Long Before 1984 There Was We

Culture Watch

Mr. Alger is a freelance writer.

"Tomorrow I'll see the same sight that's repeated from one year to the next, bringing new excitement each time: the mighty chalice of harmony, the people's arms reverently uplifted. Tomorrow is the day for the annual election of the Benefactor. Tomorrow we once more place the keys to the unshakeable fortress of our happiness into the hands of the Benefactor."

The words could have come from a public information minister in Iraq, but didn't. No, those are the words of the protagonist of a novel set in the future, in the twenty-sixth century, in the standardized land of OneState, but one that was written well before anyone had ever heard of Saddam Hussein.

The passage continues,"It goes without saying that this has no resemblance to the disorderly, unorganized elections in ancient times, when -- it's hard to say this with a straight face -- they couldn't even tell before the election how it would come out. To establish a state on the basis of absolutely unpredictable randomness blindly -- could there be anything more idiotic?"

The voice is that of the narrator D-503, in We, the dsytopian novel written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a Russian naval architect who completed his masterpiece in 1921. We was soon translated into the languages of the world, yet not published in Zamyatin's homeland until 1988.

Zamyatin (1884-1937) had the honor, if it could be called that, of being exiled by both the tsarist and the Stalinist regimes. Concerned with the surrendering of the individual to some monstrous collective utopia of technology, in many ways, Zamyatin's work appeared before its time. In fact, George Orwell acknowledged his debt to Zamyatin for providing the inspiration to write 1984.

In We, D-503, a true believer, in reflecting on the election of the Benefactor of OneState, goes on,"I don't suppose it's necessary to say that here, as in everything else, we have no place for randomness; there can't be any surprises. And even the elections amount to little more than symbolism, to remind us that we are one, powerful, million-celled organism, that we are in the words of the ancient 'Gospel,' one Church. Because the history of OneState does not know of a single instance when so much as one voice dared to violate the majestic unison of that glorious day."

D-503 remarks that somehow, inexplicably, people in the past actually used to want to carry out elections in secret, and he is at a loss as to understand why:

"But we have nothing to hide or be ashamed of; we celebrate our elections openly, honestly, in the daylight. I see how everybody votes for the Benefactor and everybody sees how I vote for the Benefactor. And how else could it be, since everybody and I add up to one We? How much more uplifting, sincere, lofty this is than the cowardly, thievish 'secret' of the ancients! And how much more expedient it is, too. Because even if you suppose the impossible, by which I mean some kind of dissonance in our usual monophony, you've still got the concealed Guardians right there in our ranks ready at a moment's notice to stop any Numbers that might have gotten out of line and save them from making any other false steps -- as well as save OneState from them."

Unlike Orwell and Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, Zamyatin's work, his novels, stories and essays, have not received anywhere near the same recognition. The reason, rather simple: Orwell and Huxley published freely in the democratic West, while Zamyatin's writing was suppressed under the Stalinist regime, despite the fact that his first book, A Provincial Tale, published in 1913, was hailed by opponents of the tsar.

Part of the irony is that Zamyatin was an early member of the Bolshevik Party, one who was arrested in 1905 and exiled by the regime of Nicholas II. He returned to live illegally in St. Petersburg for a time, spent some time in Finland, and then was once again arrested and exiled.

Zamyatin returned to Russia, from England where he had been supervising the construction of icebreakers at a shipyard, with the coming of the October Revolution, which he supported wholeheartedly. His articles were published in Socialist newspapers under the name of M. Platonov and he even went on to lecture on writing at the"House of Arts," which was founded by the writer Maxim Gorky in Petrograd.

To his great dismay, however, Zamyatin soon found that his work would not be published by the leaders of the new regime which he had supported. The problem was that Zamyatin was never able to recognize that while he supported the principles and precepts of the revolution, criticizing the policies of Lenin's government was not acceptable, much less that of his successor Stalin, to put it mildly. As a result, Zamyatin soon found his works banned, his previously published works even removed from libraries.

Zamyatin lived his final years in poverty in Paris, where he settled in exile with his wife in 1932. He never relinquished his dream of returning to the land of his birth, a hope which was not to be fulfilled.

So, as hands are unanimously raised to the Benefactor in We, and Saddam Hussein predictably receives 100 percent of the vote in a referendum to rule for another seven years, one wonders about the unknown scribblings, the stories and novels that may have been written in Baghdad but as of yet not been discovered by those at home or abroad. Although one voice may echo through the halls in public, what's thought and said in hidden quarters can tell quite a different story, and often does.

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More Comments:

TC - 11/21/2002

In my opinion Alger is less "obsessed" by Saddamand Iraqthan are you by "Republicans" and "massive brainwashing." Iraq is a germane topic now and Iraq is in no way, shape or form the most "inspected" nation in the world; if it was the present crisis would not be happening. Yes I am a Republican and I support the President. No, I am not a brainwashed moron thank you.

TC - 11/21/2002

I had never heard of Zamyatin, but he sounds prophetic. The quotes that Alger uses from Zamyatin sound as if they could have been written by a contemporary observer of early twenty-first century America.
I always liked More's "Utopia" more than "1984." Although my opinion is most likely in the minority I thought that "Animal Farm" was a more enjoyable read than the tome on Big Brother.

Gus Moner - 11/12/2002

An otherwise interesting tale was spoilt by the use of Iraq and Saddam as examples. Why this obsession with Saddam in a piece about a literary precursor to 1984?

With al the crackpot dictators about, spread the criticism! Many threats are more immediately lethal (read N. Korea), and many other dangers are lurking, for example, in the ex-USSR. Why the fixation on the most observed and inspected man and nation?

Every evil thing, concept or deed seems comparable to Saddam or Iraq; this obsession seems the result of the massive brainwashing by the media and the Republicans. Ever more this sort of discourse seems to cast its shadow over all the land. Have we lost sight of the rest of the planet? If you want good examples of Benefactor worship akin to 1984 and We, Pyongyang, in my opinion, has the best.