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March 22, 2005

1984 - George Orwell

Posted by David Womersley

by George Orwell
first published in 1949

At the beginning of 1984, Winston Smith is starting to write a diary in the blank book he has recently bought from a junk shop. Having written the date (or what he believes to be the date), he is overtaken by sudden qualms about the feasibility of what he is trying to do:

For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him. How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

Orwell himself might have experienced something similar to Winston's dilemma. Did the project of 1984 in the end make sense? If its forebodings were realised, it would itself be disregarded or vaporized down one of the tubes which, in the novel itself, receive the paper traces of suddenly inconvenient aspects of the past. If its vision of the future were wide of the mark, its anxieties would seem misplaced or even, in Orwell's word, 'meaningless'.

The alternatives are, of course, overdrawn. 1984 proved to be neither entirely accurate nor utterly wide of the mark. I last read it on a long train journey through the former GDR. As we travelled from Leipzig towards Wittenberg, and the site of one Western Europe's most tremendous acts of resistance, the blighted landscape spoke eloquently of a more recent and complete capitulation before a regime which more than any other in modern history tried to bring about O'Brien's imagist evocation of the future: "a boot stamping on a human face forever." Here, in a country which still evinces the complete suppression of whole aspects of human nature, the imagined world of 1984, in "its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness," was most closely approached in reality. Here deprivation was, not the unintended consequence of economic failure, but a tool of government deployed as a means of social control. Here, as in 1984, there was a complete dissonance between the language of the Party, and the reality experienced by its subjects:

The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting three hundred million people all with the same face. The reality was decaying, dingy cities, where underfed people shuffled to and fro in leaky shoes, in patched-up nineteenth-century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories.

The immiseration and narrowing of human life was more than simply material; the emotional texture of life was also effaced. Thinking of the death of his mother, Winston realised that it had been:

tragic and sorrowful in a way that was no longer possible. Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.

The deliberate and systematic undermining of the family by means of organised betrayal was common to the worlds of both 1984 and the GDR, as was the 'rectification' of history in deference to current political objectives, entailing an elimination of any meaningful distinction between truth and what the party found for the moment to be desirable:
If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.
More terrifying, because it removed the possibility of finding in the historical record evidence of error on the part of the Party. When reasoned dissent is impossible, the impulse to resist can take strange and unattractive forms. In the GDR, as in the world of 1984, there was an impudently bogus official culture of purity and hygiene (just how impudent, in the case of the former, is only now being clearly understood, with the evidence for the environmental damage inflicted by communism at last being properly assessed). Hence Winston's repugnant enthusiasm for moral and physical disease:
Anything that hinted at corruption always filled him with a wild hope. Who knew? Perhaps the Party was rotten under the surface, its cult of strenuousness and self-denial simply a sham concealing iniquity. If he could have infected the whole lot of them with leprosy or syphilis, how gladly he would have done so! Anything to rot, to weaken, to undermine!
Not the least insidious aspect of totalitarian regimes is the way they drive their opponents into areas of genuine moral wilderness.

But in the West, aside from some isolated palpable hits, 1984 must have quickly seemed unrelated to at least the surface of life. Orwell's description of "proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally" is still on the mark:

Here were produced rubbishy newspapers, containing almost nothing except sport, crime, and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator.
And his snippet of mathematically-ignorant proletarian conversation on the lottery "Can't you bleeding well listen to what I say? I tell you no number ending in seven ain't won for over fourteen months!" is wickedly accurate.

Yet, beneath the surface, Orwell's imagination seized on something more radically true, and which increasingly we can see all around us. The futurology of 1984 is less important than its understanding of a malign tendency in certain strains of government, namely an intolerance of difference, variety and privacy. The misuse of Parliament in order to criminalise hunting (of only certain kinds, of course), and the steady, irrational, vindictiveness shown by the government towards private schools, should remind us that, notwithstanding our material prosperity, we are not so far from 1984 as we might like to think. The object of power is power, says O' Brien. Beneath all the solemn nonsense of pledge cards and targets, this too is the watchword of that sanctimonious relative of Ingsoc, New Labour.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. He has previously reviewed Brave New World for the Social Affairs Unit: Brave New World - Aldous Huxley.

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