In his article simply titled “Play”, Religion scholar Sam D. Gill defines play as “a type of structural dynamics, a being at once of two minds or a holding at once of mutually exclusive positions” (451). He utilizes Baudrillard’s example of the Moebius strip to further explain the “peculiar contiguity of near and far, inside and outside, subject and object in the same spiral” (455). By this definition, Evgeny Zamyatin’s concepts of perpetual heresy and neorealism can be seen as forms of play. The author of the ostensibly dystopic science fiction classic We, as well as numerous tales or povest (Shane 13) and essays is known for his concept of true heresy, which is eternal, since a true heretic “can never be victorious…because victory is inevitably followed by dogma and philistinism” (48), as well as his development of Neorealism, which synthesizes Realism and Symbolism by depicting the real world in a hyper-real fashion, so as to “reveal a reality more authentic than historical fact” (Layton 146).
Both Zamyatin’s perpetual heresy and neorealism rely upon the synthesis of two seemingly opposed ideas. Perpetual heresy simultaneously advocates for change to make the world a better place, but realizes that this goal can never be ultimately achieved, giving literal meaning to the term revolution; one imagines a mouse on a wheel given the apparent futility of seeking a goal which cannot be reached. Neorealism combines the aesthetic of the Realists, to paint, write or compose a representation of life, with the aesthetic of the Symbolists who “sought to describe man’s complex feelings and to depict the essence of man’s spiritual being” (Shane 116).
While the notion of play is generally associated with childish behavior, the playful syntheses of perpetual heresy and neorealism exemplify a mature avant-garde aesthetic, one which simultaneously strives for new forms of art without calling for the destruction of past forms; one which bring healing through wounding, finds hell in
It’s not about the movement, but the lack thereof
Finding two essays by Evgeny Zamyatin in the Ardis Anthology of Russian Futurism might seem strange, since Zamyatin is not considered a Russian Futurist. Further, Zamyatin openly deprecates Russian Futurism in one of the two essays by claiming a tongue-in-cheek moratorium on the movement, as there are no longer Futurists, but rather “Presentists” (195). Written in 1918, the essay “The Presentists” explains how, contrary to Leon Trotsky’s estimation that Futurism lacked “a proletarian revolutionism” (Hyde 261), the events of 1917 had transformed the future into the present—at least, for the Futurists. As a result, they could no longer be called Futurists, since in Zamyatin’s words “the Futurists created style, the Presentists follow style” (196).
Despite the overt nature of these denunciations, it would be a mistake to assume that Zamyatin was criticizing Futurism itself. On the contrary, he admired the Futurist movement, saying that “until the Futurists became Presentists, one could admire them as the Don Quixotes of literature” (195). A year later, in “Contemporary Russian Literature”, a public lecture delivered at the People’s University in Lebedyan, Mayakovsky, arguably the leader of the Russian Futurist movement is referred to as a “serious and talented poet” and extolled as representative of “Futurism at its best” (Soviet Heretic 49). The satirical, cynical tone of “The Presentists” clearly presents the Futurists in a negative light.
As an artist, he was a contemporary of Russian avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Constructivism, Acmeism, and Cubism, but is not numbered among the artists of these movements. Milton Ehre notes that Zamyatin’s “career can be understood as an attempt to do in prose what the Acmeists and Futurists were attempting in poetry—to establish in theory and exemplify in works the basis for an avant-garde literature” (131). Indeed, Zamyatin’s essay “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters”, a work which Susan Layton calls a “polemical statement of the Modernist outlook reminiscent of the literary manifestos which had proliferated Russia prior to World War I”, contains a passage regarding “old, slow, creaking descriptions” as “a thing of the past” and encourages brevity without sacrificing power. Like
We must compress into a single second that which was held before in a sixty-second minute. And hence, syntax becomes elliptic, volatile; the complex pyramids of periods are dismantled stone by stone into independent sentences…When you are moving fast, the canonized, the customary eludes the eye: hence, the unusual, often startling, symbolism and vocabulary. The image is sharp, synthetic, with a single, salient feature—the one feature you will glimpse from a speeding car” (Soviet Heretic 112).
Despite sharing the Russian Futurists’ desire for writing to match the tempo of modern life, Nikolaj Aseev, a student of Mayakovsky, “spoke of Zamyatin’s works as a thing of the past, as ‘dad’s old frock coats and cutaways, carefully stored in the closet’” (Shane 56).
How is it that a writer whose art reflected “the refusal to be bound by literal fact, the interweaving of reality and fantasy, the transmutation of fact into poetry, often grotesque, oblique, playful, but always expressive of the writer’s unique vision of life in his own, unique, terms” (Ginsburg, v) was dismissed as a thing of the past? Was it simply his “highly inconvenient habit”, stated in his “Letter to Stalin”, of speaking what I consider to be the truth rather than saying what may be expedient at the moment” (Dragon xiii)? The avant-garde movement spawned many outspoken artists, some of whom could identify with Zamyatin’s distinction of having written the first novel banned by the Chief Administration for Literary Affairs (Kern, 9), and yet Zamyatin is not counted an aesthetic brother.
Zamyatin reserved the same sort of criticism leveled at the Futurists in “The Presentists” for the October Revolution. Zamyatin had participated in the unsuccessful 1905 Russian Revolution, and had been an ardent supporter of the Revolution of 1917, going so far as to profess his devotion to it in terms of romantic love (Shane 19). Once the revolution was over, however, Zamyatin rebuked the Scythians, a “loosely organized circle of philosophers and witers” for their “dogmatic glorification and canonization of October”, believing that the Bolshevik Revolution “did not need the protective armor of dogma and deification” (19). The official title of “The Victorious October Revolution” implied that the events of 1917 were final, that the ultimate revolution had occurred.
While Zamyatin supported the goals of the Revolution and had aesthetic values similar to those of the Futurists, he did not believe that the realization of either those goals or aesthetic values signaled an end to revolution or innovation. Like I-330 of his famous novel We, Zamyatin believed that revolution was perpetual, and that the concept of a “final revolution… is for children: children are frightened by infinity, and it’s important that children sleep peacefully at night” (152). Zamyatin’s deprecation of the Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Futurists were not attacks on movements, but rather their lack thereof.
Sure it’s just fog, but doesn’t that cloud look like an adolescent Futurist?
In her book, The Poetic Avant-Garde in Poland, Bogdana Carpenter considers the development of the Polish futurist movement as a “passage from youth to maturity”, conflating the Polish Futurists with adolescents. Using a definition via this metaphor, the immature avant-garde movement is concerned only with “pure negation”, which Carpenter concludes is “difficult if not impossible to maintain as a permanent attitude because it implies resignation and fatalism. Man always gropes for faith and meaning” (17). Zamyatin was very concerned with the human condition, and sought to focus on it by establishing “continuity between past, present, and future” (
“The Prose fiction that would catch the quickened tempos of modern life Zamyatin calls alternately Neorealism and Syntheism. It was intended…to provide a temporary synthesis of Realism and Symbolism in the never-ending dialectical process that, in Zamyatin’s view, constitutes literary and human history” (131).
As with his notion of perpetual revolution, Zamyatin’s Neorealism relies upon a notion of play. By way of explaining the difference between how Neorealism effectively works, he uses the example of “clouds around the summit of a high mountain”.
“The Realist writers accepted the clouds as they saw them, rosy and golden, or black and heavy with storm. The Symbolists had the courage to climb to the summit and discover that there was nothing pink or golden there, nothing but slush and fog. The Neorealists were on the mountaintop together with the Symbolists and saw that clouds are fog. But having come down from the mountain, they had the courage to say: “It may be fog, but its good fun all the same”” (Soviet Heretic 40).
It is this dialectical tension coupled with Zamyatin’s interest in the human condition which places Zamyatin outside the Russian avant-garde movement per se, or perhaps places him in a mature and sustainable avant-garde. While this may sound like an oxymoron to have an avant-garde described as mature, if Renato Poggioli is correct in his estimation that avant-garde are is characterized by the “myth of the new” (214), then Zamyatin definitely qualifies as an avant-garde writer. It is equally contrary to refer to the avant-garde as sustainable, once again turning to Poggioli, as “the avant-garde is condemned to conquer, through the influence of fashion, that very popularity it once disdained—and this is the beginning of its end” (82). This is only true if the tenets and approach of any avant-garde movement are essentialized. Zamyatin rejected such essentialism and canonization of ideas. For him, there was no ultimate avant-garde movement. Though he labeled his own approach of neorealism, he did not attract followers and disciples to parrot his approach. Rather, he consistently encouraged innovation in all forms:
“Two dead, dark stars collide with an inaudible, deafening crash and light a new star: this is revolution. A molecule breaks away from its orbit and, bursting into a neighboring atomic universe, gives birth to a new chemical element: this is revolution…The law of revolution is red, fiery, deadly; but this death means the birth of new life, a new star. And the law of entropy is cold, ice blue, like the icy interplanetary infinities. The flame turns from red to an even, warm pink, no longer deadly, but comfortable. The sun ages into a planet, convenient for highways, stores, beds, prostitutes, prisons: this is the law. And if the planet is to be kindled into youth again, it must be set on fire, it must be thrown off the smooth highway of evolution: this is the law….The flame will cool tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow…But someone must see this already today, and speak heretically about tomorrow. Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought” (Soviet Heretic 107-08).
Zamyatin’s solution to Poggioli’s problem of the avant-garde of today becoming the commonly fashionable of tomorrow was to encourage a perpetuation of avant-gardism. In this, Zamyatin is not unique. However, while Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto encouraged such perpetuation, the Italian Futurists’, like their Polish counterparts, were defined more by what they rejected than what they created. It was a movement built upon pure negation. They did not simply seek innovation, but the destruction of what had come before.
By contrast, Zamyatin states that “It is not possible to build on negative emotions. Genuine literature will come only when we replace hatred for man with love of man” (Soviet Heretic 127). Zamyatin’s aesthetic, unlike the avowed avant-garde artists, was not based upon “art as the sum of its devices” (
It’s Hot as Heaven in here…
Zamyatin’s concept of “the universal law of infinite revolution” (Shane 48) owes much to his “consistently held…modernist faith in the need for a total transformation of the social world and the subjects that inhabit it”, wrongly understood as a “life-long utopianism” (Wegner 95). In much of his writing, Zamyatin rejected the concept of utopia, or as he more commonly referred to it, paradise. In We, the Benefactor informs D-503 that “…those in paradise no longer know desires, no longer know pity or love. There are only the blessed, with their imaginations excised…obedient slaves of God” (187-88).
This is Zamyatin’s conception of paradise; where the transformation of the social and individual worlds have coalesced into a homogeneous ontology, a place where only one form of thought is known, where humanity moves “as one unit: humanized machines, machine-perfect humans” (1970 115) and all imagination has been surgically removed by way of “fantasiectomy” (123). It is clear that the imagination is one of the key attributes of the perpetual heretic. The imagination is needed in order to move forward in a reality where “tomorrow is the unknown...Now all things will be new, unprecedented, inconceivable” (128). The imagination is the faculty which conceives the inconceivable. Amidst the chaos which results when the city’s barrier wall to the outside world is breached, a man in an underground station bearing a “notebook and logarithmic table” informs D-503 that “the universe is finite…everything is finite, everything is simple, everything is calculable” (201). It is D-503’s newly awakened imagination which asks “where your finite universe ends! What is out there, beyond it?” (202).
Accordingly then, Zamyatin’s vision of
By these values, Paradise is a place of simple answers where there is “No more of that confusion about good and evil” and everyone is as innocent and simplehearted (or minded) as Adam and Eve” (We 55). A return to
And so Zamyatin playfully substitutes heaven for hell, Paradise for the Inferno, in We imagines Utopia as Dystopia, and by doing so turns the polemic into his “constant dialectic path which in a grandiose parabola sweeps the world into infinity” (Soviet Heretic 51). We is less a dystopic work than it is an encapsulation of Zamyatin’s belief that
Heretics, Heretics, Everywhere!
The solution to this monophony is the heretic: “the heretic Christ, the heretic Copernicus, the heretic Tolstoy. Our symbol of faith is heresy: tomorrow is inevitably heresy to today, which has turned into a pillar of salt, and to yesterday, which has scattered to dust” (51).
This is the duty of the heretic; to be one amongst a thousand hands swinging up in contradiction to popular opinion to say “against” (We 126), to cease being “a component…and become…a separate entity” (138). Zamyatin saw that “in polyphony there is always a danger of cacophony” (Soviet Heretic 59), that the seed of revolution was always present, always waiting to spring into life. The solitary stance of the revolutionary heretic is not, however, the cult of the individual as it is understood today, an ethos of every man for himself. Rather, the heretic is likened to the point “which contains more unknowns than anything else; it need but stir, move, and it may turn into thousands of curves, thousands of bodies” (We 129). While explaining that “No revolution, no heresy is comfortable or easy”, Zamyatin adds that the “wound is necessary: most of mankind suffers from hereditary sleeping sickness” (Soviet Heretic 112) and it is the responsibility of the individual heretic to wake the larger community up. Zamyatin’s rebellion, his heresy is never a disturbance for its own sake; it is to maintain the health of the revolutionary spirit:
“The Revolution does not need dogs who “sit up” in expectation of a handout or because they fear the whip. Nor does it need trainers of such dogs. It needs writers who fear nothing—just as the Revolution fears nothing” (128).
The heretic fears nothing, not even error, for while he made statements about “true literature” (57), Zamyatin believed that the greatest truths were those born out of error, not computed certainty: “only machines make no mistakes” (110). For Zamyatin’s heretics, errors are more valuable than truths: truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs” (110). The mystery of the outcome is part of the beauty which serves to identify something as human and not machine: “A human being is like a novel: until the last page you don’t know how it will end. Or it wouldn’t be worth reading…” (141).
His distinction between people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive”, (essentially those who are walking corpses and those who are vibrantly quickened by transformative energy) draws an anthropomorphic picture of Zamyatin’s polemic of entropy and energy. While both the walking dead and the quickened living perform the same actions, it is only those who are truly alive who exist “constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment” (Soviet Heretic 110). But this is a delicious torment, likened to the torment of love felt by D-503: “And all that I have just written about Unanimity is unnecessary, entirely beside the point, I want to cross it out, tear it up, throw it away. Because I know (this may be blasphemy, but it is true), the only holiday for me is to be with her, to have her near me” (122). Entropy is the result of a lassitude born out of certitude; energy results from a seeking characterized by the potential for error.
A Devil by any other name…
Zamyatin’s favorite heretic seems to be the Devil himself, Satan as a figure of revolution and innovation, the “cunning bridge of dissonance, the teacher of doubt” (Soviet Heretic 59). In his essay on H.G. Wells, he isolates a particular passage from Wells’ The Undying Fire where the archangel Michael is prohibited by God from destroying Satan. God asks, “What should we do without Satan?” to which Satan replies, “Without me, time and space would freeze to crystalline perfection…It is I who trouble the waters. I trouble all things. I am the spirit of life…Did I not launch man on the most marvelous adventures? It was I who gave him history” (In Soviet Heretic 278).
The mischievous Doctor Voychek of “The Miracle of Ash Wednesday” is described as “a man of extraordinary intelligence” (Dragon 211) who possesses the interesting physical features of “greenish goat’s eyes” and “two small red horns” of twisted red hair (210). This tale is among the more playful of Zamyatin’s works, a piece of satire or perhaps the fantastic where a Canon seemingly has an immaculate conception. This tale also demonstrates the aesthetic of neorealism; intertexual symbolism would clearly state that the Canon’s child is actually the son of a woman who dies on the operating table in Voychek’s office at the same time as the Canon is having a stomach operation; realism would say that a miracle seemed to have taken place, while neorealism would, like Doctor Voychek “keep the secret of the miracle that had occurred on Ash Wednesday” (216).
Devils abound in the text of We. In Owen Ulph’s article “I-330: Reconsiderations on the Sex of Satan”, the temptress of We is described as a failed Prometheus, “the incarnation of Divine Disdain” whose failure “is more magnificent than any conceivable success” (91). Ulph notes “sharp, vampire-like teeth…her serpentine body…and “little horns” [which] appear at the corner of her brows” (82-83) as physical cues of I-330’s diabolical role; her forbidden fruit is the green liquor she forces upon D-503 with a kiss. Richard Gregg supposes that the enigmatic Guardian S-4711 “whose letter stands for Satan, serpent and snake alike” is the devil of We and I-330 his Eve accomplice. The rebel organization in We are known as “Mephi”. When D-503 asks what the name means, he is told, “It is an ancient name, it’s he who…” (144) before the speaker is cut off. The implication is clear, an abridgement of Faust’s demon Mephistopheles. The temptation Mephi offers D-503 is ultimately to forget he is “a gram” and perceive himself “instead a millionth of a ton” (102). Zamyatin makes this temptation clear when D-503 ruminates that “We” is from God, and “I” from the devil” (112).
This is not the devil of Dante’s Divine Comedy however, immobile from the chest down, trapped in the frozen lower levels of the Inferno. As has already been discussed, entropy is the lot of the Benefactor as Old Testament deity, while Zamyatin’s devil represents energy and vitality. This is the devil of Goethe’s Faust, playfully teasing a prospective student about the rigors of scholarly work. This is the devil as played by Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, preening and prancing while he proudly proclaims: “I've nurtured every sensation man's been inspired to have. I cared about what he wanted and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him. In spite of all his imperfections, I'm a fan of man! I'm a humanist. Maybe the last humanist” (1997).
The God of Paradise, the Benefactor as “the new Jehova…as wise and loving-cruel as the Jehova of the ancients” (We 123) substitutes free will for “the multiplication table” which “never errs” (59) and can be called then, the God of the machines. The ancient’s God, who gave them nothing “except eternal, tormenting searching” (41) is, within the framework Zamyatin has established, Satan. Given the Hebrew etymology of Satan as accuser, this is consistent, since the God of the ancients is the God of imagination, and as such bears striking resemblance to Zamyatin himself as a poet and a mocker, “heretical fighter for freedom and independence in art and in life, [the] consistent enemy of all canonized ideas, all coercion, all the purveyors of ‘compulsory salvation.’” (xii).
A survey of Zamyatin’s works reveal that while he supported actual, political revolution, his means of perpetual, unending revolution were literary, not literal. Rather than explosives, Zamyatin sought to bring change through his art; “There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The only difference is that a piece of dynamite explodes once, while a book explodes a thousand times” (Soviet Heretic 131). These literary bombs are the work, not of diligent and trustworthy officials, but of “madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics” (57). They are a playful work, not in a childish sense, but in a childlike fashion, who have synthesized that life is to be taken seriously while laughing about that very fact. It is the play of someone who believes “neither in God nor in man” but also recognizes “man’s capacity for self improvement on earth” (Shane 99). This playful avant-garde recognizes laughter as the “most devastating weapon” (We xii):
“Humor and laughter are the hallmark of a vital, healthy man who has the strength and the courage to live. They express the joy in living felt by the old Realists and by the Neorealists, and they distinguish the Neorealists from the Symbolists. In the Symbolists you find only a smile, a contemptuous smile at the contemptible earth. But you never hear them laugh” (Soviet Heretic 41).
It seems fitting to end to reflect that despite the deletion of his name from literary histories in his homeland, a veritable “liquidation” in the words of Mirra Ginsburg the portraits of Zamyatin by Yury Annenkov, Nikolai Radov, and Boris Kustodiev portray a man with a playful smile on his face, perhaps like Doctor Voychek laughing through tears, who appears to know that “laughter can kill everything—even murder” (We 184)..
 Except where otherwise noted by the designation of 1970, all quotations from We will be taken from Mirra Ginsburg’s 1972 translation.
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Ulph, Owen. “I-330: Reconsiderations on the Sex of Satan” Kern, 80-91
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_________________. We Mirra Ginsburg, trans.