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Early twentieth century literature saw the invention of the dystopian literature genre, which is characterized by a society that has become dysfunctional due to a particular philosophical flaw, in this case, altruism and collectivism.
This essay investigates how the themes of individualism and collectivism are portrayed in two early twentieth century works: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Ayn Rand’s Anthem.
We was selected as the subject of investigation due to its originality – Zamyatin was considered the inventor of the modern dystopia. Anthem’s selection was due to its common themes with We, but naturally different treatment of the themes.
Specifically, the essay addresses how the treatment of these themes fit in context with the writers’ backgrounds and then-current societal trends, how the settings are structured such that individualism is oppressed, the flaws of these settings, as well as how dormant individualism is reestablished in plot and characterization.
The investigation concludes with the evaluation that the treatment of individualism and collectivism differs in setting but is similar in characterization and plot, both showing how such societies are dysfunctional in that pure collectivism and altruism are values that are incompatible with the human soul. It also raises questions concerning Zamyatin’s influence on Rand and the converse ethicality of the works.
It is almost universally true that in every major culture or religion, selfishness is regarded as a trait undesirable and immoral in its very core. Society labels selflessness a crucial virtue, but in truth, nothing is that black and white. To conform completely to this fallacy ignores what makes up a human being. Individualism is innate, and societies that seek to eradicate it are doomed to fail.
The early twentieth century was a significant time in both history and literature. Marxist ideologies were gaining momentum during this time, as the global community saw the birth of the Soviet Union, a controversial manifestation of an altruist ‘utopia.’ These ideas surrounding Marxism and its perspective of utopian society were consequently expressed in literature of the time, birthing dystopian literature, in which the ideas of individualism and collectivism are fundamental.
The treatment of these themes in literature is significant due to their human-centric natures. The contextual and philosophical weight of the themes further reinforces its significance. The universalities found in these works also show a common base of the human psyche, in that both works were similarly written in response to then-current world issues. Even though political significance has faded away in time, today there is still plenty debate surrounding the importance of self-recognition in every culture. These works carry with them an insightful ethical message concerning how we ought to live as humans.
Although individualism and collectivism is core in dystopian literature, the writers convey these themes differently, each producing their own distinctive portrayal of Marxist ambition gone rogue. Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We use plot, characterization, setting, and symbolism to show that the ‘soullessness’ necessitated with collectivism and altruism is incompatible with human nature.
Both works were likely written as the authors’ personal criticism of the flaws of Marxist Russia and collectivism. Due to the varying nature of the authors’ personal backgrounds and experiences with Marxism, the treatments of the themes in the works are different. For this reason context is worthy of discussion.
We was written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a Russian engineer, in 1920-21 (Zamyatin). In 1917, Bolsheviks, a Marxist party, took control of Russia, finally establishing the USSR in 1922 (Colton). We is Zamyatin’s own warning of how then-future Marxist Russia would be like once the Bolsheviks were to actually reign. These ideas, which include the rationalization of labor and ambitions for space exploration – both of which indeed, were or became realities – are central to the work. Zamyatin himself was once a Bolshevik before betraying it, and is thus likely to have supported some Bolshevik ideas, since ideas such as space exploration and rationalization of labor are described in positive light in We through the INTEGRAL and OneState’s technological advancement (Kukushkina).
Ayn Rand, a Russian-born naturalized American citizen, wrote Anthem fifteen years after the We’s conception. Like We, Anthem is Rand’s personal interpretation of sustained communism in the USSR. The USA, renowned for its principle of individual liberty is likely to have influenced Rand, who herself found Objectivism, a philosophy advocating individualism, the importance of ‘ego,’ while strongly opposing collectivism (Messenger). On objectivism, she states:
My philosophy is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute (About Objectivism).
These ideas are reflected strongly in Anthem, which satirizes society in which productivity and reason are rejected in favor of communism.
Rand and Zamyatin’s similarly Russian but different occupational backgrounds are attributable to the works’ thematic similarities but different styles. Although both works satire collective society, We is written in a humorous and sardonic tone, while Anthem’s tone is dark and desolate. Zamyatin’s engineering-background, Bolshevik experience, and future conflicts with the Bolsheviks enabled him to be more objective, contrary to Rand’s idealistic approach against collectivism, influenced by her background as a philosopher. Additionally, the works were written during different times. We’s earlier conception made the industrial revolution a more socially relevant issue, hence We’s industrially-advanced setting. The momentum had likely already disappeared at Anthem’s conception.
OPPRESSION OF THE SOUL AND EGO
Individualism is core in both We and Anthem, although they are represented differently, as soul and ego, respectively. Both words denote the individual; the sense of self that makes people human. Both works portray societies aimed at removing this soul and ego from its citizens in favor of altruistic collectivism, in which the people serve only one purpose: to serve the collective state.
OneState is futuristic and technologically advanced. It stresses the importance of talent and intelligence, shown through the prevalent motif of mathematics, and emphasis on the prestige of D-503’s job as an engineer for the INTEGRAL. In OneState, humans – in which intellect and talent is integral to their existence – are made altruistic and used by OneState as mere tools for the good of the state, as seen in these passages:
Everyone who feels himself capable of doing so is required to compose treatises, epic poems, manifestos, odes, or other compositions dealing with the beauty and grandeur of OneState (Zamyatin 3).
Zamyatin’s objectivity is seen in OneState’s depiction as an anti-utopia rather than dystopia, as he acknowledges likelihood that then-current political conditions may accommodate rapid technological advancement, albeit with fatal, dehumanizing repercussions. Dystopias and anti-utopias differ in that dystopias literally mean ‘bad place,’ whereas anti-utopia means an originally utopian place with a fatal flaw, and these differences are seen in the two contrasting settings (Dystopia).
Zamyatin’s technologically advanced depiction of OneState alludes to the industrial revolution, which itself gave rise to communism with the rise of proletarians. (Engels) With the industrial revolution’s emphasis on productivity, humans in We are literally dehumanized and used as machines for the productivity of the state in order to fulfill this need. They are described as, “Not men but some kind of tractors in human form (Zamyatin 182).”
Oppositely, Anthem occurs in a dystopian, dark, intellectually stunted future where technologies have been abandoned. This primitivism is caused by hazards of inequality and prejudices associated with the presence of any form of intellectual-superiority, as stated here:
It was not that the learning was too hard for us. It was that the learning was too easy… It is not good to be different from our brothers, but it is evil to be superior to them (Rand 23).
Rejection of intellect is ironic as it reverses what is perceived to be good in conventional norms, and serves to reinforce the dysfunctional nature of a collective society brought to its extreme.
In the works’ settings, the application of technological development and intellect define how the sense of self is deprived. Despite contrasting dissimilarities in the technological setting of the works, both are due to society’s false perceptions of what is good, and both dehumanize people into purely altruistic beings. We’s rationalization of labor and high value on utilitarian citizens eliminates D-503’s freedom to think humanly, dehumanizing him into mere force of productivity – OneState’s mathematician. Anthem’s oppression of thought eliminates Prometheus’ identity as an individual – someone with individual intellect, superiorities, and desires. Both works represented altruism as self-sacrifice and a loss of freedom and identity.
Anthem and We’s settings’ differences are also influenced by the authors’ personal views. Zamyatin believes that the state does not suffer from selflessness. In fact, the industrialization of human intellect leads into significant progress, but the individuals who constitute for the state are the ones that suffer. Conversely, Rand’s idealism is expressed in her conveying altruism as fatal to both the state and its people.
Although OneState encourages intellect and talent, imagination is prohibited, similar to Anthem’s prohibition of innovation. Imagination’s absence in OneState establishes a satirical paradox, which Zamyatin uses to criticize its elimination. Conventionally, imagination and creativity is necessary in the arts, but the opposite is true in OneState, as said by D-503:
Why is the dance beautiful? Answer: because it is non-free movement, because all the fundamental significance of the dance lies precisely in its aesthetic subjection, its ideal nonfreedom (Zamyatin 6).
Imagination and innovation are incompatible with a collective society because they are strictly individual. Chopin’s compositions are unique to his own musical imagination, as Beethoven’s are to his own. One’s own sense of imagination or innovation cannot be shared with another’s and therefore must be eliminated, as stated in this excerpt from Anthem in which Prometheus’ invention is rejected:
What is not thought by all men cannot be true… What is not done collectively cannot be good… Many men in the Homes of the Scholars have had strange new ideas in the past… but when the majority of their brother Scholars voted against them, they abandoned their ideas, as all men must (Rand 73).
Like Zamyatin, Rand censures collective society by constructing a case so absurdly opposing what humans typically define as good – in this case, innovation.
Like the arts, rigidity is also found in numerical names, which exist in both societies to ensure that individuals cannot be easily differentiated from each other. For example, D-503 would not be easily differentiated with another individual with a name: D-504. Words connoting collectivity, such as Equality, and Union are selected for names with intentions of emphasizing the residents’ non-identities as an insignificant part of a collective society. Numbers are also meaningless and have no ties with emotions that may suggest any singularity, which opposes conventional belief that names are a part of man’s own identity, and for that matter, his existence.
Similarly, dealing with speech, censorship of words exists in Anthem. Words connoting individualism, such as ‘ego’ and ‘I’ are removed from their society to make thinking as an individual impossible. However, Prometheus’ ultimate discovery of these obscure words is used to show how ego is too human to be suppressed that censorship would not work:
The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning of glory. The sacred word: EGO (Rand 105).
Imagination and innovation, which are incompatible with these societies, are suppressed in both We and Anthem through indoctrination. Imagination, which is equated to a soul, is deemed an illness in OneState, and Prometheus’ “selfish” desire to innovate in Anthem is considered a sin. Absoluteness is equated to happiness in OneState, and D-503 ultimately rejects this idea. Equality is equated to happiness in Anthem, and Prometheus similarly rejects this idea when he disobeys the Council’s schedules to pursue his own intellectual ventures. Imagination and innovation are shown to be instinctive, becoming catalysts for conflict in both works. This again places emphasis on how much innate human behavior must be suppressed for collective societies to ‘function,’ and how even so, this suppression is not sustainable.
Although intellect is related to imagination, there is a significant difference between the two. While mathematical intellect is absolute and clearly defined, imagination lacks the absoluteness that is crucial for OneState to function. This absoluteness is reflected in the aforementioned description of the non-free dance. Both settings are strictly planned to ensure the predictability that is necessary for every member of society to be as one. OneState’s residents, for example, begin and end their days at the same time, march in complete unison each day, following the plans set for them by the Table of Hours, similar to how Anthem’s residents also follow schedules set by the Councils.
The system of regimented living is, however, flawed, shown when MEPHI revolutions occur in OneState. Systematic predictability conflicts with the unpredictability and spontaneity that are characteristic of humans. When the march during the typically unanimous reelection of the Benefactor is disturbed, chaos occurs in OneState. Slight discrepancies are amplified in an environment ill suited for impulsiveness. The guardians exist to reinforce regimentation, but they cannot with ease. This chaos shows how individualism cannot exist in a collective state, as collectivism necessitates everything’s sameness, despite how different people really are. The revolution was accompanied by I-330’s quote: “The number of revolutions is infinite,” which reinforces the instability of such totalitarian states (Zamyatin 168).
Because predictability and togetherness is needed in both societies, the rationing of sex and the elimination of love is necessitated. Use of in-vitro-fertilization in both societies removes the existence of families. In Anthem, for example, preference is a transgression, and everybody is referred to as ‘brothers.’ Here, the word ‘brother’ does not denote familial relationship, rather equality, since the word ‘brother’ implies likeness to one another.
As with other things, sex is also rationed and made technical in We with the use of pink tickets. The presence of multiple sex partners in We serves to make intercourse impersonal and non-exclusive. A monogamous sexual relationship is likely to cause love, which cannot exist in these societies where everyone belongs to each other because love can only occur between two selves. The absence of sex in Anthem’s society is significant, as despite its absence, libido remains extant. Gender segregation is employed to control this, although this is found to be unsuccessful with Prometheus and Gaea’s relationship, which showed how such a system would be unsustainable.
This removal of love and sexuality from society contradicts with the conventional idea of happiness. Marriage and family are arguably requisite for mental well-being. Like imagination and innovation, love is universal and found in every culture – genetically predisposed and irremovable from human instinct. Zamyatin and Rand illustrate how collective, loveless societies cannot exist, as love and sexuality are innately human and cannot be eliminated.
Like imagination and innovation, the rejection of love in these societies contains an element of absurdity, which leads the readers into believing that collective society is absurd. Additionally, the excessive suppression of human character, which causes these societies to become unsustainable, also shows that collectivism has too many flaws to work correctly.
FUTILITY OF PROGRESS AND SYMBOLISM OF TIME
Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau once said, “Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them (Rousseau).” Philosophers do not invent ideas, simply stating observations of human nature. It is thus significant to see how despite the centurial time gap between Zamyatin, Rand, and Rousseau, this very same philosophy is mirrored in their works, indicating a universal perspective on human nature.
The citizens are able to see clearly past the ‘green wall’ surrounding OneState, where nature has taken control. Despite the people’s awareness of the outside world, they remain in OneState. Similarly, the Dark Forest in Anthem represents a time barrier back to the Unmentionable Times, in which residents can easily go past it, but do not choose to do so, as apparent in this passage:
We were in the Uncharted Forest. We had not thought of coming here, but our legs had carried our wisdom, and our legs had brought us to the Uncharted Forest against our will (Rand 75).
Both works anticipate that censorship and general indoctrination would cause society to become so unfamiliar with their old, free pasts, that they will not desire their pasts even if they see it. The idle and content nature of the citizens mirror how the general Soviet populace during the time was, in actuality, supporting socialism.
These symbolic time barriers allow irony in the plots. D-503’s association with I-330 and rejection of OneState leads him out past the green wall into the MEPHI – who themselves represent naturalness in their nudity. The forest in We represents a more primitive past, and D-503’s desire to move into the forest suggests that a without a soul, technological advancement would be futile and would all eventually go to waste.
The stated passage from Anthem supports the idea that despite indoctrination, ‘wisdom’ would ultimately result in ‘returning to the past.’ The forest in Anthem is the opposite of We’s. The hut where Prometheus and Gaea eventually settle in signifies a more technologically advanced past and forgotten knowledge. Their ultimate escape to the technologically superior forest connotes that a collective society such as that found in Anthem would cause progress – represented by technology – to be backwards.
The forests’ appropriateness as a symbol of the past is due to its direct relation with nature, which contrasts artificiality. These future dystopias are depicted as socially unnatural and simulated, so it is apt for nature to signify what is natural and normal. Supported by symbolic juxtaposition of forests and artificial society, Anthem and We anticipates an ultimate return to normal, non-collective society, foreshadowed by the protagonists’ escapes from the collective societies in the works.
Time alludes to human rediscovery. While We is placed in a setting over a millennium ahead of time, Anthem is likely to have occurred earlier, since it is placed only after typical social systems are rejected in favor of collectivism. Historically, new economic philosophies tend to gain peak popularity in only two to three centuries. Modern capitalism, for example, gained momentum in the mid-eighteenth century and reached its peak popularity in the twentieth century (Peterson). Since Anthem’s society represents the peak of collectivism, its setting is unlikely to have been placed past the twenty-second century.
The time settings relates to the social settings of the works. Anthem’s earlier society is shown to be generally content with the collective nature of their lives, because the state hasn’t lived for long enough and the people’s repressed ‘egos’ have yet to reappear. We’s later society is shown to have had more time to become discontented, thus the existence of the MEPHI. Anthem’s plot and protagonist marks the beginning of revolution, whereas We’s plot and protagonist is caught up in the middle of revolution. This trend establishes the fact that in time, the ‘soul’ naturally becomes reestablished.
DISINTEGRATION OF ALTRUISTIC ATTITUDES
This very reestablishment of ‘soul’ occurs in both We and Anthem as the works’ plot progresses. In fact, plot development in the works primarily concern the protagonist’s discovery of past ideas of freedom, individualism, love, and a subsequent rejection of societal collectivity in this ‘enlightenment’ and realization of the incompatibilities of their egotistic desires with the constraints of their collective societies.
We is written as a series of D-503’s journal entries, originally intended to spread OneState’s philosophies in their conquests of space exploration with the building of the INTEGRAL. D-503’s personal pride as a mathematician for OneState is ironic considering his eventual betrayal of the state. Zamyatin employs this irony as means of describing how even the most loyal followers of the state would eventually reject its ideas once ‘enlightened.’ Anthem is similarly written using first-person narration to give personal insight into the development of their ‘souls.’ However, the nature of the conflict differs greatly, which implicates the protagonists’ societal roles, and the works’ settings.
Both protagonists in We and Anthem reject their communities because of a desire to be something they cannot be in their societies. These desires are shown to grow coinciding with their discovery of their souls or egos. In We, D-503’s infatuation with I-330 and consequent links to the MEMPHI leads him into abandoning his loyalty to OneState. As I-330’s reintroduces him to love and life outside OneState, he is essentially re-humanized as he develops an imagination and finds life to have more purpose than serving OneState. In Anthem, Prometheus’ initial unhappiness with his role as a street sweeper conflicts with his need to contribute to society.
However, Gaea’s relationship only re-humanizes Prometheus partly. Instead, he is mainly reawakened through discovery of his sense of innovation. The plots are structured this way because for conflict to occur there must be an incompatibility between the protagonists and their societies. Both societies cannot accommodate humans with souls, and the souls are developed using love, imagination, and innovation. These motifs are used in the works for ‘enlightenment,’ because they are predominant parts of normal society and are considered key parts of the individualistic soul. They are shown to be inherent as they develop naturally with interaction between chief characters.
Women are used as catalysts for ‘enlightenment’ in both works due the exclusively individualistic nature of intimate relationships. Names are also used symbolically in the female catalysts. ‘Liberty’ and ‘I’ denote freedom and individuality, respectively. Both Gaea and I-330 possess individualistic traits and encourage individualism in the protagonists’ part. Gaea, however, is more passive than I-330, who must give more effort to reestablish D-503’s much-dormant soul, compared to Prometheus’ already apparent desire for self-worth. This encouragement of individualistic values is apparent in dialogue from both works, as such in anthem: “Your eyes,” Gaea said, “are not like the eyes of any among men (Rand 44),” The statement acknowledges Prometheus’ difference from his ‘brothers’ and marks the beginning of their relationship.
OneState does not prohibit intersexual relationship. In fact, it presets them to exist, acknowledging sexual instinct’s inevitability. However, these relationships are kept strictly sexual. D-503’s relationship with O-90 is non-romantic, as was his with I-330 initially. D-503 and O-90 only acknowledge each other as sexual products, and any singularity is disregarded with the presence of multiple sex partners.
R-13 is used as an obstruction of exclusivity, which O-90 sees that D-503’s functions can be substituted with R-13’s, therefore disregarding any singularity. I-330’s relationship with D-503 is different in that her character is described as wild and rebellious – distinctly different from other OneState residents and of a strong ego. I-330 acknowledges herself as a singular being – one that wants D-503 as more than just a sexual being – and through her D-503’s dormant soul is reestablished. It is implied that only with the acknowledgement of individuality can love occur, which further emphasizes the importance of individuality for happiness, which is normally associated with love.
D-503 and I-330 are a study of contrasts. D-503 represents OneState’s ideals – altruistic, intelligent, and socially beneficial. Contrariwise, I-330 represents the antithesis. Her association with the MEPHI, and her ‘irrational’ nonconformist spirit of self-awareness, independence, and unrestraint – expressed in her smoking and drinking, things deemed forbidden by OneState – contradicts OneState’s ideals. For this very reason, D-503 initially disdains her. However, as their relationship matures, D-503 does not change I-330’s personality. Instead, the contrary occurs. This indicates that I-330’s nature is more in line with human nature. She sees nothing in his nature that evokes a desire for self-reform, but he sees something in her that he comes to desire. Zamyatin shows that the dominant trait is the more human one, suggesting that the characters of individualism and independence are more human than selflessness and conformism.
The popularity of dystopian literature in the early twentieth century indicates a worldwide panic of totalitarian states, in which individual freedom is seized that even the freedom to be human is lost to the state. Without doubt, this panic is a sensible one. The societies depicted in the dystopian novels, Anthem and We, where collectivity is rampant, and humans are without their souls and egos, are the quintessence of a repressive Hades.
What’s striking is that aside from slight dissimilarities of style, setting, and circumstance surrounding ‘enlightenment,’ both works use similar narration and plot based on the reestablishment of the soul and ego through love, imagination, and innovation, as well as use of females as catalysts for ‘enlightenment.’ For one, these similarities indicate universality on the authors’ perspectives concerning human nature and the inevitability of individualism. Secondly, they raise the question of whether or not We may have, in fact, influenced Anthem, a possibility that warrants further investigation.
As said, nothing is entirely black and white. By nature, humans are double-faceted. They are both individualistic and altruistic, and neither trait can be suppressed. D-503’s patriotism and nationalism does dehumanize him, but his lack of individualism does. Prometheus’ innovation is based on both the altruistic desire to contribute to his society, and the need for self-recognition. The extreme collectivism in these works leads to profound introspection of the other end of the spectrum. Here, collectivism has gone unbridled, but how about an individualistic nightmare, for a change? How about a world without “We,” but only an evil “I” cancerously devouring man’s own existence?
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