The One State

by Carrie Levesque

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

It was that time of year again, when my Russian Novel of Conscience class was discussing possible areas of overlap between the futuristic society in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We and contemporary American culture. In Zamyatin’s highly regulated One State, citizens (known as “numbers”) live in ecstatic conformity and “mathematically infallible happiness,” having abandoned the “savage freedom” that we know today to happily accept the “beneficent yoke of reason” and blissful “unfreedom.” Their lives, lived in glass houses, are watched over by an omnipotent Benefactor and ordered by a Table of Hours that keeps everyone moving in “million-headed unison” all day, every day. When a group of rebels seeks to bring down the totalitarian state with dangerous reminders of the numbers’ humanity (emotion! individuality!), the state takes drastic steps to inoculate its citizens against the most dreaded contagion: Imagination.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in another dystopia that looks much like I imagine Zamyatin's to look.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in a dystopia styled after Zamyatin’s We.

While this novel easily calls to mind our current concerns about the modern American surveillance state or our uncritical conformity to various media’s ideas of perfection, this time around it also made me think about experiences I’ve had here in Norway (once called “the last Soviet state” by a Swedish finance minister who thought he was off-mic). You see, my child has recently been diagnosed with the disease of “imagination.”

A few months after starting kindergarten here, my older daughter was having some trouble adjusting. From time to time, she would act out in disruptive and silly ways, and she was making up stories about our family that raised the staff’s concern. Through a parent-teacher strategizing session, we discussed how to help her feel less overwhelmed socially and linguistically, and my husband and I clarified that we did not really share our home with her “brothers” James, Logan, Kendall, and the prone-to-biting Baby Carlos. As many parents of tweens may recognize, my daughter was not being abused by a voracious, unsupervised baby; she was just obsessed with the television boy-band Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

While they were mostly satisfied with this explanation, at the end of our meeting, there were lingering concerns. “But aren’t you worried that she has imagination?” they asked delicately, cringing slightly, as if asking about an embarrassing disorder she had. Though we explained that in the US, it was normal for children her age to make up stories during play like our daughter did, they seemed unconvinced. “We think you should keep on eye on it,” they concluded soberly.

Nearly a year later, I would interpret this strange encounter through the pervasive Janteloven lens of Scandinavian culture. Janteloven is, as defined pretty succinctly by this blogger, “a principle which places importance on equality and egalitarianism while discouraging individuality and personal success or in other words, standing out.”

Being like everyone else—in one’s appearance, in one’s behavior—is prized above all else in Norway because it makes everyone comfortable, or so the thinking goes. When people behave in unexpected or “imaginative” ways (say, singing to yourself, doing a little happy dance when you receive some good news, basically any “excessive” show of positive emotion), it makes people uncomfortable because you are standing out. You are out of step with the five-million-headed unison of Norwegian life. It is believed that people who act differently and do not conform to the norm do so because they think they are “better” in some way, even if there’s nothing arrogant about the “aberrant” behavior.

The crowd. Don't stand out.

The crowd. Don’t stand out.

In few places is this law more strongly enforced and engrained than in Norwegian schools. Here there is strong pressure from both peers and teachers to meet—but not exceed!—expectations. Excelling academically only makes others feel bad and makes you look like a jerk. There is no tracking, no grades, no gifted classes, and things move along rather slowly at the elementary level to keep everyone on the same page. It’s March of my daughter’s first-grade year and they just wrapped up discussion of the letter B (though I should explain that the letters are taught out of order, in what appears to be a manifestation of Alphabet Janteloven: why should Z always come at the end? A, B and C must learn that they cannot always come first!).

The Norwegian One State may not have a Table of Hours, but they do have a rather amusing Table of Days. Should we take the reckless step of making tacos on a day other than Taco Friday, we keep the windows closed, so as not to arouse the disapproving curiosity of our neighbors. If we are caught allowing our children to enjoy a dessert or some candy on a day that is not Saturday, when Norwegian children get to indulge in a bag of candy after a week of self-denial, we are sure to invite stares, comments and questions.

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

My (American) mother-in-law tells a great story from when she was living with her Norwegian mother-in-law and decided one fine day that she felt like baking a cake. “On a Wednesday?!” her horrified mother-in-law asked. Tense debate ended in compromise: My mother-in-law could bake the cake on Wednesday, but her mother-in-law insisted it be placed in the freezer until Saturday, a more acceptable day for such indulgences.

For decades, anthropologists have classified societies according to how strictly they hold members to certain norms. “Tight societies are formal and disciplined, have clearly stated social norms, and rebuke individuals who stray from the norm. Loose societies are informal, have weak or ambiguous norms, and tolerate deviant behavior” (Psychology Today). When an international team of social scientists recently surveyed nearly 7,000 people in 33 countries to rank the world’s tightest and loosest societies, Norway ranked 6th tightest, behind countries like Pakistan, India and Singapore (and ahead of Turkey, Japan and China). “A shocking surprise!” said no expat living in Norway, ever.

Tomoko Sawada's face 41 times in a shot from her book School Days; a commentary on conformity in Japan.

From Tomoko Sawada’s School Days, a commentary on conformity in Japan
(look closely; the teacher and each of the forty students is Sawada herself).

There is no marching to your own drummer here. There is no letting your freak flag fly. Oh, how we miss our American brethren and their freak flags! People who burst into song in public, who don’t hesitate to engage a stranger who looks like they’re feeling down and in need of a mood lightener. There is a street performer here who’s often out in the city center playing peppy Russian folk songs on his accordion, and my girls and I always give him money simply because he’s “the guy who brings the joy,” something few Norwegians would dream of doing in a public space. Joy is to be kept under wraps!

I hope this musician keeps bringing the joy. I hope it spreads, wildly.

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5 responses to “The One State

  1. Fascinating cultural comparison! Could this phenomenon of “Janteloven” from early age, later in life transform into social equality in Norwegian society? This story made me listen to Fleet Foxes song “Helplessness Blues” that starts:
    “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
    Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
    And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
    A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me”

  2. Carrie Levesque

    Yes, absolutely! So it does have its positive effects, no question. But from an American perspective, it can feel a bit like it goes to extremes, even if you respect and admire the egalitarian society that comes out of it.

  3. Obliquely related: Just last week a college friend of mine posted that her son had been denied admission to their local Waldorf school because he was too intelligent and self-motivated. Granted, the teacher who rejected him recommended a one-on-one learning environment instead, but the reality is that mom’s a single working mother who can’t afford any of the “better” alternatives even with the available financial assistance. So the kid’s going to end up in a public middle school, where he’ll be lucky to become “a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond [himself],” but I’m afraid he’ll probably just end up a bitter and angry underachiever instead.

  4. Carrie Levesque

    That really boggles the mind, Jay- what a terrible shame. I can’t imagine how I would have reacted to such absurd reasoning and advice. My heart goes out to that mom, but you never know- there are many good public school teachers out there. Hopefully there’s one in his school who can give him the support that Waldorf wouldn’t. FWIW, is Montessori an option?

  5. I only know what she posted on Facebook, but Montessori doesn’t seem to be a viable option in this case. It would appear that availability is part of the problem, but mostly it’s money.