The most important book you can read right now is a little (and little-known) Russian novel titled We. First published in English in 1924 by E. P. Dutton, it soon landed its author, Yevgeny Zamyatin, in trouble. An early and enthusiastic Bolshevik—he was arrested in 1905 for his revolutionary activities—it didn’t take Zamyatin long to realize the utopia he’d fought for had soured into a nightmare, and he registered his distaste in his book, which he managed to have smuggled to New York. Not long after it appeared in print, Zamyatin was denounced as a bourgeois intellectual, the most stinging of all insults in the increasingly totalitarian Soviet Union. Eventually forced to leave, he died in Paris, in 1937, destitute and largely forgotten, his masterwork nowhere near as acclaimed as 1984 or Brave New World.
A pity, that, because in many ways We is a far more profound book than its more famous relatives. Its hero is a spacecraft engineer named D-503, which tells you all you need to know about life in the One State, the slick glass metropolis that has taken over the entire world and is now readying itself to search for new solar systems to subdue. Cosmic conquest being a tall order, a zealous technocracy runs the One State, commanding its citizens to trust the science. Window shades and curtains are banned, because privacy promotes idleness. And all hours of the day must be accounted for, because only thus can the central administration maximize efficiency, eliminate waste, and usher in an age of perfect productivity that would make the boys at McKinsey drool.
There is, alas, one little problem: sex.
What to do about that beastly urge that scurries about, restless in the hearts and loins of women and men? The One State, in a canny effort to curb all craving, creates a system that allows any citizen to request an assignation with any other citizen during mandated copulation sessions. It’s complete egalitarianism: Everyone gets to mate with whomever he wants. How’s that for a more perfect union?
Except, that’s not how human beings operate, and poor D-503’s orderly existence is soon rocked by two women who represent two very different manifestations of libidinal urges. There’s the alluring I-330, who lives in the only house in the One State that has drapes. She also smokes, drinks, and flirts, all without the state’s knowledge or permission. And if that’s not trouble enough for a comrade, there’s also O-90, who was deemed too short for procreation—the One State, naturally, tightly controls the right to life, engineering its perfect future subjects at will—yet wants a child and begs D-503 to help her out. Fornication and family, sowing the wild oats and securing the longevity of the species: Zamyatin’s romantic triangle is a portrait in miniature of the strongest of all human desires, the one that can just as easily rush us toward the most sacred and intimate expressions of humanity as it can shove us into the abyss of degradation. The power of eros functions as a defiant reminder to those bent on lording it over the rest of us that it’s easy to control minds, but much harder to control bodies. You can train us to believe whatever lie you want, but sooner or later our natural inclinations, the ones coded into every cell in our bodies, the ones whispering “carry on,” will prevail.
Which is precisely what makes We required reading in America these days.
Why do so many of our cultural battles revolve around sex? Why do we fret about a mediocre beer’s transgender pitchperson, or lament the obscenely lewd lyrics to the country’s biggest rap hit, or quibble about what passes for sex ed in our children’s schools? Ask the average traditionally minded American, and he’ll tell you it’s because he feels he’s being squeezed by an increasingly stringent requirement of moral relativism, an ideology that insists that no one form of human behavior is more commendable than any other. By this misguided view, being “sex positive” doesn’t mean insisting that sex is a sacred form of intimacy best reserved for two people who have made a lifelong commitment to each other and who wish to start a family; it means doing anything you want with your body. The more partners and perversions, the merrier.
But moral relativism isn’t really the problem—or, at least, not all of it. What’s unfurling in America right now isn’t really a culture of relativism, because relativism, for all its many flaws, is actually pretty wonderful about accepting any and all attitudes as equally valid and deserving of praise. And while you may feel no discomfort if you announced to your peers that you are now, say, a polyamorous foot fetishist, declare that you believe in waiting until marriage, maybe, or that you think pornography is ruinous and should be banned, and you’ll be treated like a dangerous ayatollah. Conservative, religious approaches to human sexuality aren’t tolerated among our so-called intellectuals and self-declared moral betters, the fantastically educated men and women who write and edit our newspapers, shoot and star in our films, teach our children, and, by and large, run our government. What we’re dealing with isn’t relativism; it’s something much darker.
To understand how dark, read Zamyatin. Unlike Orwell’s Big Brother, which is eager to suppress all expressions of human sexuality, the One State is smarter. It understands that sex can’t be suppressed, so it seeks to control it. The techniques of control are devious. The One State makes alternative—which is to say, perverse—sexual mores obligatory, providing outlets for release while keeping the divinely inspired potential of lovemaking in chains. D-503, unlike Orwell’s Winston Smith, isn’t told that he must love the state and it alone; he’s allowed a few minutes of pleasure now and then, but the pleasure he’s permitted must conform to the loveless mores prescribed from on high.
Suddenly, our cultural moment makes much more sense. Our One State seeks to socialize us so that we’re lonely, anxious, and eager to ease our ennui with screens, pills, identity politics, and a handful of other distractions that make us more pliant, docile, and divided. Notice that the only two institutions that can offer any real resistance to the government-corporate complex—the Church and the family—are consistently portrayed as sinister and oppressive. A future in which fewer and fewer Americans attend religious services or have children is, from our One State’s perspective, the best of all possible worlds. And to make sure our desires don’t stir our hearts and knock us off the prescribed course, our One State propagandizes us with its version of approved amorousness. Sex, we’re told, is fine, but only as long as it doesn’t lead us to think about truly committing to someone, and certainly not if it’s for the purpose of procreation. Sex is fine only as long as it is sterile and pornographic, not tender and fecund; only as long as it is practiced online or in groups, not in a marriage bed.
Our One State does not simply erode traditional values. It offers a radically different theology of human sexuality, one geared not toward bringing about new life but toward deflating this one, reducing it to a whirl of empty appetites sated by industrious merchants.
And that’s very good news for us faithful. Our job has always been to tell impatient and impressionable young people why abstinence is preferable to merely doing what, in the moment, feels nice. It’s a tough sell, requiring years of education and character-building. But current reality makes that job easier. Where the One State offers only its brand of perverse behavior and can show nothing but spiking rates of mental illness, isolation, and misery in return, we offer dignity, community, and family. Warm trumps cool, because, quite simply, our survival depends upon it.
Zamyatin—could it be any different?—saw all of it coming. I won’t spoil We’s ending, but let’s just say that, after putting down the book, no cautious reader will feel inspired to buy One State stock. Eventually, our desire to fulfill the Bible’s first commandment—be fruitful and multiply—wins out. Eventually, we want sex to be holy, not beastlike. And eventually, these insights lead us to resist the One State in all its shapes, dispensations, and forms. Although the One State may have great powers to censor, cajole, and oppress, it turns out that the Beatles were correct: All you need is love.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.