Monday, May 24, 2010
I and You and Me and We
Ah, Fellow Sophisticates, we have come to it at last, diving into the nitty and the gritty of dystopia. First up is Yevgeny Zamyatin's brilliant WE, an odd and wonderful book, a book which we were pleasantly surprised with. Our expectations can play a role in how we perceive a book and they can shape our experience of it. If you expect something to be great and it's merely good... good can be disappointing. But for WE I had a bit of fear. I was looking forward to this book, but at the same time sort of feared it. I feared... dryness. I feared a cold and bitter satire, a diatribe against Communism or totalitarianism. I feared something didactic and preachy. And part of my love for this book stems from how it is so unlike these expectations.
WE is full of life. It's a voice novel, a novel propelled by its style and personality as much as by its plot. The novel, the voice, bursts with life. Intelligent and logical at times, and yet emotive, fluid, tumbling and rolling and falling back upon itself and then washing out again. A piece, here, from the opening of the novel:
"As I write this, I feel something: my cheeks are burning. Integrating the grand equation of the universe: yes. Taming a wild zigzag along a tangent, toward the asymptote, into a straight line: yes. You see, the line of the One State - it is a straight line. A great, divine, precise, wise, straight line - the wisest of lines."
"As I write this: I feel my cheeks burn. I suppose this resembles what a woman experiences when she first hears a new pulse within her - the pulse of a tiny, unseeing, mini-being. This text is me; and simultaneously not me. And it will feed for many months on my sap, my blood, and then, in anguish, it will be ripped from self and placed at the foot of the One State.
But I am ready and willing, just as every one - or almost every one of us. I am ready."
And here we have the novel laid out for us, in a sense. The character's rationanlity, his logic, his sense of the unity of the One State. And yet already within it is the seed of change, of discontent, the "almost every one of us". For the One State is totalitarian, a world of homogenized sterility, a world of concrete and glass. Indeed, the buildings are made of transparent glass, the homes they live in broadcasting their lives to the world. What is their to hide when the whole world is organized and everyone runs on a monotonous schedule? Only an hour here and there for free time, often for sex. It's the only time the shades come down in a home, when people are having sex. Romance is buying a ticket for somebody and taking it to an office where the sexual rendezvous will be approved or not... and an appointment allotted.
The city is sterile. Indeed, the rest of the world is kept beyond the Green Wall that surrounds the city. Forests, jungles, wildlife... and the last free humans. Yet there are those within the city, the "almost" from the "almost every one of us", who still value freedom, who hunger for novelty, for a path that it is not known and scheduled beforehand. They are in touch with the outside world, and want to bring a little anarchy into the order of the One State.
D-503, our hero (for everyone here is a number, a designation), is building the Integral, a spaceship which will transport the ways of the One State into space. A blazing line, a straight line... and yet into the unknown. D-503 wants to record his thoughts and experiences as the Integral approaches completion, and yet he finds his words lead him to strange places.
"... the pulse of a tiny, unseeing, mini-being."
People in the One State do not raise their own children, and yet the opening foreshadows this conflict: parenthood, desire, the need for an autonomous love. D-503here writes a little predestination of his own, and yet it operates as a metaphor as much as an act of foreshadowing. His words are his child, and they are a new life within him. The act of writing itself, of recording, of seeking and claiming and understanding, is an act of exploration, of anarchy and awakening.
Love, of course, is hard to contain within walls and schedules. Life resists boundaries, always pushing, pushing, pushing, as with the living world against the Green Wall. D-503's act of introspection and exploration leads him into conflict, both externally and internally. This is the conflict of the state, of the individual against society, against repression. It is the I and the We.
It is not a perfect novel, certainly. Some of the cultural propaganda lacks subtlety, the facelessness of society too entrenched. And D-503 swings too often between extremes, between the mind-washed pursuit of rationality and conformity and the impassioned awakening to love and need and the newness of experience.
And yet it is a success, a welding of a philosophical framework to a human voice, a voice alive in the prose. It is a balance of the grim, dystopic future against the human experience of one man, the whims of life against the encroachment of conformity and death.
"Do you believe that you will die? yes, people are mortal and if I am a person, then, of course... But that's not what I mean. I know that you know this. I am asking: has it ever happened that you have believed in your own death, believed in it totally, believed in it, not with your mind, but with your body, feeling that one day the fingers that are holding this very page will be yellow, icy...?
No: of course, you don't believe in it - and that is why, up to now, you haven't jumped from the tenth floor into the street, that is why up to now you have been eating, turning pages, shaving, smiling, writing..."