Eric Rabkin asserts that studying the fantastic can inform us of the “normative ideas” of literature, which can be discerned in the “structural reversals” of those norms in the fantastic (80). In this paper I will explore the reversal of the “norms” of proletarian literature in Zamjatin’s fantastic novel We (1921). Weber and Lewis have already documented Zamjatin’s parodic treatment of the proletarians’ style, tone, and recurring images; in my paper I will examine the novel’s challenge to the proletarians’ very image of self and society. I will compare the metamorphosis of society and self as depicted in We and in the best-known proletarian novel of the 1920s, Gladkov’s Cement. Both novels present a protagonist (Gleb Čumalov of Cement and D-503 of We) as reborn in revolution (both novels contain explicit references to birth) and guided into a new sense of self, which requires the acquisition of a new language.
Tzvetan Todorov’s groundbreaking work on the fantastic stresses the importance of language to this genre; he divides the fantastic into two groups: “themes of self,” in which there is a monologic use of language (internal language shapes reality) and “themes of other,” in which there is a dialogic use of language (between the self and the other, which is the physical embodiment of subconscious and usually sexual desires) (139). Although Todorov claims that these two groups will cover all instances of the fantastic, he also asserts that the “true” fantastic has ceased to exist in the twentieth century (168-175). I propose that Todorov has neglected a third possible group, in which there is a true dialogue with an external other. In Zamjatin’s novel, this external other is the image of self presented by proletarian literature and theory.
Todorov bases his two thematic groups on Freudian psychology; it will prove useful in the current discussion to turn to Jacques Lacan’s reworking of Freud, in which he focuses on the role of language in the composition of self. For Lacan, the entry into society is an entry into language. The child leaves the pre-linguistic “imaginary” (the realm of images) and moves into the “symbolic” (the realm of words). For Lacan, the self thereby acquired is a false one, because it is composed of words, the meaning of which are always changing and which cannot adequately express desire. In this paper I argue that the fantastic results when there is difficulty in making the transition from imaginary to symbolic.
I will examine the many references to rebirth and language acquisition in Cement and in We. When Gleb Čumalov returns from war, he exists in the imaginary realm of the revolution and civil war. He must acquire the new language of this society, which is a language incapable of expressing individual desires: it is a language of “we” not “I.” Some—such as Gleb Čumalov—acquire this language and image of self; they can then successfully enter society (and serve as a model to readers as they attempt to transform themselves). Others—such as Polja Mexova—are incapable of successfully traversing this crisis and go insane. Zamjatin parodies Čumalov’s journey toward mental health by reversing it in We. D-503 already has accepted his role in the society of the OneState; rather than being reborn and maturing into the unity of the “we,” D-503 moves from the “we” to develop an “I.” Through his journal, he acquires a new language and image of self. Just as Polja is seen as insane for her inability to enter the symbolic, D-503 is deemed ill for leaving it (he has developed a “soul”). Through this reversal, Zamjatin illustrates what he claims to be the only law of the universe: change. Moreover, by presenting the possibility of a new symbolic realm, the novel points to the falseness of any claim to have found the final image of self. The only way the OneState can reattain a static image of self in We is through psycho-surgery (and even then, the pregnant O’s departure from the OneState signals the futility of this attempt).
Rabkin, Eric. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Cornell: Cornell UP, 1970.