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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921) (read in 2016)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

How do I even begin to describe a novel of this breadth and imagination and density of idea and thought? Zamyatin packed in seemingly every single concept he could think of, presaging many other novelists who would come after, not least of whom are Orwell, Huxley, Dick and more. As with those other authors, his novel is set in a dystopian future, in a glass city completely shut off from nature and the non-calculable, the non-rational, the unpredictable, from anything that is not 100% statistically predictable. The lives of the citizens of this city run like clockwork, with no deviations allowed or—for the most part—even attempted.

Each person is assigned a letter and a number, the letter in some ways emotionally evocative of the kind of person, but only in an abstract way. The writing style is at-times florid and descriptive and sumptuous and rich—nearly every paragraph bears re-reading, nearly every sentence feels hand-crafted to contribute to the overarching concept of the book in myriad ways, from the spelling of words to multi-layered allusions to mixing in of wordplay in English and other languages. The translation is, I feel, quite sublime.

We follow the life of D-503, the main designer of the Integral, a majestic spaceship being built to seek the stars after 1000 years of the founding of the One State. We follow his turning from a cog in the machine to a rebel by I-330 and his subsequent falling in love with both her and O-90. As in novels that would follow—like 1984—he walks the path to revolution and is then pulled back by the One State through surgery (essentially lobotomy of emotion and imagination). Despite his subjugation, damage is done to the One State and its glass-walled city, nature once again impinging on it, disrupting its clean rationality. The leaders of the revolution are captured and tortured but do not relent, even in death. The revolution will continue, somehow.

Citations

“Astounding: the extent to which this criminal instinct is deep-rooted”
Page 33
“Through the glass—foggy and dim—I saw the stupid muzzle of some kind of beast, his yellow eyes, obstinately repeating one and the same incomprehensible thought at me. We looked at each other for a long time, eye to eye, through the mineshafts from the surface world to that other world, beyond the surface. But a thought swarmed in me: what if he, this yellow-eyed being—in his ridiculous, dirty bundle of trees, in his uncalculated life—is happier than us?”
Page 83
“I don’t remember where things contracted into darkness but in the darkness we went up steps, endlessly and silently. I didn’t see it but I knew: she walked just like I did—eyes closed, blind, head thrown back, teeth biting lips while listening to the music of my barely audible tremble.”
Page 87
“But here is the thing: if this world is mine alone, then why is it in these records? Why are these absurd “dreams,” closets, and endless corridors here? It is with regret that I see, instead of an orderly and strict mathematical epic poem in honor of the One State—I see some kind of fantastic adventure novel emerging from me. Ah, if only this was really only some sort of novel, and not this new life of mine: full of X’s, S’s, and descents.”
Page 91
“But it may be that this is for the best. It is highly likely that you, my unknown readers, are mere children in comparison with us (after all, we were bred by the One State, and consequently we have achieved the utmost pinnacle of human potentiality). And, like children, you will only swallow this bitter thing I am giving you if it is thoroughly coated with a thick adventuresome syrup.”
Page 91
“Imagine this: a human finger, cut off from the whole, from the hand—a separate human finger, stooping, bent down, skipping, running along a glass sidewalk. This finger is me. And the strangest, most unnatural thing of all is that the finger doesn’t want to be on the hand, with the others, at all.”
Page 92

Like Gogol’s nose.

“Before the action began (equals the blast), a dozen ciphers from our hangar were standing around and gaping under the barrel of the engine. Afterward, exactly nothing of them remained, except some crumbs and soot. I write this here with pride because the rhythm of our labor did not falter for even a second because of this—no one even flinched. We and our machines continued our straight-lined and circular movements with the same old precision, as if nothing had happened. A dozen ciphers are barely one hundred millionth part of the mass of the One State and, according to practical calculations, this is infinitely small of the third order. Arithmetically illiterate compassion was only something the Ancients knew; to us, it is amusing.”
Page 95
“Their sentences are also the same: an untimely death. This is the very justice that people who lived in stone houses, lit by the rosy, innocent rays of the morning of history, could only dream about; their “God” punished those who disparaged the Holy Church in exactly the same way as he punished those who committed murder.”
Page 102
“We departed from zero to the right then we returned to zero from the left, and so: instead of plus zero, we are at minus zero. Do you understand? This zero looks like a silent, colossal, narrow, knife-sharp cliff to me. In the ferocious, shaggy darkness, having held our breath, we cast off from the black, midnight side of the Zero Cliff. For centuries, we sailed and sailed, each of us a Columbus, we rounded the whole circle of the Earth, and finally, hooray! Ahoy and everyone’s up the mast: ahead of us is a different, as yet unknown side of the Zero Cliff, lit up by the aurora polaris of the One State, an azure mass, the sparks of a rainbow, the sun . . . hundreds of suns, billions of rainbows . . .”
Page 103
“The aero punched through the thicket of air with difficulty; transparent branches whistled and lashed. The city below looked made of pale-blue blocks of ice. All of a sudden, a cloud appears, a quick, slanted shadow. And the ice turns leaden and swollen and, like when standing on the banks of a river in the springtime, you anticipate—any moment now—a cracking, a surging, a twirling, a bolting away.”
Page 104
“The enormous dial at the pinnacle of the Tower was a face: bending over through the clouds and spitting down seconds, waiting indifferently.”
Page 110
“We walk—one million-headed body—with a humble joy in each of us, similar, I imagine, to what molecules, atoms, and phagocytes experience. The Christians of the ancient world (our only predecessors, as imperfect as they were) also understood this: humility is a virtue and pride is a vice; “WE” is divine, and “I” is satanic.”
Page 112
“maybe I am one of thousands among us, still pretending, like me, to be phagocytes . . . What if today’s essentially irrelevant occurrence—what if all this is only the beginning, only the first meteorite in a whole series of rumbling, burning rocks, spilling through infinity toward our glass paradise?”
Page 113
“And I can see: I forgot again that I am not writing this for myself but for you, my unknowns, whom I love and pity, for you who are still plodding along in distant centuries, below.”
Page 120
“They say that the Ancients conducted elections in some kind of secrecy, hiding like thieves; several of our historians even confirm that they appeared at the election festivities completely masked. (I imagine this fantastic, gloomy spectacle: nighttime, a square, figures in dark cloaks stealing along a wall; the crimson flame of torches cowering in the wind . . .) Why would all this mystery be necessary? Even today it is not understood conclusively; the likeliest explanation is that elections were connected to some sort of mystical, superstitious, maybe even criminal rites. For us, there is nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of: we celebrate election day in the daytime, openly and honestly. I see everyone vote for the Benefactor; everyone sees me vote for the Benefactor—and it couldn’t be any different, since “I” and “everyone” are the unified “WE.””
Page 121
“And if you even suggest the impossible, that is, that there could be some dissonance in the usual homophony, then the invisible Guardians are here, among our ranks: at any moment, they can stop ciphers who are falling into error and save them from their next false step—and save the One State from them.”
Page 121
“And I joined Him mentally, to see all this from above: the concentric circles of the tribunal contoured with fine, light-blue dotted lines like the circles of a cobweb strewn with microscopic suns (our shining badges); and the white, wise Spider would now sit at the center of it—the Benefactor, clad in white—who wisely binds us by our hands and feet with His benefactorly threads of happiness.”
Page 123
“Morning. Through the ceiling: the sky has its usual strong, round, and red-cheeked appearance. I think I would have been less surprised if I had seen some unusual quadrilateral sun overhead, people in multicolored clothing made of bestial wool, and opaque stone walls. Could it be that the world—our world—still exists? Or is this just inertia, the generator is turned off but the gears are still rumbling and spinning: two rotations, three rotations, and it will freeze on the fourth . . .”
Page 130
“DISTURBANCE WROUGHT BY THE ENEMIES OF HAPPINESS, WHICH, NATURALLY, DEPRIVES THEM OF THE RIGHT TO BECOME BRICKS IN THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE ONE STATE, RENEWED YESTERDAY. IT IS CLEAR TO EACH OF US THAT TAKING THEIR VOICES INTO ACCOUNT WOULD BE AS RIDICULOUS AS TAKING THE ACCIDENTAL COUGHS OF SICK PEOPLE IN A CONCERT AUDIENCE AS A PART OF A MAJESTIC, HEROIC SYMPHONY .”
Page 131
“Everything is new, new, new—a sort of downpour of events—and one of me is not enough to collect it all. I am stretching out the flaps of my unif and cupping my hands and yet whole bucketfuls still flow past me, and only drops end up on these pages . . .”
Page 140
““But we—we know, meanwhile, that there is no final number. Though we might forget it too. Yes—it’s highly probable that we will forget it when we grow older—and everyone inevitably grows older. And then, unavoidably, down we will go like autumn leaves from a tree . . .”
Page 154

Just like every other successful revolution.

“BUT IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT: YOU ARE SICK. THE NAME OF THIS SICKNESS: IMAGINATION. THIS IS THE WORM THAT GNAWS BLACK WRINKLES ONTO YOUR FOREHEAD. THIS IS THE FEVER THAT CHASES YOU, AND YOU RUN OFF INTO THE DISTANCE EVEN THOUGH THIS “DISTANCE” BEGINS WHERE HAPPINESS ENDS. IT IS THE LAST BARRICADE ON THE PATH TO HAPPINESS.”
Page 157
“[…] see the transparent, living cranes bending their swanlike necks, stretching out their beaks, thoughtfully and tenderly feeding the Integral with scary explosive food for its engine.”
Page 164
“On the corner, the door of an auditorium was wide open and a slow, bulky column of about fifty people was coming through it. But “people” is not quite right: there were no feet to them but some kind of heavy forged wheel being turned by an invisible axle. They weren’t people but sort of person-looking tractors. Above their heads, flapping in the wind was a white flag, with a golden sun sewn onto it, and in its rays was the inscription: “We are the first! We have been Operated! Everyone follow us!””
Page 166
“The bridge offered up its obedient, slavishly bowed-over spine to the three of us: […]”
Page 168
“A second later everything below is tightening up and falling deeper and deeper into some sort of funnel: the protuberant, icy-blue sketch of the city, the round little bubbles of the cupolas, the lonely lead finger of the Accumulator Tower. Then: a fleeting wadded curtain of clouds. We break through and then: sun, blue sky. Seconds, minutes, miles and the blueness quickly hardens, filling with darkness, and stars come through like drops of cold, silver sweat . .”
Page 174
“Over the instruments and the maps: heads, circumnavigated with bristling gray, and other heads, yellow, bald, ripe. Quickly, I scooped up everyone—in one glance—and went backward, along the corridor, along the gangway, downstairs to the engine room. There: the heat and the din from the scorching, blasting pipes; the reckless, drunken, never-pausing squats of the glittering cranks; and the dials trembling just slightly . . .”
Page 175
“There you will be healed, there you will be fed full of sumptuous happiness, and once you’re satiated, you will slumber evenly and snore to an organized beat—can you not hear this great symphony of snores? You funny ciphers: they want to liberate you of the torturously gnawing question marks that wriggle like worms . . . But you’re standing here and listening to me instead. Go quickly—upstairs—to the Great Operation! What does it matter to you that I stay here alone? What does it matter to you if I don’t want them to want things for me—if I want to want things for myself—if I want the impossible . . . ?””
Page 182