, poetry is no longerthe idle, impudent whistling of a nightingale; poetry is civic service, poetry isuseful. And not only must the people( numbers ) in this apocalyptic state of ritualized totalitarianism attendthe gala ceremony of extermination of every heretic by the Benefactor, buta poet is obliged to recite an ode celebrating the wisdom and great justiceof the executioner.In its style, too, We is a remarkable achievement, for Zamyatin had aperfect ear and perfect taste. The language of our epoch is sharp and  rapid as a code, he wrote in 1923. In We, which is as carefully structuredas a poem, the reader will find none of the slow, singing richness of hisprovincial stories, none of the sly laughter of his impious tales. We, aboutthe square state and square men, is written in a style of utmost severityand discipline—a style in perfect harmony with the author's intention, withthe totally controlled society he evokes, where emotion is banished (yetsurvives), where every moment is lived according to schedule in a glass-enclosed city of glass houses and absolute straight lines, where evenlovemaking is done on scheduled days and scheduled hours.But just as Zamyatin was much more than a keen political intellect, so We,within the astonishing discipline of its style, is much more than a politicalstatement. It is a complex philosophical novel of endless subtlety andnuance, allusion and reflections. It is also a profoundly moving humantragedy, and a study in the variety of human loves (passion—D-503;domination—I-330; jealousy—U; tenderness, and gentle, total giving of theself— O-90). And, though the people are nameless numbers, they arenever schematic figures; each is an individual, convincingly and movinglyalive.Zamyatin's main concern in the novel is the problem of man in its multipleaspects: the relation of the individual to society and to other men; theconflict between the tempting safety of unfreedom and the will to freeidentity; the fear and the lure of alienation; the rift between the rational andthe irrational. We is also a study of a society that claims to be based on thepurely rational—and hence becomes deadly, dehumanizing, absurd. Who are they? the hero asks after he has seen the gentle, hairy creaturesoutside the Wall that encloses the One State. The half we have lost? Thefeeling half. The irrational half that lives outside of schedules and straightlines. Yet even in the One State, where nothing spontaneous is permitted,the state that is walled off from everything unstructured and alive, life andhumanity assert themselves. The hero—a builder and mathematician whohas been thoroughly shaped by his society, who never questions it—hasatavistic hairy hands. Seduced into violent and irrational passion, hemakes a shocking discovery of an unsuspected, long-suppressed realm—the realm within, of individual identity, of self. Who am I? What am I like? he cries despairingly. In a supremely tragicomic scene, he visits a doctor,seeking help against this terrifying malady. The doctor gravely tells him he  is seriously ill—he has developed a soul. Is it dangerous? he asks. Incurable, the doctor replies. But, alas, it turns out to be curable in theend. The Benefactor's men have found a remedy for individuality, forrebellion, for humanity: a simple operation to excise the seat of all infection —imagination—and reduce all citizens of the One State to grinning semi-morons.We is more multifaceted, less hopeless than Orwell's 1984, written morethan twenty-five years later and directly influenced by Zamyatin's novel.Despite its tragic ending, We still carries a note of hope. Despite the rout ofthe rebellion, there is still fighting in the western parts of the city. Many numbers have escaped beyond the Wall. Those who died were notdestroyed as human beings—they died fighting and unsubmissive. Andthough the hero is reduced to an obedient automaton, certain that Reason and static order will prevail, though the woman he loved brieflyand was forced into betraying dies (as do the poets and rebels she led), thewoman who loves him, who is gentle and tender, is safe beyond the Wall.She will bear his child in freedom. And the Wall itself has been provedvulnerable after all. It has been breached—and surely will be breached again. In We, Zamyatin says: This is where we are going. Stop while there is stilltime. Throughout the poetry and the mockery, there is great warmth— forRussia, for man—and profound grief over the particularly intense ordealsthey were to suffer in our century of terror, so uncannily foreseen in thenovel, and so proudly faced. For Zamyatin, himself to such an extremedegree a victim of these ordeals, is remarkable in his utter lack of cynicismor bitterness. Anger, mockery, rebellion—but no self-pity and no bitterness.He seems to be saying to all the dogmatists, all who attempt to force lifeinto a rigid mold: You will not, you cannot prevail. Man will not bedestroyed.Zamyatin called We my most jesting and most serious work. And, thoughit speaks on many levels and of many things, its political message isunmistakable. It is a warning, and a challenge, and a call to action. It isperhaps the fullest statement of Zamyatin's intellectual philosophy andemotional concerns.Significantly enough, the hounding of Zamyatin rose to fever pitch in thelate 1920s, when the present had become too uncomfortably like theprophecy, when the Benefactor and his Machine had become too  recognizable as living, immediate realities. In 1929 full power in the literaryfield was placed in the hands of the RAPP (the Russian Association ofProletarian Writers) which became the instrument for the extirpation of allthat was still independent in Russian literature. By campaigns of vilification,by pressure on journals and publishers, by calls for police methods, itsought to bend everyone to the requisite line—service to the party. TheRAPP plunged into the role of executioner with gusto, and the results werequickly apparent. Many journals and publishing houses were closed. Therewas a wave of suicides among writers and poets. Recantations becameepidemic. Endless nonparty writers, their spirits broken, publicly repentedof their sins and came into the fold, repudiating and rewriting then- ownworks. A particularly vicious campaign was launched against Zamyatin and Pilnyak. The latter was pilloried for the publication abroadof his novel Mahogany. We, which had been written almost ten yearsearlier and never published in the Soviet Union, was used as the immediatepretext for Zamyatin's destruction. While its first translation into English (in1924) and Czech (in 1927) had not provoked any noticeable response bySoviet authorities, its publication in 1927 in Volya Rossii, a Russian emigre journal published in Czechoslovakia, without the author's knowledge orconsent, was used, two years later, as a convenient excuse for bringing thefull weight of official pressure upon its author. The matter was discussed ata meeting of the Writers' Union in the summer of 1929, when Zamyatin wasaway on a summer journey. One after another, his frightened andsubservient colleagues rose to denounce him. Zamyatin replied with anindignant and courageous letter, resigning from the Union. I find itimpossible, he wrote, to belong to a literary organization which ... takespart in the persecution of a fellow member. Pilnyak was unable to withstand the pressure and recanted. Zamyatin'sformer pupils and admirers—Ivanov, Katayev, Kaverin—sacrificed theirtalents to become hacks, manufacturing whatever was required in theshape and style demanded. Those with stronger backbones, like IsaacBabel, turned silent And only isolated giants like Zamyatin and Bulgakovrefused to submit Denied access to publication, their plays withdrawn fromthe stage despite enormous popular success, and their books withdrawnfrom stores and libraries, they wrote to Stalin requesting permission to
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