The One State offers extreme, mechanized rationality in place of free will as the solution to navigating the world’s unpredictable forces. Everything in the One State is governed exclusively by an adherence to rigid logic and mathematical claims, and ciphers’ daily lives are organized according to highly regulated scheduling. The One State values absolute subservience to a governing power, math and predictability as the path toward happiness, and it indoctrinates its citizens to perceive the attempts of their savage, uncivilized “Ancient” forbearers to harness control over the world as naïve, superstitious, and self-destructive. At the end of the day, however, the problems and complexities of individual people and the larger world are infinite, and it is impossible to know all. In We, Zamyatin suggests that humanity’s attempts to exercise control over a largely uncontrollable, unknown world are vain and fruitless.
The One State believes that absolute subservience and logical, rigorous structure hold the key to happiness. Ciphers are monitored constantly: they live in glass houses, and government-appointed “Guardians” watch their every move and punish anyone who deviates from the status quo. The One State uses rationality to validate its surveillance state, arguing that the “beneficial yoke of reason” will bring “mathematically infallible happiness.” On the other hand, the One State believes that imagination and unpredictability bring about only pain, suffering, and chaos. The State Gazette, the One State’s newspaper, publishes an article championing the Operation, a procedure that rids ciphers of their capacity for imagination and irrational thought. The article claims, “the beauty of a mechanism is in its steadfast, precise, and pendulum-like rhythm.” In other words, the beauty of machines is that they are rational, steady, and perfectly predictable: they leave no space for doubt and invite no threat of the unknown. The One State wants its ciphers to undergo the Operation because it will render them even more predictable and machine-like than they already are, thus assuaging the government’s fear of the unknown.
The One State regards the Ancients’ embracement of individual freedom and illogical superstition as silly, ineffective, and destructive. They use propaganda like the story of The Three Released to warn ciphers of the dangers of the freedom and the unknown. The Three Released tells the story of three ciphers who, as an experiment, were allowed to take a month off work. The “released’ ciphers didn’t know what to do with their new free time, so they “loitered around the place they usually worked and peeped inside with hungry eyes.” Eventually, they became so tormented by their jarring lack of structure and predictability that they drowned themselves in the lake. The Three Released orients freedom and the unknown as a source of fear and structure and subservience as a source of happiness and stasis.
Ultimately, logic and control cannot sufficiently grant humanity the power to understand and predict everything about the world. Despite the One State’s efforts to harness control over its citizens through mechanizing their schedules and surveilling every aspect of their lives, it cannot prevent rebel organizations like MEPHI from gaining traction. In spite of D-503’s belief that all the world can be explained and known by mathematics, I-330’s mysterious smile continues to deceive him. What irks D-503 most about I-330 is her unreadable demeanor. When he first meets her, he remarks on “the annoying X in her smile,” with “X” referring to the algebraic symbol for an unknown value or quantity. D-503 finds I-330’s unknowable demeanor “annoying” because he views it as a threat: he has no way to determine with certainty what I-330 is thinking or what her intentions are. I-330’s mysteriousness makes her unpredictable and thus, in D-503’s and the One State’s eyes, a threat. At the end of the novel, the reader learns that D-503 did have reason to see a threat in I-330’s unreadable face: the Benefactor eventually reveals to D-503 that I-330 was only interested in him because he had access to the Integral and could be of use to MEPHI in its plot to take over the Integral and overthrow the One State. I-330’s betrayal (or, at least, her dishonesty) shows that rationality cannot account for all of life’s unknown variables.
I-330’s statement to D-503 that “revolutions are infinite” also highlights the insufficiency of math to know and predict human behavior. In response to D-503’s observation that MEPHI’s revolution will be impossible because the One State’s revolution at the end of the Two-Hundred-Year-War “was the last,” I-330 offers that there can never be a “last” revolution, as, like numbers, revolutions are “infinite,” and there is thus no way to quantify which will be the last. She explains, “Revolutions are infinite. Final things are for children because infinity scares children and it is important that children sleep peacefully at night…” Her remark suggests that D-503 and the One State have only chosen to believe that their authoritarian revolution was the last because it is easier and more comforting to believe this than to accept the possibility—and inevitability—of an infinite future of subsequent revolutions. If D-503 accepts the possibility of an infinite supply of future revolutions, he must also be ready to accept that such revolutions will be infinitely unpredictable, and, subsequently, beyond his ability to control.
Fear of the Unknown ThemeTracker
Fear of the Unknown Quotes in We
On days like these, you can see to the very blue depths of things, to their unknown surfaces, those marvelous expressions of mathematical equality—which exist in even the most usual and everyday objects.
And I don’t know—perhaps it was somewhere in her eyes or eyebrows—there was a kind of strange and irritating X to her, and I couldn’t pin it down, couldn’t give it a numerical expression
With particular pleasure, I listened to our contemporary music […]. Crystal chromatic degrees converging and diverging in infinite sequences and the summarizing chords of Taylor and Maclaurin formulae with a gait like Pythagorean pant-legs, so whole-toned and quadrilateral-heavy […]. What magnificence! What unwavering predictability! And how pitiful that whimsical music of the Ancients, delimited by nothing except wild fantasy.
…Strange: I was writing today about the highest of heights in human history and all the while breathing the cleanest mountain air of thought, but, meanwhile, there were clouds and cobwebs and a cross, some kind of four-pawed X, inside me. Maybe it was my own paws, since they were in front of me on the table all this time—my shaggy paws. I don’t like talking about them and I don’t like them: they are evidence of the savage epoch. Could there actually be, within me—
Freedom and crime are so indissolubly connected to each other, like…well, like the movement of the aero and its velocity. When the velocity of the aero = 0, it doesn’t move; when the freedom of a person = 0, he doesn’t commit crime.
“Oh come on—knowledge! This knowledge of yours is utter cowardice. Yes, that’s it—really. You just want to build a little wall around infinity—and you’re afraid to look behind it! Peek over it and you’ll have to squeeze your eyes shut—ha!”
[The Ancients], however, worshipped their absurd, unknown God whereas we worship a non-absurd one—one with a very precise visual appearance. Their God didn’t give them anything except an eternal, torturous journey; their God didn’t think up anything more clever than that. And there’s no apparent reason why it sacrificed itself. We, on the other hand, make sacrifices to our God, the One State—calm, carefully considered, reasonable sacrifices.
“I hate the fog. I am afraid of fog.”
“That means you love it. You’re afraid of it—because it is stronger than you. You hate it—because you are afraid of it. You love it—because you can’t conquer it yourself. You see, you can only love the unconquerable.”
Through the fog, I see: long glass tables; sphere-heads are chewing in time, slowly and silently. From a distance, through the fog, a metronome is tapping, and under the regular caress of this music, I count to fifty, mechanically, together with everyone: the fifty mandatory masticatory motions to each bite. I go downstairs, mechanically, on the beat, and I write my name down in the exit book, as everyone does. But I feel: I live separately from everyone else, alone, fenced in by a soft, sound-muffling wall, and behind this wall is my world…
What if today’s essentially irrelevant occurrence—what if all this is only the beginning , only the first meteorite in a whole series of rumbling, burning rocks, spilling through infinity toward our glass paradise?
The sun…it wasn’t our sun, evenly distributed along the mirrored surfaces of the streets: it was live splinters and incessantly jumping dots, blinding your eyes and spinning your head. And the trees were like candles jutting right up into the sky; like spiders on gnarled paws squatting on the earth; like mute, green fountains…And everything is crawling, stirring, rustling, and a sort of rough, little tangle rushes up underfoot and I am riveted, I can’ take one step because it is not level under my feet—do you understand? It was not level but sort of repulsively soft, yielding, living, green, bouncy.
“Well, which final revolution do you want then? There isn’t a final one. Revolutions are infinite. Final things are for children because infinity scares children and it is important that children sleep peacefully at night…”
The beauty of a mechanism is in its steadfast, precise, and pendulum-like rhythm. But then you, who have been nurtured by Taylorist systems from childhood, haven’t you grown up to be pendulum precise?
With one exception: mechanisms don’t have imaginations.
Have you ever seen an inanely dreaming and distant smile break across the physiognomy of a pump cylinder while it was at work? Have you ever heard of a crane, in the nighttime, in the hours allocated for repose, turning over in agitation and sighing?
A ridiculous feeling but I was sure of it: yes, I must help. Ridiculous, because it was a duty and yet another crime. Ridiculous, because a white duty cannot, at the same time, be a black duty and a crime—they can’t coincide. Life is either blackless or whiteless and its color only depends on a basic, logical premise. And if the premise is that I gave her a child illegally…