“… [T]hey protect our unfreedom, our happiness that is,” Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
“Freedom is slavery,” George Orwell, 1984
The passions inherent in human nature and free will are the reasons for our unhappiness. Schopenhauer postulates a dismal law: Human life alternates between frustration and boredom: When we don’t get what we want, we’re frustrated; when we do get what we want, we’re bored. Thus the only answer seems to be the resignation of desire. That is what the two books, We and 1984, illustrate.
The 20th century taught humankind a formidable lesson about what totalitarianism is and what it leads to. The literary genre of dystopia appeared as a response to totalitarianism and described states that have followed the resignation of desire on the societal level and turned into mathematically correct, flawlessly calculated mechanisms, where people are the cogs of one huge machine.
These states (the One State in We and Oceania in 1984) deprive their citizens of personality and deny their right to make decisions, and what they are provided instead is happiness: the state of being gratefully submissive and blissfully feeling a part of something bigger, a part of the whole.
Zamyatin wrote We after the Russian Revolution as a frightening augury of what totalitarianism brings. Orwell expanded these ideas and acquired a cult following among readers. Comparing the two books allows more us a profound understanding of dystopian ideas
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” George Orwell
In 1984 the totalitarian state requires its citizens to be able to accept paradoxes. Indeed, this appears a good way to happiness. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength,” says the State in big letters written on ministries’ buildings. The citizen’s reflection and thinking should be reduced to accepting what is said, no matter whether it appears contradictory or not—what matters is that the authority, the Party, says it’s true.
The protagonist of We demonstrates a similar way of thinking. Things that may seem bad—like the State’s agents spying on citizens, and torture that the State employs, and executions it performs—may appear good things if they serve the right purpose, and the right purpose is maintaining the State and thus preserving its citizens’ happiness. He argues that “torture” or “spying” are neutral concepts, and their connotation, whether they are good or bad, depends only on what they are done for. He compares it to smells: “The lily of the valley smells good, right. But you cannot say that the smell, the notion of ‘smell,’ is good or bad? You can-not, can you? There is the lily of the valley’s smell, and there is the disgusting smell of henbane: they both are smells. There were spies in the ancient state—and we have spies… yes, spies. I am not afraid of words. But is it not clear: Those spies are henbane, and these ones are lily of the valley.”
Language is the weapon of the state. Orwell profoundly explores this concept: in Oceania, new dictionaries appear all the time, and some words are just excluded from them. For example, liberty. If it’s not in the dictionary, it’s not a word; if it’s not a word, there is no concept behind it. How can people desire something they don’t know a word for?
Zamyatin doesn’t pay much attention to the linguistic aspect of the totalitarian power, but he does emphasize that some words were just forgotten: like “soul”: “A soul? This odd, ancient, long-forgotten word. We sometimes say ‘heart and soul,’ ‘soulful,’ or ‘soul patch,’ but just ‘soul….’”
Orwell very strongly emphasizes that a totalitarian state must take control over history, thus taking control over truth and manipulating it the way needed to maintain and enforce its power: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” 1984’s main character works in the Ministry of Truth that deals with correcting historical documents according to the ideology of the Party.
Zamyatin doesn’t mention rewriting history: History is preserved in museums and studied. There is an explanation for this difference between the two dystopias: 1984 was written in the 1940s, when Orwell could already have witnessed how totalitarian propaganda works. Zamyatin wrote his novel in 1920, when totalitarian propaganda was not yet strong. Besides, Orwell wrote about a period of 35 years: In his work, totalitarianism is young and working hard to grow stronger. Zamyating wrote about a period involving a thousand years: His totalitarianism is well-established and strong already, and its past is condemned: Citizens are taught that the ancients were underdeveloped, savage, and stupid.
2 x 2 = 4
Mathematical laws are precise, and the results of arithmetical operations are unalterable, inviolable and inevitable. That is where the dystopian happiness is. Zamyatin’s protagonist, an admirer of the One State, writes, “There is no greater happiness than the happiness of the figures living by the orderly, eternal laws of the multiplication table. No hesitation or delusion. There is only one truth and one true way; and the truth is two times two, and the true way is four.” There is even a poem about this in the novel:
Forever enamored two times two,
In ardent four forever blended,
Their love most passionate and candid,
Inseparable two times two
Orwell agrees: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” But then Orwell speculates on what happens when two plus two make five—much of the novel’s meaning lies in it.
by Sergei Viatchanin
Buy We by Zamyatin HERE