Nobody is ‘one,’ but ‘one of.’
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is one of a number of early 20th century speculations about the impact of the emerging modern world on the human condition.
Wright’s Islandia (reviewed here) is one, as is Wells’s The Sleeper Wakes (1910), which seems the best bet for the immediate precursor of We, written ten years later.
As in The Sleeper Wakes, Zamyatin depicts a regimented, urban society, cut off from nature and personal freedom. Unlike Wells’s novella, which is an ad absurdum extension of capitalist economics, We is based on rational thought, specifically mathematics. The story is very familiar, for in all of its most important elements it is repeated in 1984. Here’s a good summary of the plot of both books, from Paul Owen’s “Book Blog” in The Guardian:
One man, living in a totalitarian society a number of years in the future, gradually finds himself rebelling against the dehumanising forces of an omnipotent, omniscient dictator. Encouraged by a woman who seems to represent the political and sexual freedom of the pre-revolutionary era … he writes down his thoughts of rebellion … as a 24-hour clock ticks in his grim, lonely flat. In the end, the system discovers both the man and the woman, and after a period of physical and mental trauma the protagonist discovers he loves the state that has oppressed him throughout, and betrays his fellow rebels.
Orwell explicitly acknowledged We as one of his major sources. Aldous Huxley always claimed that he had not read We before he wrote Brave New World, but Orwell never believed him, and Huxley’s novel also has striking parallels to Zamyatin’s. For just one example, Huxley’s character Helmholtz Watson seems a direct descendent of R-13, the state poet of the One State. There are other parallels, including to Ayn Rand’s “teach the children well” juvenile novel, Anthem, and sci-fi movies like George Lucas’s cult classic THX-1138.
The rationale of the One State is that reason liberates us from animal emotions — there was then no cognitive science to show that reason is how we represent or construct the world we apprehend through our senses and to which we respond first with our emotions. Like 1984, We articulates the philosophy of a world in which, in Orwell’s famous phrase, “Freedom Is Slavery”:
Why is dance beautiful? Answer: because it is unfree motion, because the whole profound meaning of dance lies precisely in absolute, esthetic subordination, in ideal unfreedom. And if it is true that our forebears abandoned themselves to dance at the most exalted moments of their lives (religious mysteries, military parades), it means only one thing: the instinct of unfreedom is organically inherent in man from time immemorial.
Rules and restraint are the greatest gift, thwarting crime, which is desire, and resolving doubts and choices, which disappear under the discipline of total control:
But fortunately between me and the wild green ocean was the glass of the Wall. Oh, great, divinely bounding wisdom of walls and barriers! They are, perhaps, the greatest of man’s inventions. Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he built the first wall Man ceased to be a savage only when we had built the Green Wall, when we had isolated our perfect mechanical world from the irrational, hideous world of trees, birds, animals. . . .
D-503 recasts the story of The Fall in the Eden of the ancient God (now discarded) in terms of the unconditional surrender of will made possible by submission to the One State. And his vision of the ancients’ Heaven makes the same case for a will-less slavery:
What did people—from their very infancy—pray for, dream about, long for? They longed for some one to tell them, once and for all, the meaning of happiness, and then to bind them to it with a chain. What are we doing now, if not this very thing? The ancient dream of paradise . . . Remember: those in paradise no longer know desires, no longer know pity or love. There are only the blessed, with their imaginations excised (this is the only reason why they are blessed)—angels, obedient slaves of God.
When D-503 is seduced into the revolution by I-330, the Julia figure, Zamyatin’s book, as translated by Mirra Ginsburg, rings with the sharp shocks of new feelings:
I am like a machine set at excessive speed: the bearings are overheated; another minute, and molten metal will begin to drip, and everything will turn to naught Quick—cold water, logic. I pour it by the pailful, but logic hisses on the red-hot bearings and dissipates into the air in whiffs of white, elusive steam.
D-503’s insight into the true human condition grows as he becomes more and more alive to the power of his long-suppressed emotions:
It has never occurred to me before, but this is truly how it is: all of us on earth walk constantly over a seething, scarlet sea of flame, hidden below, in the belly of the earth. We never think of it. But what if the thin crust under our feet should turn into glass and we should suddenly see … I became glass. I saw—within myself. There were two of me. The former one, D-503, number D-503, and the other … Before, he had just barely shown his hairy paws from within the shell; now all of him broke out, the shell cracked; a moment, and it would fly to pieces and … And then … what?
In the end, D-503 is given the saving operation, and his mind is restored, improved, for his imagination is finally and forever destroyed. He returns to the peace of the submitter, once again part of the Unanimity:
Even among the ancients, the most mature among them knew that the source of right is might, that right is a function of power. And so, we have the scales: on one side, a grain, on the other a ton; on one side “I,” on the other “We,” the One State. Is it not clear, then, that to assume that the “I” can have some “rights” in relation to the State is exactly like assuming that a gram can balance the scale against the ton? Hence, the division: rights to the ton, duties to the gram. And the natural path from nonentity to greatness is to forget that you are a gram and feel yourself instead a millionth of a ton.
“We” is from God, and “I” from the devil.
The revolution fails — this one, for Zamyatin makes it clear that just as there is in mathematics no “ultimate number,” there is no ultimate state, no last revolution. This hope for the future overthrow of the all-powerful state is one of the reasons that We was not published in Zamyatin’s native Russia until 1988.
Thus, while Zamyatin may have inspired Orwell, he avoided the final despair of “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”