Read an article from issue 10. Our book of the season was We, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s hypnotically strange novel, devised at the dawn of the Soviet Union.
When the utopian state imposes a schedule on your love life, it will claim it’s all for your own good. Socially mandated sex is not only the stuff of fiction, writes WILL SELF, and it comes with the danger of performance anxiety.
The doctrine of OneState, set forth in We, recalls that, ‘having conquered hunger, OneState directed its attack against the second ruler of the world, against love. At last this element also was conquered, that is, organized and put into a mathematical formula.’ In practice this means being ‘carefully examined in the laboratory of the Sexual Department where they find the content of the sexual hormones in your blood, and they accordingly make out for you a Table of sexual days.’
As well as We being a satire of emergent Bolshevik totalitarianism, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s day job as an engineer further informed the novel’s odd vision — at once minatory and sensuous — of a society ruled by an algebraic ideology, through which all human woes, including amatory ones, can be factored out.
Zamyatin, in his work as a ship builder, had direct experience of the application of ‘Taylorism’ to industrial processes: this being the improvement of productivity through so-called ‘time and motion’ studies that statistically standardised work.
The libidinal economy of OneState is organised by similar means: once issued with their hormonally mandated pink ticket, each human subject — or number — of OneState can apply to have congress with any other number. The question of consent is elided — the so-called Lex Sexualis states: ‘A Number may obtain a licence to use any other Number as a sexual product.’ More importantly, on ‘sexual days’ the numbers also receive ‘a certificate permitting the use of curtains. This right exists in our State only for the sexual days. Normally we live surrounded by transparent walls which seem to be knitted from sparkling air; we live beneath the eyes of everyone, always bathed in light. We have nothing to conceal from one another.’
Taking direct inspiration from We, both George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World feature totalitarian societies in which sexual activity is heavily regulated. But neither writer quite achieved the crystalline purity of Zamyatin’s vision — summed up, I think, by those transparent walls, knitted from sparkling air, which seem haunting precursors of the pixellated screens through which we now view the sexual bestiary of internet pornography, and through which we are in turn viewed by faceless multinational corporations, in cahoots with still more faceless state spies.
It’s love that conquers surveillance, since it can only flourish in privacy: the protagonist inWe, D-503, is approached by the number O-90, who whispers to him: ‘I would like so much to come to you today and pull down the curtains, especially today, right now…’
There are odd echoes of OneState’s ‘sexual days’ in recent proposals by Flemish welfare minister Jo Vandeurzen and the mayor of the Swedish town of Övertorneå to introduce their own versions. In the former case, it’s a call for a hortatory Belgian ‘national sex day’; in the latter, it’s confined merely to the notion that municipal employees should have the right for paid leave to have sex — much as they already receive it in order to undertake other forms of exercise. But these egregious examples shouldn’t blind us to the more surreptitious ways in which ‘scheduled sex’ is becoming the social norm — whether because long pair-bonded, working couples are too tired to effect spontaneity, or singles are too timorous to subject themselves to the hurly-burly of socialisation. Dating and hook-up apps allow for scheduled sex that — rather than being hidden behind drawn curtains — is advertised on those ‘transparent walls, knitted from sparkling air’ that everyone now carries in their pocket.
The very ubiquity of pornography can make us all feel our own frenzied gyrations should conform to certain stereotypic activities: in place of the petit mort, we can all feel, at times, as if we’re straining for the money shot.
In a way, I feel the whole idea of mandated or scheduled sex reflects our voyeuristic attitude towards making love in the Age of Image: we’d all prefer to be sitting in the corner — or in front of a computer screen, observing — than risk the ego-annihilation that may come with full abandonment. Lacking the spontaneity of authentic lust, scheduled sexual encounters are more like ‘sex scenes’ constructed as real life playlets — and perhaps that’s why we feel quite so ambivalent towards them.
Clearly, by directing ourselves to be passionate according to the diktats of our diaries, we risk lovemaking collapsing into mere bad sex — yet this is better than nothing, and our remorselessly commodotising world encourages us in the view that all our pleasures may be zero-sum games. There may, we fear, simply not be enough sex to go round.
In the not so distant past, what Thomas de Quincey styled as ‘the decent drapery’ hid all sex from wider view. Of course, people still romped and rolled and relapsed replete — but they had no way of knowing if this was the norm. De Quincey ‘twitched (the decent drapery) aside’ in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, to reveal the truth about his addiction — but in our era there seems no moral chancre or bodily solecism we don’t wish to put on parade.
The Victorian version of OneState’s curtains, prudery nonetheless allowed for the creation of fictive ‘sexual days’, by exiling the sensual from the precincts of the quotidian. Once sequestered, and hedged round by conventions, coitus became subjected to depiction even as it was being performed. If you like, to have sex in a repressive society is, necessarily, to write — or otherwise depict — your own sex scene.
We understand this intuitively — even though the knowledge is deeply and darkly buried: it’s the ‘decent drapery’ which really creates indecency, just as it’s our society’s bizarre taboos about nudity that so sexualise bodies — in particular, young women’s bodies. The OneState aims to eliminate all the messy contingencies of love with scheduled sexual days — just as it aims to eliminate the particularities of its citizens by subsuming their identities to a numerical system. But D-503 finds no real satisfaction in his pink-ticketed interludes with O-90 — he instinctively seeks amatory encounters that are both more sequestered, and, more importantly: unscheduled.
Why? Because surely it’s only in the transition from our mandated social selves to our intimate private ones that we experience real seduction; to be sexually abandoned is to be socially abandoned as well; for, in the rough and tumble of our amatory encounters we lose all the contingencies of our workaday identities — our class, our age, our ethnicity and heritage, even our gender.
When we make love — as opposed to merely having sex — the intimacy of the situation is confirmed, surely, by our ability to adopt a multiplicity of identities.
In this respect at least, making love bears a strong resemblance to another intimate and sequestered activity: reading fiction. Between stiffer covers readers and writers also encounter one another shorn of all the particularities of their social selves — or, rather, to read well is to at once assume all these differences, and abandon them as our psychic fingers strip away all the decent draperies and tear down OneState’s curtains.
Just as acts of love require a willingness to let go of one’s identity, so they also depend on our preparedness to ignore any and all tedious, sublunary scheduling. The OneState seeks to eliminate love — and perhaps we’re unwittingly embarked on the same minatory project. In my view, the digitisation of print also results in the elimination of our love of reading fiction: for the novel is an art form that depends on the confinement of the codex — just as lovemaking is an art that depend on the confinement of privacy.
Moreover, while we may not yet have scheduled sexual days in name — since everything is scheduled now, we can take it that our sex is also. Certainly, if we want to read deeply nowadays we have to cover up those distracting transparent screens, knitted from sparkling air. But I’m of the party that supports art and love over money and power; so will continue to read whenever it suits me, mingling my imagination promiscuously with those of the writers — such as Zamyatin — who I admire.
WILL SELF is a prolific writer, frequent broadcaster, and the Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University. His latest novel is Phone. To his certain knowledge, he has never stood for the national anthem in his life.