From the boundless green ocean behind the Wall, a wild tidal surge of roots, flowers, twigs, leaves was rolling toward me, standing on its hind legs, and had it flowed over me I would have been transformed from a person—from the finest and most precise of mechanisms—into . . .
But, happily, between me and this wild, green ocean was the glass of the Wall. Oh, the great, divinely bounding wisdom of walls and barriers! They may just be the greatest of all inventions. Mankind ceased to be wild beast when it built its first wall. Mankind ceased to be savage when we built the Green Wall, when we isolated our perfect, machined world, by means of the Wall, from the irrational, chaotic world of the trees, birds, animals . . .
That is from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (pp. 82-83). It’s a strange novel, an early example of a futuristic dystopia. The author finished writing it in the 1921, but couldn’t get it published in Russia. An English translation was published years later.
In the above quote, the description is of the Green Wall that encloses the society called One State. It is an entirely independent and self-sustaining city-state, outside of which its citizens do not venture. The government is authoritarian and social control is absolute. The collective is everything, such that people have no sense of individuality and have no souls. They don’t even dream, not normally, for to do so is considered a symptom of mental illness.
There was a global war that killed most of the human population. The citizens of One State are aware that human society used to be different. They have no experience of freedom, neither social freedom nor free will. But they have a historical memory of what freedom once meant and, of course, it is seen as having been a bad thing and the source of unhappiness.
Like Julian Jayne’s theory of bicameralism, these people are able to maintain a complex society without an internalized sense of self. The loci of identity is completely outside. But unlike bicameralism, there are no command voices telling them what to do. The society is so ordered that few moments of the day are not occupied by scheduled activity. Even sex is determined by the system of authority. Mathematical order is everything, including how citizens are named.
What fascinated me about the novel is when the protagonist, D-503, gains a soul. It is an imagining of what this experience would be like, to gain a sense of individuality and interiority, for long dormant imagination to be awakened. Having a self means the ability to imagine other selves, to empathize with what others are thinking and feeling, to be able to enter into the world of another.
If bicameral societies did exist, this would have been similar to how they came to an end. A bicameral society would have required a tightly ordered society where the social reality was ever-present and all-consuming. For that to breakdown would have been traumatic. It would have felt like madness.
* * *
by Yevgeny Zamyatin
With effort, a kind of spiral torque, I finally tore my eyes away from the glass below my feet—and suddenly the golden letters “MEDICINE” splashed in front of me . . . Why had he led me here and not to the Operation Room, and why had he spared me? But, at that moment, I wasn’t thinking of these things: with one leap over the steps, the door solidly banged behind me and I exhaled. Yes: it was as though I hadn’t breathed since dawn, as though my heart hadn’t struck a single beat—and it was only now that I exhaled for the first time, only now that the floodgates of my chest opened . . .
There were two of them: one was shortish, with cinder-block legs, and his eyes, like horns, tossed up the patients; the other one was skinny and sparkling with scissor-lips and a blade for a nose . . . I had met him before.
I flung myself at him as though he were kin, straight into the blade, and said something about being an insomniac, the dreams, the shadows, the yellow world. The scissor-lips flashed and smiled. “How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.”
A soul? That strange, ancient, long-forgotten word. We sometimes said “heart and soul,” “soulful,” “lost souls,” but a “soul”—
“This is . . . this is very grave,” I babbled.
“It’s incurable,” incised the scissors.
“But . . . what specifically is at the source of all this? I can’t even begin . . . to imagine.”
“Well, you see . . . it is as if you . . . you’re a mathematician, right?”
“Well, take, for instance, a plane, a surface, like this mirror here. And on this surface—here, look—are you and I, and we are squinting at the sun, and see the blue electrical spark in that tube. And watch—the shadow of an aero is flashing past. But it is only on this surface for just a second. Now imagine that some heat source causes this impenetrable surface to suddenly grow soft, and nothing slides across it anymore but everything penetrates inside it, into that mirror world, which we used to look into as curious children—children aren’t all that silly, I assure you. The plane has now become a volume, a body, a world, and that which is inside the mirror is inside you: the sun, the whirlwind from the aero’s propeller, your trembling lips, and someone else’s trembling lips. So you see: a cold mirror reflects and rejects but this absorbs every footprint, forever. One day you see a barely noticeable wrinkle on someone’s face—and then it is forever inside you; one day you hear a droplet falling in the silence—and you can hear it again now . . .”
“Yes, yes, exactly . . .” I grabbed his hand. I could hear the faucet in the sink slowly dripping its droplets in the silence. And I knew that they would be inside me forever. But still, why—all of a sudden—a soul? I never had one—never had one—and then suddenly . . . Why doesn’t anyone else have one, but me?
I squeezed harder on the skinny hand: I was terrified to let go of this lifeline.
“Why? And why don’t we have feathers or wings but just scapulas, the foundation of wings? It’s because we don’t need wings anymore—we have the aero; wings would only be extraneous. Wings are for flying, but we don’t need to get anywhere: we have landed, we have found what we were seeking. Isn’t that so?”
I nodded my head in dismay. He looked at me, laughed sharply, javelinishly. The other one, hearing this, stumpily stamped through from out of his office, tossed the skinny doctor up with his hornlike eyes, and then tossed me up, too.
“What’s the problem? What, a soul? A soul, you say? Damn it! We’ll soon get as far as cholera. I told you”—the skinny one was horn-tossed again—“I told you, we must, everyone’s imagination— everyone’s imagination must be . . . excised. The only answer is surgery, surgery alone . . .”
He struggled to put on some enormous X-ray glasses, and walked around for a long time looking through my skull bone at my brain, and making notes in a notebook.
“Extraordinary, extraordinarily curious! Listen to me, would you agree . . . to be preserved in alcohol? This would be, for the One State, an extraordinarily . . . this would aid us in averting an epidemic . . . If you, of course, don’t have any particular reasons not . . .”
“You see,” the other one said, “cipher D-503 is the Builder of the Integral, and I am certain that this would interfere . . .”
“Ah,” he mumbled and lumped off to his cabinet.
And then we were two. A paper-hand lightly, tenderly lay on my hand. A face in profile bent toward me and he whispered: “I’ll tell you a secret—it isn’t only you. My colleague is talking about an epidemic for good reason. Think about it; perhaps you yourself have noticed something similar in someone else—something very similar, very close to . . .” He looked at me intently. What is he hinting at—at whom? It can’t be that—
“Listen . . .” I leapt from my chair. But he had already loudly begun to talk about something else: “. . . And for the insomnia, and your dreams, I can give you one recommendation: walk more. Like, for instance, tomorrow morning, go for a walk . . . to the Ancient House, for example.”
He punctured me again with his eyes and smiled thinly. And it seemed to me: I could clearly and distinctly see something wrapped up in the fine fabric of his smile—a word—a letter—a name, a particular name . . . Or is this again that same imagination?
I was only barely able to wait while he wrote out my certification of illness for today and tomorrow, then I shook his hand once more and ran outside.
My heart was light, quick, like an aero, and carrying, carrying me upward. I knew: tomorrow held some sort of joy. But what would it be?