Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Seminal Dystopian Novel

Jacob Howland at The New Criterion:

Zamyatin is among the few gifted twentieth-century writers who responded to ideological tyranny by poetically integrating mathematical science into a philosophical anthropology. Dostoyevsky’s literary topographies of the soul are the fons et origo of all such endeavors. His Underground Man is suffocated by the totalizing utilitarian calculus of the “normal,” rational, positivistic, and progressive European: 2+2=4 as mathematically infallible social policy. Yet Ivan Karamazov rebels against what his willfully Euclidean mind regards as Christianity’s morally unintelligible response to ultimate matters of human freedom, suffering, and the choice between good and evil. Primo Levi, whose knowledge of chemistry and Dante provided food for his soul and bread for his body at Auschwitz (his scientific training got him an indoor job at the Buna industrial site), created new fusions of science and poetry in If This Is a Man and The Periodic Table. The chemical engineer Vasily Grossman was a master of this sort of literary alchemy; his Life and Fate, a novel centered on the Battle of Stalingrad, describes the totalitarian social physics of both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

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