Orwell’s 1984 Revisited – Aged 30 Years

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There was a technique taught to the generation of this author’s place and time that everything should be read twice, to help guarantee comprehension  in the event of the writing of another; or perfection – in the case of one’s own work.

While in the latter case, the author has noticed that the tolls of age lead to the necessity of several re-readings, as even the spell-checker suggestions may remain unseen, he has a technique which is guaranteed to put even greater insight into the works  viewed. The technique is to go over the same work in more than one language. In the case of good literature, that would imply a degrading of the original quality, but for seminal works in such an area as law or history, attention which is forced on the vocabulary of the second language can create an over-all increased attention to the substance of the article. Often, it may be discovered that a word that one presumed to understand in the original language meant something else completely. As a simple example, one might compare the text of the original King James Bible with its Shakespearean English, and a modern one. Not to leave the reader without an example, when this author read, in the Bible, as a primary school student, that Adam knew Eve, he asked himself, why such an obvious statement was being made. This article is the result of such a second reading. In the hope of saying something original, other reviews have not been looked at.

Random Thoughts on a Second Reading of 1984

George Orwell was first introduced to this writer in secondary school, through his Animal Farm. More precisely, he was not introduced at all, which was a grave oversight on the part of the teacher, but the animals were reasonably well identified. While an educated guess was made at the Stalinistic nature of the, let’s say, Sovkhoz, even though the essay on the book earned high marks, and was not refuted in its assumptions, there was always the nagging doubt that right-wing dictatorships might also have something to do with the plot.

A little indulgence, please, on the reader’s part, as it might also be suggested that Orwell was cultivating something more than any argument against dictatorships such as the ones just suggested. This brings us to 1984, and to 2014, or, if the year has passed by, to whatever moment it is.

It was in 1971 or 1972 that this writer first heard the expression, “Nineteen-eighty-four is coming.” As he was unacquainted with the book, it had to be read. For personal reasons, he probably did not enjoy it – even the part which would remain in his subconscious, a theme already presented in an English class back in secondary school: torture. What methods of mistreatment has to do with English or English literature, will remain a mystery. Nevertheless, torture would be often mentioned in newspaper articles referring to the Latin America of the 1970s, to the Shah’s SAVAK, to the, in the words of one book title, Inside the Colonels’ Greece, and in Solzhenitsyn’s description of the Soviet Union. Those were facts “on the ground”, never mind some book written in the late 1940s.

Back in the 1960s, there was an expression that suggested anyone over 30 was no longer “with it”. If that idea could be applied to a not overly literary work, what could be said of 1984 in 1978, 30 years after its appearance? Based on what was said in the previous paragraph here, not much was new.  Inside the Colonels’ Greece mentions  methods of extremely painful torture which left no marks. Somewhere, it was read that a “lady” found amusing, the allegation that the Iranian Secret Police toasted people. Nothing new there, really, if it is true. The current Pope is a follower of a soccer team which in turn is named after a saint – Lawrence – who allegedly told his tormentors, “Turn me over, this side’s done”. Beside the New York Times copies in the shop of the upscale neighbourhood of some Canadian city, there was a special magazine, name not remembered, published somewhere in the United States, debating whether torture was always, never, or occasionally useful. Who knows what secret bias the editor(s) might have included? All of this would drown anything 1984 would have to say. And then, there is a precondition to getting to the end of that book, two chapters, 9 and 10, of the second part are largely political tracts written by the secret, possibly non-existent nemesis of the government of Oceania, one Immanuel Goldstein. Only a fan of Marxist-Leninist type literature would find any pleasure in this morass of fictional historical-political exposition.  It is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ History of the World, or The Outline of History, unreadable, in the opinion of this author. Bring on the denouement of the book!

Goldstein is the only person who makes a lasting impression on this reader, even if his actual existence was left in doubt.  On the one hand, the chosen enemy of the regime could suggest the anti-Semitism of National Socialism.  On the other hand, it could be the persecution of Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, a.k.a. Trotsky.  “Immanuel” suggests a saviour, gold, his noble quality.  Feminists might not take to the role of women in the book, and the attitude of the major character, the narrator, Winston Smith, is far to be extolled from any point of view, at least to the unforgiving.

So, on to the present. A copy of 1984 was laying on the table in a library. The book was being offered for free, to whomever wanted to take it, as the place was arguing that many books had been made redundant by the Internet. A falsehood, because a good set of encyclopedias had disappeared with that argument, but the copy of 1984 was in German, free, and by a famous author, so it was picked up. It would be a chance to maintain or improve the author’s level of his original language.

Is it repetition to say that almost nothing new was found? In fact, Orwell was repetitious, going over the same ground, repeating ideas, once, sometimes twice … It made the reader think of a cyclical idea. Voila! Orwell  himself suggests it in his work, the cycle of history. Even when the world would seem to be at a stand-still, because Oceania was always fighting the same enemy – which was to be believed on pain of never having existed, prior to passing through Room 101 – how did universities get to name their introductory courses this way? The repetition is not necessarily boring, but detracts from 1984 being a literary work, as does the “Goldstein” tract. One might differ, a work about an Argentine Big Brother, Facundo Quiroga, by Sarmiento, – which I believe I read in English translation in Canada, claimed that no one knows what kind of literature it is. Ah, but Quiroga, and Juan Manuel de Rosas, they were hands-on type of dictators, unlike the enemies of the Twentieth Century.

Progress was made, though,  in terms of the abilities of a “Big Brother”,  since the time of the first reading. As Orwell was not a science fiction writer, he might not have been able to envisage the all-seeing, all-hearing technology which now is omnipresent in major cities around the world. In fact, in 1982, this writer was warned, in some Latin American country, to be careful about what he was saying, because “They could be listening”. The reply that nothing was being said against “them” did not soothe the interlocutor. That was not the first time that he was told to hush. Yes, 1982, just 2 years short of 1984!

There is no wish to demean the security benefits that might accrue to society by the use of such devices.  Here, though, the question should not be, who is watching the watchers, by when the observed can have rights equal to those observing.

What was really striking about this novel, is the emphasis on continual war. This is a theme which is often mentioned by certain people on the Internet. The parallels between the book, and the supposed reality, could almost make one’s skin crawl, if one looks for the macabre in all of this. According to “Goldstein”, not many people need to be killed in the war, nor do many people have to be involved. Large quantities of weapons, though, have to be destroyed in these combats, the production of arms being a source of employment. The only term that was missing was “military-industrial complex”. Workers had to be kept occupied, which, translated into modern terminology, means something like, the electoral base has to be rewarded by not being punished by job losses in the military sector.

The enemy in the novel is a “Brotherhood”, of whom we do not know, with certainty, of any member, just the wannabes. Here again, we have a contemporary parallel, in the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt being fought tooth and nail. In the eyes of this author, there does not seem to be sufficient evidence either for or against the democratic credentials of that political grouping, but the battle against them is definitely waged in an Orwellian, condemnable fashion. How about winning hearts and minds! Is it this author’s imagination, or have even the original Assassins, another type of brotherhood, been rehabilitated, on the grounds that Europeans did not understand them correctly? But of course, the Assassins were hashish eaters, and eating hashish cannot be all bad when the mood of politicians in many countries now leans towards legalizing marijuana. This is another permanent war.

A prediction: any legalization will not stop the battles for control of controlled substances, precisely because, once legalized, it will still be controlled, as is alcohol, and as are cigarrettes. Those who became rich through such trade are not going to become staid shopkeepers content with a modicum of profit on legal sales of taxed goods.

As for the exact nature of the totalitarian system in 1984, it might be said that different interpretations can be made, especially if taken out of global context. It helps to know that Orwell was against both Fascism and Stalinism, but that he was in favour of Socialism. However, he could equally have been talking about the power of the Roman Catholic Church, or others of note, in how, according to the meme of the moment, they attempt to exercise total control over its membership. The Inquisition would be the substitute for Room 101, a repentant heretic, can get free, similar to what happens in the novel.

What is most disturbing about the book is the possibility that the democratic “socialist” credentials of Orwell are nothing but a façade for another form of dictatorship. His two freedom fighters are clearly politically subversive, and promised to commit any crime to achieve their objectives of overthrowing the government. This pattern of behaviour is becoming too common in the Twenty-first Century, although there are terrorist organizations which operated along the same lines in the past. It seems like incitement, until perhaps Orwell, to redeem himself, or to give yet a different message in the end, it is seen that it is all to no avail. No longer, Dante’s “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”, but “Abandon ye all hope who who are here”: the dream of the Police State, to guarantee full compliance.  Martyrs are avoided by having executions at unkown times, away from the public.  The practice does not seem to be new – see this BBC link, 6th paragraph from the bottom, above the last picture in the article.

The State is a necessity, policing is necessary, but despair does not belong.

The novel has been described as dystopic. No, looking at the world around us, whatever our problems, it can be neither dystopic nor utopic, just the reality. A list of items which are supposedly prohibited or no longer available sounds too much like the present: sugar, coffee, wine (for some reason, with the exception of gin), cultural artifacts, reliable books on history, geography, and other subjects that make for cultured humans.

An entire paragraph has just been erased, wherein an attempt was made to define dystopia as something that has never existed, but then it was discovered that it was not easily possible to  do so. However, let there be some light at the end of the tunnel. If things can still get worse, if it can be imagined that they can improve, there is no dystopia as yet.

On the other hand, where police handcuff, arrest, and pepper-spray children, there is a phenomenon which even Orwell did not contemplate.

May 7, 2014. (First version). Expanded, May 8.


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