Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. Pub 1949.
As I saw on Twitter recently, satire writers are having a hard time these days keeping up with reality. In the current state of the world, reality seems like it must be satire, and writers have difficulty making up things that are too absurd.
There are also plenty of people quoting or mis-quoting this book in order to call attention to something disturbing in the world. So, I thought a refresher on the language of this nightmare would be useful and timely.
A brief recap of the story for those who need it: Winston Smith is a citizen of Oceania (a fictional amalgam of the Americas, Australia, and some parts of Europe) and member of the mysterious Party. He has an even more mysterious job at the Ministry of Truth, where his daily tasks involve “rectifying” past news items to make them align with present day understandings, effectively making so the past does not exist. Winston has ongoing doubts about the Party and society as a whole, but with the controls in place – through the Thought Police, Big Brother, and the ever-present surveillance of daily life – has no way to explore his questions. He meets a kindred spirit, Julia, and they fall in love and begin and affairs that requires them to flout the strict but unwritten rules and conventions of the time. Lured into thinking that there exists a subversive underground called The Brotherhood, Winston and Julia are eventually arrested and tortured, ultimately betraying each other and themselves and submitting to their own rectification until they become as compliant as everyone else, having mastered the necessary “doublethink” that ensures their submission and incorporation into society.
The book has three parts: Winston and his doubts; meeting Julia and their affair, with their indoctrination into the subversive underground; their betrayal, torture, and denunciations. For me, the first two sections are excellent – scary but visceral portrayals of the strictures and fear of society and then their taste of love and freedom. The third section is necessary but seems needlessly detailed about the specifics of the torture. The conclusion of the story is appropriately bleak, and overall, the tale is haunting and the impressions long lasting.
It’s been at least 10 years since I last read this book, and while that wasn’t enough time to make the story fresh, it was enough to have forgotten some of the details, things that in today’s world are eerily familiar – manipulation of and by the media; increasing centralization/globalization marketed as ‘convenience’ but more correctly about power and control; criminalizing opinions and beliefs; canonization of some leaders, demonization of others; requirements for public denunciations and virtue signalling; and lots of shadowy government actions that don’t hold up when looked at too closely (are there or are there not neo-Nazis? biolabs? weapons of mass destruction? Russian plots about Hunter Biden’s laptop?).
As the world lurches from one existential crisis to another, each one not really ending, just receding, or ceding the news space to the next thing – from 9/11 to Iraq to Afghanistan to the housing recession to Brexit to Trump to climate change to COVID to Ukraine (with many others in there as well) – this ongoing state reflects the stated purpose of war in the novel: sustaining a perpetual state of fear and hatred, a constant state of being at war. What the war is, if it can ever end, who is winning – none of those are relevant, only that the hysteria be sustained. It is from this perpetual war that the slogan “war is peace” emerges – by standard definition, wars have a beginning and end, but if the “war” has always been and will never end, then it is not war and so must be peace.
More troubling for me has been the creeping in of the concepts so adroitly captured in the language of Newspeak, especially thoughtcrime and doublethink, and the speed with which the truth (or at least the current truth) can be changed. Yesterday’s friend is today’s enemy. Yesterday’s misinformation is today’s fact. To question either the enemy or the fact is to commit a crime – one becomes labelled an anti-something, can be de-platformed and have property seized, can even be jailed without bail. And when the facts change again, there is no reconciliation, only new circumstances that once again cannot be questioned.
Near the end of the novel, the character O’Brien tells Winston Smith the true secrets of the Party and its success, with language that is eerily true today:
“…no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”
Throughout that last part of the book, what is also revealed is that the Party doesn’t seize power from people; rather, people willingly give it to them – by giving up their freedom (so much easier to be taken care of by the state than to have to take care of oneself), their possessions (you’ll own nothing and be happy), and eventually their thoughts and minds.
Aside: I recall having read this in high school, as part of a module on utopia (Lost Horizon) and dystopia (this and Brave New World), but I do not recall the teacher or grade. I do recall that I liked (if one can say that about a dystopian novel) BNW better than either of the other two.
Trivia: Orwell died just six months after this book was published. I found that to be quite sad, as he would not have known the great acclaim of his work. At the same time, he was spared the sadness of seeing just how prescient his vision was, that his warnings were ultimately not heeded.
Fate: my copy is a mid-1970s Penguin paperback edition that I seem to have had forever, with pages falling out and a very graphic cover. It seems appropriate to hang onto it, as proof of the past.
5 – a book about language (at least part of it is a longish essay about Newspeak)
9 – a book that has been made into a film
12 – a book I felt I should read
15 – a book with a number in the title
28 – an old favourite
25 – a book that has been banned (probably still is in some places)