Primitivist Revolution in We
We is an anti-utopian novel showing how the sexual awakening of an aeronautical engineer can bring down a futuristic Tower of Babel. Its author Yevgeny Zamyatin, a modernist who wrote the book in the early days of Red power in Russia, identified with a school called Neo-Realism. That school is deceptive, however, because, Zamyatin denied the existence of a world beyond human perception, stating: “the finite, fixed world. . . is a convention, an abstraction, an unreality. And therefore Realism–be it ‘socialist’ or ‘bourgeois’-is unreal.”¹ We, therefore, does not depict an objective reality but rather sense perceptions, the hyperreal world that escapes limitation and organization. Rooted in the subjective first-person perspective of protagonist D-503, the book’s prose style alternately mirrors the mechanistic reality of the One State and the fecund chaos of the Ancient World, the world that exists outside the gleaming walls of utopia. Though I indicated that the book is anti-utopian, this is somewhat misleading because the author is not merely concerned with the destruction of false “castles in the air” but is also invested in creating his own. I would argue that, by all indications, his idyllic vision of the Ancient World and his romanticization of irrationality and “free love” constitutes a utopian ideal all on its own.
This utopia has to be achieved through revolution, though Zamyatin’s precise idea of what “revolution” means deserves some explanation. For him, revolution is not a unique social-historic moment that sweeps away one economic and social order for another. Rather than an event in a linear history, revolution is a moment of cyclical renewal, meaning “the birth of new life.” It is essential to life, a critical moment where death is averted through drastic change, signifying “fundamental transformations not only without [social relations between people] but also within [spiritual and sensual].”² One of the critical aspects of the revolution that occurs in We is its connection with the feminine and sexuality. To be brief, I argue that Zamyatin’s modernist utopia is constructed using sinews tied to idealized feminine archetypes. These archetypes are well in line with those depicted in many primitivist-modernist paintings like those of Picasso, the Surrealists, and especially Fauvists and Paul Gauguin.
In Record 13 of the book, D-503 and rebel leader I-330 have sex, which is depicted in fairly hyperbolic language like this:
I looked silently at her lips. All woman are lips, all lips. Some are pink and firmly round: a ring, a tender guardrail from the whole world. And then there are these ones…like a knife slit–they are here, still dripping sweet blood…
We are one, she flows into me and I know: this was the necessary part…And I submitted to this “necessity” with joy (63).
This scene goes on into a description of the world with a traditional link between Earth and Motherhood, albeit with that modernist sexualized edge:
The whole world is one immense woman, and we are in her very womb, we are not yet born, we are joyfully ripening. And it is clear to me, it is indestructibly clear to me that everything was for my sake: the sun, the fog, the pink, the red, the gold were all for my sake (64).
I-330’s organic connection to the earth is thus established. Heterosexual sex–the only kind depicted in this book–becomes a way for the repressed protagonist to awaken to the reality of his situation, to reject the world of the modern city (We is as much of an anti-urban book as an anti-socialist one) and join the revolution of the primitive Ancients. It’s not as though I-330 has no subjectivity as a character, but her primary narrative purpose is to “pollinate” the protagonist, to prepare his virgin soil for the harvest of revolution, so to speak. The colors pink and red refer, in different respective shades of intensity, to either the repressive sexual apparatus of the “pink tickets” or to the freewheeling (hetero)sexuality Zamyatin seems to prefer. Also notable is the fact that, in the thirty-seventh chapter when the wall of the city explodes, the “ciphers” (the people of the city) begin having sex without regulation and in broad daylight. Revolution, then, is more akin to Mardi Gras than May Day in We, albeit without the religious element.
It’s also notable that another rebel in the story, R-13, has “African” lips. Zamyatin, in fact, insists on this nearly every time he refers to the character. What this does is further reinforce the symbolic connections between primitive earth–woman–non-Western–irrational. While the author thinks of these as positive traits, he does so in the way Gauguin does: objects and foreign experiences that can be appropriated by modern civilization to cure its “over-rationalization” and return to a more sublime and sensual existence without all those pesky machines and social structures. While Zamyatin was understandably anxious about some of the Futurist rhetoric and support for Taylorism and industrial reform in the early Soviet Union, his reaction is a retreat to a kind of liminal colonialist, sexualized utopia where desires are natural and rugged unity is rough and intimate rather than abstract and “comradely.” He clearly does not believe that society is anything that can or should be understood or controlled, but rather a kind of Fauvist riot. There is much suffering in his world, true, but also, he would argue, much real pleasure rather than mundane happiness that curdles into so much drudgery.
Before I didn’t know this, but now I know, and you’ll know it too: laughter comes in different colors. it is only the distant echo of an explosion occurring inside you: it might be festive rockets of red, blue, gold, or it might be shreds of human bodies flying upward…(193).
Give Zamyatin ecstasy or give him oblivion. I clearly have objections to the primitive utopian vision offered in novel: its sexism, appropriating “primitivism,” and romantic delusions dissuade me from endorsing it. That is not to deny its appeal or its relevance and harmony with the times, however. It is a compelling vision, especially for people who tend to essentialize humans into “natural” creatures with a fixed essence. That said, it places an undue revolutionary burden on sexuality, and I doubt that short bursts of ecstasy are sustainable as revolutionary strategy.
1. Sona S. Hoisington and Lynn Imbery, “Zamjatin’s Modernist Palette: Colors and Their Function in We,” The Slavic and East European Journal, 36, no. 2 (Summer 1992), 170. It’s citing Zamyatin’s piece “Literature, Revolution, and Entropy.”
2. Ibid, 167.