Thursday, June 05, 2003

I had a most Orwellian time last week. I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time and Animal Farm for the second time.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is not at all my kind of novel, and that's why I've avoided it for so long. It’s a novel of ideas, and it doesn’t resist using a megaphone to get them across. It's is one of those books I've never gotten around to because it's so well-known; ditto it's dystopian peers, Huxley's Brave New World, Kafka's and just about anything by Camus or Sartre. (They’re in this class too, aren’t they?) These are books whose reputations precede them, that worm their way into the general consciousness without ever being read. Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, says the best books are ones that tell you what you already know, and to some degree readers already know this one before ever picking it up. I knew enough about it, too, to know I wasn't going to love it, but I kind of do. It’s a book that reminds you on a regular basis that it's not a work of art, that it's not some self-reflecting, multi-layered, intricately structured thing (like, say, Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov’s masterpiece) which can withstand many readings. Orwell was a journalist, and his aim was to deliver as hard a punch to the solar plexus as possible. He wanted to scare the shit out of leftists who were still looking a little too kindly toward our World War II pal Uncle Joe Stalin and -- like Izzy Stone and Lillian Hellman and Edmund Wilson and God knows how many other liberals of the head-in-the-sand variety -- were turning a blind eye to the fact that he was a fucking monster; not a bad goal. Orwell's achievement is give you a few sweating hours in the mental and moral cage of totalitarianism.

You probably know about the book but I'll take a quick run at the plot anyway. The world of the book, of course, is that of Big Brother, ruling government of Oceania, one of three superstates in Orwell's dystopic future, the others being Eurasia and Eastasia. We open on a grimy evening in Airstrip One, formerly known as London. Winston Smith, a government scribbler in the language of Newspeak, sits in his apartment swilling bad gin and smoking lousy government-issue tobacco. Newspeak is a state language which, more than anything, is a bastardization of communication itself, an extension of the government’s behavior modification system which restricts, destroys or corrupts any word that could lead to free thought. Winston, surrounded like all Party members of Oceania by "telescreens" and government wiretaps and posters of Big Brother’s omnipresent mustachioed face -- which immediately made me think of Saddam Hussein, among others -- is about to commit the most political act of his life: confessing to a diary how much he hates the world he lives in. Writing in the dying language of Oldspeak, or what we call standard English, proves dangerously liberating and sets in motion the idea of joining the ultra-secret revolutionary forces.

Liberation comes first in the form of Julia, who shares his sense of rebellion and has no use for the state's sexual restrictions. In Oceania, you get your subversion wherever you can find it; for Julia, a vigilant member of the state’s Anti-Sex League, it means reminding herself as regularly as possible that the state only thinks it owns her ass. Can the state own desire, feelings, thoughts? The belief that it can’t is what binds the two lovers. Winston and Julia know they are doomed, that people never escape the clutches of Big Brother, that they’ll be forced to betray each other, and that they’ll die; that doesn’t, they assure each other, mean their love will change. Love is all they have going for them.

The two think they’ve found a sympathetic soul in O’Brien, who presents himself as a leader of the forces trying to overthrow Big Brother. As a reader you never quite trust O’Brien, but his knowledge of the system, what it takes to overthrow the system, and the fact that he even passes on to Winston the secret revolutionary text -- "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchial Collectivism" by Emmanuel Goldstein, which debunks the moral and intellectual underpinnings of Big Brother -- all lend him some credibility.

Winston’s faith is misplaced: he and Julia are both captured and O’Brien becomes Winston's personal torturer. O'Brien, who passed himself off so perfectly as a revolutionary, is the very brutal essence of Big Brother: he has perfectly mastered the art of Doublethink – that perfect Orwellian word which, like Newspeak, has since entered the Oldspeak lexicon. Doublethink means holding two contradictory ideas at the same time, which is the only way Big Brother can exist: by denying reality, or more to the point, reshaping it by Pavlovian means. Winston is tortured not just into complicity but into changing. In the battle for Winston's soul, the state wins.

Or does it? Thomas Pynchon, in a recent Guardian article, suggested that Orwell actually ends on a note of hope with the appendix, which explains the various levels of Newspeak. Pynchon suggests, reasonably, that the past tense of the Appendix suggests that Big Brother is in the past, that the secret revolution actually won -- thereby meaning, I guess, that goodness does prevail in an unseen future. I don't really buy the idea, though; it doesn't quite wash away the lasting image of Winston or those bone-chilling words: "He loved Big Brother."

The book is undeniably moving in parts.

Winston recalls how, as a starving boy, he had stolen chocolate meant for his sister, and how his mother had held the girl in her arms -- a "useless" action, but a loving one. In that recollection, Winston realizes what seperates people who are sincere and genuine (the proles) from those who are hardened and immune (Party members):

It would not have occurred to her that an action which is ineffectual 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 did not avert the child's death or her own; but it seemed natural to her to do it.

[Winston now recalls scenes from a Party newsreel of horrendous slaughter against Eurasians desperate to escape; scenes which had been greeted with laughter by the audience.]

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. When 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 this 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 on to the primitive emotions which he himself had to re-learn 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.

I can't claim that same misty-eyed faith in the people that Orwell had: today, they're the ones watching scenes of brutality and yukking it up. Only now it's called "reality television."

No comments: