Crystal City

Crystal City

This essay looks at two conflicts which emerged in my reading of We, Zamyatin’s dystopia and a precursor of 1984 and Brave New World. First, I examine the tension between contentment and freedom, a dilemma which quickly emerges upon entering Zamyatin’s nightmarish paradise of OneState. I then look at the question of the slavishly rationalist OneState ruling over irrational subjects. I consider the instability and contradiction of such a system, and examine some real-world experiments in this line of thinking. For the purpose of this essay, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, taken from Notes from the Underground, will be used as a prototype for the irrational human.

Reading Notes from the Underground for a university assignment was a challenging experience. Though at times inspiring, the book is overall one of despair, where a cynical portrayal of life in the mainstream is mocked by the miserable alternative of a life underground. The reader’s instinctive reaction is to search for a happy medium or, even better, a fulfilling yet liberating alternative.

Putting down the book and getting back to work is an explicit acknowledgement that no such daring journey is being taken, and the safe rational choice has been taken. The timetable beckons, not just the essay deadline – but the grander journey through school, college and into a career. A well trodden path into rational, productive citizenship. Dostoevsky promises us nothing but misery upon deviating from the masterplan. Even if enlightened freedom and ignorant contentment really are two mutually exclusive options, one can sometimes feel dangerously close to losing out on both of them.

“What is it that people beg for, dream about, torment themselves for, from the time they leave swaddling clothes? They want someone to tell them, once and for all, what happiness is – and then to bind them to that happiness with a chain.” – The Benefactor, We

Happiness in OneState

The subjects of OneState, or as they refer to themselves – the Numbers, seem to express a state of sincere happiness, however unconvincing. It is a bizarre, calculated happiness, which says more about the corruption of the word than the Numbers’ actual mindset. D-503 imagines, as no doubt OneState ideology has taught him, that happiness can be calculated as fraction, taking bliss as the nominator and envy as the denominator.

Hunger has long been vanquished and permissive sexual relations have been incorporated into the scientific bureaucracy; and so our hero sees no cause for envy. In fact, he doesn’t even see the need to evaluate the other half of the equation, that of bliss, as he muses that “the denominator of the happiness fraction has been reduced to zero and the fraction becomes magnificent infinity.”1 Such a “mathematically infallible happiness” instinctively seems unreliable, its cold and quantifiable logic seems unsuited to the arena of emotion. But within the rationalist world of OneState, no such incongruity is noticed. In fact where the model fails is in its incorporation of infinity, an irrational concept which will cause D-503 much grievance later in his journey of self-discovery.

Happy or not, the Numbers of OneState do live in a technological Eden of sorts, a city containing all the essential ingredients for paradise. As Sicher describes it, “the men are angels knowing no fantasy”2 – under the watchful eye of the godlike Benefactor. Indoctrinated and almost completely lacking in hierarchy,* the Numbers of OneState have lost their propensity to envy, desire or dream. The similarity with Eden would be complete if we could say that sin itself had been eradicated, but the Justice Gala recounted in Record 9 suggests that no such perfection has been achieved. Gathered in Cube Square, the Numbers solemnly watch as a criminal is literally annihilated – reduced by “the Machine” into a puddle of water. Our model citizen, D-503, describes the event as a “calm, rational, carefully considered sacrifice,”3 yet he is unclear to what or whom the sacrifice is being made or what is to gain. The execution is conducted as part of a sombre but elaborate ceremony. The Numbers are lined up in sixty six concentric circles, in the centre of which stands the condemned, hands bound in purple ribbon. Watching over the proceedings, seated on the monumental Cube, sits the Benefactor, watching over his subjects like a high priest.

This pseudo-religious ritual throws into question the rational foundations of the OneState. In particular, the Benefactor’s authority seems almost mystical in origin. He is ruler because he is ruler – there is no question of how or why he rose to such a position, and no reason to imagine a point when he will no longer be ruler. One gets a sense that, though the official ideology is purely of science and reason, it is propped up by social devices beyond the realm of numbers. The ceremony starts with the reading of state poetry, in which Prometheus banishes chaos with “hoops of Law.”4 The Benefactor rules with impure rationalism, by allowing the Numbers worship reason as they would a god, we see a cunning that no scientific law can delineate.

An earlier literary example of such a discrepant spiritual leader can be seen in Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Ivan Karamazov tells his brother how Jesus returned to Earth and found himself in Seville at the height of the Inquisition. The religious authorities have no choice but to condemn him, his original theology has long ago mutated into a system for public control. Though once the source of the social order, the messiah is now nothing more than a threat, and the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell to explain this to him. By rejecting Christ himself but maintaining the trappings of his following, the Inquisitor strikes the balance between the need for a material power structure and the usefulness of a mystical basis on which to maintain it. The Benefactor mimics this synthesis, using a human pragmatism to enforce power on a cold, scientific basis.

Some of the characters in We do experience brief happiness as we know it. In Record 29 O is elated in a manner to which D-503 seems unable to relate. She is pregnant, a crime in the eugenic OneState, and gasps at D-503 “I’m so happy, so happy…I’m full you see, full to the brim.”5 Her maternal bliss has no place within OneState, it cannot be defined or numerically quantified, it is in a sense irrational. D-503 struggles with such “irrational” emotions, he cannot comprehend his love for I-330 and his envy when he hears of her tryst with R-13.

These are situations which we wouldn’t describe as rational or irrational, but they are “normal.” However, we can say that the characters which experience these ambiguous emotions all find themselves in conflict with the rationalist OneState. The implication is that the humans themselves are irrational. Dostoevsky would have immediately agreed with such a supposition – his Underground Man is the definitive irrational human. A critical rejection of egotistical rationalism, the Underground Man repeatedly and despairingly acts against his own best interests, fully conscious of what he is doing. Withdrawing from a society which fails to provide him with any contentment, he seethes with malice at his own misfortune. He rejects the love of the book’s heroine, Liza, for fear of making himself “tyrannical and morally superior.”6 Regardless of the potential for happiness, he rejects any form of self control as “tyranny”.

The recurring analogy for the Underground Man’s personal revolt is the act of sticking his tongue out, and at the prospect of a stable and loving relationship he declares “I would start to feel vile, and I’d end up poking my tongue out at myself.”7 Dostoevsky’s Underground Man is a composite character of a set of very human traits: not our tendency to pursue stability and happiness, but the inclination to resist any form of control, whether it be the confines of monogamy or the dictats of a real life Benefactor.

The Origins of OneState

The literary genesis of OneState is usually traced back to Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? While dreaming, Vera Pavlovna is shown a utopian world of iron, glass and aluminium. The dream is futuristic in its use of machinery and social radicalism, but aside from that it is little more than a synthesis of peasant and aristocratic life. This is accomplished by making the society so fantastically efficient that the work needed to sustain it is negligible. Cooking has been rendered so easy that children and the elderly look after it, it is simply “слишком легкая работа для других рук” (work too easy for any other hands).8 Labour has been replaced by a lavish lifestyle of communal leisure, with balls every night and a condonement of sexual promiscuity. Summer is spent on the shores of the Oka, Winter is spent down by the Black Sea, but in both places the architecture is one and the same, “хрустальный громадный дом” (a colossal crystal edifice).9

In many ways We has taken very little from Vera Pavlovna’s imagination. Her world may be one of vast crystal buildings, but it has none of the invasive transparency of Zamyatin’s OneState. Vera’s world is a fusion of communal living with respectful privacy, a blend of urban efficiency with rural ideals and citizens are constantly faced with the most generous of choices. The masses can eat together, or at home – as they wish. They can stay up North for the Winter if takes their fancy, or travel to the remains of a city for the sake of variety, or spend their whole lives in the tranquillity of the phalanstère. Most importantly, this collective way of life is not a replacement but an alternative to its precedent. Those who would prefer not to live in utopia can simply opt out – the ultimate freedom.

No such freedom exists in OneState, Zamyatin strips his world of all Chernyshevsky’s ambiguities and syntheses. It is a world without liberty, privacy, or love – and the suggestion that it is a direct literary descendant is too simplistic. In fact, only the similar appearance of these two glass worlds lends them to being placed so quickly in the same family. Chernyshevsky’s world is built on a basis of love and mutual human respect, it was the writer’s pet belief that nothing can stimulate activity and involvement like the love for a woman.10 Zamyatin’s world is built on reason and soulless mathematics, and therein lies the central divide. In her dream Vera witnesses productivity and abundance which only Zamyatin’s world of reason and maths could ever actually attain. The workers in the fields have practically no real labour to engage in, they simply manage the machines which have all but replaced them.

But this dream world is not a place of science or engineering, it is one of light work and recreation. The huge corpus of industrial equipment needed to support it is conspicuous. With no means of coercion or incentive – this libertarian society is unable to produce anything more than its own entertainment. The world is being presented not as means but rather as an end, and so its value as a social manifesto still stands. In the dream the queen does acknowledge to Vera Pavlovna that the world is many generations away from the present, but it is important for people to know to what end they are struggling.11 We is a reaction to What Is to Be Done? – Zamyatin picks up on this contradiction, that of a society which would be unable to produce itself, and corrects it as he sees fit. When the ramifications are fully explored, we see the utopia has transformed into a nightmare.

If OneState’s intellectual origin is as a reaction to the literature of Chernyshevsky, its origin within the book is war and destitution. D-503 tells how the OneState rose from the ashes of a worldwide 200-year war, which only a fifth of the world’s population survived.12 The regime wasn’t formed as part of an evolutionary process, but straight from revolution. The war is treated as a cleansing historical process rather than something destructive. Just as Zamyatin stripped Vera Pavlovna’s vision of its privacy, liberty and most of all its optimism, OneState stripped the planet of “a thousand years of filth.”13 This is at the core of OneState’s disposition, the reductionist process out of which it sprung. Whether we’re considering the Benefactor’s political machine or the actual novel it is described in, both are purified forms of their predecessors.

Building OneState

Outside the realm of literary imagination, one acknowledged inspiration for these crystalline paradises was the Crystal Palace built in 1851 in London for the Great Exhibition. Though the building was the brainchild of garden architect Joseph Paxton, it was a masterpiece of engineering rather than architecture.14 The Palace was a daring celebration of modernity – made up of a collection of prefabricated units, it was dissassembled in 1854 and reconstructed on Sydenham Hill. This startling combination of industry and aesthetic caused great excitement, Berman goes as far as to say that “far from milling around quietly and being reduced to silence, [visitors] seem to have found all their energies aroused and engaged; no building in modern times, up to that point, seems to have had the Crystal Palace’s capacity to excite people.”15 Dostoevsky had no such praise for the structure, instead he found in it an intimidating industrial perfection and the oppressive public scrutiny of a sterile social space. His Underground Man is frightened by the thought of a crystal building he deems “eternally indestructible.”16 Surrounded by such transparent perfection, our hero fears above all the effect it will have on his own ability to act irrationally. Ever the petty rogue, he sees the need to occasionally “stick one’s tongue out furtively, or cock a snook in one’s pocket.”17 Nobody is physically stopping the Underground Man from cocking a snook, but his environment compels him to behave in a certain manner, and he is all too aware of this compulsion. Dostoevsky is acknowledging that power isn’t always exerted by force, and making a subject feel small and imperfect can be just as overpowering as putting him in chains.

The Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851 (via Wikimedia Commons)
The Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike in Zamyatin’s dystopia, which was a fortress against wilderness, the Crystal Palace embraced natural beauty in its design and function. The Palace was part of a wider project which included parkland, trees, lakes and fountains.18 Even within the Palace itself nature was nurtured in a controlled environment rather than removed. Berman remarked that “in its relationship to nature, it envelops rather than obliterates: great old trees, rather than being chopped down, are contained within the building, where – as in a greenhouse…they grow bigger and healthier than ever.”19 OneState makes little effort to incorporate the anarchy of nature into its urban plan. Except for the anomalous botanical museum (which is only ever mentioned as the source of garlands used to decorate the Benefactor) any kind of natural environment is banished from the city, to the other side of the Green Wall.

There was a sense of concealed transience in the Crystal Palace which Zamyatin explicitly replicated in We. The Palace took only six months to construct for the Exhibition, and was afterwards disassembled in three months. It was relocated and underwent various amendments over the years, and ultimately perished in a fire in 1936 – a final expression of transient modernity.20 The Underground Man sees only an “eternally indestructible” creation, just as the Numbers saw no more than the infinite reign of their order. The OneState too is transient, by the end of the novel the Green Wall has been breached and the rebels seized part of the city. It is irrelevant who won the ensuing battle, OneState lost the icy lustre of permanence so central to its ideology. It was a fundamental belief of Zamyatin’s that only the revolutionary dialectic was infinite, and everything else was merely a transient element in this greater scheme. As he put it, “if there were anything fixed in nature, if there were truths, all of this would, of course, be wrong…this is the very essence of the dialectical process: today’s truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number.”21

One man who did try and recreate the permanance and distance from nature of OneState was the architect Le Corbusier. He wrote two treatises on futuristic urban planning models, “Contemporary City” and “Radiant City”. In these cities he hoped to organise man rationally and efficiently.  “Nature, in the form of an English garden,” he wrote, “was meant to be looked at as it flows continuously beneath the cruciform skyscrapers, which provide a rational and artificial modulation of, and counterpoint to, a tame landscape.”22 Here we see some of OneState’s basic traits being advocated in real life. Though neither of his planned cities were ever built, he did oversee the construction of the Marseille Unité in 1952 – the prototype residential unit from the Radiant City.23

Le Corbusier's vision of man towering above nature (source)
Towers in the park, Le Corbusier’s vision of man towering above nature (via

It offers us a fascinating glimpse into an unfinished utopian urban project – for the building is still standing and inhabited. It was the first building whose design relied on the anthropometric system of the Modulor. This was a model of man, rationalised into standard dimensions and a universalist lifestyle. But in modelling his designs on a standardised man, Le Corbusier was implicitly trying to rationalise man within the framework of his buildings. Again we see the Benefactor’s methods being tested in real life. As Plattus writes, his homme-type was an absurd composite, “part monk, part steamship captain and airplane pilot; part worker, part intellectual captain of industry; part artist, part athlete.”24

Housing a community of approximately 1600, the Unité cocoons an interior commercial street, and includes offices, shops and domestic services.25 The roof terrace is fully equipped with communal leisure facilities, including a theatre, nursery and gymnasium. These are surrounded by a high parapet which “masks the immediate context and direct views to the mountains and Mediterranean, so that the roof becomes like the deck of a Homeric ship.”26 But the Unité was a failure, not for its underused communal facilities, but also the “dim lengthy corridors” and “anti-urban siting on enormous pilotis*.”27

However unsuccessful, the project did entail a belief in the need for an appearance of subordinated wilderness to redeem the stifling effect of urban communal living. Herein lies a skin-deep solution to our quandary. Man does not necessarily need to live in the jungle, but it must still appear to him that around him is a disorder or wilderness of some kind, irrespective of how finely orchestrated that disorder is. This is OneState’s downfall, having subordinated the wilderness of its land and the liberty of the people – the regime fails to maintain the illusion of that wilderness or the illusion of that liberty. On the contrary, “nonfreedom” is central to OneState doctrine and a familiar concept to the Numbers. In earlier chapters D-503 frequently employs the term when deliberating on OneState’s merits, and R-13 in heated discussion equates his nonfreedom with happiness.28

In real life this explicit witholding of liberty is doomed to failure – the Underground Man in each of us will always have a tendency to probe at that nonfreedom, whether it be out of malice or out of optimism. So if OneState is ever to be seen in real life, it would only be conceivable if it enslaved its subjects in an illusory freedom. This false autonomy must be so vivid that it remains untested, unaware of the confinement which it masks – a psychological safety blanket allowing man to live out his life of industrial routine with a smile on his face. In fact Berman goes so far as to suggest that this dystopian vision is already a reality.

“In the generation after World War Two, Paxton’s lyrical and gently flowing buildings would emerge, in travestied but recognisable form, endlessly and mechanically reproduced in a legion of steel and glass corporate headquarters and suburban shopping malls that covered the land.”29

Glass by default, Deansgrange Library, Dublin
Glass by default – Deansgrange Library, Dublin


Man is a rational and irrational being, and within his irrationality he has hopes and desires which only the efficiencies of a rational society can realise. As a result contentment and freedom tend to conflict, but that does not render them wholly incompatible. We live in a world of qualified happiness and qualified freedom, and though writers and thinkers will continue to present grandiose plans of how to achieve perfection in both, they always turn out to be variations of the basic compromise. The predicament can only be resolved with illusion. The society which appears have to maximised both liberty and bliss will have corrupted either human nature or human perception, and both these scenarios betray the very concept of utopia they seek to fulfil.

This essay was written in early 2007 as a university assignment.


Primary Sources

Мы/We, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Penguin Edition (transl. Clarence Brown) London 1993

Записки из подполья/Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hesperus Edition (transl. Hugh Alpin) London 2006

Что Делать?/What Is To Be Done? Nikolai Chernyshevsky, sourced at on 15th Dec 2006

Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism, Irina Paperno, Stanford 1988

Secondary Sources

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman, New York 1982

The Crystal Palace of 1854: A Guided Tour, Christine Northeast, Cambridge 1979

“On Literature, Revolution, Entropy and Other Matters”, Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in A Soviet Heretic:Essays, Quartet 1991

“Le Corbusier: A Dialectical Itinerary”, Alan Plattus, published in The Le Corbusier Guide, Deborah Gans, Princeton 1987

“Last Utopia: Entropy and Revolution in the Poetics of Evgeny Zamjatin”, Efraim Sicher, published in History of European Ideas, Vol.13 No.3 1991.

1     We p23

2     The Last Utopia: Entropy and Revolution in the     Poetics of Evgeny Zamjatin, Efraim     Sicher p226

*     Although the Numbers do live under the watch of     the Guardians, OneState lacks the intricate class systems developed     in the two novels which followed its literary tradition, 1984 and     Brave New World. D-503 at one point compares the Guardians to     Archangels, and there role as anonymous background characters does     not constitute that of a ruling class. Meanwhile, though he is the     engineer in charge of the Integral spaceship, D-503 has no apparent     class privileges as a result, despite a position which would usually     merit a place in the elite.

3     We p45

4     Ibid. p47

5     Ibid. p164

6     Notes from the Underground p140

7     Ibid. p125

8     Что Делать?/What     Is To Be Done? “work too easy for any other hands”

9     Ibid. “colossal crystal edifice”

10     Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism     p211

11     Ibid.

12     We p22

13     Ibid.

14     All That Is Solid Melts Into Air p237

15     Ibid. p238

16     Notes From The Underground p40

17     Ibid.

18     The Crystal Palace of 1854: A Guided Tour     p6

19     All That Is Solid Melts Into Air p237

20     Ibid.

21     On Literature, Revolution, Entropy and Other Matters, Yevgeny     Zamyatin p110

22     Le Corbusier: A Dialectical Itinerary     p21

23     The Le Corbusier Guide,     p87

24     Ibid. p15

25     Ibid. p88

26     Ibid. p90

*     thick pillars or stilts

27     Ibid. p87

28     We p61

29     All That Is Solid Melts Into Air p248

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Magic Numbers

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading