1984 is not a happy book. It is an important book though, and I realized that, although I’ve quoted phrases from it that have become part of our lexicon, I hadn’t yet read it. I rectified that this weekend.
Orwell’s novel was written following WWII at about the mid-point of the 20th century. It was a book ahead of its time in many, many ways. From a pure science fiction perspective, it’s amazing how well it has held up. The technology Orwell invented for his future world has not been dated by actual technological advances. The book could have been written today. There is no disconnect in the book’s ability to cause suspension of disbelief because of a mistaken perception of the future – like flying cars, for example. On the contrary, Orwell carefully chose only the technologies he needed to make his novel work – and hit the mark precisely.
From a literary perspective, Orwell creates a world that is frighteningly realistic. He uses a new vocabulary of his own design, which so perfectly matches the story as to lend credence and realism. This language is called Newspeak. In this fictional language, words mean everything and nothing at the same time. Every word means what it needs to mean at any precise moment – even if that is the opposite of its true meaning. In Orwell’s world, truth is an evolving concept that depends on what the party organism decides at any given moment. So if the party says that 2 + 2 = 5, then 2 + 2 = 5, if, at another point it equals 3, or 2 then unquestioned belief in that equation is required.
So it was in the real world in which Orwell lived when, on August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union, having vowed its opposition to Nazism, signed a non-aggression pact with Germany and demanded loyal communists follow where the party led.
The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.
In today’s world we are have our own version of Newspeak. Under the pressure of political correctness – terms like: undocumented workers replace illegal aliens, insurgents take the place of terrorists, investment is substituted for taxation, all distort and confuse. At one point in the book a colleague of Winston’s (the protagonist) explains,
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.
As I wrote in The Narrative, facts are irrelevant and must be shaped to fit needs. There are no inconvenient truths because truth is what the narrative dictates it must be. I’ve had numerous conversations on line and off with people like Winston’s wife.
She had not a thought in her head that was not a slogan, and there was no imbecility, absolutely none, that she was not capable of swallowing if the Party handed it out to her. ‘The human sound-track’ he nicknamed here in his own mind.
As I read 1984, I was overcome at several points by a sense of deja vu. Finally, I realized that the cold psychopathic pragmatism of O’Brien, a member of the thought police, reminded me of something I had read elsewhere – then it hit me, it was in the tone conveyed by Sol Alinsky in Rules for Radicals. Simultaneously grandfatherly and almost friendly, but yet sickening.
Orwell does to the reader exactly what O’Brien does to Winston. In the first part of the book, he holds out the hope that Winston and Julia will triumph. It is shocking when Orwell reveals that everything has been an elaborate scheme to crush Winston’s soul. The kindly O’Brien was merely playing with Winston – for years.
The conversations between O’Brien and Winston at his “cure” in the Ministry of Love are painful but illuminating. O’Brien makes no attempt to hide his purpose.
The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy — everything.
Orwell does a masterful, if unpleasant job of depicting pure evil.
If you want a picture of the future, imagin a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.
1984 still has the power to terrify, perhaps more now than when it was written. It must have seemed far-fetched back in 1949.
It doesn’t seem so far-fetched today.