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November 15, 2011

We the unliving
Posted by Avram Grumer at 10:40 PM * 21 comments

(This has been sitting on my hard drive, in half-finished form, since September. I wish I’d thought to make it a Halloween entry.)

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, was among the first modern scientific dystopias, written in 1919, banned in the USSR in 1921 (the first book banned by the Goskomizdat), and published in English by a New York publisher in 1924. George Orwell reviewed it in 1946, and wrote most of Nineteen Eighty-Four the following year. (Contrary to Orwell’s assumption, Huxley had not read We when he wrote Brave New World. Rand’s 1937 book Anthem also bears some similarities to We, but it’s not known whether Rand had read Zamyatin.)

Taking place at some unspecified point in the future, after a global war has destroyed our civilization and given rise to a new one, We depicts a society transformed by scientific management. People (called “numbers”, and given numbers instead of names) live their lives according to tables and schedules, organized by the One State. Buildings are made of glass, so that everybody can always be seen, and curtains are drawn only for sex, which anybody can request of anybody else via a system of ration coupons. The protagonist (and narrator — the book purports to be his diary) is D-503, a mathematician working on the Integral, a spaceship that will spread the One State to other worlds. He is seduced by a woman — I-330 — who is a secret radical, working to sabotage the Integral project and the One State.

We abounds in mathematical metaphors. At one point, D-530 describes having his mind blown as a child by learning about the mathematical concept of i, the square root of negative one, which can stand in for both individuality (since i capitalized becomes I, the word for self), and imagination (since i is the basis for the branch of math dealing with imaginary numbers). It’s certainly meaningful that the novel’s radical seductress has a number that starts with I, since she’s an individualist, but maybe the symbolism goes further. Maybe I-330 is an imaginary creature. Specifically, a vampire.

Vampires work well as a symbol of corporate power — both corporations and vampires are immortal beings of great power that derive their sustenance from human beings. Vampires are also often portrayed as aristocrats — so often that I considered titling this entry “Lestat, c’est moi”, but I couldn’t quite figure out a way to make it work. Since the One State has no aristocrats (it’s egalitarian), and no corporations (it’s absorbed all economic function into itself), a vampire makes a good opponent for it.

It’s probably time for me to dig up evidence from the text. First, consider: What are the classic features of a vampire?

  • Sharp teeth, which they used to bite, draw blood, and feed.
  • Pale skin.
  • Hypnotic powers, and sometimes the ability to control those that they bite.
  • Long life, and often knowledge of times long past.
  • Super-human strength and durability, and no need to breathe.
  • An aversion to sunlight. In modern fiction, sunlight is often fatal to vampires, but in Dracula, the sun merely suppressed the titular vampire’s powers.
  • Their reflections don’t appear in mirrors.
  • They are creatures of the Devil.

In these excerpts, I’ve emphasized passages that imply that I-330 has one or more of these features, or at least that the author might be hinting in that direction. The “entries” refer to the divisions of the novel, which is presented as a diary.

Second Entry:
And immediately, there was an echo — laughter — on my right. I turned: a flash of white — extraordinarily white and sharp teeth, an unfamiliar female face.

[…] “Oh, your nose is ‘classical,’ as they used to say in olden times. But your hands … No, let us see, let us see your hands!”

Fourth Entry:
A flash of someone’s extraordinarily white, sharp teeth, like … No, but it wasn’t that.

She wore the fantastic costume of the ancient epoch: a closely fitting black dress, which sharply emphasized the whiteness of her bare shoulders and breast, with that warm shadow, stirring with her breath, between … and the dazzling, almost angry teeth….

A smile — a bite — to us, below. Then she sat down and began to play. Something savage, spasmodic, variegated, like their whole life at that time — not a trace of rational mechanical method.

[…] Slow, sweet pain — a bite — and you want it still deeper, still more painful.

In the Sixth Entry, I-330 takes D-503 to the Ancient House, a building surviving from our time, preserved as a museum. At one point, she dresses in ancient clothes, and talks to him of ancient poets.

Sixth Entry:
“This is my favorite…” and suddenly she seemed to catch herself. A bite-smile, white sharp teeth. “I mean, to be exact, the most absurd of all these ‘apartments.’”

[…] She stopped before a mirror. At that moment I saw only her eyes.

[…] sharp smile-bite […]

Tenth Entry:
“Certainly. I thought so. Something had to prevent you — no matter what.” (Sharp teeth, smile.) “But now you are in my hands. […]”

[…] I turned. She was in a light, saffron-yellow dress of the ancient model. […] She sat in a low armchair. On the rectangular table before her, a bottle with something poisonously green, two tiny glasses on stems. At the corner of her lips a thread of smoke — that ancient smoking substance in the finest paper tube (I forget what it was called).

[…] Sharp teeth, sharp mocking triangle of eyebrows.

In the 13th entry, I-330 and D-503 have sex for the first time, in the Ancient House, where they aren’t exposed to sunlight.

Thirteenth Entry:
At the corner, through the white fog, blood — a slit, as with a sharp knife — her lips. […] I silently stared at her lips. they did not exist, and now — a knife slit — and the sweet blood will drip down.

[…] She used the ancient, long-forgotten “thou” — the “thou” of the master to the slave. It entered into me slowly, sharply. Yes, I was a slave, and this, too, was necessary, was good.

[…] There were only the tenderly sharp clenched teeth, the golden eyes wide open to me; and through them I entered slowly, deeper and deeper.

[…] Rising quickly, she put on her unif[orm] and her usual sharp bite-smile. “Well, fallen angel. You’re lost now. […]”

The 18th entry opens with D-503 between sleep and wakefulness, because sunlight is reflecting from the mirrored door of his closet into his eyes. In dream, he opens the closet, and sees I-330 inside, where the closed door blocks the sunlight. He describes the sunlight thus:

and now the cruel, gleaming blade fell on the bare outstretched neck of I-330 — And this was so terrifying that I could not bear it I cried out, and opened my eyes again.

Twenty-first Entry:
I am afraid that if I lose I-330, I will also lose what is perhaps the only key to the disclosure of all the unknown quantities (the incident of the closet, my temporary death, and so on)

Twenty-third Entry:
Sweet, sharp, white teeth; a smile. In the open calyx of the chair she is like a bee — a sting, and honey.

[…] She was silent, and her eyes now looked past me, through me, far away. I suddenly heard the wind flapping huge wings against the glass (of course, this had gone on all the time, but I had not heard it until now), and for some reason I recalled the piercing birds over the top of the Green Wall.

After they make love again in the 23rd entry, the following appears near the start of the 24th:

This is why I am afraid of I-330, I resist her, I don’t want to … But why does this “I don’t want” exist within me together with “I want”? That’s the full horror of it—I long for last night’s blissful death again. That’s the horror of it, that even, today, when the logical function has been integrated, when it is obvious that death is implicit in this function, I still desire her, with my lips, arms, breast, with every millimeter of me….

Twenty-eighth Entry:
I-330 put her hand on the back of my chair and smiled at the other over her right shoulder, only with her teeth. I would not like to be faced with such a smile.

[…] Entropy was worshiped as God by our — or, rather, your — ancestors, the Christians. But we anti-Christians, we…

Thirty-eighth Entry:
Another minute — of those ten or fifteen on the dazzling white pillow — her head thrown back with half-closed eyes; the sharp, sweet line of teeth.

Fortieth Entry:
I noticed she had sharp and very white teeth, and that was pretty.

Note also that at the end of the 40th Entry, I-330 is tortured by being suffocated and then “revived” repeatedly, but still doesn’t break under the torture, which wouldn’t hurt a vampire.

Comments on We the unliving:
#1 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2011, 11:30 PM:

I'm not sure if that leaves me wanting to read the book, or wanting to run screaming, due to comparisons with corporate life.

#2 ::: Grimgrin ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 12:06 AM:

Doesn't the text mention that 'wild' humans exist outside the barriers that surround the One State, and that I-330 is a descendant of those people, if not actually one of them?

Although that could work too, in Dracula the eponymous vampire is this chthonic force from an uncivilized land seeking entry to civilization where there's more fertile hunting.

It also neatly inverts the meaning of the text. What looks like machinery of oppression the one state has constructed is actually a series of rational and reasonable defensive measures against Vampires.

#3 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 12:21 AM:

I never thought of this when reading We. Very interesting.

#4 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 12:26 AM:

Grimgrin @2, I don't recall I-330 being a descendent of the wild people; I thought she was just an ally.

#5 ::: Grimgrin ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 12:58 AM:

@4 It's been some time since I read the book, and checking now:

"Your hand ... You undoubtedly don't know, and very few do know, that women from here occasionally used to fall in love with them. Probably there are in you a few drops of that blood of the sun and the woods. Perhaps that is why I ... ."

You're right. I had it backwards. She was an ally, he was the descendant.

#6 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 05:43 AM:

There's certainly an emphasis on teeth, but it occurs to me that might be more a reference to the cost of dentistry for the ordinary people. If you had good teeth you were somebody of wealth and power.

#7 ::: Marek ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 05:47 AM:

I find the conenction between i and I dubious, probably something added by the translator, as the Russian pronoun "I" is rendered as the letter "ya" (the reverse r) and does not need to be capitalised.

#8 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 06:59 AM:

Maybe you're reading too much into this? E.g., vulnerability to sunlight was an invention of the movies, so Zamyatin would not likely have alluded to it.

The teeth and blood are suggestive, though.

#9 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 09:50 AM:

Dy(e)ing is the process of getting a stain or a pigment firmly into fibers. Traditionally, this is assisted by mordants, catalysts. Mordant's root comes from "bite". Mordants for so-called "natural" dyes are often poisonous - plant alkaloids or heavy metal salts.

Fiber-reactive dyes (think Grateful Dead non-bleeding t-shirts) avoid this nastiness, other than not inhaling fine particles while working. I am a former hippie, active dyer, and avid knitter. I have never bit a neck or sucked blood in my life. Which leaves open the question, "Are you alive now?"

I believe that I am, but would I know? Are vampires aware that they're monsters? Corporations' default is "not".

#10 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 10:08 AM:

Wow. I read the book in college, enjoyed it enough to remember it fairly well, and this had never occurred to me. Now I need to go read it again.

#11 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 10:09 AM:

An interesting bit of literary playfulness here... I wonder what the author would have thought of it?

#12 ::: Vef ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 10:25 AM:

"Maybe she's a vampire" said the cashier to her friend, five minutes after I read this and went to get my lunch.
If this is some kind of viral marketing campaign for Breaking Dawn it isn't having the desired effect.

This is a really interesting analysis. I read We at university for a module on the politics of SF (2004 - ah, they don't make years like that anymore) but it's not something the tutor ever picked up on.
Zamyatin was troubled by certainty, the absence of question or rebellion. If I'm recalling my classes correctly, he wrote that permanent revolution was the only defence against the 'entropy of the human spirit', a slow smearing of the universe into one universal shade of grey. Everything the same, everything lifeless.
So it isn't just a vampire story; it's a vampires vs zombies story.

Not the author's intention perhaps, but it's a fun way to look at it.

#13 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 01:16 PM:

This seems like a very interesting old book. Of all the entries you've cited, the one that seems most suggestive to me is the one where she's hidden in the closet.

#14 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2011, 01:33 PM:

I am not a big appreciator of allegory, and particular not applique allegory....

#15 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2011, 09:21 AM:

Thanks for the Orwell link. I knew 1984 was in part inspired by We, but had had no idea they were so intimately connected.
(As a member of the prematurely anti-Bolshevik contingent, I've been aware of We for quite a while, and promote it occasionally.)

#16 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2011, 03:33 PM:

Quick note -- Avram, you're not the one anonymously mailing copies of We to people, are you?

#17 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2011, 05:38 PM:

Sumana, nope, it's not me. I'm not sure what book I'd choose to send people if I were going to send people a book, but I don't think it'd be We. Probably either Joel Priddy's Pulpatoon Pilgrimage or Jeff Nicholson's Through the Habitrails (the 1994 edition). Though I've just now blown the chance to do it anonymously!

If this is your copy of We, it looks like we may own the same edition. I think I bought mine off a street vendor.

#18 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2011, 03:17 AM:

It's been a long time since I read "We," but like Marek (#7) , I'm suspicious of the "i" meaning, since it makes no sense in Russian. I'm trying to remember which translation I read, because it makes a difference, but it's been too long.

#19 ::: Adam ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2011, 12:33 PM:

It seems that there are two translations, one by Natasha Randall and a new one by Alexander Glinka. Any opinions on their comparative merits?

#20 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2011, 04:15 PM:

Adam @19, more than that. My paperback copy (Dutton Paperback from the 1950s) was translated by Gregory Zilboorg. The passages I quoted in the post were from a scanned version of a translation by Mirra Ginsburg I found online (because that was easier than re-typing while holding a fragile book open with one hand).

Wikipedia lists a bunch of translations. Here are the (as far as I can tell) English-language ones:

  • Gregory Zilboorg, for Dutton, 1924
  • Mirra Ginsburg for HarperCollins, 1972
  • Bernard Guilbert Guerney, for Penguin UK, 1972
  • SD Cioran, for Ardis, 1987
  • Clarence Brown, for Penguin US, 1993
That's five, and doesn't even include the two you mentioned.

And there are textual differences among them. Zilboorg refers to the United State, and the Well-Doer; Ginsburg to the One State and the Benefactor. I think I like Ginsburg's better, but I haven't made a detailed study of the differences.

John D Berry @18, keep in mind that Zamyatin had lived in England for a couple of years, and probably knew at least a little English.

myself @17, or Eric Frank Russell's The Great Explosion.

#21 ::: Andrew ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2011, 03:57 PM:

(Following up late, because I just noticed this...)

Avram @20 - the introduction of my edition (translated by Hugh Aplin, for Hesperus, 2009) discusses the names. In the original text, three were in Roman characters (I, S, R), three Cyrillic (Д, Ф, Ю), one common to both (O). The narrator, originally Д-503, is rendered in this version as Δ-503, which seems to be the only change. The translator suggests there were various significances attached to these characters by Zamyatin, but I'm not sure how much of that is wishful thinking.

(R-13, for example, has the note that R is the inverse of Я, the Russian for the personal pronoun. R-13 is thus interpretable as the inverse of our narrator, etc. Similarly, Ю can be interpreted as a composite of I and O, and so forth.)

John @ 18 - Russian notation seems to use i to denote an imaginary number in the same way as Western notation does, so that sense is still plausible, I think. Wikipedia suggests that Cyrillic retained an I/i-character up until around the time of the revolution, when there was a spelling reform, so Zamyatin (b. 1884) would presumably have remembered it, as would most of his contemporaries.

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