Saturday, November 08, 2014

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We; and Ayn Rand, Anthem


Opening Passage from We:

I shall simply copy, word for word, the proclamation that appeared today in the One State Gazette:

The building of the Integral will be completed in one hundred and twenty days. The great historic hour when the first Integral will soar into cosmic space is drawing near. One thousand years ago your heroic ancestors subdued the entire terrestrial globe to the power of the One State. Yours will be a still more glorious feat: you will integrate the infinite equation of the universe with the aid of the fire-breathing, electric, glass Integral. (p.1)

Opening Passage from Anthem:

It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we were speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone. We have broken the laws. The laws say that men may not write unless the Council of Vocations bid them so. May we be forgiven! (p. 17)

Summary: In We, we find ourselves in the highly advanced One State of the Benefactor with D-503. He is the First Builder of what promises to be the greatest achievement of the One State: the Integral, a spaceship that will let the One State spread to other planets, and any populations that might be on them. In anticipation of this great event, D-503 has begun to keep a journal to extol the glory of the One State, to contribute to the first cargo to be carried aboard the ship. The One State of the Benefactor is orderly, machine-like; citizens are called 'numbers' and they live in glass apartments so that anyone may see them. They walk in step, they chew in time, they rigidly structure their day according to the Table of Hours. D-503 is exultant about this order, joyful that in the building of the Integral the One State is taking another step in clearing the human equation of all unknown x's. And then he meets another number, I-330; she breaks all rules, and D-503 finds himself descending after her into a maelstrom of disorder and disobedience that will threaten to destroy the One State. The One State, however, has its own defenses, including a defense that reaches deeper than any revolution. It is indeed discovering how to clear the human equation of all unknown x's: through the Great Operation it will make all human beings as reliable as tractors.

The portrayal of the Great Operation, the surgical means of removing all capacity for Imagination in the human brain, is very effectively done. An amateurish handling would likely have focused too much on the operation itself, but Zamyatin handles it almost casually, and the casualness of it makes it infinitely more chilling.

In Anthem, the situation is very different. The narrator, Eternity 7-2521, is already engaging in minor rebellions. The City is not a highly advanced society but a primitive one that has lost every technology more advanced than candles. Everyone sleeps together in dormitories. Everyone is assigned a job by the Council of Vocations, and does that the rest of their lives. Everyone is expected to think only in terms of all, to such an extent that they have only plural pronouns. Eternity 7-2521 has always had difficulty with this, however. He (or They) had wanted to be a Scholar, more than anything; but the Council of Vocations, seeing him as a threat, had assigned him to be a Street Sweeper. He was willing to do this -- like D-503 he accepts the glory of the collective as the highest standard -- but in practice he keeps failing to measure up. And what is more, he has seen Liberty 5-3000, whom he secretly thinks of as the Golden One, who was assigned to be a Peasant, and he has fallen in love with her, and she with him. And he has made a discovery that will change everything, and that will lead eventually to an even greater discovery: the Word that must not be spoken.

Anthem is an anti-Platonic work. The City has a mix of features from the Soviet Union and Plato's Republic. Eternity 7-2521's great achievements begin to unfold when he descends into a tunnel in what is clearly a reversal of the Allegory of the Cave; in the tunnel, which is an ancient subway tunnel, he discovers the greater fire, Electricity, and through it he, a new Prometheus, will begin to think in ways that will not subordinate his own good to the good of the City.

There are obvious differences between the One State and the City. Zamyatin, satirizing Bolshevik technocrats making grand promises about centralized planning, has a collectivist state in which all is run on mathematics and science, and human beings are treated as if they were machines. Rand, on the other hand, Objectivist fleeing from a later generation of Communist central planners, clearly thinks that treating a human being as a machine would be a step up from how a collectivist state actually treats them, and her collectivist state could not run things on mathematics and science if it tried, which it would never do. For all that, they are perhaps closer than they look. After all, Zamyatin's One State is on the verge of destroying human Imagination, and the progress of inquiry in Rand's City is deliberately stunted. The City is not incapable of grasping the idea of Electricity, for instance; a major reason it refuses to accept Electricity is that it would put candlemakers out of work.

Both Zamyatin and Rand, interestingly, present romantic love and sexual attraction as inherently anti-collectivist, and a potential danger to the whole collectivist idea. Rand captures this aspect nicely in a phrase: romantic love and sexual attraction are inherently individualistic because they are forms of the "Transgression of Preference". Even if they are not literally exclusive, in the sense of admitting no others, they are nonetheless inherently exclusive in the sense that the whole point of them is not to treat someone as if they were just like everyone else. Both the One State and the City have developed defenses against this, although they are opposed defenses. In the One State everyone is made a prostitute, required to have sex, which is treated as casual and universal, with anyone else who can register for them with a ration ticket. In the City everyone is made a puritan, forbidden from having sex, which is treated as filthy and disgraceful, except for approved purposes at approved times and solely for the good of the City.

The real point of difference between the two is in the overall tenor of the stories. In Zamyatin's We, the collective of the title wins: D-503 rebels and fails, and we end with the One State preparing to crush the rebels. In Rand's Anthem, whose working title was Ego, the individual of the working title wins: Eternity 7-2521 becomes Prometheus and escapes, and we end with Prometheus preparing to crush the City. This is tied to the great difference between the two protagonists. D-503 is dragged along into a rebellion by others, and his great achievement, the expression of his personality, is in fact the Integral, which is really the conception and achievement of the One State, the projection of the One State into the future. Eternity 7-2521 walks into rebellion by a steady progression of Transgressions, and his great achievement and expression of personality is the rediscovery of Electricity, which recovers the glory of Man from the past in which it has been buried.

Both works are prose poems. Zamyatin has some excellent passages, but I think (allowing for the fact that Zamyatin was read only in translation) that Rand's text is much more effective as a prose poem -- Rand's major revision of the work for the second publication was a very good one, cutting out the fat but preserving the muscle of the poetic description. It also probably helps that her hero is much more intensely focused than the somewhat rambling and gushy D-503. But Zamyatin is also doing a great deal more work to explore the psychology of his character, down to the inconsistencies, which is part of the difference between the two.

Favorite Passage from We:

Naturally, having conquered Hunger (alegebraically, by the sum total of external welfare), the One State launched its attack against the other ruler of the world -- Love. And finally this elemental force was also subjugated, i.e., organized and reduced to mathematical order. About three hundred years ago, our historic Lex Sexualis was proclaimed: "Every number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity." (p. 21)

Favorite Passage from Anthem:

"We give you the power of the sky!" we cried. "We give you the key to the earth! Take it, and let us be one of you, the humblest among you. Let us all work together, and harness this power, and make it ease the toil of men. Let us throw away our candles and our torches. Let us flood our cities with light. Let us bring a new light to men!"

But they looked upon us, and suddenly we were afraid. For their eyes were still, and small, and evil. (p. 71)

Recommendation: Both are worth reading at least once, and are recommended. If you can only read one, though, I suspect it should be the shorter, leaner, cleaner Anthem.


Quotations are from: Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, Mirra Ginsburg, tr., HarperCollins (New York: 1972); and Ayn Rand, Anthem, Signet (New York: 1995).


  1. Enbrethiliel12:36 PM


    Now that you've finished Anthem, I can "reveal" the connection to Frankenstein . . . which really isn't much! I was just tickled to be reminded that Ayn Rand's protagonist takes the name Prometheus. Have you read anything else by Rand?

    And how interesting to think of Anthem as anti-Platonic! I had forgotten where Eternity/Prometheus discovered electricity, but probably wouldn't have made the connection to the Allegory of the Cave even if I had remembered it--but it's so true that Rand rejects Plato's kallipolis! I do know that she wasn't too fond of him because there's a bit of a jab at him (or rather, at his metaphysics) in Atlas Shrugged.

    What do you think of both Rand and Yevgeny Zamyatin making so much hinge on romantic love? Thanks to your Plato readalong, I'd say that the logical enemy of the tyrannical state is the the messy-but-with-kallipolis-potential family . . . but if we're starting with a bunch of loose individuals, I suppose that families have to begin with two people preferring each other above anyone else. But I guess I'm down on "romantic" anything these days, thanks to Victor Frankenstein. Until that readalong is over, I'll be suspicious of anything which puts feelings above all other considerations. And I'd respect a social structure which can put them in their place somewhat, though the societies of We and Anthem certainly go overboard by trying to snuff them out all together.

  2. branemrys5:35 PM

    Your mentioning of the Prometheus link does make me think a bit more about the way in which Shelley's work really could be considered 'A New Prometheus'. Frankenstein himself is a very unlikely Prometheus. But perhaps the main thrust is not on Promethean character but on Prometheus bringing the divine gift that destroys. We only get a hint of this latter in Rand -- plenty about the divine gift, but it's only at the end when the protagonist is planning electric fences that we see a real suggestion of the destructive power of Electricity.

    I've read most things by Rand. Rand had a long history of Plato-hating. Plato characterizes the Kallipolis in ways that sound collectivist, and certainly were read as such in the Soviet Union.

    I think you're right that family is more properly the logical enemy of the tyrannical state than romantic love as such. We get something of this in both works; one of the characters in We wants to have a child but can't, and Eternity's rebellion with the Golden One is in part put in terms of becoming father and mother to a race of men. But neither Zamyatin nor Rand capture the orderliness of the family, i.e., the sense in which the real opposition arises not from the rupture of sex and love and other Transgressions of Preference, but the formation of an opposing order of things, of which the family is the seed. Temporary disruption is not real opposition; you need something stable and enduring.


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