Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review -- 1984 by George Orwell

Orwell's dystopian novel has been largely defined (or perhaps, redefined) by this book, published hot on the heels of the Second World War and reflecting a somewhat prophetic pessimism for the future (a pessimism reflected in his essay, "Into the Whale," 1940). Not only that, it has had a profound effect on the English lexicon, having coined a large number of terms that are still in use today, including "Big Brother," "Room 101," "Thought Police," and "Newspeak," just to name a few.

On one occasion Stephen Colbert started screaming, "Do it to Julia!" when he found out skim milk had been mixed into his coffee instead of cream in one episode of the Colbert Report. Security cameras are synonymous with the sarcastic remark that "Big Brother is watching you." The novel has had a profound impact on Anglophonic culture, especially the American psyche.

Films such as THX 1138 and Brazil, and novels such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and V for Vendetta (the last one being a graphic novel) bear the marks of Orwell's vision of the totalitarian world to come.

Hot on the heels of my own ruminations upon Plato, I confronted one of his many and recent successors to the field of dystopian literature. Orwell creates a world of socialism come to England. Society is divided between the Party and the proles (shortened form of "proletariat"). The structure is reminiscent of many Western conceptions of Soviet government and state control during the Cold War, only taken to a very refined and effective extreme, harnessing advanced technology, industrial techniques, and psychology to keep 85% of the population complacent. The proles, however, are not the truly dangerous element--they're kept stupid and loutish. Rather, the Outer Party is where the most subversive elements are to be found. Orwell's IngSoc keeps its friends close and its (potential) enemies closer.

I cannot help but place this novel into a trinity of sorts alongside Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World. All three deal with totalitarian governments. All three describe how those governments keep their populations docile and controlled. And all three are radically different. In these comparisons, I see some weaknesses in Orwell's assumptions regarding how to keep a population submissive.

Primarily, I believe the way to keep people subdued and docile is to give them the very thing that THE BOOK (a text within a text) would deny them--leisure, tranquility, and plenty. The trick is to make them wholly and utterly dependent upon the government in order to provide these things. A friend once told me he'd happily sign his freedoms away in exchange for a holodeck like from Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is something I believe the United States has fallen into--a sort of totalitarianism of the corporation that has rendered the American populace complacent. Whereas Orwell's Party would deny the proles anything approaching comfort and leisure, the postmodern totalitarian regime would provide everything that the prole needs, while ensuring that his existence is dull, uneventful, unchallenging. In this regard, Bradbury and Huxley more correct than Orwell--remove intellectual stimulation, make people stupid, provide them with never-ending amusement and entertainment. Make them content. Keep them busy fighting traffic so that they can't muster the willpower to fight the Party. However, when the times of plenty are gone, and famine arrives (as it may well in the coming decades in the United States), the strict control measures of IngSoc and its ability to redirect the citizens' anger against enemies (both external and internal) may become more and more apparent.

Orwell was right about numerous things--the need for an enemy to hate for one. I've said it before, I'll say it again, the Democrats wouldn't have any unity whatsoever if it weren't for the Republican Party. They'd be at one-another's throats and the mudslinging, hate-filled race for the Democratic nomination is proof that Democrat constituents are a patchwork of mutually exclusive minorities with only the most tenuous common ground--the Republican Party.

Orwell is also right about Newspeak (nee Postmodern litcrit jargon), and how ambiguities can lead to the stifling of specific modes of thinking. I cannot help but consider Jacques Derrida sometimes. However, postmodern litcrit speak is in some manners, the exact opposite of Newspeak. However, the empty prattle of politicians these days, and their ability to fill the air with words while not truly saying anything of worth, is something that is most certainly reflected in Newspeak--especially the attribute of the language to render a politician incapable of saying the wrong thing--i.e. something that actually meant anything.

What is politically correct speech if not an attempt to control people's thoughts by controlling their language? At the very heart of this matter is thoughtcrime and the free will of an individual to harbor whatever thoughts and feelings are his own.

Doublethink, thinkpol, Ingsoc and Newspeak. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states how language plays an integral role in the way a society's people think. There have been movements to simplify and "dumb down" the English language in the United States before, although they've gotten little support. Over-reliance upon passive-voice in papers, articles, and other publications can cover omissions by removing the actor from a sentence. Orwell himself discussed this in his essay "Politics and the English Language."

Control of language is not the only component of the Party's program, but also the control of communication. In this age of highly centralized market control of communications, it is nearly impossible to escape the inherent media bias. The government doesn't even need to censor the information we acquire, the media does all of the gatekeeping for them. This has led to an institutional memory within American culture that is often erroneous. Falsified magazine articles earn Pulitzer Prizes and overtly biased films receive Academy Awards. What Orwell never realized is that the system polices itself, and the Proles allow it to do so--no Thinkpol is required.

So what are we given? Instead of Goldstein, produce a Klansman, a Teabagger, or a Creationist. Instead of Eastasia and Eurasia, show them Iraq or China. Make them think that they are fighting for freedom when they vote for somebody that was already picked for them. The media provides grist enough for the mill.

Yes, I'm a bit disgruntled and disbelieving about our current system. In my opinion, the entire totalitarian state is already here--has been since the 1970s, probably. This is why I'm plodding so depressingly slowly through de Tocqueville. However, everywhere you look in America, Big Brother is watching you. Most of us don't like to think about how nearly every move we make out of doors is recorded by a CCTV camera somewhere. They are mounted on traffic poles, the sides of buildings, within buildings--they're everywhere. And they never, ever seem to be there to protect you from the abuses of authority (especially since it is now illegal in many states to videotape the police).


To return to my assessment of 1984 and Newspeak, Orwell and postmodern literary criticism must ultimately come to blows. When four fingers are held up and Winston is told that the Party says there are five, the assumption is that reality is consensual. In a way, postmodernism asserts that through the denial of absolutes. Two and two make four regardless of whether you are black, white, Asian, gay or straight, making science and mathematics fields that transcend postmodern thought--something that they have been warring tooth and nail to overthrow. Magically, mystically, the Party in 1984 finds a way to overcome all that. If the Party wanted the sky to be green, everyone wouldn't just say it was green, they would convince themselves that it was green through doublethink.


1984 is also ultimately pessimistic about the human heart and the frailty and fragility of it. It is pessimistic regarding the inability of the human mind to withstand too much torture. It is a sad, hard look inside of us. We can be brainwashed, we can be convinced that the sky is green, that two and two make five, and we can make ourselves believe these things and be happy that we have no freedom.
  • Ignorance is strength.
  • Freedom is slavery.
  • War is peace.
These are, to us, oxymorons, but to the Party, they are ironies and little else.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man that a "post-human civilization" will essentially be totalitarian. If ethics are subjective, then that means that the most powerful people in society will determine what is right and wrong. This is strangely echoed in O'Brien's ill regard of Winston Smith's "humanity" when he makes him look in the mirror and witness his emaciated form.

What is important about 1984 isn't the prose or the diction. It is the scathing torment that Winston experiences throughout Part III. It is the fear that one must feel watching his mind erode and reality be rewritten. Orwell never attacked postmodernism directly--it was still in its nascent stages, and the likes of Derrida and Foucault had yet to explode upon the world and peddle their anti-thoughts. Heidegger wasn't much known beyond Germany yet. However, the seeds were being sown, and Orwell knew it. The book represents a flailing effort to spew vitriol and revulsion at what he saw that was only beginning to happen to the English language, to books and academia, to intelligence and thought. In that it is not quite coherent. It was written too early in the 20th century to capture all of the nuances of these trends, and it was written too late in Orwell's life (he died a year later) for it to have been more patient.

But that lack of patience gives it the roaring urgency that it needs. The book is grimy and gritty, not polished and smooth--this is because its world is grimy and gritty. Orwell is shaking his fist at Big Brother. Orwell is Winston, strapped in the bed, being told that two and two makes five, and he is refusing to believe it. The book, in this regard, is self-referential, I think. He doesn't know who Big Brother is, indeed, doesn't even know if Big Brother exists at all.

Indeed, this leads my to my final thought--that, in the midst of this self-reference, a kernel can be formed from the third part of the book, a kernel that reveals the shape of things, not to come, but as they were within Orwell's final days. The Party, O'Brien, Big Brother, they all represent the changes and shifts that Orwell saw taking place in the English language and in the intelligencia as he was dying. Winston may represent him, or more than him--the mid-level intellects. Winston is the grounded man, the person who sees reality for what it is, while the Inner Party, everyone else, are the new-wave of thinkers that were just beginning to creep out into the light, just beginning to venture forth into the literate world and ensconce themselves within the ivory towers of Europe. Whether Orwell realized this or not, I cannot say. He probably didn't see it for what it was at the time. He saw the symptoms and did his best to diagnose the illness and, in the absence of a cure, develop a vaccine of skepticism, rage, and refusal.

1984 by George Orwell
Style A
Substance A+
Overall A+

2 comments:

Mike said...

I had a bit of a Winston moment myself earlier tonight after watching the 1984 movie of Nineteen Eighty-Four and realizing it had been exactly ten years since my first (and, so far, only) reading of Orwell's book. A realization I had:

In the film of V for Vendetta, John Hurt (Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four) plays the evil "High Chancellor" and the torture Evie endures (particularly the head-shaving) is very similar to Winston's. As if it wasn't already apparent the Wachowski Brothers were turning 1984 upside down, this seems to make it particularly blatant.

theblogofmatthew said...

Great article. You basically said everything I couldn't in my review. I totally agree that the Third Part is the most important, it gets into the deepest and basic concerns of being human. It also shows how the Party couldn't overcome Winston's ideas logically but had to destroy him. As he was strapped there being told 2 and 2 made 5 and the earth was the center of the universe, I felt as frustrated as he did in that chair. Great analysis of this work sir.