“Everyone always thinks everything is 1984,” my brother says “except things that actually are.”
How true that is. Not a day goes by when someone, somewhere tells us something is “just like 1984”. Last week for instance, failed candidate for US presidency Hilary Clinton published a book that told us the true meaning of 1984 is how you should put our faith in the people in charge:
“Attempting to define reality is a core feature of authoritarianism … this is what happens in George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a torturer holds up four fingers and delivers electric shocks until his prisoner sees five fingers as ordered. The goal is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust towards exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.”
With a nice sleight of hand, Clinton tries to make us see that two plus two is in fact five and that Orwell’s true intent was to make us trust authority- who knew? Of course, sarcasm aside, if you ignore the initial subterfuge of her quote, you’ll see where Clinton’s literary analysis is lacking. For that scene is not about making Winston, an already highly sceptical character, question his surroundings, but quite the opposite- it is to make him an obedient cog in the society’s machine. Regardless of what you may think of current orange overlords, the message of 1984 is not to give over your wits to leaders who’ve been in office for 30 years or the oh-so-saintly media.
1984 is a profoundly anti-authoritarian book. It is, as the quote on my book jacket aptly says “a powerful cry for freedom of thought and expression”. More than anything it is a call for individuality against an authority that would seek to wipe out any shade of difference in thought or feeling. To such an ideology dissent is dangerous, thinking something different is not okay and dialogue is a form of violence (conveniently so that it can put down with actual violence).
And yes, all that I’m saying is obvious- yet somehow I see so many people missing the point of the book. For me, reading this alongside Solzhenitsyn, there could be no doubt of the parallels with communist societies. In case the use of the word “comrade” wasn’t clear enough, the break-up of families, re-education and kangaroo courts should be a clue. But alas, people are so focused on fascism that they fail to see these vivid parallels.
Beyond this historicity, there were many issues that chillingly reminded me of our own society. Everyone has their personal “take away” from this book- somewhere they’ve seen bureaucracy get out of hand perhaps, or worse, freedom of thought be inhibited. For me, the moment came when I read this quote:
“Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being anymore but some kind of dummy. It was not a man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx”
I was cast back to university and the shallow schools of thought (yes, that’s right I went there- but where else can I express myself if not a piece on Orwell?) which act as a substitute for engaging your brain and encourages lazy thinking. Implement a feminist reading, for instance, and the sight of a naked lady in art equals “females lacking power in a patriarchal society”- the book can be labelled as oppressive or sexist and the reader gets to go away feeling clever without ever having to think. Nice and convenient.
But there were more universal messages here too. There were the infamous mentions of “Newspeak”- everyone and their mother has heard someone use this term lately- and that’s because there are an awful lot of people with all kinds of agendas telling everyone what they can and cannot say, adding new (and unnecessary) words to the lexicon to further some political end, and throwing a tantrum when they don’t get their way. Frankly, this should terrify us more than anything, for controlling language is a way to control thoughts (to paraphrase Jordan B Peterson, articulation is how we formulate our ideas).
Naturally this also lends itself to one of the biggest messages of the book: the ability to determine what is true. For if you cannot think, you cannot determine what reality is. In the book, the most significant manifestation of this is two minutes of hate directed at Emmanuel- the enemy constructed to be the all-encompassing target of baseless anger. It could be that he is someone genuinely flawed, or not, it does not matter. As long as there is a single individual on whose shoulders we can place all our blame for society’s woes.
Yet for all this, I did not see this book as a call to implement systems or for angry mobs to overthrow governments. Again this would be a misunderstanding of Orwell- for this book, together with Animal Farm, explicitly demonstrates how *all* power can be corrupted. No it is not a book to inspire a collective- it is a call for individuality. Maybe even to be that one person in the crowd whom people hurl abuse at. It is up to the individual to wake up and pay attention. To see what is going on under our very nose. To speak while we still can speak, to laugh, to refuse to be cowed. Freedom is whittled away all the time and most of the time we don’t even notice- well here’s a book telling us to take notice.
Nor do I think this was a book calling for the creation of a utopia- as this book exemplifies and history teaches, utopian philosophies (including Nazism and Marxism) veer straight into a dystopic reality as soon as they’re implemented. More’s the pity then that so many modern dystopias end in the overthrow of a government and the set-up of something resembling a utopia. Yes, every dystopia is a direct descendent of this great book, and yet so many miss the mark (I can only praise the rare endings such as in The Declaration where a system is set up, but it is implied it would go the same way as the last). There is something infinitely gloomy about dystopias and one cannot pretend they offer all the solutions.
Bleak as it is, ten years ago when I first read this book, I was so struck by the sheer horror of it, I closed it and thought “never again”. Yet after rereading it and getting so much more out of it this time round, I know that it is a novel that must be read and reread. And what with constant frustrations to our freedom in the world around us, I am sure to find myself revisiting it in the future. In which case, to return to my brother’s quote at the beginning… maybe everything really is 1984.
Rating: 5/5 bananas
So have you read this masterpiece? Will you read it? Let me know in the comments below!