Chafic LaRochelle's Reading Recommendation:
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
KEYWORDS: The Seed, Dystopian Sci-Fi, Failure to Launch
One of my all-time favourite novels is Paul Auster’s City of Glass, from his The New York Trilogy. It’s a volume I revisit years after year, no less for its imaginative storytelling as for its existential profundity.
But lately, I’ve been reading about a different kind of city of glass. Not Auster’s allegorical one, but a full-fledged metropolis constructed entirely of, well, glass. Can you picture it? It may sound like the whimsical musing of a child, but in the world of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, it’s the architecture of an insidious ideology.
We was written in 1920 by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a decade before Brave New World and nearly three decades before 1984. Orwell actually reviewed the book in 1946, remarking that, “Aldous Huxley's Brave New World must be partly derived from it.” Amusingly, Orwell would openly hijack many of the novel’s elements when he began his own dystopian masterpiece just eight months later. (Paul Owen does an excellent job of elucidating the overlap in this 2006 article.)
This isn’t to disparage Orwell; his execution and world-building are more refined, more even-handed, more evocative. But while 1984 has certainly earned its cultural ubiquity, we should acknowledge that it wouldn’t exist without its predecessor, We, a novel that effectively gave birth to the sci-fi dystopia genre.
For such a creative and important achievement, We is rarely mentioned in pop culture, let alone assigned to a high-school reading syllabus. Among my own gaggle of highfalutin literary friends, few of them have even heard of the book! It’s as though We had clear-cut the woods, tilled the soil, and planted the seeds, while 1984 presented itself as the fruit—and don’t we all love fruit?
Besides this, I see some other reasons We never went mainstream. For one, Zamyatin’s novel was something of an underground phenomenon; its publication was prohibited by the Soviet government and so it made the rounds through tight-knit literary circles across Europe. In 1924, it was translated into english and published in New York by E.P. Dutton. Though Dutton was eventually acquired by Penguin Random House, it was once a small-press publisher with limited distribution, impeding the novel’s potential success. It wasn’t until 1988, during Gorbachev’s glasnost era, that We was even published in Mother Russia. (Unfortunately, Zamyatin had died 25 years earlier, an expatriate, and never witnessed his novel’s homecoming.)
Second, the book is not easily adapted into film (though French director Alain Bourret made a commendable and experimental attempt in 2016 with his short film, The Glass Fortress). While the same can be said of Brave New World, We is an even greater challenge: the bizarre first-person narrative style could scarcely be reproduced on-screen, while the plot is fairly loose and predictable. We’s brilliance is irrevocably bound to its medium, making it an easy pass for our Netflix generation. All that said, I think We is poised for a grand ol’ revival.
KEYWORDS: Happiness V. Freedom, The Garden, All Hail the Panopticon
The story is set during the 26th-century and unfolds through a series of journal entries. The chapters are short and each one is referred to as a ‘record’, beneath which a few ‘keywords’ describe the topics contained therein. (Is it just me, or does keyword seem to presage Google’s search algorithms and our own diminished attention spans? Just saying.)
The man who pens these records is D-503—a regular poster-boy for the totalitarian regime known as the One State. His account begins during a pivotal moment in their history: the brink of space colonization. D-503 is the senior engineer overseeing the construction of the Integral, a crystal-clear spacecraft designed to carry colonists and their dogma to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. (Zamyatin himself was a naval architect who oversaw the construction of ships, including the famous icebreaker, Lenin.)
So why’s a busy mathematician keeping a journal? His motivation is revealed early on: The records are to be placed aboard the Integral, a gift to future interstellar generations. To serve as both field manual and gospel for the galactic colonists. Such is D-503’s national pride and devotion.
Pride and devotion, indeed. In the beginning, D-503 excitedly shares with us many details about his world. We learn, for instance, that everyone has a serial number in place of a name; that men and women are referred to as ciphers and unifs (short for uniforms). That they march in fours through the streets to the mathematically precise anthem of the One State. That his greatest existential crisis was the discovery of √-1 in grade school—a frightening encounter with the irrational in the heartland of logic. We learn that everyone’s favourite childhood book is the revered classic, The Railroad Schedule (yes, that’s exactly what you think it is). And we learn that The Railroad Schedule pales in comparison to the Table of Hours, which “transforms each of us into the real-life six-wheeled, steel heroes of a great epic.” He goes on to say of the Table of Hours:
Each morning, with six-wheeled precision, at the exact same hour, at the exact same minute, we, the millions, rise as one. At the exact same hour, we uni-millionly start work and uni-millionly stop work. And, merged into a single, million-handed body, at the exact same Table-appointed second, we bring spoons to our lips, we go out for our walk and go to the auditorium, to the Taylor Exercise Hall, go off to sleep...
D-503’s only bone to pick with the Table is its two empty slots, each an hour long, each appointed as a Personal Hour. He argues that to fully realize the One State’s collective happiness would require filling these idle times: “one day all of these 86,400 seconds will be accounted for in the Table of Hours,” he consoles us optimistically. Really, folks, this is Taylorism on steroids.
Luckily, the Personal Hours needn’t inspire even an iota of self-reflection! They primarily function as Sex Hours—the only time of day when one’s permitted to draw one’s blinds. Thanks to the collectivist wisdom of the One State, sex doesn’t even require any of the annoying preliminaries, like flirting or dating or intimacy. All one need do is fill out an application requesting a certain other cipher. Because every cipher’s body is the State’s rightful property, there’s no room for discrimination; everyone belongs to everyone and, as such, everyone has access to everyone. All you need is your pink slip of approval and presto—an elegant solution to a problem the Ancients called ‘jealousy’.
This brings us back to the glass city. It is the embodiment of an ideology that demands total transparency and control, quite in the vein of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. And yet, D-503 is a dogged cheerleader of these measures. He’s proud the One State has rescued poetry from imagination and delivered it to the hands of bureaucracy. He firmly believes that the secret police, known as The Guardians, are genuinely interested in his well-being. He adores the autocratic Benefactor, who every year is re-elected to power on the Day of the One Vote. Unanimously, of course.
D-503 lives with the blissful, unambiguous certainty born of ignorance. Until his fateful encounter with I-330, a female cipher later revealed to be a member of the revolutionary group, Mephi. I won’t spoil the book, but once that pinhole is poked, we watch as D-503 is trounced by doubt and irrationality, emotional impulse and cognitive dissonance. We watch as he becomes the thing he most feared—that most irrational thing in the heartland of logic: √-1.
KEYWORDS: Manic Impressive, Storytelling as Story, The Divine Collective
The writing in We is sloppy, manic, and oftentimes inchoate: Sentences are overburdened with punctuation; descriptions oscillate between nebulous and meticulous; colours and shapes are endlessly used to describe thoughts and sensations; to describe people and places and things.
And yet, despite all this, the book is sublime. Perhaps because of it: Colons and semicolons reveal our narrator’s obsession with cause and effect. The ellipsis of an unfinished sentence hints at heretical thoughts, repressed in the nick of time. The flux in tone betrays a tug-o-war between conformity and rebellion.
Though I find it intoxicating, this is another reason We continues to exist in the cultural periphery: The story is less about plot than about storytelling, while the storytelling itself is a mere vessel for the theme. It’s the difference between an apple and a pomegranate—the latter is delicious but takes a lot more work to enjoy. Most of us are happier to consume the plot-apple than the prose-pomegranate.
As we follow D-503’s increasingly complicated life, his reporting becomes more unreliable, more dishevelled. His journal becomes a safe space to make sense of secret and impure thoughts, to which we’re voyeuristically privy to. Unfortunately, he’s misunderstood the role of language: unlike the bold, full lines of mathematics, language is but a tool for shading. And in the One State, nothing is more dangerous than garnishing the absolute with nuance.
Though the novel is short, it’s best absorbed slowly, thoughtfully. If it sounds like work, well, it sort of is. But the payoff is worth it. Zamyatin was nothing if not a satirist and the book is punctuated with plenty of wit. As a former Bolshevik, his target was likely the movement and its increasingly ludicrous doctrines. Even the book’s title is a jab at the ideologically inspired arts of his time, some of which was simply—and unironically—called We. As our narrator tenderly reminds us, ““WE” is divine, and “I” is satanic.”
KEYWORDS: Psychedelia, A Kiss Ain’t Just a Kiss, Heroic Doses
One of my favourite moments in the book is when D-503 first tastes alcohol. It feels especially poignant in the wake of renewed interest in psychedelic research. The war on consciousness, so to speak, is a hallmark of authoritarian power. A good authoritarian power infantilizes its citizens; gives them ritual in place of experience, laws in place of ethics, answers in place of dialogue. Whosoever turns their back on these gifts is in very terrible danger, indeed.
In the One State, alcohol is illegal, punishable by the ‘mercy’ (read: public execution by atomization) of the Benefactor. It’s considered so nefarious that only the miserable Ancients were foolish enough to indulge in it. One evening, I-330 manages to slip some of the “green poison” into D-503’s mouth by way of a kiss.
I unfastened from the Earth and became an independent planet, furiously rotating, rushing down, down—according to some kind of uncalculated orbit.
The words unfastened, independent, and uncalculated seem especially out of character for D-503. He goes on to describe the feeling that some second self is emerging, a self that’s always resided just below the surface. He mentions its “shaggy paws”, a reference to his hairy hands that now overwhelmingly convey the animal aspect within him. In one of the world’s most acutely psychedelic lines ever, he tells us: “I became glass—I saw into myself, inside.” You can almost hear Terence McKenna’s signature cadence riffing off these very words.
Though alcohol is not psychedelic, it’s easy to imagine how it could be, given the right context. The low entropy of the One State and its ciphers make it especially fragile, especially vulnerable to psychedelic inspiration. For a stiff guy like D-503—who suffers from that dreadful combination of deep devotion and immense intelligence—he was really only ever one sip away.
KEYWORDS: The Fall, Escape from Freedom, Happy Anniversary
We is an exploration of an ideology whose fundamental premise is that freedom and happiness are antithetical. The reference to Genesis here can hardly be missed, harking back to that fateful day in the Garden. And ever since The Fall, people have been trying very, very hard to return. Every ideological movement exemplifies this maxim, whether verbalized or not. In Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm elucidates this point, when he writes,
The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self.
It is therefore the ‘burden of the self’ that’s at the root of unhappiness. And no more is unhappiness so fully actualized than in freedom. In freedom, one is left with the crushing weight of meaning squarely on one’s shoulders. Whatever can be done? Ideologies offer the simplest solution, quite on par with an infomercial guarantee: for the low, low price of your personal freedom, you’ll get instant happiness! But that’s not all! Indeed, it’s certainly not: Offering up one’s freedom is to willingly dispose of one’s critical thinking skills. As Voltaire wrote, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
An ideology is a set of ideas (usually elaborate and unsophisticated) running on the fumes of faith. Embracing it is a return to the Garden, a return to childhood. Really, it’s not an unattractive proposition; freedom certainly doesn’t come cheap. But maybe we’ve got our priorities wrong. Maybe the real threat to our existential well-being isn’t unhappiness, but the all-consuming quest for happiness. Zamyatin asks us to consider whether true happiness can exist in submission, or must it be earned as the byproduct of freedom and responsibility and struggle? The Turing test here is whether one’s happiness is robust enough to withstand life’s inherent suffering.
Of course, there are many interpretations of the novel and mine is by no means the final word. That’s the beautiful thing about We: it’s so short, yet offers so much. An exhaustive study of it I have yet to discover. Christopher Collins suggests that the novel is not a dystopia at all, but an allegory for an internal struggle, inspired by Jungian psychology. By Collins’ account, our glass city is no Panopticon—it’s a mandala! And its inhabitants are not mere fictional characters, but archetypes! Don’t say I didn’t warn you: Cracking open We is a pandora’s box of interesting ideas, subtle humor, and existential profundity that’ll take up more mental real-estate than it probably should.
The bottom-line is this: If you love sci-fi dystopias, compelling prose, and Russian humour, We is for you. While the book has yet to cement its place in popular culture, it has certainly cemented its place in literary history. For that feat alone, it’s worth the read. And, as we near We’s centennial anniversary, the book’s message is now more prescient than ever. But, then again—when is it not?
Chafic LaRochelle holds a B.Sc in neuroscience and is a volunteer SAR Tech. He works as a freelance writer and lives with his wife Kaitlyn in Montreal. His creative nonfiction essay A Man, Without was featured in issue 286 of The Fiddlehead.