Front Page Titles (by Subject) Zamyatin and the Self - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
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Zamyatin and the Self - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Zamyatin and the Self
“The Imagination and the ‘I’ in Zamjatin’s We.” Slavic and East European Journal 23(Spring 1979):51–62.
Literary critics have tended to disparage the novelistic qualities of We (1920), by the Russian author Yevgeny Zamjatin (or Zamyatin), and to view it instead as a kind of Mennipean satire (Northrop Frye’s phrase) in which characters serve mainly as mouthpieces for the author’s social ideas. On the contrary, Prof. Rosenshield sees the artistic merits of We, not so much in its social prophecies, as in its superb development of essential novelistic elements such as theme and character. Rosenshield analyzes the theme of imagination and, in particular, the transformation of the narrator, D-503, from mathematician to poet. In the course of his analysis, he shows how Zamjatin’s social ideas dissolve “into that experimental reality viewed by most critics as the essential stuff of the novel.”
In We, Zamjatin depicts the catalytic effect of a developing imagination upon the character of the narrator, who evolves from a number into a human being, from the builder of the missile Integral (the One State’s most ambitious technological effort) to its potential destroyer, from the wholly logical mathematician to the intuitive poet. This evolution is reflected in D-503’s diary, which is to contain a poem he is writing in praise of both the Integral and the ideals of the One State. However, according to Prof. Rosenshield, the diary not only reflects the transformation, it is also the catalyst through which the metamorphosis takes place. Through the effort of poetic creation, the narrator gradually discovers an entirely new dimension of his being—that of sense, feeling, and metaphor—which his wholly regimented society and its rule of absolute reason have done their best to obliterate.
Zamjatin employs the device of style to convey the subtle and often vacillating changes occurring within the narrator. D-503’s limpid, mathematical imagery is progressively infiltrated by an irrational language brought to birth by the very act of seeing and creating. To images of machinery and geometry are added (in increasing proportion) those of sun, color, motion, touch, and finally erotic sensibility. In this gradual development, Zamjatin depicts the birth of a soul, the genesis of an “I” as opposed to the “We.” The growing conflict between logic and intuition in D-503’s personality often emerges in the style of a single passage. An intuitive remembrance of “unbearably sweet lips” may be juxtaposed with the author’s bewildered but scientifically expressed feeling of being a planet in “some uncalculated orbit.”
Thus, through the techniques of the novel, Zamjatin demonstrates that the exercise of imagination is an individuating principle, the key to a myriad of possible worlds. The One State itself realizes this and will not tolerate escapes through fantasy from its perfect world. To counter this threat, the One State has devised an operation which destroys the brain center controlling the faculty of imagination. Forced to submit to the surgery, D-503 continues his diary. His style emerges more arid and mathematical than ever before.
Far from expressing his ideas in a fictional tract, therefore, Zamjatin uses the full richness of literary technique to develop his themes. Future critical studies of We will, in Prof. Rosenshield’s mind, confirm this view and will deepen our insights into Zamjatin’s consummate literary skills.