Descartes Meets Edgar Rice Burroughs: Beating the Rationalist Equations in Zamiatin's We
Zamiatin's We presents a totalitarian world founded on an extreme application of the quantifying logic of Western rationalism. Everywhere in the rhetoric of D-503, spokesman for the One State, we hear echoes of Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Pascal. Even so, from his very first utterances we see mind unable to control passions, to separate itself from the res extensa relegated beyond the Green Wall. In this “war of rhetorics” for the narrator's soul, we recognize the reason's antagonist to be pulp science fiction – the lurid purple prose and “pink Venusians” displayed on the covers of pulp SF magazines current in France and England at the time of World War I, unruly visions inspired by Verne and the American dime novel. From the evidence in his text, Zamiatin knew these magazines from his stay in England. Irrational numbers are not enough to break down the dreaded equations of rational control. For D-503, the square root of -1 is the unruly forces of pulp prose and images, the way in which mind and body free themselves to explore the “irrational” world of material phenomena, worlds of imagination without end. Pulp becomes Zamiatin's “Dionysian” element. In using it as such, however, Zamiatin makes an important connection. For science fiction itself is a literature born of Descartes's call for mind to master nature, of Pascal's claim that human reason in unique, and alone, in his infinite spaces. But since its own rationalist origins, science fiction itself has struggled against rationalist closure, seeking ways to free mind and body – science and the human condition – for open-ended exploration of worlds beyond logic.