Saturday, January 19, 2013

1984, by George Orwell

As I looked at the list of titles on my Kindle, I decided it was time to re-read this classic.  About 20 minutes into the book, I realised that I was reading it for the first time.  That is the extent to which Orwell's dystopian horrors have worked their way into the collective consciousness:  Big Brother, Double-Think, Newspeak, the thought police and the proles are so familiar to me that I was sure I had read the book before.  Surely it had been required reading for all of us in the Wellesley College class of 1984, which the administration had euphemistically dubbed 'the Utopian class'?  Evidently not, because I would have remembered such a ghastly story. I wish I had read it then, because I'd like to compare my reaction to the book in 1984 with that in 2013.

I suppose when readers first encountered Winston Smith in 1969, the Oceania (one of the world's three super-power nations) in which he exists seemed very futuristic, indeed, with two-way telescreens both spewing propaganda and doing constant surveillance. Technology is used to appalling ends, and normal human instincts and emotions are shunned.  This is how Orwell introduces Julia, the woman whose passionate involvement with Winston will lead to their mutual downfall.
Presumably -- since he had sometimes seen her with oily hands and carrying a spanner she had some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines. She was a bold-looking girl, of about twenty-seven, with thick hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League, was wound several times round the waist of her overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of her hips. Winston had disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her.
Although novel-writing machines might have seemed outlandish to a reader in 1969, the totalitarian government and the oppressed society that Orwell presents show the timeless, ugly facets of human nature.  Tyrants in all phases of history have used the power of hatred and collective rage to manipulate their citizens.
The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
Winston and Julia are low-level Party members, working in the Ministry of Truth (which, the reader quickly realises, is the Party's means of generating propaganda and re-writing history to suit its single-minded goal of retaining power).  The proletariat, or 'proles', make up the bulk of the population, kept docile and heedless by a steady stream of mind-numbing amusements. As ever, just give them bread and circuses to keep them complacent.
There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator...  no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party. It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working-hours or shorter rations.
As for the Party members, the concepts of privacy and individuality are anathema. Winston, who has an unfortunate tendency to think about things and yet cannot discuss these thoughts with anyone, naturally begins to question his own sanity. 
He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one... to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.
I reminded myself as I read that Orwell's nightmarish vision of social re-engineering preceded the reign of the Khmer Rouge, but it was no doubt informed by Stalin's and Mao's efforts.
There was a direct intimate connexion between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force? The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account. They had played a similar trick with the instinct of parenthood. The family could not actually be abolished, and, indeed, people were encouraged to be fond of their children, in almost the old-fashioned way. The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police. It was a device by means of which everyone could be surrounded night and day by informers who knew him intimately.
 Winston comes into possession of a subversive book, allegedly written by the Party's arch-enemy, Goldstein. In it, he reads a summary of how the Party came to power and has held and will likely continue to hold its absolute power. As I read this passage in 2013, I of course consider the "enlightened and progressive" governments who find reasons to justify and euphemisms to explain systemic cruelties.
...practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years -- imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations -- not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.
And the longer a tyrannical government stays in power, the more arrogant it becomes, having manipulated the people into a state of unawareness, ignorance and passivity. 
From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is. They could only become dangerous if the advance of industrial technique made it necessary to educate them more highly; but, since military and commercial rivalry are no longer important, the level of popular education is actually declining. What opinions the masses hold, or do not hold, is looked on as a matter of indifference. They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect.
From this subversive book, Winston learns how power works, but he is left to ponder why.  To no one's surprise, including his own, he is arrested and taken to the Ministry of Love for interrogation and most likely vaporization.  His interrogator turns out to be O'Brien, the Party official who had slipped him the book to begin with, posing as an underground conspirator.  While intrigued with Winston's mind, O'Brien does what he must to destroy it, to stomp it into blind submission.  Along the way, he agrees to answer some of Winston's questions, one of which is that lingering Why?  For once, the higher level Ministry of Truth official speaks the truth.  
"But always -- do not forget this, Winston-- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face-- for ever."
While reading 1984,  I instinctively tried to put distance between the world of today and Big Brother's Oceania, consoling myself that we're not quite that bad. Not yet, anyway.  I stumbled across this article, which more precisely gives our current state in relation to Orwell's vision. The author's advice: "We should all be mindful of our technology and how it's used." I would add that we should question the source and the validity of everything that is fed to us on our various telescreens.

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