We are living in an age Francis Fukuyama famously called “the End of History” in the early 1990′s (Fukuyama 1). The phrase came to embody a point of view assuming that since the United States had “won” the Cold War and the Soviet Union had been defeated, liberal democracy was sure to spread to the far corners of the world. Since the realization of this long sought after ideal was in sight, history had ended in the sense that no more progress could conceivably be made beyond the realization of that ideal. While it goes almost without saying that this mindset has been severely challenged in recent years, it maintains a palpable hold on the public imagination.
Yet, the feeling that mankind has reached its potential and has no room left to grow has plagued modern man for at least a century. It has made its mark on literature and on literary utopias and anti-utopias in particular. Even H.G. Wells, the consummate utopian thinker and idealist, declared in 1945 that the “mind near exhaustion still makes its final futile movement… the human story has already come to an end” (Wells qtd in Kumar 381). Krishan Kumar writes in his survey of utopia and anti-utopia that “utopia as a form of the social imagination has clearly weakened… it has not in recent times found the power to instill its vision in the public consciousness” (423). He argues, furthermore, that the power of anti-utopia has diminished in turn and that without the presence of the utopian impulse, the anti-utopia cannot survive (422). This view deserves closer examination, as it would appear to coincide with the notion of an “end of history.” As such, this essay will examine one of the most notable works of anti-utopian literature that addresses this very tendency.
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, namely,is one of the most famous and striking literary anti-utopias. Set a thousand years in the future, Zamyatin’s dystopic One State could resemble America as much as the Soviet Union in that its legitimacy is based in the supposedly non-ideological, utilitarian pursuit of maximal happiness. Indeed, Zamyatin’s work aims to repudiate all ideologies, and one its most famous passages exclaims that just as “there is no final number, revolution is infinite” (We 152). As such it is compelling literary condemnation of the “end of history” thesis, and, moreover, a reflection on human nature as a constantly evolving construct. While the One State seeks to impose its “mathematically infallible happiness” on the whole universe (19), by the end of the novel not only the desirability but the plausibility of such an endeavor is called into question.
A close examination of this novel is valuable in that it challenges contemporary notions regarding the end of history and the end of utopia. While it questions the desirability of certain utopian projects, We additionally addresses fundamental questions about human consciousness and individuality. Rather than attempt to answer those questions, however, the novel serves to place the reader in an unfamiliar, hypothetical world and acts to guide them on a philosophical search of their own. In the beginning of We, the hero D-503 unconditionally accepts the One State’s ideology, but later in the novel he is seduced into joining a rebel group, the MEPHI. Perhaps most striking of all is that the protagonist can only be awakened and gain a sense of consciousness thanks to his interactions with others.
For those familiar with semiotics, this may not be all that surprising, as the study of signs rests on examining their interactions. As Vladimir Alexandrov points out, the “minimal condition necessary for meaning to arise is the establishment of a relation between two things, whether a signifier and a signified, a sign and its object, an expression and its content,” and so on (32). By extension the interaction between various characters within a novel also give rise to meaning and moreover, consciousness. As Yuri Lotman states in his seminal article “On the semiosphere:”
The dialogic (in a wider sense) exchange between texts is not an optional phenomenon
within the semiotic process. The isolated utopia of Robinson Crusoe… contradicts contemporary understandings of consciousness as an exchange of messages, from the exchange between the hemispheres of man’s brain to exchanges between cultures. Consciousness without communication is impossible. (19)
Lotman’s understanding of consciousness applies to the relationship between the reader of a text and the text they are reading as well. The richer and more complex a novel’s composition, from the characters it presents to the intertextual references it makes, the greater the possibilities for the reader to create connections of their own. In fact, one of the more interesting characteristics of We is how it displays a diverse array of relationships between various artistic devices.
For that reason, everything from the multitude of distinct voices to the metafictional play with artistic conventions in the novel serves to stimulate the reader and awaken them. As Zamyatin wrote in his manifesto “On literature, revolution, entropy, etc.” after completing We, “it is necessary to inflict some pain [on the reader], for the majority of people suffer from a heredity sleeping sickness, and those sick with this disease (entropy) cannot be allowed to sleep, otherwise it is their final sleep, death” (Ya Boyus’ 100). In this sense the novel has a “positive” orientation, in that it seeks a response from the reader beyond simply convincing them that the utopian project is flawed and undesirable. Instead it attempts animate the reader’s consciousness, their sense of awareness of the world around and the state of the society they live in.
This somewhat contradicts the understanding of utopia and anti-utopia as genres fundamentally at odds with one another. To denounce one political system nonetheless entails the possibility for an alternative, and in emphasizing the need for consciousness, the novel suggests a return to historical, essentially utopian, thinking. While Gary Saul Morson has already identified a sense of radical historicity as an integral part of anti-utopian conventions (121), the emphasis this work places on consciousness as well as its considerable depth sets it apart from others. Rooted in a fundamental concern over the state of humanity in the modern world, We combines elements of social critique with a reflection on the very nature of consciousness, and in so doing aims at nothing less than to transform its readers in the process. What is most striking of all is that its particular formal qualities and its approach to its audience demonstrates that this work is not only intended as a rhetorical condemnation of the end of history but as a weapon with which to defeat it as well.
Defining the Theoretical Problem: From the Death of Utopia to the “Zero Cliff”
The nature of consciousness itself proves to be an exceptionally difficult concept to pin down, and its connection to the problem of historical agency as well as to utopian and anti-utopian tendencies may remain somewhat cloudy. In his work Ideology and Utopia sociologist Karl Mannheim successfully ties these ideas together while proposing a methodology for the analysis of ideologies. Consciousness, in Mannheim’s view, is in large part historically determined. “There are differences in modes of thought,” he claims, “not only in different historical periods but also in different cultures… [and] not only does the content of thought change but also its categorical structure” (71). This problem is evident in We, for example, as when the narrator D-503 attempts to describe the cultural norms and practices of his distant, futuristic society, and exasperatedly declares that “it’s just the same as if some, let’s say, twentieth century writer had to describe in his novel what a ‘suit jacket,’ an ‘apartment,’ and a ‘wife’ are” (26). As D-503 finds, it is difficult to distance oneself from one’s own historical and social circumstances, and this presents a problem not only within literature but within the whole of society itself.
The notion of ideology encompasses this concept and connects with the notion of utopia in that the utopia offers the chance to break with one’s social and historical circumstances and to imagine another world. Despite its inherent difficulties, Mannheim contends that one must nonetheless struggle to see past the veil of ideology in this way. Although he states that “the meanings which make up our world are simply an historically determined and continuously developing structure in which man develops and are in no sense absolute” (76), he asserts that
Knowledge arising out of our experience in actual life situations, though not absolute, is
knowledge nonetheless… all elements of meaning in a given situation share reference to one another and derive their significance from this reciprocal interrelationship in a given frame of thought. (76)
Mannheim argues against the notion that one cannot see past ideology by framing it in relationship to reality and utopia. In “a reality that discloses itself only in actual practice” (87), it is necessary to separate the utopian outlook, which “transcends the present and is oriented toward the future,” from the ideological outlook “which conceals the present by attempting to comprehend it in terms of the past” (86). The utopian outlook, then, is meant to direct the historical process in a progressive manner, whereas the ideological outlook attempts to arrest history and keep it locked in place.
Within this conception, ideology does not constitute a totalizing veil but those ideas which no longer apply to a dynamic reality wherein human nature itself is shifting, and a level of sensitivity and consciousness makes it possible to see past these distortions. Utopian yearnings comprise “those ideas and values in which are contained in condensed form the unrealized and the unfulfilled tendencies which represent the needs of each age” (179). While Mannheim defines the utopian outlook as one that is also “incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs” (173), it differs from ideology in that “…when they pass over into conduct, [utopian orientations] tend to shatter, either partially or wholly, the order of things prevailing at the time” (173). As Mannheim points out, this conception posits a dialectical view of ideology and utopia wherein these social and political frames mediate between the thinking subject, reality, and the historical process (179). Within such a view there is no place for the concept of an “end” of utopia, as utopias arise out of a specific historical context in response to its unrealized and unfulfilled needs.
Yet, the notion of the end of utopia persists in the present historical moment. In Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson speaks of the near lack of historical, utopian consciousness in the present day, lamenting that “the more powerfully one has been able to underscore and isolate the antipolitical features of the newer cultural dominant… the more one paints oneself into a corner and makes any repoliticization of such a culture a priori inconceivable” (159). Indeed, as Kumar notes, “the utopian fervour that accompanied [capitalism's] birth has, as with socialism, diminished to a pragmatic acceptance,” and while capitalism may be seen as the best possible system today, there remains little space for utopian appeals (421). Though capitalism once represented “the utopia of the ascendant bourgeoisie [and] the idea of ‘freedom,’” Mannheim clarifies that it did so in a limited, historical sense (183). Within the particular context of the High Middle Ages, capitalism embodied “freedom in the sense of bursting asunder the bonds of the static, guild and caste order… freedom of thought and opinion… political freedom and freedom of the unhampered development of the personality” (183). Yet the capitalism of today is not like that of yesterday, and in the wake of the global financial crisis it would seem that the logic of capitalism has had to confront a changing reality. Where capitalism once acted as a utopian catalyst for change, it has come to resemble that which “conceals the present by attempting to comprehend it in terms of the past” (86). In other words, it has become an ideology, a barrier to further historical breakthroughs.
The question remains, however, as to how to move forward or if there is anywhere to even go. Kumar highlights a critical distinction when he remarks that “while utopian societies were ideal, in the sense of the best possible, anti-utopian society represented merely the victory or tyranny of the idea” (125). Where the utopia aims toward a teleological, idealized “end of history,” the anti-utopia remains firmly grounded in historical thinking. That is, within the anti-utopia there is a constant recognition of the fact that any utopian project emerges out of a specific historical context with a specific historical task and its ascendancy is at best only ephemeral. If Mannheim’s framework postulates that the difference between utopia and ideology is that utopia “transcends the present and is oriented toward the future” while ideology “conceals the present by attempting to comprehend it in terms of the past” (86), then inevitably all successful utopian projects eventually become ideologies.
While utopias emerge in the present to postulate a possible future, once realized they displace the old hegemonic order with one of their own. Mannheim concludes his chapter on “the Utopian Mentality” with the mournful admission that:
“…after a long tortuous, but heroic development, just at the highest stage of awareness, when history is ceasing to be blind fate, and is becoming more and more man’s own creation, with the relinquishment of utopias, man would lose his will to shape history and therewith his ability to understand it” (236)
Mannheim seems to share similar concerns with Zamyatin, whose novel demonstrates a corresponding anxiety that, with nowhere left to go and nothing left to strive for, humanity will cease being “human.”
For that reason, Zamyatin asserted that art must strive to push history forward, burst through boundaries, and prepare the way for social changes. The beginning of his article “On synthetism,” for example, reflects his dialectical perspective on the role of art:
+, -, —, these are the three schools of art, and there are no others. Thesis; antithesis; and synthesis — the antithesis of the antithesis. The syllogism is continuous; the circle brought to its end. Above these arises a new, yet identical, circle, and so these circles suspend the spiral of art in the air. (74)
In contrast, the twentieth entry of We posits the dangerous consequences that ahistorical thinking would bring about in attempting to negate this process. The narrator D-503 proclaims in this passage that “human history goes up in circles, like an aero. The circles vary, some gold, some bloody, but all of them are identically broken up into 360 degrees. And from zero, forward: 10, 20, 200, 360 degrees, again zero” (107). While at once he seems to admit the cyclical nature of history, D-503 tries to deny it using his mathematical logic: “Yes we’ve returned to zero, yes. But for my mathematical mind it is clear: this zero is completely different, new. We left from zero going right and returned to zero from the left, and that’s why, instead of ‘positive’ zero, we have ‘negative zero.’ Don’t you understand?!” (107-108). Unable to convince even himself, D-503 admits that this end of history can only be maintained by force: “What of it if the only thing separating us from the Zero Cliff is the blade of a knife? The knife is the most lasting, undying, and genius of all man’s creations” (108). Clearly, Zamyatin views the end of history as something which can only be attained at great cost and which, moreover, must be resisted.
Within the life-cycle of ideology and utopia that both Zamyatin and Mannheim suggest, the end of history may be a possibility but is not an inevitability. The utopia, transmogrified into ideology, reveals the cracks in its own armor as it hurtles ever more distant from its original liberating thrust. These inherent internal contradictions must be driven deeper and made visible in order to prepare the foundations for a new utopia, and the anti-utopia specifically and literature more generally can arguably play a constructive role within this process. Whether or not it can successfully accomplish as much, however, depends as much on its readers as it does on itself.
A Methodology: Approaching the Text with a Sense of its Openness
While it is one thing to approach a literary text as a manifestation of ideology, to speak of a text’s capability to influence ideologies presents a related but somewhat more complicated set of problems. If literature sometimes seems like a cleverly encoded puzzle, then it represents a puzzle that intentionally defies one’s ability to ever completely solve it. For every work, there seem to be an infinite number of possible interpretations, and worse yet, eventually there arise interpretations of interpretations. Still, if literature did not offer this possibility, then there would hardly be any point in reading it in the first place. The provisional solution I offer in this case, then, is to approach this work with an appreciation of its openness and ambiguity, and that this, moreover, is the very source of its power.
To approach a piece of literature with a sense of its openness requires one to analyze carefully and to avoid the urge to reduce the text in one way or another. Gary Saul Morson brings up this problem in the context of reading “utopian literature… as a simple embodiment of utopian ideology” (69). While Morson concedes that “everything is, in some sense, a ‘product of its times…’” there are “… important distinctions to be made between texts that were created to be read as literature and those that were not” (70). The bottom line, for Morson, is that any use of literary texts to discuss the history of ideas has to take into account the “the literary and generic conventions that the author intended to govern their work” (70). Still, this is an inherently difficult task, as classifying a given work within a particular genre always runs the risk of oversimplifying its unique qualities or that of simply mirroring the critic’s personal opinions about the work. As Morson points out, “genre does not belong to texts alone, but to the interaction between texts and a classifier” (viii), and it is well worth noting in addition that Morson apparently distinguishes between the generic conventions that govern a work and the notion of genre itself. While a given work might display certain anti-utopian qualities, it cannot automatically be reduced to the status of anti-utopia.
Treating this novel specifically as an anti-utopia has its risks, especially since there have been attempts to approach it with a number of different generic conventions in mind. Where one critic reads into the novel “a myth relevant to the spiritual career of twentieth-century Western man” (Collins 125), another sees “an early example of a postmodern novel” (Burns 66). Yet another critic laments that “We continues to be treated almost solely as a work of anti-utopian fiction… [and] not a novel in the traditional sense” (Rosenshield 51). But Morson does not mean to argue that all judgments and classifications about a given work’s genre are flawed or that there can be no room for a plurality of different interpretations, instead, he asserts that it is “useless to speak of a genre without, at least implicitly, relating it to a system of genres” (73). Again, any work is liable to make use of a number of different generic conventions at once, and in this case, as I have already pointed out, one of the more striking features of both We is how rich in depth, ambiguity, and perspective it is.
Indeed, this novel exhibits the typical qualities of the literary anti-utopia, but it is worth qualifying this distinction. Like many others, Morson has identified We as a seminal work within the genre; as he points out, “Zamyatin’s We has been made by its successors into an exemplar of the modern ‘dystopia,’ a type of anti-utopia that discredits utopias by portraying the likely effects of the realization” (115-116) Yet, in the case of We, its status as an exemplary dystopia does not exclude the possibility that it follows additional sets of generic conventions, as “works become exemplars… [primarily] through the unforeseen creation of later works and the unanticipated emergence of a common hermeneutic approach to the entire class” (75). That We became an exemplary work within the dystopian subgenre reflects somewhat more on the subsequent works that modeled themselves after it than on the work itself. Again, it is necessary to identify the significance of the novel’s anti-utopian qualities without losing sight of its greatest quality, which is of course its openness.
One of the most significant aspects of the anti-utopia and its variant, the dystopia, is that it takes a literary approach to social critique, and this element of specifically literary social criticism is especially important within the context of this analysis. According to M. Keith Booker’s analysis, one of the defining characteristics of dystopian literature is the way it employs the technique of defamiliarization to “provide fresh perspectives on problematic social and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable” (19). That Booker uses the term defamiliarization, which originates from Viktor Shklovsky’s seminal essay “Art as a device,” is worth noting. In this article, Shklovsky boldly proclaims that the goal of art is to break up the monotony of life and inspire deep, critical thinking. Shklovsky’s thesis is grounded in his preoccupation with the role of consciousness raising in art and literature:
If the goal of art is to regain a sense of things, a consciousness of things, then the device by which art accomplishes this is the defamiliarization (ostranenie) of things, the device of complicating forms. The increased difficulty and length of perception insofar as the process of reception in art is concerned is its own goal and should be prolonged. (5)
That is to say, Shklovsky agitates for art that removes us from our own world of experiences, from that which is familiar to us, and that places the reader in an unfamiliar, alien environment. Yet, for defamiliarization to serve social critique or even to function at all, it has to be approachable enough to at least capture an audience. This issue presents a problem that necessarily arises upon consideration of the role that formal artistic conventions play in mediating the relationship between the text and its readers.
Namely, there is a problem inherent in attempting to confront the reader with new ideas, when, as our previous discussion of ideology highlighted, it is exceedingly difficult to distance oneself from one’s own social and historical circumstances. Vladimir Alexandrov discusses a similar issue which he refers to as “the circularity of reading;” that is, the problem faced by one who desires to read something that is new to them but cannot do so “except in terms of his own previous mindset and experiences” (10). The author of a text faces the opposite problem in attempting to present something “new” and thought provoking that, at the same time, must be intelligible to their audience.
At any rate, there is no method by which one can perfectly express a thought or idea without it losing some of its substance or changing some of its meaning in the process. Early models of communication such as those of Ferdinand de Saussure propose that all instances of communication, literature included, necessarily entail a process of either encoding or decoding dictated by a given code (Lotman Tri funktsii teksta 155-156) Yet, Yuri Lotman disputes that the coding mechanism of language can be identified in a consistent and precise way, as “code involves not only a specific, two-sided set of rules for encoding and decoding messages, but a many-leveled hierarchy [of them]” (157). Within this hierarchy, Lotman includes criteria as diverse as a person’s “linguistic abilities,” “their understanding of grammatical norms, linguistic references and pragmatics,” and even their knowledge of “cultural traditions” (157). As such, one might define code as the logic (and illogic) by which one expresses oneself and interprets a given text. While the text itself remains static, codes are dynamic and constantly changing, even a person’s “individual” code. For this reason Lotman identifies a function of communication in addition to its informative capacity, the creative function, which serves to generate new meanings and interpretations (158). The creative function of the text emerges as a result of the intersecting but never identical codes of each individual, and its object is the generation of new meanings (157-158) This characteristic is to a varying degree essential to all texts, and while it may be at once problematic if one aims to produce a decisive interpretation of a piece of literature, it is precisely this element that bestows them with their rare ability to transcend subjective barriers and even, perhaps, to transform those barriers.
That is to say, Lotman contends that texts have the power to generate new meanings and serve to as consciousness raising devices. In particular Lotman points to a diversity of different codes, conventionalities, and texts within the text as a way of engaging the reader. Lotman focuses on the text within the text, which he asserts “can fulfill a whole array of different functions: it may play a role as a catalyst of meaning, it may change the fundamental character of the text, it may go unnoticed, and so on” (Tekst v teskte 66). Lotman considers that moment when the text changes from one set of conventionalities or codes to another to be particularly important:
switching from one system of semiotic awareness of the the text at some kind of internal structural boundary constitutes the basis of meaning generation in this case. Such composition, above all, intensifies the timing of play in the text: from the perspective of another method of coding, the text acquires the traits of elevated conventionality, highlighting its playful nature, the ironic, parodic, theatrical, and so on. (66)
Such linguistic play draws attention to itself and thereby draws the attention of the reader from the content of the text itself to its form or code. An abundance of different formal techniques, then, allows the work to reach out to a greater number of readers and their exposure to familiar and unfamiliar codes alike will heighten the meaning they take away from the text. As such, literary texts in particular are endowed with a unique power.
That is why Lotman contends that texts are not simply individual fragments of culture which, in the last analysis, remain inconsequential. Instead he conceives of texts as the most basic unit of culture itself, which, “as a whole may be conceived of as… an intricately structured text, constituting a hierarchy of ‘texts within texts’ organized around a complicated interlacing of texts” (72). As such, he concludes his article “the text within the text” with the following reflection:
The constant introduction of elements from outside the system grants its stirrings a certain linearity and unpredictability at the same time. The combination of these categorically incompatible elements in the very same process establishes a contradiction between reality and one’s perception of it. This is especially clear in the case of ‘artistic cognition:’ ordinary affairs are compressed into a plot, ascribing them such concepts as beginning, end, meaning, and so on. The well-known phrase of critics who say ‘it doesn’t happen like that in real life’ implies that reality is strictly limited by the laws of logical causality, while art is the realm of freedom. The relationship between these elements is much more complicated; unpredictability in art is at once the cause and effect of unpredictability in life. (72-73)
Indeed, the notion that art and literature have the power to affect one’s cognition undergirds the whole trajectory of this analysis. For anti-utopia, social critique, or even literature in general to have a real effect on its readers and on the world means not only that it must on some level connect with an audience, but that it present something new and perplexing to them. Approaching the text with a sense of its richness and depth opens up a space to consider what it has to offer both now and in a wider context. The most important methodological point to strive for then, will entail recognizing not only those elements of social criticism but also those varying strands of “text within the text,” that is, those constant contradictions, interruptions, the varying codes and parodies of codes within the text that serve to break up the process of reading, realigning it from a process of passive progression through the text to that of a conscious dialogue with the text. This, it follows, is what grants a given work its unique, consciousness raising potential.
Zamyatin’s We: Art as a (Consciousness Raising) Device
Somewhat ironically, the very first word of Zamyatin’s We happens to be “I.” However, the very first sentence: “I am simply transcribing, word for word, exactly what was printed today in the State Newspaper,” immediately erases this impression and displays the narrator’s submission to the collective We (19). This fragment alone immediately sets the tone for everything that follows; the title We is confronted with the lone word I, which is subjugated almost as quickly as it arises. It is actually a striking case of synecdoche, that phenomenon in which the part reflects the whole, as upon subsequent readings one already knows that despite the emergence of D-503’s “soul,” he will ultimately stripped of his ability to think and even to imagine.
Just as the first sentence of the work suggests, the composition of We is intricately designed to reflect D-503’s conversion from his life as a mathematician and devoted servant of the One State to a new life as a rebel. This inner conflict constitutes the central axis of Zamyatin’s winding, at times disjointed narrative in We. Since Morson identifies the anti-utopia as a parodic genre, which mocks the conventions of utopias (115), D-503’s transformation can be seen as a parody of the utopian convention which “seeks to convert the experience of reading into the experience of conversion” (94). Since this is a parody of a conversion, D-503’s transformation is not necessarily meant to convert the reader to a certain point of view so much as to plant within them a measure of skepticism. While it clearly governs the work and the reader’s interpretation of it, the “anti-utopianism” of We does not serve to condemn the historical role of utopias and it is by no means the only set of conventions operating within the work. Again, Zamyatin’s concern represents a more fundamental anxiety towards the dehumanizing effects not only of modern technology but of the ahistorical thinking characteristic of modernity; thus, his novel aims not just to instill a similar attitude in its readers but to cultivate their critical awareness of it.
It almost cannot be emphasized enough how dramatically the very first passage opens the novel; it not only orients the reader to its object of parody and establishes a metafictional frame narrative, it also introduces the concept of doubling into the novel. An “announcement” in the One State’s official newspaper, which calls on “all who are be able… to compose tracts, poems, manifestos or any other writings that expound the beauty and glory of the One State” establishes the target of Zamyatin’s parody (19). The use of phrases such as “heroic predecessors,” “glorious exploits,” and the obligatory use of the phrase da zdrastvuyet (all hail) three times in a row unmistakably mock what Zamyatin once referred to as “the ham-fisted language of official Soviet newspapers” (Ya boyus’174), and yet, this moment appears absurd regardless of one’s cultural distance from that period. Nonetheless enthused by the announcement, D-503 writes in response that “I will merely attempt to record what I see, what I think — or better yet, what we think (just like that, we, and let this ‘WE’ be the title of my notes)” (20). This in turn establishes the metafictional frame of the novel. Finally, D-503 speaks about his diary as his child, which hints at the emergence of his double. “As I write I feel my cheeks burn. It must be a similar feeling when a woman first feels the pulse of a new, tiny, still blind child within. It is me and it is at once not me” (my emphasis, 20). The manuscript is like his child and it is part of him, but at the same time it will slowly transform him and eventually give rise to his double. As such, within the very first chapter the reader is pummeled with a variety of “texts within texts,” as if to pack the novel with explosive materials awaiting detonation by the time the reader finally reaches the end.
Before this occurs, however, the reader is submitted to D-503’s breathless and enthusiastic narration as he goes about his business participating in marches, attending lectures, and making calculations, all in sync with the other ten million denizens of the One State. D-503’s boundless enthusiasm for the One State sets him up for parody and furthermore injects a measure of levity into the text. For example, as D-503 marches in line with his companions O-90 and I-330, he imagines himself to have replaced and “conquered the old God and the old life” (23). Seeing this, I-330 cackles and mocks his expression, bleary eyed and blissful “…like some kind of mythical god on the seventh day of creation” (23). I-330 finds it quite easy to mock D-503’s predictable thoughts and behavior in general, as when they visit the “ancient house,” one of few relics of the world that preceded the One State. As they converse, D-503 rambles about “the thousands of microscopic, eternally warring, merciless states,” and writes down that “I-330 replied, ‘oh yes of course,’ apparently quite seriously” (39).
While D-503’s characteristically blithe lack of awareness towards I-330’s mockery serves to parody his linear, mathematical logic and to wear it down at the same time, it also reverses the reader’s orientation to the text. On a nominal level, We is written as D-503’s personal diary intended to proclaim the glory of the One State, but the text quickly becomes riven with contradiction. To be sure, Morson has already identified the parody, a double-voiced word to be “interpreted as the expression of two speakers” (108), to be a fundamental characteristic of anti-utopian works (115). Yet, his discussion of parody speaks more to the intertextual relationship between utopia and anti-utopia rather than the intra-textual relationship between the two within a given work. While We undoubtedly favors its anti-utopian side, the presence of a utopian text within the text that practically begs to be parodied lends the anti-utopian side its weight. Until D-503 comes into contact with I-330, he conceives of his diary as a utopian tract to be read by “unknown” readers who perhaps reside on “the moon, on Venus, [or] on Mercury” (We 34). This predicament makes D-503 not unlike Zamyatin himself, who likely had no idea who would read his book, or if it would ever even be published. As such, the novel must reveal itself as an anti-utopia; D-503’s inner conflict, spurred on by his interactions with I-330 and other revolutionaries, solidifies the reader’s relationship to the text.
Just as the element of parody within the novel functions on an intra-textual basis, the apparent doubling or mirroring of characters helps orient the reader without determining their reading of the text. As Lotman writes, “the double presents itself as a combination of characteristics, which allows one to see their invariant and [paradoxically] shifting foundations, creating a field full of possibilities for artistic representation” (Tekst v tekste 70). That D-503 consistently associates each of his peers with a certain set of images, often related to their “names” complicates this device and its evocative qualities. In particular it serves to dehumanize them further (as if their lack of names had not already done so) by simply associating them with one or two aspects of their physical appearance. In the case of O-90, for example, D-503 remarks that “it’s always seemed to me that she resembles her own name” (21). Round, rosy, and robust, O occupies a space within the novel at first as a spurned lover, and ultimately as the mother of his future child. Diametrically opposed to her is I-330, the rebel leader with whom D-503 falls in love. She is characterized by the sharpness of her teeth and the X impression left by her angular eyebrows and the wrinkles in her cheeks (58). This x confounds D-503 as, he comes to see it as an implacable variable which he cannot sort out. In the case of O and I, not only do the images they are associated with, roundness as opposed to sharpness, contrast, but the characters do to a varying extent as well as they compete for D-503’s affection. For the reader, this creates the semblance of structure even as D-503’s narration becomes less and less reliable.
Yet another example of doubling appears as D-503’s inner conflict tears him apart. In the beginning of his eighth entry, D-503 confesses his fear of irrational numbers, namely, of the square root of negative one (√−1). He explains it almost as if it were some kind of trauma:
It was long ago, in my school years, when √−1 happened to me… and I remember, I cried, beat my hands on the table and cried out ‘I don’t want √−1! Get this √−1 away from me!’ That irrational number grew in me, like some alien, impure, terrifying thing. It consumed me, and you couldn’t make any sense of it or dispose of it because it was external to any ratio (48).
Again the image of something growing within D-503 repeats; the irrational continues to grow within him and fights for control of his consciousness. Later on, in the very same entry, he admits that he is afraid to “be left alone, with myself, or rather, with this new, alien me, who only by chance happened to have my number, D-503” (50). His fears are confirmed when S-4711, a member of the secret police, informs him that “it seems you have developed a soul,” perhaps the most dangerous of ailments in the One State (86). D-503 has become his own double, and he is fighting against himself, against the irrational number within, and as Gary Rosenshield has already pointed out, this struggle is characterized by the conflict between D-503 the poet and D-503 the mathematician (52).
D-503’s inner struggle is never fully resolved, however. In his twentieth entry, D-503 admits his and O’s crimes against the state, and, Socrates-like, states that “the unlawful mother, O, is identical to a murderer, and that madman with the nerve to launch his poem against the One State deserves the exact same punishment: an early death” (We 107). Yet, a few entries later he is, once again, consumed with poetic thoughts and imagination in the company of I-330. Flowers, which D-503 once despised, suddenly seem pleasing to him, as with the old woman keeping watch over the ancient house, though she had previously disgusted him. In yet another instance of his inner conflict, D-503 equivocates after extolling the greatness of the One State’s “Day of Unanimity,” a holiday celebrated each year on which the One State’s leader, the Benefactor, is ceremonially elected by a unanimous show of hands. First, he proclaims how great it is that “I see how everyone votes for the Benefactor, and everyone sees how I vote for him too, and it could not be any other way, because ‘all’ and ‘I’ become one ‘We,’” but as soon as his thoughts turn to I-330, he writes that “I want, for every minute, every single minute, to be with her, just her and I. And everything I wrote about ‘unanimity,’ none of it matters” (124). When the Day of Unanimity finally arrives, D-503 does raise his hand for the Benefactor, but as soon as he sees that I-330 is injured after refusing to raise her hand in assent, he runs after her. This point marks the beginning of the MEPHIs’ rebellion against the One State, but it does not mark the end of D-503’s inner conflict.
D-503’s inner struggle results in the emergence of two distinct and opposite personalities, and the depiction of this conflict precisely through the use of doubling has a powerful effect on the reader. If even the most fervent of believers in the One State’s ideology could have his confidence shaken to the extent that he joins the rebels, then their struggle is perhaps not in vain. Moreover, D-503 finds that his double is perhaps stronger than he himself. After the rebellion begins, the MEPHIs meet and organize outside of the city, past the Green Wall which was once thought to be impenetrable. As I-330 speaks to the crowd, someone among them shouts “but isn’t this crazy?!” (139). D-503 then recalls that “…it seems as if I, yes, I think I was actually me, I climbed up on the rock… and shouted ‘Yes, yes, exactly! And we have to go crazy, we need to go crazy, and the sooner the better” (139). In this moment, D-503’s “double” emerges, takes control of the situation, and does something he never would have thought himself capable of doing. Even then, his struggle never ends; as I-330 says to D-503, “Who really knows you… a person is like a novel, until the very last page you don’t know how it’ll end. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth reading” (142). In a sense, this moment reveals the significance of D-503 and his “double” within the novel; it emphasizes both the importance and the difficulty of living the conscious life, of being aware of oneself and one’s surroundings.
This is particularly important given the stifling ideological conditions that the One State represents, and while the novel ends on a distinctly somber note — D-503 has his mind and his imagination removed — that he develops a soul in such soul crushing surroundings is nonetheless significant. At the same time, O-90 survives with his child, as does his manuscript, so perhaps the outlook for their rebellion is not so grim (Rosenshield 60). Moreover, that the manuscript survives and reaches its “unknown,” “interplanetary” readers is most significant of all given the explosive, revolutionary potential Zamyatin sought to infuse it with.
Conclusion: The Book that Explodes a Thousand Times
In the last analysis, We, spins a strange, elliptical, narrative with an episodic quality rather than a clearly defined arc. For this reason, it is difficult to convey just how expressive the novel is in addition to its richness in humor and vibrant imagery, and I admit to having failed to certain extent in this regard. Still, at one point even D-503 himself remarks, after scattering the papers of his manuscript about, that “there’s no way to put them back in order, and what’s more, even if it could be done, all the same there will be no true order, all the same the rapids, pitfalls, and x’s will remain” (We 120). As a novel, We seems at once organized along a clear, mathematical pattern, while at the same time it is full of gaps and moments of pure irrationality. Naturally, this reflects the unreliable and unstable mental state of its narrator, D-503. Yet, it also reflects Zamyatin’s clear interest in producing a novel “with the same chemical composition as dynamite, except that while a stick of dynamite explodes just once, a book explodes a thousand times” (Ya Boyus’ 254). That We has had such a considerable impact owes in no small part to its formal composition as a work that operates on a number of symbolic and stylistic levels. Its setting in a distant future inhabited by beings who seem to have lost their humanity in particular serves at once to distance the reader from its subject matter, and yet it is also precisely this that grants the novel its universal quality.
Indeed, this universal quality of the work undergirds its true power. As both an author and a literary critic, Zamyatin self-consciously agitated for all that is new and contemporary against that which is old and traditional. To quote his essay “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, etc.” again, Zamyatin once wrote that “all truths are mistaken: this is the dialectical process, that today’s truths become tomorrow’s errors; there is no final number” (Ya Boyus’ 98). All the same, with We, Zamyatin produced a novel which successfully transcends temporal and spatial distances and still has the power to inspire and surprise. Its influence on later novels, such as Orwell’s 1984 in particular, speaks to this fact (Morson 116). Indeed, thanks to its influence on Orwell, We has been widely recognized as a significant contribution to the anti-utopian canon and an exemplary work. As Yuri Lotman writes in “On the Semiosphere,” the power of one text to influence future ones is powerful indeed:
just as an object reflected on the mirror’s surface generates hundreds of fragmented reflections, a message brought into the whole of the semiotic structure makes its way to the lower levels; thus, the system transforms a text into an avalanche of texts (18).
In giving rise to and inspiring countless other works, We has become and continues to be a catalyst of cultural dynamism. No mere stick of dynamite, Zamyatin’s We set off a wave of subsequent explosions, a wave that continues each time the book is opened. And while no two readers will walk away with the same conclusions, each will be resolved to look deep within to find the strength to carry on with the long march of history.