“Mathematically infallible happiness” and Zamyatin’s We

Today, for Leonard Lopate’s “Underappreciated Literature” series, translator Natasha Randall discusses the continued relevance of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a groundbreaking work of dystopian fiction republished this year in a new English translation.

Last month Joshua Glenn examined We‘s indictment of “‘the mathematically perfect life of the One State,’ where nothing spontaneous is permitted.”

Zamyatin’s vision of a totally controlled society, one in which unresisting citizens eat, sleep, work, and make love like clockwork — and in which thinkers and writers sing the glories of “the morning buzz of electric toothbrushes and . . . the intimate peal of the crystal-sparkling latrine” — was considered too dangerously satirical by the early Soviet state, and it was smuggled abroad in samizdat form. Written a decade before Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” its influence can be seen in George Orwell’s “1984,” and it has been hailed as a warning of the totalitarian dangers inherent in every utopian scheme….

From today’s perspective, it looks as though “We,” like Huxley’s “Brave New World,” is less a rejection of utopianism than a jeremiad against the creeping of industrial standardization into politics, culture, and every other aspect of modern life.

In his 2005 book “Picture Imperfect,” social critic Russell Jacoby describes a group of writers he calls “blueprint utopians” — idealists such as Thomas More, Condorcet, Enfantin, Edward Bellamy, and others who devised solutions to the social problems of their own eras by mapping out the future in inches and minutes, giving precise instructions for how men and women should work and live, and not hesitating to prescribe force against dissenters.

The One State described by Zamyatin does bear a close resemblance to these imagined social orders. “We” describes a rigid world of efficiency and perfection, one in which individuals (called “ciphers”) are issued numbers instead of names and are nurtured by Taylorist systems from childhood. The One State is ruled by a Benefactor, who is automatically voted in every year, and watched over by spying Guardians, who ensure that nothing unexpected ever happens; those ciphers who do fall out of step (literally) are whisked away to the Gas Bell Jar.

This state of “mathematically infallible happiness” (as the One State’s official newspaper describes it) is considered by its citizens to be a revolutionary improvement on the chaotic condition of freedom humankind once knew.


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