Here’s a quote from the introduction to the 1972 Viking Press edition of Yevgeney Zamyatin’s We by translator Mirra Ginsburg. We is one of those works in which understanding the era and location in which it was written is crucial to noticing some of the underlying themes presented by the author, as well as his intentions in writing the story. Zamyatin’s vision of an awesome totalitarian state is a response to the great political and social unrest he witnessed during the Russian Revolution and as a writer who had his works banned by the communist Soviet Party in the early twentieth century. This excerpt is a very powerful description of just how difficult it was for these artists, whom history has immortalized as the great Russian authors of the revolutionary period, to practice their craft. They had little little outside support and their government tried to punish them for their work, but they persevered in order to keep their country’s culture alive.
In Russia, Zamyatin (no longer a Bolshevik) threw himself with tremendous energy into the great cultural and artistic upsurge that followed the revolution. This was a period of fantastic contradictions. Russia lay in ruins after years of war, revolution, and continuing civil strife. Her economic life had all but wholly broken down. Transportation, communication, the food supply, the contact between city and village were in total disarray. Yet in the midst of hunger and cold, a band of dedicated spirits took it upon themselves not only to save the country’s culture but also to present to the hitherto deprived masses the cultural heritage of the entire world… Studios were organized where young writers were taught the elements of their craft by such writers, poets, and translators as Zamyatin, Gumilyov, Lozinsky, Chukovsky, and others. Both teachers and students often had to cross the frozen city on foot and sit, chilled and hungry, in unheated rooms, dressed in old coats, sweaters, mufflers, but totally absorbed in the brilliant discussions of literature.
The next one is from the entertaining satirist Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae. I had previously read his comedy Lysistrata and loved its vulgar humor; it may have been the modern day translation, but I did not expect a Greek playwright to be so crude. The excerpt of Ecclasiazusae in our Utopia Reader is interesting because it’s a commentary on men who speak of their imaginative grand utopias in which everybody may live together happily and all societal issues will be somehow solved. In the text, Praxagora casually and ambiguously shoots down all of Blepyrus’ inquires into how exactly this dream utopia may work and properly function, stubbornly clinging to the notion that his simplistic ideas have the unfailing power to benefit greater society.
Blepyrus. Our clothes, what of them?
Praxagora. You have plenty in store, when these are worn out, we will weave you some more.
BL. Just one other thing. If an action they bring, what funds will be mine for discharging the fine? You won’t pay it out of the stores, I opine.
PR. A fine to be paid when such an action they bring! Why bless you, our people won’t know such a thing as an action.
BL. No actions! I feel a misgiving. Pray, what are “our people” to do for a living?
Chremes. You are right: there are many will rue it.
PR. No doubt. But what can one then bring as an action about?
BL. There are reasons in plenty; I’ll just mention one. If a debtor won’t pay you, pray what’s to be done?
PR. If a debtor won’t pay! Nay, but tell me, my friend, how the creditor came by the money to lend? All money, I thought, to the stores had been brought. I’ve got a suspicion, I say it with grief, your creditor’s surely a bit of a thief.
CHR. Now that is an answer acute and befitting.
BL. But what if a man should be fined for committing some common assault, when elated with wine; pray what are his means for discharging the fine? I have posed you, I think.
PR. Why, his victuals and drink will be stopped by command for awhile; and I guess that he will not again in a hurry transgress, when he pays with his stomach.
BL. Will thieves be unknown?
PR. Why, how should they steal what is partly their own?
BL. No chance then to meet at night in the street some highwayman coming our cloaks to abstract?
PR. No, not if you’re sleeping at home; nor, in fact, though you choose to go out. That trade, why pursue it? There’s plenty for all; but suppose him do it, Don’t fight and resist him; what need of a pother? You can go into the stores, and they’ll give you another.
BL. Shall we gambling forsake?
PR. Why, what could you stake?
BL. But what is the style of our living to be?
PR. One common to all, independent and free, all bars and partitions forever undone, all private establishments fused into one.
In Brave New World, Bernard Marx’s inability to assimilate to emotion-distancing social norms, the Savage’s horror at the coldness of modern day society, and Helmholtz’ intelligence and constant hunger for knowledge all culminate in a meeting with the Controller Mustapha Mond himself. The powerful leader patiently explains to them all how the rules of their society have come about out of what he claims to be strict necessity and decades of careful social reform. This excerpt from their discussion is somewhat a contradiction, as Mustapha Mond speaks of stability and the complete removal of any form of social instability, but the society actually owes it’s very existence to an artificial distancing of men and women of differing classes.
“… our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel–and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or father; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma…”
The Savage was silent for a little. “All the same,” he insisted obstinately, “Othello’s good, Othello’s better than those feelies.”
“Of course it is,” the Controller agreed. “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.”