Zamyatin's WE

2000-11-11

I've just finished re-reading the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. This is something of the Ur-text for all 20th-century dystopian novels, since it strongly influenced Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, and Rand's Anthem. The Rand connection is especially intriguing to me, since Zamyatin was extremely active in Russian (specifically Petrograd/Leningrad) literary life from the Revolution until about 1927 or so, when he was blacklisted. Rand left Petrograd in the fall of 1925, so I have to think that if she was aware at all of current controversies, she was well-acquainted with Zamyatin's ideas. Not even Chris Sciabarra talks about this in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical -- he focuses on Lossky and philosophy, not the literary atmosphere of the time. I think there's great potential for exploration here. Heck, I'm even thinking of learning Russian so I can follow these leads first-hand. A study of Nietzsche, Zamyatin/Blok/etc., and Rand would be fascinating, I think. I'd need to brush up on my German and learn Russian, but why not?

One of the eternal puzzles to me is that Rand seems to have had so little interest in poetry. I mean, Anthem is a prose poem of sorts and there is some gorgeous writing in We The Living that borders on the poetic (though we see less of this in the "big two"). But as far as I know she never wrote any poetry. Supposedly her favorite poet was Blok, the Russian symbolist. I've read only a few snippets of his poems, and then only in English translation. Here again, I might have to learn Russian! :)

Having read most of Nietzsche's works, I would definitely like to explore the Nietzsche connection. All the Randians deny the connection and love to say how Nietzsche's philosophy is diametrically opposed to Rand's philosophy, blah blah blah. Pshaw! Horsefeathers! Stuff and nonsense! The problem with these Randians (ARI, TOC, and every stripe in between) is that they have absolutely no sense of literature. To me, the influence of Nietzsche is evident in what Rand called the poetry of Nietzsche's thought, at the emotional level not the philosophical level. But these Randians wouldn't know an emotion if it hit them square in the face.

I've always been struck by something Barbara Branden reported in The Passion of Ayn Rand, and here I quote her direct quote of Rand (presumably from the tapes Branden made of her conversations with Rand): "The first book I bought myself in America was an English version of Thus Spake Zarathustra, and I underscored all my favorite sections." Reflect on this for a moment. Rand has just arrived in America. She doesn't speak English, let alone read it. Yet she knows Nietzsche so thoroughly that she proceeds to underline all her favorite sections in an English translation of Thus Spake Zarathustra! And Nietzsche had no influence on Rand? Puh-leeze! What fun it would be ferret out all the connections, and explore Zamyatin and Blok and everything else that was going on in Russian literary life in the years (and impressionable years at that -- Rand's late teens) before she left Russia in the fall of 1925.

I've started delving into Zamyatin's essays now, too, so I'm sure I'll have more to write about him in the future. For now, here's a fine quote from him:

Real literature can be created only by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics, not by diligent and trustworty functionaries.

Zamyatin rocks.


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