This is one of those books that seems almost mandatory for a site like mine to talk about, so we might as well get it out of the way. It is a disturbing book, no doubt if you take it seriously, but is it realistic? Is it even good? On the first point, it seems that 1984– more of a lengthy thought experiment than a novel- is used as a weapon by anyone against any governmental party they disagree with. Especially the media, or bloggers, most of whom probably haven’t even read the bloody thing. That slogan I keep seeing, that ‘1984 was not meant to be an instruction manual’ is, and will always remain, vague and stupidly reactionary. The phrase ‘Orwellian society’ is thrown around like a bad cliché. Most people think Orwell’s book is about the dangers of surveillance, those who have read it will learn that it is about the dangers of political ideology. What is always overlooked however is how incredibly specific the ideology of Big Brother actually is. In general, it is indeed very plausible that those in power can use a certain twisting of logic to manipulate a society- we’ve seen it all throughout history, and in this way 1984 is not so profound unless we ironically forget the past- but when it comes down to specifics, I do not believe the circular nonsense of Big Brother would actually work.
The reason for this is simple: ideology requires the support of the populace. Fascism came to power because Hitler’s philosophy was concocted as a cure for a wounded Germany; putting forward pseudo-naturalist ideals; feeding the primal instinct of man through a faux intellectual straw. Communism was born out of a genuinely compelling Marxist critique of capitalism (and unlike Big Brother’s it is not just a cartoon caricature of men wearing top hats); a grounded argument about equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome; an appeal to one’s sense of fairness. Before this, the Catholic Church held sway over Europe- mind, body, and soul- because it provided the solution to an existential question, and along with it, an ‘objective morality’ that scared everyone into a sheep-mentality obsequience. In every case, the logic plays with a people’s sense of justice and rights. With all the added cruelty, oppression, suppression and dogma which every ideology requires in order to bind a society and maintain its own flavor of order (and I include capitalism also), there is a kernel of what people genuinely see as truth to it. In order to infect the subject, a virus must first avoid triggering the immune system. Similarly, in order to ensconce itself deeply in the mind, an ideology must first enter by the mind’s volition.
George Orwell gets none of this. What he does get, however, is the necessity of an ‘us vs them’ mentality, a duality: Germans vs Jews; comrades vs capitalists; saints vs sinners; Big Brother vs The Brotherhood. Okay. But this does little to explain how ‘the Party‘ got into power in the first place. We understand how their power is maintained, we understand why they wish to maintain it (apparently just for the sake of it, what a revelation that was), but not this most important question. I was hoping that O’Brien in his longwinded monologues- which I can only imagine is meant to be part of the torcher those who commit ‘thoughtcrime’ are subjected to in Miniluv– that he would make sense of this for me, but he did not. Orwell does try, though, to help us understand how anyone outside of the Party itself can be fooled into believing their bullshit, by converting Winston himself. Apparently, the circular arguments of O’Brien just sort of confused him to the point of losing all sense of reality. Though I believed it insofar as I understand Winston’s- a not-so-bright old chap- becoming uncertain, I did not believe at all the closing line, ‘He loved Big Brother.’
Two passages come to mind:
‘There are three stages in your reintegration,’ said O’Brien. ‘There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance.’
‘Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.’
Well, in this case, nothing further happened than the breaking, in Room 101, of Winston’s moral. His mind was indeed torn to pieces, but it was never really put back together.
Does 1984 fail, however? In order to answer this question- is it good?- we need to analyze a few other aspects. While the important thing with this novel is society, not the characters themselves, I think we still need to talk about Winston Smith. He is one of those protagonists designed to be just generic enough to represent the every-reader in the story. We are supposed to ‘relate’ to him. It is a good strategy to trigger a sense of empathy, but his lack of depth ultimately causes the story to be uninteresting. Forget that Shakespeare is censored in this dystopic world, Winston pulls a Romeo and falls in love in the most clichéd manner Orwell’s type-writer could render in print. However, Orwell does do something original with this romance, by allowing Big Brother to break it, we see a new idea emerge on the theme: it is not, as in Shakespeare’s tragedy, love that triumphs over society, but society that triumphs over love. This is a redeeming aspect of real(istic) humanity in otherwise cardboard characters.
The prose is flat, of course. No musicality at all, but there are some much-quoted lines- particularly the first and last of the book. It’s accessible and a quick read but it is so filled with comically inane propaganda and contemplation thereon that it is definitely not a pleasurable reading experience. Of course, that is the point in a way. Imagine if it were the reality, not a book we can simply put down! Yeah, I get it. But Orwell, despite his stature and place in the literary canon, is still, as Nabokov said, little more than a mediocrity. The fact he is so acclaimed leads me to question the society in which such a book is considered great. I blame the critical establishment, a literary Thought Police which tries to make readers everywhere believe the artistic equivalent of 2+2=5.