Societies of Mutual Isolation

Societies of Mutual Isolation

by José Saramago
translated by Giovanni Pontiero
Harcourt Brace, 1998 293 pp $22

All the Names
by José Saramago
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Harcourt Brace, 2000 238 pp $24

The twentieth century was the era of comprehensive social organization, usually undertaken by a nation-state. In this sense, it brought to a culmination one of the main trends of modernity: Max Weber identified it as increasing “rationalization,” the Frankfurt School referred to it as “the administered life,” and Michel Foucault described it by suggesting that the sovereign’s old right to decree death was now complemented by an infinitely ramifying “power over life.” No matter the name, this new power could extend anywhere, including into the last redoubts of privacy. It was Soviet Russia that gave meaning and special ugliness to talk about the engineering of human souls.

No one should forget the quiet social democratic victories of the age. For the first time in history—to take just one example—Swedish physicians could not determine a child’s social class on the basis of that child’s state of health. But the nightmare images are bound to come first to mind. And many of the most frightening images of comprehensive order—the acme of which is totalitarianism—come not from political philosophers or from totalitarians themselves, but from a few novels: Franz Kafka’s Trial, Eugeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984. Whether it was someone telling lies about Joseph K., or “the mathematically perfect life of the United State” (Zamyatin), or a bio-engineered caste system of Alphas and Betas, or the ubiquity of Big Brother, all of these visions shared a family resemblance. In each, unaccountable power had come to penetrate virtually the whole of life. There was scarcely any ability to be alone: both Winston Smith in 1984 and D-503, the narrator, the I, of Zamyatin’s We, become dissidents simply by virtue of keeping a diary. Whatever the dystopia’s local color, it was a “world of total integration,” as Irving Howe wrote in a small brilliant survey of the genre, that would seize and then incorporate you.

Zamyatin and Orwell may not have speeded the fall of the Soviet Union; Kafka’s great novel, which, as Primo Levi said, “predicted the time when it was a crime simply to be a Jew,” may not have delayed the Holocaust by a day; and Huxley’s vision of a smooth bio-apartheid may yet be realized in the rich countries. But all the same it is somewhat heartening that among the countless “volumes of disenchantment” (Howe again) that the failure of utopia produced,...