No I in We

 Posted by on 3 November 2005 at 7:58 am  Uncategorized
Nov 032005

A few days ago, I read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic 1920 novel We for the first time. I was pretty disappointed with it.

The underlying philosophy was confused, but I expected as much. As is standard in totalitarian dystopias, the state perfectly manages a wonderfully smooth, precise, and abundant technological economy. Moreover, reason is on the side of totalitarianism, while emotion is its primary enemy. (I find that standard association of reason with repression and emotion with freedom somewhat puzzling. The idea surely goes back further than the socialists who claimed that central planning was rational and scientific. So was it actually rooted in post-Kantian romanticism, particularly its ideal of wildly subjectivist freedom achieved through immersion in irrational emotions? I’m a bit fuzzy on that period of philosophic history, I must admit.)

Surprisingly, my major disappointments with the book were literary, not philosophical. It was written as the first-person journal of a thoroughly dedicated cog of the totalitarian collectivist state, a supposedly rigorously logical engineer who comes to some doubt through his love for an enigmatic dissident. However, the style of writing doesn’t match that basic character at all. From the outset, it’s highly imagistic, often strongly focused on minor details, often described in excessively abstract terms. As a result, I found it near-impossible to imagine the characters in setting and often difficult to follow the critical action, particularly as the story progressed. When I realized that I hadn’t properly understood some earlier passage that set the context for the present text, I’d go back to re-read, often discovering that the problem was with the muddled writing, not my quick reading.

Also, the hero of the story was not heroic in the slightest. He stood on no principled understanding of his world, but merely vacillated between submission to the Great Benefactor of the One State and submission to the mysterious demands of his lover. (Worse still, he had no reason to love her at all. It was simply an irrational, incomprehensible passion.) Consequently, the climax of the novel was more than a little anticlimactic.

Honestly, I’m thoroughly puzzled as to why I’ve heard so many favorable comparisons of this novel to Ayn Rand’s Anthem over the years. (For example: The Wikipedia entry on Anthem flippantly discusses an unsourced and absurd accusation of plagiarism by Rand of Zamyatin, under cover of the “neutral point of view.” Peter Saint-Andre wrote a lengthy “dialectical” essay on the topic as well.) Although the characters, settings, plots, styles, and philosophies of Anthem and We share some similarities, those similarities pale in comparison to their deep differences.

Happily, Shoshana Milgram discusses some of those similarities and differences in her essay “Anthem in the Context of Related Literary Works” in Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem, pages 134-41. (I haven’t read the whole volume or even that whole essay yet, but I did read that one section.) I particularly appreciated her comments on the epistemological underpinnings of the basic differences in style:

The prose of Zamyatin’s D-503 [the hero] is elliptical and cryptic; that of [Ayn Rand's] Equality 7-2521, even with the handicap of the absence of singular pronouns, is clear, as if to imply that clarity itself is a goal to be pursued. The contrast in styles becomes greater as the books progress: D-503 is progressively more disoriented, and Equality 7-2521 is progressively better equipped to describe his experiences and their significance.

The progressive degradation of the prose in We certainly conveys D-503′s progressively chaotic mental state brought on by his emotionalism. On the basis of his emotions alone, he cannot choose between submission to the state and submission to his love, so he is simply alternating between the two, usually depending upon his most recent contact. That makes sense of some of the wild prose, particularly toward the end of the novel. Yet my basic complaint about the description by abstract, floating images remains. In contrast, Anthem is poetic, but not floating.

Just to be clear, my objection to those favorable comparisons of We and Anthem mentioned above is not that Ayn Rand’s fiction is so fabulously revolutionary that no worthwhile comparison to other fiction in its genre is possible. That would be beyond silly.

In fact, a book on the major dystopian novels of the early 20th century would be an interesting and worthwhile project for a scholar of literature and/or philosophy. I’ve been personally fascinated by dystopias ever since I read quite a few in my early teens. (Unfortunately, Anthem was not among them.) So I’d be delighted to read such a work, if done well. I’ve even long thought that I’d like to teach a “Totalitarianism In Fiction” philosophy class. However, such a work would be worse than useless if not ruthlessly focused on the fundamentals of the works discussed, rather than upon accidental or superficial commonalities. The philosophic and literary analyses of the works would have to be primary. Any discussion of influence would have to be secondary, as well as grounded in facts rather than arbitrary speculations.

Since a book like that is unlikely to be produced by modern academics, I won’t be holding my breath. However, I will be continuing my own studies: I will be re-reading 1984 next.

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