In the second decade of the twentieth century, the Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin, wrote We, a novel in which the protagonist, D-503, is caught between two radically opposed and mutually exclusive political alternatives. One is the State, which views itself as rational and utopian and demands perfect, unquestioning loyalty from individuals—who, however, experience it as rigid and unforgiving. In reaction to it some individuals bond in an organization called the Mephi, which is intensely intimate, free-floating, and unrestricted by any social forms at all. The totalitarian State or radical freedom—between these social options the main character in We must choose.
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In the early stages of his politico-literary career, Zamyatin’s own preference tended toward radical freedom. Thus in “Scythians?” (1918), he presented the haunting figure of “A solitary, savage horseman... gallop[ing] across the green steppe, hair streaming in the wind. Where is he galloping? Nowhere. What for? For no reason. He gallops simply because he is a Scythian, because he has become one with his horse, because he is a centaur, and dearest things to him are freedom, solitude, his horse, the wide expanse of the steppe” (Soviet Heretic 32-34).
As an image of freedom, however, the Scythian is oddly unchanging, uncaused and unexplained. The True Scythian must remain “a stranger in his own land” as Zamyatin says, shooting his bow at “any regime, any external order” (32). This makes the Scythian secondary rather than primary, responsive rather than original. But what is more problematic, the Scythian’s motives are unexplained. Why attack established order? “For no reason,” Zamyatin says, because the minute one gives a reason, he establishes an order, which is against the nature of the Scythian. Fixed in position, the image unfortunately seems like a machine, routinely attacking anything that comes within bowshot, as statically rebellious as the regimes he attacks are statically ordered. Which of these impulses is preferred —the regime or the Scythian—seems purely a matter of taste because, as Zamyatin says, there is “no reason” for either.
By 1923 Zamyatin had moved beyond this image. In “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters,” he replaced the Scythian with a cluster of images articulating a dialectic between a fixed state and revolution which produces synthesis. Colliding dead stars which “crash and light a new star,” an infinity of numbers, a sailor clinging to a mast in a storm, viewing the cluttered waters which are “invisible from the deck,” a disturbing, live error which challenges the dead truth of the machine (Soviet Heretic 107-10)—these are some of the images which replace the solitary Scythian. Portraying two opposed states which resolve into a third state, these dialectical images enable Zamyatin to explain why revolution is necessary. Viewed accurately, he argues, reality must be seen as a constantly emerging synthesis brought about by attack upon static forms. Each new style must be replaced by a newer style; each vision must be replaced by arevision. “There is no final revolution, no final number” (107). Instead there is an infinitely shifting synthesis: “If it were necessary to find a single word to define the point toward which literature is moving today, I would choose the word Synthetism: synthetic image in the system of symbols, synthesized life, synthesis of the fantastic and of daily reality, experiment in artistic-philosophic synthesis” (106).
By the time Zamyatin wrote We in 1920, he had abandoned his belief in revolution as an end in itself and had already developed his concept of a constantly renewed synthesis. In We he already uses the entropy-energy metaphor which was to become famous in his 1923 “On Literature” essay. “There are two forces in the world—entropy and energy, observes І-330, the heroine of We, “One leads to blissful quietude, to happy equilibrium; the other to destruction of equilibrium, to tormentingly endless movement. Entropy was worshiped as God by our—or, rather, your—ancestors, the Christians. But we anti-Christians, we...“(42). We worship energy, she would have said to complete her thought. But by itself neither force, neither entropy nor energy, can bring forth a dialectical synthesis.
That in We Zamyatin did not idealize revolution as an end in itself seems most clear from his use of literary metaphors. Near the end of the novel, when the Mephi commands the Integral for their own cause, the novel itself threatens to break down: “It was as though the precise, black letters on this page were suddenly to slide off, scatter in terror—here, there—and not a single word, nothing but a senseless jumble: fright-skip-jump” (206). The moment of revolution makes reading impossible, but this is not, in Zamyatin’s world, inevitable. The inevitable is the less disruptive unfolding of a new synthesis. “A human being is like a novel: until the last page you don’t know how it will end” (162). Synthesis creates uncertainty in the text but not breakdown.
This literary metaphor becomes even more telling when looked at in light of Zamyatin’s startlingly conservative approach to writing. “I spend a great deal of time on my work,” he says in “Backstage,” “probably more than the reader would require. But this is necessary for the critic, the most demanding and carping critic I know—myself ’ (Soviet Heretic 201). He hated to leave anything unfinished, even after a day of composing. “I try every scene ten times mentally before setting it down on paper. I never leave behind unfinished phrases, scenes, or situations” (200). Repetition, closure, finish—it is unthinkable that a writer so scrupulous could have welcomed “nothing but a senseless jumble” (206).
Zamyatin’s ideal was clearly synthesis, which can emerge only from the opposition of two forces. In literature, those forces are closure and critique. In society, they are structure and liminality. Both, Zamyatin realized, are necessary.
Liminality is a concept introduced by Arnold Van Gennep in Rites of Passage. In that work, Van Gennep argues that society consists of the structured interchange which takes place between various status positions and roles, each of which is temporarily filled by a particular individual. Individuals cannot fill these positions except by permission of society, which grants its authority in rites of passage. In these rites, individuals are stripped of their former status and stamped with another. But during the interim, after the divestiture of one position and before the stamp of the other, the individual occupies no position at all; he is a social blank. This transition state Van Gennep calls “liminal” because while in it an individual stands between two rooms, within neither: on a threshold (2-25).
Liminality is dangerous, Van Gennep argued, and on the basis of fieldwork, subsequent anthropologists have concurred. It is dangerous for the individual to be bereft of a social position and equally dangerous for society to be challenged by the lack of the initiate’s definition. Since the initiate is passing through cultural territory which is unknown, he has ambiguous characteristics; he lacks any clear prescriptive for the relationship to others. It is possible for him to become trapped in this unknown territory outside the social structure with no identity, a position which is tantamount to social death (see Leinhardt 298-319).
Danger in the form of social chaos threatens society just as surely as it does the initiate. If initiates are allowed to turn their lack of status into the norm rather than the exception, they can stop productive exchanges between people who fill legitimate status positions. Anything or anyone that excepts itself from cultural classification menaces the rule-abiding members of the social structure, as Mary Douglas has shown (1-15). By turning to social banditry, initiates can destroy the delicate rules of mutual obligation which allow society to realize its own nature. The danger initiates pose to society explains why they may be thought of as dangerous and dirty, as untouchable, as anathema.
Dangerous as liminality is, it is nevertheless necessary to society, as Van Gennep’s study makes apparent, for people inevitably pass from one state to another during their lives. Children become adults, new chiefs take the place of old ones, couples become married, children are bom. The fact of change is inescapable; the only question is how to deal with that change. By naming and emphasizing the inevitable, societies increase the chance that change will occur smoothly. Were there no way to recognize these changes, no mechanism to install individuals into social positions matching their natural development, society would either stagnate and become powerless or every change would involve revolution. It is through vitalized liminality that society accomplishes its own adjustment to the inevitable biological and psychological changes of its individual members.
But liminality benefits society in another way—by providing what Victor Turner has called communitas (94-165). It confers on initiates a quality of commonality, of deep existential union. As a result of the social weightlessness and the physical ordeals they suffer, members of groups who are being initiated frequently meet one another in what Martin Buber has called “I-Thou” relationships. Stripped as they are of limiting roles, they experience feelings of infinity. They can sometimes share a kind of mystical union, a meeting possible only outside the social structure, where one person meets the essential being of another. This kind of union is what Buber has termed “the essential We.” All of society experiences this aspect of liminality since every member of society is inevitably an initiate at some time or another. In fact this is perhaps the most important function liminality performs for society—the release and catharsis of individuals at their most vulnerable, confronting and recognizing other individuals.
The communion which liminality allows is not only an essential aspect of rites of passage, according to Turner; liminal communion is an integral part of society itself. “It is as though there are two major ‘models’ for human inter-relatedness, juxtaposed and alternating,” Turner writes: “The first is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of ‘more’ or ‘less’. The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated communitas, community, or even communion of individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.” In the normal development of any society, Turner conjectures, these two models alternate. Or at least the two models alternate in the experience of each particular individual within the society. Turner concludes that “for individuals and groups, social life is a type of dialectical process that involves a successive experience of high and low, communitas and structure, homogeneity and differentiation, equality and inequality” (97).
Yet sometimes groups idealize the communitas available in liminality, Turner says. Then they attempt to institute a structured system of communitas which enforces absolute homogeneity and equality between people. They do so at the expense of more various and formal exchanges available in the differentiated and hierarchical social model. This is especially tempting to Utopians, partly because it circumvents the dangerous move from one social model to the other by combining in one model the advantages of both. Still, the stability of the structure can quickly turn into an arid and mechanical order. Furthermore, the spontaneity and emotion of communitas can never be caught in the structure; it can be purchased only at the transition cost of the insecurity inevitable in the liminal state.
The United State in We grows out of a utopian desire to capture the fleeting moment of communitas, to prolong and enforce it in structure. But the State actually parodies the communitas emerging from liminality. Since real liminality threatens structure, it is not permitted in the United State. Officials can reason that it is not necessary, since the State itself already offers communitas. In this way the parodic communitas of the State usurps the power of liminality.
In a society where structure has attempted to duplicate and take over the functions of liminality, real liminality remains a stillborn dream. This is because liminality can exist under only one of two conditions: either by the permission and under the control of the structured society or by the force of revolution. Where society will not authorize forms of liminality, the individual must choose either mechanical, repetitive, dehumanizing structure or unpermitted, uncontrolled, dangerous liminality.
In a society which has structured and enforced communitas, satisfying interchange between individuals cannot occur within the structure. Because everyone occupies an identical status position, individuals cannot be differentiated. Intelligence, the power to produce, physical capacities of various kinds, the ability to lead, intuitive power, gender, kinship—all the characteristics which distinguish one human from another—must be suppressed. Since society refuses to recognize these characteristics or to allot status positions and social roles based on them, the breadth and variety of exchange among individuals is drastically limited. Interaction between differentiated individuals in all their entangled, complex, rich multiplicity are the very life of society, however, and therefore the United State in Zamyatin’s novel leaves its members dying. They must constantly deny their own talents and proclivities because society provides them no legitimate expression. Their lives in the social structure must consist of pallid, repetitive exchanges with other people who are similarly denying their differences.
In We, D-503 must choose between legitimate but unsatisfying interaction and illegitimate liminal communitas of the Mephi. The liminality found among the Mephi does offer moments of I-Thou relationship between people and a temporary point of perspective from which D-503 can gain knowledge. Unlike the liminality of a rite of passage, however, it offers no future. D-503 is unable to hurl himself into a revolution which can promise emotion and spontaneity only at the cost of the structure and a coherent future. To do so seems to him to be a choice against the future of society itself. When forced to choose between faulty structure and faulty liminality, D-503 is caught in a turnstile, spinning painfully around and around between the two alternatives. Finally, he is forced to give up permanently the dream of liminality in return for the peace of absolute structure. The State performs an operation which removes his ability to choose.
Individual choice, the novel shows, is possible only in a certain kind of society, and not in a society which institutionalizes communitas. Ironically, the siren song which lures men to try to institutionalize communitas in the State eventually also lures D-503 to dream of illegal liminality as a relief from the State. He does not hope to escape from the overbearing State merely by either a watered-down romantic return to nature or by the total formlessness of revolution. We show in striking and carefully placed images that two different and alternating modes within society are necessary to accommodate the needs of individuals. Without a hierarchical structure of varied social positions and without the possibility of real liminality, D-503’s life becomes fruitless. Ultimately, it becomes tragic.
In his first chapters Zamyatin introduces structured social forms represented by the City and liminal social forms represented by the Mephi who are at home beyond the Green Wall. Their opposition reflected onomastically (see Barker), continues throughout the novel. The City is occupied by people who are called Numbers, “walking slowly, four abreast, exaltedly keeping the step.” At first the City’s order, the “impeccably straight streets, the glistening glass of the pavement, the divine parallelopipeds of the transparent dwellings, the square harmony of the grayish-blue rows of Numbers” is bracing to D-503 (7). In contrast, the honeyed pollen of flowers which wafts over the Green Wall disturbs his logical thinking (4). The Green Wall is a metaphor for the boundary between the State and instinctual nature. The Mephi, which schemes to overthrow the State, and which meets beyond the Green Wall, idealizes the chaotic liminality represented by nature.
Enforced, unrelieved communitas has no mechanism to deal with change; therefore the United State idealizes not merely order, but absolute stasis. In the City, the Numbers go to bed on schedule, come for meals in a common place at the sound of a bell, chew each mouthful of food fifty times, have sexual relations only on days which are medically optimal and then only for a prescribed length of time, wear uniforms exactly identical to one another’s, are called by numbers rather than by names and elect the Well Doer by acclamation on the Day of Unanimity. All these activities of the City are regulated by a Tale of Hours, and enforced by Guardians. But D-503 admits that the State is not yet perfect. That is because change, with which it cannot deal, is inevitable. During personal hours, for example, “something that is not foreseen or forecalculated can happen.” The ideal, D-503 writes, is where “nothing happens” (28).
Yet the State can never be perfected because unrelieved communitas does not allow differences among status positions. For brief periods, such homogeneity can be blissful, but as a constant matter, it fails, because it cannot account for actual differences between people. Although D-503 is the builder of the Integral, the ship which will eventually conquer and annex alien worlds for the State, he keeps the same schedule, possesses no more power, owns no more objects, and has no more privileges than anyone else. More lamentable, kinship distinctions are absent from personal relations. So D-503 fantasizes a “family” of people who in reality are not related.
Since unrelieved communitas fails to satisfy legitimate human needs for social interaction, the State cannot depend upon individuals to perpetuate it freely. It has to be enforced by a class of citizens set off from the great commonality. They are the Guardians, who survey the behavior of the Numbers relentlessly. Although D-503 is aware of this class and has a maniacal desire to be obedient to them, he feels hatred and contempt for U, the only member of this class he actually knows. All the other Numbers he knows are theoretically equal, because “nobody is one, but one of. We are all so much alike” (8). But U is not “one of’; she represents the State’s powers of surveillance. Her job is made easier by glass walls, which separate D-503 from others but fail to give him real privacy.
All interactions between people are supposed to be routed through the state. Mathematics, for example, which is a language and as such a potential form of exchange among people, becomes a metaphor to express the perfect logic of government (see White). Similarly, D-503 claims that poetry has become a commodity rather than an esoteric form alienated from the common man. Like other special languages, poetry is invariably used in Zamyatin’s novel to educate its audience about the State. Furthermore, economic transactions are always of one kind; they require individuals to give labor to the State in return for identical apartments, food prepared en masse, and other needs. Such transactions, in which one invariably gives to all and all give to one, leave D-503 with a sense of isolation. As the novel progresses, he realizes more and more clearly that he is actually alone (see Angeloff, Rosenshield).
In spite of the United State and the elaborate system for enforcing it, however, meaningful interchange between individuals does not come to a full stop. D-503 is struck by differences between people. When he compares his first lover to І-330, he admits “we [are] all so different from one another” (9). At first he cannot find anything recognizable within O to take in exchange for what he might give; although he recognizes that R-13, one of his friends, possesses some odd distinguishing characteristic, he cannot grasp its essence. Therefore, although O, R-13 and D-503 form a triangle which he supposes is like the exchange within an ancient unit called the family, their reciprocity seems unsatisfying. Ultimately the only satisfying exchange is sexuality. D-503 experiences a violent attraction for І-330, the woman who leads the Mephi, which makes him want to see her all the time, to tell her everything, to have continual exchange with her. Because he feels this need for interaction and possession, he begins to comprehend O’s need for exchange with him. Therefore, he protects her as though she were his “private child” (232). This is, perhaps, the most poignant exchange within the novel: the reciprocity D-503 fosters between І-330 and O.
In a State where structure and stasis are the ideal, sexual desire poses a great threat. Not only is it one of the few exchanges which cannot be taken over by the State; it is intense and demanding and leads to distinctions of radical kinds between individuals. We are alerted to the danger of love early in the novel. To avoid the conflicts and jealousy it causes, the State rules that “A Number may obtain a license to use any other Number as a sexual product” (26). By schooling its citizens to think of sex as a mere biological function, the State attempts to defuse its great potential social explosiveness. Yet in spite of the rule, and in spite of the sanctions against kinship, from the second chapter of the novel, O has nothing on her mind except sleeping with D-503 and bearing his children. Moreover the ineffectuality of the rule adequately to regiment sexuality is borne out by the very fact that the rule itself permits І-330 the occasion to seduce and radicalize D-503. For a long time he genuinely cannot understand “love, just so”—love whose whole cause rests in the identity of the beloved rather than the logic of the State (30). When at last he recognizes the power of sexual desire, he attributes to it a logic which challenges the logic of the State: “Like iron-ore to a lodestone, in sweet submission to the precise and unchangeable law, inevitably I clung to her” (88). Through his exchange with І-330, D-503 learns the logic of human desire.
It is primarily into that intense exchange with І-330 that D-503 feeds all the irrelevances and irrationalities which occur in his supposedly mathematically regular relations with others. After he meets І-330, in spite of his continued love for the State and for logic, both of which he needs to define reality, he begins to experience paradox. Some paradoxes can be accounted for. He diagnoses O’s inability to time her desire by the Table of Hours, for example, as a “case in which her thoughts are too far ahead” (11). He explains his own fascination with І-330 as random association of thoughts, but he admits that sometimes when he hears lectures on the beauty of the State he feels that life is an empty shell. And although he claims to love repetition, the “movements like mine, duplicated thousands of times” (39), D-503 is troubled by his experience of irrelevance, by his own “hairy paws” which remind him of his primitive ancestors, and by the “cross-like, four-pawed x” in his mind (27), the unknown which persists even under the brutal mathematics of the State. It is this x that he sees in І-330’s face. At first it irritates and terrifies him so much that he concludes he hates her. But from that conclusion a new unknown emerges: what makes him consent to do what she requests, however outrageous it is? Zamyatin identifies І-330 with paradox, chaos and irrelevance, with all realities which are driven out of or evade the State.
As the novel progresses, more and more of D-503’s experience falls outside the reality which the State defines and tolerates. O feels jealous of І-330, a fact which D-503 finds “too absurd” to articulate (23), since jealousy is not permitted. He is requested for sex by І-330, and she takes him to the Ancient House, where he experiences a sexual initiation with her. There he is introduced to the images which begin to obsess him and appear in his dreams: the enigmatic, wrinkled old woman, the mirror, the Buddha, the yellow dress which is “a thousand times worse than if she had not been dressed at all” (64), her startling eyes and lips. He begins to dream and to feel jealous. He chooses not to turn І-330 in to the Guardians. He begins to think of himself as sick. He reveals his fear of irrational numbers, which has grown in him “as something strange, foreign, terrible” (46). This seething chaos of images and emotions interferes with D-503’s mathematical, serene world because І-330 demands things of him which he cannot refuse to give her.
Although D-503 begins to experience actual exchange with another human being, because the State has set up no regulated, predictable forms for interpersonal exchange, this reciprocity between the two is forced into the realm of illicit liminality. As the protagonist’s awareness of this new social mode spreads, greater areas of the fiction are taken over by liminal territory. The past, the Ancient House, the woods beyond the Green Wall, the underground, the features of І-330’s body—all are icons for his awareness of the alternative to the State.
In his description of the Mephi, Zamyatin uses traditional symbolism for liminality. As frequently occurs in ritual ceremonies, the community of initiates is walled off from members of the structured society. Zamyatin places them in nature, for they fail to bear the stamp, the identifying status of culture. They are naked, not only to signify their commonality but also their potential. Walking on the “disgustingly soft, yielding, living, springy, green” and feeling “strangled” by the lack of cultural definition is the ordeal D-503 must undergo to become initiated. He eats special food and drinks liquor for the first time. Finally, he experiences a kind of commonality which is precisely the opposite of the kind the State imposes: “I felt myself above everybody; I was,—I,—a separate world; I ceased to be the usual item; I became unity” (192).
Yet the traditional rite of passage D-503 experiences in the woods climaxes only a much longer period of liminality which begins with his sexual initiation. І-330 serves as his initiator in the woods; indeed it turns out that she presides over the liminality of all the people there. But for D-503 in particular, her sexuality serves as a way into liminality. With her he experiences social weightlessness: “I was dissolving in her lap, in her, and I became at once smaller and larger, unembraceable. For she was not she but the whole universe. For a second... we were one” (159). This is an epitome of the I-Thou relationship Buber speaks of, which is typical of liminality. Because D-503’s experience of liminality first occurs in sex, the features of his lover become symbols of the liminal state. Her sharp teeth and her lips which sometimes slash him like a knife (85) are the boundaries of the private, other self which is both desired and dangerous. Her eyes seem to lead like shafts beneath the surface of any mere social role or status position (112). In contrast, O’s mouth and eyes begin to seem “simple, regular, limited” (77).
After his violent and profound liminal experiences, D-503 begins to realize the shallowness of exchange between individuals and the State. Although he claims he is not “afraid of the word ‘limited’,” he nevertheless feel disappointed when he discerns that his Guardian-Angel appointed by the State does not understand him, does not even want to. Although he “turned around and gazed long and questioningly” into the Guardian’s eyes, the Guardian made no response. His realization that the State deprives him of personal exchange recurs in the penultimate chapter, when, after he confesses, it seems to him that the voice of authority replies, “Never mind.. .1 was only joking” (281). State officials cannot scrupulously follow and personally attend to each of the State’s individual members. D-503 is willing, even eager, to submit to the desires and demands of another; moreover, he does not object to the State’s being that other. But he needs reciprocity. The State’s limitation is, on the one hand, its inability to care about him enough to force him to give what it wants and, on the other, its refusal to authorize differences in its citizens so that D-503 is able to exchange with someone who can care enough.
If communitas in the State is flawed, however, communitas in the Mephi’s revolt against the State is flawed as well. Although І-330 brings him to the forest to initiate him, she deserts him at a crucial moment without appointing anyone else to oversee his experience. In the symbolism of the rite of passage, this desertion is a sign that liminality has gotten out of hand, that it threatens to swamp the initiate and destroy the structured society with chaos. In fact, D-503 seems to go crazy. He begins to shout, “All must become insane; we must become insane as soon as possible” (194). І-330 applauds this slogan. Later she tries to convince him to aid in a revolution. Having agreed, however, he cannot quell his terror about what will happen after the revolution, whether there will even be a sun in the morning.
As his initiator and the leader of the revolutionary group, І-330 idealizes uncertainty, the characteristic of liminality, and insists on perpetuating it. When D-503 and І-330 take off for an unknown destination in the Integral she is ecstatic: “Do you realize how wonderful it is? To fly without knowing what.... And when night...where shall you and I be tonight?” (244-45). Throughout the novel the Mephi are called “them” in contrast to “We.” D-503 chooses to become part of them so that he can form a unit with І-330. The Mephi call themselves brothers and seem to be a close-knit fraternity. Yet D-503 admits, “I do not even know who they are” (199) and І-330 is unwilling to have him join them because it is “too late” (200). Ultimately it is the inability of І-330 and the Mephi to direct themselves toward any end but blind apocalypse which makes their mission fail. They do not have enough social telos successfully to challenge the State with its network of Guardians.
Eventually, because of his liminal experience, D-503 comprehends himself as being outside the social order; he detaches himself from “We.” Seeing himself in a mirror he understands that behind the steel gray eyes is a stranger. “I see myself as some him... .The real I is not he” (70). Yet because his liminal experience is so threatening he reverts to the State’s indoctrinated insistence that there can be no private property or personal identity. When O protests, “You are not the same... no longer mine!” he answers, “What a curious terminology: Mine! I never belonged” (92). Yet he admits that his relations with O have changed, that І-330 has “robbed” him of O and of R-13.
As the novel progresses, D-503’s realization becomes more and more acute. Unable to participate in the activities of the State at the fixed times, he wanders deserted avenues: “Only I, cut off from the rest, I was alone.” He likens himself to a severed finger on the body of the State, “hunched, running over the glass sidewalk” (125). Yet what seems strange and unnatural is that he has no desire to be with his fellows. He wants either to be alone or with her. Yet being with her cannot be predicted or relied upon. All their meetings are unplanned, and the meetings they plan through the legitimate channels of the State are foiled by І-330 herself. Although on the occasions when they meet, D-503 feels the most intense, pleasurable exchange, he cannot any longer feel part of a unit, for it is the nature of his union with І-330 to be ephemeral and erratic.
Obsessive liminality is the reverse of obsessive order, as Zamyatin shows. It is an ecstatic alternative which derives emotion from lack of definition. It can become nothing else in We because it is not granted any status as reality by the State. All Zamyatin’s metaphors for the liminal betray the fact that it is banished rather than authorized, forbidden rather than put to constructive use by the social structure. The liminal crops up in dreams, which occur only when a Number is ill (110). It is associated with irrational numbers and question marks. While community in the United State is symbolized by clear vision—“damn it’s clear” (34)—and transparent glass, communitas in the liminal state is symbolized by opacity and mirrors.
The most important of the opposed images in the novel which indicate the complementary and equally flawed nature of the United State and the Mephi are directional metaphors. While the god-like Well Doer comes from above, the place of the liminal is down. Not only have the revolutionaries literally honeycombed the underground with tunnels (115-17), they have invaded the “molten surface” where D-503’s “soul is located” (111). When he faints, he sinks downward (116). He fears “beneath the surface of our life” the mathematics of irrational numbers. Furthermore, below is the place from which the structure of the State rescued itself, for in the metaphor of evolution, below is the location of the apes and primitives (141). The “lower world” is also the world of crime and social deviance (188). So Zamyatin uses psychological, biological and political metaphors to illustrate the multiple kinds of exception liminality takes to the State. In no way does liminality really permeate the social structure. Rather the two social modes merely stand side by side.
The stark side-by-side quality of the social modes in We has led some critics to believe that it is necessary to choose either liminality or social structure as the novel’s ideal. Although no one argues that Zamyatin idealizes the State, Edward J. Brown has argued that Zamyatin glorifies a “vaguely Rousseauistic urge toward the unspoiled primitive” (27). Such a reading fails to recognize how limited the novel’s woods community is. No one in the novel advocates living in the woods community, not the narrator, certainly, and not even І-330. What is more, the novel does not argue in favor of revolution for its own sake. Gorman Beauchamp claims that in the Mephi “are embodied the protagonistic values of Zamyatin’s novel—freedom, spontaneity, fancy, the individual’s own foolish will” and that they represent the force which attempts “to break down the wall” between the state and the woods (62). Actually, however, the Mephi is another image of revolution for its own sake, another form of the solitary, irrational Scythian. The total freedom of the Mephi is no more tolerable than is oppressive government.
It is really in the protagonist’s mind that Zamyatin attempts to establish some meaningful fusion or synthesis between structure and liminality. As the Builder of the Integral, the solver of complex equations who adores harmony of all kinds (99), D-503 is a fitting character to search for integration between this alternative, opposed social forms. His spaceship, the language of personal pronouns suggested by the title, and, in fact, his narration of the novel itself, all become vehicles in his search for a workable synthesis between the formidable United State and unpredictable liminality.
The narrative begins as an attempt “to integrate the colossal, universal equation” by recording what "we think” (21). At the prompting of and on behalf of the State, D-503 commences his records, hoping to send them with other propaganda on his Integral to “the unknown beings who live on other planets, and who are perhaps still in the primitive state of freedom” (1). At first, therefore, “We” refers to the unified members of the State, and “you” is the reader, to whom the writer condescends. The earliest stirrings of conflict within D-503 himself or within the State are blithely transferred to the “primitive” reader. “There is no x in me. I am simply afraid lest some x be left in you, my unknown readers” (27).
Finally, however, when D-503 is alienated both from the State and from liminality, the reader becomes his only ally. The novel which he began in order to praise the united “We” of the State turns into a record of his own self-consciousness, which he considers an illness because “We” is from God, “I from the devil” (156). The primitive readers who were merely counters in the early chapters begin to be individuals toward whom he can feel empathy. He feels pity for them (58) and expresses the hope that he can help them (82). He suffers considerable anxiety over the indiscretions he reveals to his readers. Yet again and again he resolves to record honestly what happened. By the end, he hopes that the readers, “unknown beloved ones” (283) may “find some justification for me” (211). Thus D-503, despairing of exchange with the known members of his own world, gestures toward exchange between himself and a distant, unimaginable, unknown world of readers. Because the writer and his readers participate in an ordered but not tyrannical reciprocity, the group they form may be the most effective integration of “the colossal universal equation”—may, in fact, be the “We” to which the title refers (2).
But more likely, there is no We in the novel at all—at least no “we” which signifies exchange between various kinds of people within one group. The novel is filled with metaphors which describe the protagonist’s search for a synthesis and his extreme discomfort at not finding any. The opposite poles had been “drawing nearer and nearer and already I could hear the dry crackling” (139). The overbearing State and unpredictable liminality are two halves of the same whole, І-330 tells him—like entropy and energy. Yet he cannot integrate or synthesize them. He cannot bring out of them a workable third social mode. Instead, like trains “they collided and crawled upon each other, rattling and smothering” (226). First he decides that men cannot live with unknowns (220); then he reconsiders and decides he cannot live without intimacy.
The last half of the novel portrays a consciousness alternating more and more violently between social modes. After the Day of Unanimity D-503 feels redeemed into the order of the State. But then І-330 returns and he undergoes the ritualistic initiation into the brotherhood, after which he swears he will follow her anywhere. In his frustration, he considers suicide and attempts murder. But he remains an isolated character, unable to find predictable exchange anywhere because both of the social modes from which he can choose are defective.
D-503’s attempt to create a social structure with the reader by honestly revealing himself is, ironically, what destroys his ability to achieve a synthesis. Because the Guardian, U, finds D-503’s journal and reports him, he is forced to undergo an operation which removes his imagination. This operation ends his experiments with the Mephi and it ends his journal.
What the novel also shows is that excessive structure and the excessive liminality it creates leave their victims masochistic. This is because, although each claims to satisfy the needs of an individual for exchange, neither actually does. Each system, by taking more than it can give, leaves the individual in constant psychic dependence. The omnipresent U claims that cruelty is the best love (149), perhaps because acts of cruelty at least guarantee that the cruel beloved is attending. D-503 seems to concur when he claims the one thing the State owes him is just punishment. It is perhaps for that reason that he finds the Machine beautiful and the electric whips graceful (153). But І-330’s body seems to him like a whip as well (154). The pain which she stirs in him is a result of his unsatisfied desire for unity with her. Although it seems absurd and unmathematical for him to desire this pain, he does, because as a result, he sometimes can experience intense reciprocity with her. Pain is a symptom, in We, of the human need for genuine reciprocity.
Still І-330’s catechism, which insists that pain is the inevitable concomitant of social exchange, is wrong.
“Thou lovest fog, dost thou?”
This ancient, long-forgotten thou—the thou of a master to his slave— penetrated me slowly, sharply.. .Yes, I was a slave...This too was inevitable, was good.
“Yes, good...” I said aloud to myself, and then to her, “I hate fog. I am afraid of fog.”
“Then you love it. For if you fear it because it is stronger than you, and hate it because you fear it, you love it. For you cannot subject it to yourself. One loves only the things one cannot conquer.” (85)
In fact, this is not how things work out between І-330 and D-503. In a master-slave relationship, the slave’s needs are so much greater than the master’s that no gift the slave offers can equalize his standing. In the relationship between D-503 and І-330, however, as in all genuine exchange, each side has leverage and therefore neither is able to subject the other. Since both have needs, a kind of equality exists.
The Well Doer’s catechism of exchange is very similar to І-330’s. The police mechanism of the State claims that reciprocity is always and inevitably an exchange of pain. Men crucified Christ, the Well Doer points out, in return for centuries of cruelty at the hands of God. Yet God is called love, and this is because “real algebraic love for humanity must inevitably be inhuman and... the inevitable mark of truth is cruelty” (262). To this social theory, D-503 cannot reply because he knows as he writes that those thoughts were once his. Since his exchange with І-330, he has experienced enough reciprocity so that he now believes satisfying exchange may be possible, but he cannot articulate how or why. Therefore he remains silent. Indeed, the novel’s repressive communal order and anarchic liminality both create masochism within D-503.
Thus the last chapters of the novel articulate the need for healthy exchange between individuals. When the Well Doer claims that the Mephi—and by implication І-330—are merely interested in D-503 as the Builder of the Integral, D-503 crumples to the floor and writhes in pain. What had seemed like an I-Thou relationship, electric with significance, now seems “magnificently trivial” (263). He imagines І-330 with her white teeth as a machine of torture because he comprehends what he believes to have been enormous inequality in their relationship: he thinks she needs merely his mechanical expertise, whereas he needs what he has come to think of as the soul she gives him—the self beneath the social trappings.
At this moment, when the all-powerful state pits D-503 against the only human with whom he has experienced real exchange, Zamyatin reveals what lies at the heart of stable social relationships: “If only I had a mother as the ancients had,—my mother, mine, for whom I should not be the Builder of the Integral and not D-503, not a molecule of the United State but merely a living human piece, a piece of herself, a trampled, smothered, a cast-off piece...And though I were driving the nails into the cross or being nailed to it (perhaps it is the same) she would hear what no one else could hear; her old grown-together wrinkled lips...” (265). When D-503 fantasizes what it must be like to have a mother, Zamyatin gestures toward the need for a kinship system. “Mother” is the most intimate and yet the most highly formalized of all status positions in a hierarchical social structure.
Family as an ideal social structure also surfaces early in the novel, where D-503’s s sexual relationship with O, and by projection with R-13, gives him respite from the machine-like relationships of the state. “Dear O... Dear R... In him, there is also...something not entirely clear to me. And yet, he, I, and O—we are a triangle, perhaps not equilateral, but a triangle nonetheless... And it is so good occasionally if only briefly, to relax, to rest, to enclose yourself in a simple, strong triangle from all that” (44). D-503 ’s sexual relationship to O is less turbulent and intellectual, more instinctive and affectionate than his relationship to І-330. But it is not fully permitted by the State, either. O, illegally pregnant with his child, is forced to take refuge in the woods community or be killed. The family D-503 might have formed with O and his child is a “simple, strong triangle” but it is impossible, because he is obsessed with the revolutionary І-330.
Since D-503 cannot choose an alternative which does not exist, he is forced to choose between an overly structured parody of communitas and total anarchic liminality. Choice in this situation is a curse, and it makes the reader recall D-503’s earlier remark about choice: “if human liberty is equal to zero, man does not commit any crime. That is clear. The way to rid man of criminality is to rid him of freedom” (42). The State finally removes D-503’s ability to choose by operating on his “fancy.” This destroys the consciousness to which liminality and the kinship system have seemed alternatives.
The novel ends with D-503 mechanically reporting on the events of І-330’s capture and torture. He betrays her without realizing that his behavior is betrayal. Thus in the torture chamber scene, Zamyatin dramatizes both the vulnerability and the reciprocity present in liminality. Her “lips were pressed together. This reminded me of something. She looked at me, holding the arms of the chair firmly. She continued to look until her eyes closed” (285). Although D-503 cannot remember why he is so affected by these final gestures, the reader remembers that it is because he once loved her.
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--- A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Ed. and Trans. Muira Ginsburg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.