I just finished reading 1984 again; it something everyone should do every few years. It's always relevant, unfortunately. And it's always an inspiration.
It’s easy to dismiss Orwell’s masterpiece as a quaint and dated dystopia, a banal nightmare of the future cobbled together in 1948 out of the dingy present and the recent past: the bombed out London of the novel looks like nothing so much as that city under the blitz. The scarcities and rationing, the war frenzy, the propaganda and paranoia required no imagination to describe. They were right in front of him. These critics use Orwell’s merciless reportorial skill as a brief against his imagination. His grim fantasy is all too realistic. It fails both as fantasy and prophesy. The titular date has come and gone, they point out. The world is not divided into three super powers perpetually at war; no telescreens invade our privacy. No all-powerful totalitarian state controls our lives, which are in fact more free and prosperous than anyone could have imagined at the bleak and dreary end of the Second World War. Of the computer and the internet, plausibly the most significant new developments since that time, Orwell had not an inkling.
But this superficial reading of the book, whereby we comfort ourselves with the fact that we drink Bombay Sapphire rather than Victory Gin, is tragically naive and misguided. In fact every basic concept, every philosophical and political development Orwell addressed in his book has come to pass almost exactly as described.
Compare this infamous quote from Ron Susskind’s October 17, 2004 New York Times Magazine article, “Without a Doubt”, with a particularly telling fragment of 1984.
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
Now, Orwell, from p. 82 of the novel:
In the end, the party would announce that two and two made five and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they would make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.
The terminology he created colors our thinking every day. Paul Krugman talks about memory holes, as he derides the Bush administration for trying to rewrite the past and obliterate or classify any evidence that disputes their revisionism. More and more, as each scandal breaks in the news, it’s obvious that Big Brother, in the form of the IRS , Homeland Security, the NSA or the CIA, is indeed watching us. Even the On-Star GPS units in our SUVs are tricked out to function as surveillance tools. Doublethink abounds – from the “Peacekeeper” missile to the "Clear Skies" initiative to the “No Child Left Behind” program, which are – respectively -- a weapon of mass destruction, a blank check for polluters and a shockingly effective attack on our basic educational system, complete with drastic funding cuts.
Orwell nailed the degeneration of mass culture, as well – whether in the big novel writing machines that generate plots on giant kaleidoscopes or the ‘versificator’ which manufactures generic popular music for the proles. Reading any romance novel or watching any episode of American Idol confirms Orwell’s prescience with disheartening clarity. He was just as accurate about Mass Millions and The Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes … or “the Lottery” as he called it:
The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principle if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory.
Far more importantly, Orwell analyzed the way people driven by the need for power actually think. This is the most useful insight in his book, delivered by the Grand Inquisitor O’Brien:
“The Party seeks power entirely for it’s own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury, or long life or happiness: only power, pure power … We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture … How does one man assert his power over another? … By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering how can you be sure he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
To this bleak vision the battered and terrified Winston Smith has one reply: “Somehow you will fail. Something will defeat you. Life will defeat you.”
Of course in the novel it is Winston Smith who is defeated and obliterated, after learning to love Big Brother. The story is unrelenting, a harsh tragedy in which the human spirit is crushed and the future is too horrible to contemplate. The good guys lose. They are forced to betray their deepest beliefs and emotions, gutted of their souls and left to wander the streets like hollow eyed ghosts. Evil wins, over and over again, with a shriek of glee and blare of military music. The book ought to be profoundly depressing
And yet it isn’t. Just the opposite: it’s uplifting, thrilling. It’s a form of meta-text: the fact that you are reading he book at all, the fact that the book was written and published, confounds the darkness of its message. Winston Smith knows no one will ever read his journal … but people will be reading the novel that contains it for as long as books exist. The authors of the Newspeak dictionary exult in the destruction of language; the mandarins of the inner Party continuously dismantle all passion and morality and truth. But the novel itself, with its vivid prose and ferocious probity creates an exhilaration, a giddy hope in the reader that its characters can never share.
And it sounds a warning that any reader can act on. Many have acted on it, invoking Orwell over and over again in the fight against tyranny, from HUAC to the Patriot Act. The book remains an inspiration and a surprisingly durable bulwark against the very world it so brilliantly described. That’s about as much as you could ask from any novel, but this one has so much more: the vibrant density of authentic literature, visible on every page. Page 165, for instance:
He would have liked to continue talking about his mother. He did not suppose, from what he could remember of her, that she had been an unusual woman, still less an intelligent one; and yet she had possessed a kind of nobility, a kind of purity, simply because the standards she obeyed were private ones. Her feelings were her own, and could not be altered from outside. It would not have occurred to her that an action which is in effectual thereby becomes meaningless. If you loved someone, you loved him and when you had nothing else to give you still gave him love. When the last of the chocolate was gone, his mother had clasped the child in her arms. It was no use, it changed nothing, it did not produce more chocolate, it not avert the child’s death or her own; but it seemed natural to her to do it. The refugee woman in the boat had also covered the little boy with her arm, which was no more use against the bullets than a sheet of paper. The terrible thing that the Party had done was to persuade you that mere impulses, mere feelings, were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world. Hen once you were in the grip of the party, what you felt or did not feel, what you did or refrained from doing, made literally no difference. Whatever happened, you vanished, and neither you nor your actions were ever heard of again. You were lifted clean out of the stream of history. And yet, to the people of only two generations ago, tis would not have seemed all-important, because they were not attempting to alter history. They were governed by private loyalties which they did not question. What mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself. The proles, it suddenly occurred to him, had remained in this condition. They were not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they were loyal to one another. For the first time in his life he did not despise the proles, or think of them merely as an inert force which would one day spring to life and regenerate the world. The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened inside. They had held onto the primitive emotions which he himself had to relearn by conscious effort. And in thinking this he remembered, without apparent relevance, how a few weeks ago he had seen a severed hand lying on the pavement and had kicked it into the gutter as though it had been a cabbage stalk.
Maybe that’s all it is: Orwell helps us stay human, an effort every bit as delicate and critical as it was the day 1984 was published. It’s never going to get any easier. But this book will always help.