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Life beyond the Green Wall: Limiting the Limitless iin Zamyatin's WE

Lara Mengak

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Lara Mengak

The University of Georgia

 

Life beyond the Green Wall: Limiting the Limitless in Zamyatin's We

 

Throughout history, philosophers and thinkers have debated the relationship between reason and instinct in human culture. Yevgeny’s Zamyatin’s novel We creates a society in which the government completely isolates rationality from instinct in its citizens and molds them into a homogenous model for an artificial, controlled society. This paper discusses how Zamyatin rejects this artificialized duality and calls for the integration of these conflicting aspects of human nature. His novel also provides a lens for examining the creation of dualities in our own cultures. Using this lens, I argue that today’s technology, by driving social discourses, affects our ability to assimilate knowledge within a polarized political system.

 

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....” 
Noam Chomsky, The Common Good

 

What is the relationship of reason and instinct in human culture? What is the role governments plays in defining this relationship? Philosophers from Plato to Montesquieu have attempted to answer these questions. And so have novelists. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We describes a society where the authoritarian One State completely separates reason and instinct. The One State’s elimination of emotions and physical needs allows for the division of culture and biology. In his essay “Poetry, Society, State,” Octavio Paz refers to State power that facilitates this division by suggesting that “power immobilizes, stabilizes life’s variety in a single gesture” (151). Paz’s essay can be used with Zamyatin’s novel to combat the “alienation of humans… into the model of a whole society” (Paz 151). Despite the hegemonic control exerted by his government, the narrator of We, a man named Δ-503, tries to explore the duality of reason and instinct found within all humans and to oppose the alienation Paz describes. The barrier between his rationality and instinct created by the One State parallels the physical barrier between all citizens and nature. In We, Zamyatin rejects the artificialized duality of human nature created within a seemingly mathematically infallible environment and provides a lens to examine our current separation of dualities achieved through assimilation of knowledge and creation of cultural hegemonies in a technological society.

            For the One State to thrive, it must provide its citizens with a happiness more tempting than the relative freedom humans have always enjoyed. With the elimination of hunger through the creation of petroleum food, the State provides its citizens with security. The elimination of love is achieved through the proclamation that “a number may obtain a license to use any other Number as a sexual product,” an edict that eliminates relationships, without which no jealousy or envy exists (22). The State goes even further, declaring all children to be State property. Thus, the effects of the State’s provisions move from security to control. Subduing the drive of hunger and reproduction, the State assumes control of its citizens in the most fundamental sense. Ensuring the subjugation of these urges requires the state to eliminate contact with the outside environment and its suggestion of primitive life and freedom. Unable to eliminate nature, the State simply beats it back, demonizing it and everything associated with it, like the primitive passions and instincts of the Numbers.

            With these factors controlled, the State creates an artificial duality within its citizens, pitting logic and reason against instinct and nature. This duality begins to break down as Δ-503 struggles against the realization of the duality within himself. In the beginning of his records, he describes his hairy hands with disgust, calling them “simian” and “atavistic” (9). He condemns them as “a vestige of a savage era,” hoping they do not symbolize a savagery within himself. However, as I-330 helps him realize his sense of self, his hairy hands take on a new meaning. I-330 eventually tells him “Your hand... You don’t know, do you... that women from here, from the city, have on occasion loved those [wild] men. And there are probably a few drops of sunny, woodland blood in you” (148). His hands are a physical reminder of the primitive side of himself and of all the Numbers. With the gradual acceptance of the physical appearance of his hands comes the realization of the artificiality of these dual sides created by the government.

            This realization begins the reintegration of the conflicting sides. For the reintegration process to advance, Δ-503 must eliminate the barriers between culture and biological instinct to fully deconstruct the artificial dichotomy. The deconstruction, in turn, depends on the destruction of the Green Wall. The Wall excludes the infinite, and the State cultivates a disinterest and a fear of this infinite, valuing instead “limitedness [as] the work of the highest thing there is in man.” However, when confronted literally eye-to-eye with the “boundless” force beyond the Wall, Δ-503 questions the happiness promised by the State, a happiness created through the separation of the “mechanical, perfect world from the irrational, shapeless world of trees, birds, animals” (85-86). The destruction of the Green Wall by the revolutionaries breaks down this separation, transforming Δ-503’s surroundings into an “alien, savage city” overrun by the “incessant, triumphant din of the birds” (199). This overrunning signals the reintegration of the rational Numbers with the limitless forces beyond the Wall and the revelation that freedom and happiness can coexist in their society.

            The novel connects nature’s transformative powers to the inevitability of revolution in human society. The Green Wall represents a barrier that holds back the irrational in nature. Destroying the wall not only physically unites the world of reason and unregulated nature but also demonstrates that revolutions are as inevitable as entropy itself. Not even a totalitarian government can stymie entropy, a complementary agent to structured growth or energy. Energy is represented in the State’s intolerance of uncertainty. It brings “blessed tranquility, happy equilibrium.” Thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Revolution provides this transformation through the entropy, or disorder, of society. Entropy brings the “destruction of equilibrium, agonizingly endless motion” (149). Just as entropy always increases, revolutions are inevitable. I-330 explains this concept to Δ-503 by asking about the last number.  Δ-503 answers, “Since the number of numbers is infinite, what ever is this final number you’re wanting.” I-330 replies, “And what ever is this final revolution you’re wanting? There is no final one, revolutions are infinite” (157).

            Central to both the revolutionaries and the One State is the Integral, a rocket ship designed to “subordinate to the beneficent yoke of reason the unknown beings living on other planets, possibly still in the savage state of freedom” (3). The Integral functions as a physical representation of humanity’s aspirations and drives, and as such, it exhibits structure as well as disorder. However, as with the Green Wall, there exists ambiguity between the Integral’s function and its meaning to the Numbers. Like the Wall, the ship demonstrates the balance between force and containment. This ambiguity allows the Integral to take on different meanings that the conflicting groups use to associate with their goals. The One State sees the ship as a weapon of subjugation, while the revolutionaries see it an instrument of liberation, a way to take the Numbers beyond the Green Wall and integrate energy and entropy.

            Technology in the novel, as exemplified by the Integral and the Green Wall, creates barriers between the discordant forces of human nature. Today, technology creates a similar dissonance that allows us to construct mental barriers between the interfaces with which we engage the surrounding world. We create virtual realities—artificial worlds separate from our physical world—through social media and smart devices. The Internet supplies a liminal space that allows us to control our interactions with each other and with the knowledge we obtain, each of us creating our own virtual Green Walls. Not surprisingly, we envision, in movies and literature, operating systems that think, feel, and interact with us in these liminal spaces. These fictional stories are not set in some distant future but rather mere decades from now. The rapid evolution of technology has added robustness to the influence of media, both social and mass communications, that we recognize not only in indie films (like Spike Jonze’s Her or the Coen Brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis) but in political partisanship.

            Today, we have constant, instantaneous access to information. However, despite the large quantity of knowledge that surrounds us, we impose limitations on the diversity of material we receive. In doing so, we exhibit similar characteristics as the hegemonic One State. Antinio Gramsci characterizes this kind of hegemony as “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.” In our case, the “dominant fundamental group” is the media, and our consent of this dominance stems from the prestige that the media enjoys because of its position and function in the production of knowledge (145). Media control results in the absorption of only a select amount of information from a select perspective. News networks, blogs, and social media have become increasingly polarized and politicized. We strive to exclude the uncertainty in our lives by surrounding ourselves with perspectives confirming previously formed concepts. Doing so results in gridlocked political and social systems where politicians and citizens erect barriers between themselves and those with whom they have conflict. Thus, the coercive power of the media represses the entropy inherent in human society (145).

            Zamyatin provides us with a warning to integrate the dual sides of our human nature. For this integration to occur, society must be open to change and welcome a certain degree of disorder. For example, the acquisition of all kinds of knowledge from many viewpoints and schools of thought is an essential factor of this mental entropy. Setting up a cognitive (or physical) barrier between our cultures and our primitive sides is futile and irrational. Neither literal nor cognitive walls can provide us with utopia, and indeed, these walls only ensure its demise. Creating artificial dualities opens us to the threat of being subdued either by some totalitarian state or ourselves. Humanity can only flourish when organized around the acceptance of ourselves as multifaceted beings with complex societies that have a rational side integrated with a physical, instinctual side.

 

 

WORKS CITED

 

Gramsci, Antonio. "The Formation of the Intellectuals." Selections from the Prison Notebooks of

Antonio Gramsci. Ed. Quintin Hoare. Comp. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. New York: International, 1972. 134-47.

Paz, Octavio. "Poetry, Society, State." The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature:

From the European Enlightenment to the Global Present. Ed. David Damrosch, Natalie Melas, and Mbongiseni P. Buthelezi. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. 150-57. Print.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. New York: Dutton, 1952. Print.

 

 
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