I am going to start sharing poetry on this site. I will rate the poem, and if it has a high rating then I shall not comment. I feel like it should be able to speak for itself, being present, unlike the films and books that I review. However, if the poem is not good, or if I have some comments to make about where it is lacking in term of quality, for whatever reason, then I will make those under the text in a very brief review.
Thus, the poetry that will appear on Ocellus will vary in quality, as I wish to highlight the contrast between what- according to my principles in how I evaluate poetry- is good, great, or bad. Poetry will not appear in the week in nutshellposts but some poems will appear on the Highest Rated page if they are of sufficient merit.
Additionally, I have decided to open up a dialogue between followers of my site. I offer to read and critique your writing, for free, and provide detailed notes, with how you can improve. If you think I offer valid criticism, then I don’t need to sell myself. It’s up to you. And, if you so desire, I will feature one of your poems on the site, with commentary of course according to the standard of every other poet, and a link to your website, YouTube channel, or whatever one platform you request. If poetry is not your thing, I will, if you ask, so a review, (all free of charge) of your play, novel, screenplay, or film if you’ve managed to get that far. Short fiction and films included of course. Take advantage of my time.
One more thing regarding the site, I have been posting once every day on average, or every other day, for the last 3 weeks. I am going to start uploading more often: in hopes, this will help traffic for one, but mainly so that I can review more content- I only review a fraction of what I get through in a week as it is, and I need to up my game- and be more active.
This seems like a paradoxical pledge, to write more on the site, considering that I have now started work on a novel, but I honestly feel like there is enough time in a day to do so much. Reading the average of a book a day (2000 pages a week), a film here and there, and a post every other day, well this is my speed currently. I feel lazy, and honestly, I’ve been procrastinating on so much. I could almost certainly do far far more than this, and I’ll have to if I want to keep up with my own quotas. I’m going to end with a quote from the great card mechanic Richard Turner,
‘You know what I consider the worst disability of all? Procrastination and laziness. Give me blindness over that any day of the week.’
One piece of advice which is given so often as to be a cliché at this stage, is ‘show don’t tell.’ It’s a slogan to be found in permanent residence on the whiteboards of creative writing teachers. The idea is a variation of ‘save the cat’ in film. Don’t say ‘this is the good guy,’ establish their character by way of demonstration, have them save a cat, or kick a dog (if they’re the bad guy), for example, to give the audience an emotional reaction one way or another. In most cinema, fine, I think that’s not such a bad technique, but in literature, I must say it is missing the point of the form.
Words are amazing- they have the ability to connect to the intellect. Most people forget about the power of words. Why do you read? If the film version of a novel came out, would you read the novel? Why do you write? If you could make a film, would you still write a novel? See, here’s the thing, I am concerned we are getting far too caught up in what words can simulate, rather than what they can, uniquely, do. If we take away the imagery of scenes, and characters, what are we left with? In a film, not much. But in a novel? One way I evaluate the quality of literature is by looking at the author’s skill in telling, and how well they use the medium of the written word to allow us insight at depths we would never be able to penetrate in the film version, were one to exist. And if you are going to use cinematic techniques in your fiction, at least use more interesting ones than ‘save the cat.’ There are far more nuanced ways of establishing character.
Think about it this way, you read a Harry Potter book, then you see the film. What is missing from the film that was in the book? Almost precisely nothing is different, save the length of the book’s plot versus the movie’s. I think you see what I’m getting at. So why is this piece of advice, ‘show don’t tell’ offered so ubiquitously? Well, it’s probably due to a misunderstanding of what telling actually is, and its all too frequent misuse. Telling is not info-dumping, which is something I would definitely advise against. Telling is allowing the narrator’s mind to enter, and make an impact. This is how voice can seep in between the lines, and give the writing a new dimension, and life. If something reads stale, it is almost certainly because of a lack of this very quality. It takes an incredible skill to do this well and rarely is it something the author can pull off, but when done right, the results can be, will be, spectacular. I implore those of you who write to draw from the pen your inner teller.
Today we will look at an unpublished work, The Medium Is This by Dan Schneider. This may well be the most brilliant meta play ever conceived and it was delivered on the author’s mailing list just last week. I didn’t pay a cent for this PDF, but I absolutely would have. It requires a considerable amount of reflection to talk about, but I think I have given it some time to sit with me. Danny Wagner is Schneider’s ‘in’ into the play, and it is through him that the writer deals with life in profoundly existential ways. Wagner, like Schneider, is a writer. He breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience, to ask if they know where ‘Miss Froy’ is, as she seems to have vanished (Miss Froy is a woman from a Hitchcock film, called The Lady Vanishes, by the way), and he engages with the other characters as the writer of the play itself. Now, all these techniques in less skilled hands would come off as gimmicky, but with Schneider, it does what structural techniques- toying with the form- MUST do in order to succeed: give deeper insight into the characters than otherwise would be achieved without them. Anyway, after the opening chat with the audience, we see Danny wake up in the bed of a girl named Marissa, and she becomes his companion throughout the rest of this long, but not over-long, production. I must say she is one of the most delightful creations to read about, as fleshed out and interesting as even protagonists in other works only dream to be.
TMIT gives insight into a man in his fifties, who is in flux between the now and the past, dwelling on memories and people who, despite their seeming irrelevance, find their way into his mind, and by getting behind Danny’s eyes we are given a new perspective on our protagonist. I commented in my post How to Write Great Fiction that a character must have an internal, and not only an external, life. In order to communicate the internal life, the reader should be, well, made into a homunculus of sorts, seeing the world through their eyes. Danny Wagner has the most complex internal life of any fictive human being I have yet come across and as a result, even the most mundane conversations, the likes of which Jess (Danny Wagner’s wife, yes he is married) in the play would rail against as being boring or pointless, in fact, contain many layers of meaning.
In a novel, the narrator usually speaks retroactively. This is traditional storytelling, but when we are dealing with the autobiographic aspect of a first-person narrator, the past tense can be illuminating. The narrator exists then, but also now to reflect on then. In a portrait play like TMIT, it is essential to have these moments of reflection. While most plays take place in the present and require monologues to provide this dimension, TMIT uses the discussion of memory in dialogue. This is a brilliant device, as it allows the whole thing to flow organically between drama and contemplation.
There is an interesting part when Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is brought up in an excerpt of one of Danny Wagner’s reviews on Omniversica (Dan Schneider’s on Cosmoetica), and the review is tied in with one of the overarching themes of the play, the rose-colored lenses with which we look back at the days of yore. The passage is projected onto a screen for the audience to read on their own. This courage to sometimes stop everything and have the characters do nothing for a few minutes is a hallmark of Schneider’s relaxed style. He rushes nothing, doesn’t force anything, and often allows moments to just wash over you, like in a Tarkovsky film. You get a lot of time to think, which is good as there is plenty to think about. The ending consists of two Scene 13s (excluding one of the alternate endings) and it brings us back full circle to the beginning, but with a very crucial difference, setting up the next play from the perspective of young Marissa.
I will be doing more reviews on Dan Schneider’s work- albeit unpublished material- in June. Maybe I should have done this in September of course, cause I call it ‘Schneider September,’ but then again that would be tacky as hell- I’m not going to start doing Mishima Mondays. Anyway, check out the man’s work, it is worth your time. And if you are interested in sites like mine, that are concerned with film and literary criticism, and/or if you enjoy reading essays, Cosmoetica is where you ought to be. Either way, if you can get your hands on it, you should read The Medium Is This which distills a lot of Schneider’s own thoughts on art, plays, and the play itself, within the play itself.
Ahh, the dreaded criticism of fictive works- your fictive works- that will inevitably come when your manuscript finally leaves the word processor and enters the world. ‘Is my writing immune to the knife of opinion?’ you ask. No. Listen, you will never escape subjective reactions, it’s up to the mind of the reader to decide on them, and sometimes what you’re selling just isn’t what they’re buying. It depends what one is attracted to. It’s like personality. Not everyone is going to like you, but there are definitely some rule you should follow if you want to be a good person. Who likes Hitler am I right? Turns out, millions of Germans at one stage- and as with art, even the worst humanity has to offer can be popular. This is why I don’t concern myself with what’s popular, but what is actually good, and so should you if you want to bring something to the world through art that is more than just tasty junk food, but actual nourishment. When was the last time you read something that affected you in a real way? I don’t just mean it was thrilling or tugged at your heartstrings, but really altered your mind? Would you like to write something like that? In other words, would you like to write something that gets at least a 7, or an 8 out of 10 on my rating system? With my criticism, and any criticism worth listening to, I’m sure, it is beneficial to pay attention to why one novel fails and another succeeds. If you think my criticism is worth listening to, then here is my essential guide. And I guarantee you if you follow these rules your fiction will improve, and not only that, you’ll know it. You’ll be able to more clearly judge whether you’re potentially creating a masterpiece or a bored commuter’s read on the train- a forgettable burner of hours. I will talk first about prose- the lines– and then about what lies between the lines. Much of this concerns voice. Understand this, if you can learn to hone your voice as a writer and a speaker, you will elevate your art to potentially stellar levels.
EXCESS VERBIAGE: Reduce your excess word count. If you can eliminate a word and retain the meaning, do so- ‘that’ is one word which is almost always present superfluously. Also, do not write unnecessary details: if someone is holding something, don’t add ‘in his hand.’ If someone is wearing shoes, don’t say ‘the shoes she is wearing on her feet,’ but ‘her shoes.’ Excess verbiage is itself an example, we don’t need the ‘excess’.
AUTHENTIC VOICE: Writers with a distinctive voice can e recognized just from reading their writing. You may call it style, but this gives the wrong idea, voice isn’t just on the surface, it is not about creating an experimental prose style- often the clearest voices can be drawn from the most seemingly unremarkable prose. It’s a way of imbuing the text with the mind, either your own or that of the fictive narrator.
OVERWRITING: While voice should be audible, prose should not be visible. Do not perform grammatical gymnastics just to stand out, and don’t oversaturate descriptions. Stay grounded, you don’t have to reinvent the English language.
CLICHÉS: A the war on clichés (what a clichés phrase)- I wish more people would take up arms. The opposite of going out of your way to make your writing [appear] unique, is writing in a lazy, generic fashion. Overly idiomatic prose is dead prose. You are inheriting the voice of a collective, rather than finding your own. Also, clichésmean there is no insight into life which is anything more than general knowledge, and so there is really no point in reading anything. If you read enough, you’ll begin to pick up on where your writing lacks originality or depth. By the way, you can steal elements- all great artists steal from those who influenced them, but you should always do something new with those elements of another’s work you steal. Or you could steal clichés from the collective of writing, and twist that, and restate it in a nonpareil manner- that’s what satire is.
Between the Lines
CHARACTER: Your characters should have their own voices, just like the narrator. I’ve read so much dull writing where the characters are empty husks manipulated by the author like puppets to drive along some contrived plot. Give your characters an outlook on life, an internal life at least as big as the external. Let the reader get behind their eyes. Ths will show up strongly in dialogue, where you’re not just writing shit that hasn’t got any real person behind the words. This is why bad writers use accents to create the impression of a unique way of speaking. I’m not saying don’t give your character an outlandish accent, do what you want, but there should be more to it than that.
STIMULATE THE READER: Stop writing, start thinking. What are you bringing to someone’s life from reading your work? Hacks, mediocre writers, often claim that the purpose of a novel should be to entertain. That is certainly part of it, but here’s what I claim: the point of a novel is to be stimulating. Stimulating in as many ways as possible- entertainment is the lowest form of stimulation. I should at least be that, but a novel can be so much more. How about stimulating the emotions? How about the mind? Interest is the highest level of stimulation. What makes your work truly interesting? What I mean is, what about your work can give someone a new perspective on life?
A LIGHT TOUCH: What was the last thing you read or wrote? Think about the plot. Is it contrived? Is it so rigidly plotted that the story can’t breathe? I have heard writers say there are two schools of thought on this- that of gardeners and architects, as Brandon Sanderson likes to call them- do you write from the seat of your pants or is your outline almost as long as the finished manuscript in other words? Sorry, but this is plain bullshit when it comes to anything beyond genre fiction. Excuse my french, but really. It irks me that so many writers don’t seem to be aware of what a plot even is. A plot is neither a) a tool to manipulate the characters within the story, or b) a tool to manipulate the reader. A good plot is first and foremost invisible. I’m going to repeat that: a good plot is invisible. It should serve as a medium, that’s all, through which to speak to the reader, and it should exist for your characters like air- allowing them to breathe. If you have created a world with sufficient lucidity and allow your characters to exist and interact organically- given the characters are well constructed, 3-dimensional and have an internal as well as external life- your novel will develop in the most harmonious way. You can even guide the story along, but don’t be ham-fisted about it; be gentle, there should know right angles in a plot, but smooth and steady curvature. And be ready to allow the story to go where it needs to. Sometimes it won’t even end up where you initially had planned, but you should do right by the work. The plot will not craft itself, but where your energy needs to be invested is in the more subtle details. Treat the plot as an emergent thing, much like the ‘plot’ of your own life- and if there is a guiding hand to it all, they certainly possess a very light touch.
Yukio Mishima was one of the most intransigent characters of the 20th century, and insofar as his work reflects his mind, many find it offputting. He was a widely accomplished individual, as well as writing novels (and plays and poetry) he also directed films, modeled, and was even considered a Samurai. He ended his life by committing seppuku at the age of 45. This was in fulfillment, at least to an extent, of his ambition never to grow old, as the body cannot be beautiful when it is old. Yes, he was surely a character, and of the likes to be found in his novels.
Speaking of which, The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea possesses a title that carries a meaning intrinsic to the theme within its pages: the sailor- Ryuji Tsukazaki- is looked on by a boy- Noboru Kuroda- as a kind of fantastic ideal. The 13-year-old is part of a precocious little gang which sees itself as the keepers of order over chaos. They seem to be rather nihilistically inclined. While some readers have suggested that they are too young to be thinking philosophically insofar as they are, I don’t think Mishima necessarily made a mistake here. After all, they, like all young boys, think in ultimatums. What is interesting is how easily we forget the fictive elements of a book like this, written by an author so absolutist in his own thinking. But should we interpret Noboru as a representation of the author? To some extent, we can make this psychoanalytic connection, but we must also realize that Mishima is not writing a manifesto.
There is a considerable artistry to the book, and just because a character in a book is disagreeable does not mean we should find the book disagreeable. Few people read American Psycho as an attempt by Ellis to give credence to the way Patrick Bateman sees the world. At least I would hope not. It seems that many think of The Sailor as an ‘anti-feminist book’ since Mishima was most interested in the aesthetic of the masculine and the functional. To say The Sailor is anti-feminist because his prose lends poetry to this aspect of the world is simply overreading, and Noboru’s twisted adolescent ideology is not the same as Mishima’s. Even if it was, what’s the problem? There is no Nazi propaganda in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, though the author was a Nazi, nor does anyone really care: the art reaches deeper into the human soul than ideology. The Sailor should be read in this way. It articulates things about the world which, whether they render as ‘true’ to you, are real. Just as Moby Dick articulates the reality of obsessive fixation, The Sailor articulates the reality of masculine expectations and perceptions- and I ask you when has a spaghetti western, starring a ‘man’s man’ like John Wayne, ever done the same?
Now, with some of my reviews, I do tend to spoil things- not that I think great novels can be spoiled anyway- but this time I’m going to let you find out for yourself how things turn out. The reason I spoil books is that I sometimes need to in order to critique certain aspects of them. In this case, I am defending the novel from a criticism that doesn’t seem to have been thought through very well by those who give it. Unlike 1984, The Sailor is not preachy. It is incredibly condensed and filled to the brim with meaning. There is no wasted space, every word is of import. And best of all the plot does not feel contrived. Not only is it original, removed from all cliches, it is organic and perfectly realized.
Mishima was nonpareil as a writer, but he was one of a dying breed, it may not have been so far from the truth to call him ‘The Last Samurai’. The last man perhaps, who truly devoted himself to the Samurai mentality. I can only admire his devotion and appreciate the sublime and unique genius of his work.
When I first discovered the world of magic, the David Blaine era was in full swing. Magic had finally broken out of the dusty old drawing room and was back with the people on the street as it had been long ago. Magicians were becoming ‘jongleurs‘ yet again. What is a jongleur? Well before the days of Jean Eugene Robert Houdin and Dr Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser (I really hope you aren’t reading this aloud)- during which time conjurers enjoyed relative elitism, as specialists and artists/inventors of illusion- the jongleur (or French ‘juggler’) was a certain breed of vagabonds barely distinguishable from those to be found at the circus. They would dazzle audiences much like modern day street performers, but until recently one variety of these jongleurs– those who performed sleight of hand- became somewhat less common with the revolution of Isaac Fawkes. Fawkes had decided, instead of actually going to meet his public on their own terms, he would erect a tent and ask his public to come to him, and what’s more, he was a specialist: he was a conjurer through and through. Soon, he became the most wealthy of his peers, and many of them began following in his footsteps. This left a hole, and jugglers became gradually separated from conjurers over the years.
By the 19th century, there was an aristocratic air in much of European magic. Some conjurers even became celebrities. They now had a name and with it a reputation, in the public eye. These were the days when tailcoats were worn unironically on stage. Unfortunately, until even the mid 20th century, magic in America was still not seen as such an elevated art form as it was on the Continent. There were a handful of exceptional performers, such as Houdini (stage-name in honor of Robert Houdin, aforementioned), but no one really cared for magical culture in and of itself. [And yes, Houdini was a magician, specifically an illusionist, as much as he was also an escape artist. I know many people deny that he had anything to do with magic, for various reasons, but this is just plain nonsense.] That all changed when a man called Dai Vernon came on the scene. By the way, don’t worry about pronunciation, if indeed you are reading this aloud: whenever asked how to pronounce his name, ‘is it day or die?’ Vernon would often reply with ‘e-ther or i-ther.’ Vernon set out on the task of turning American magic into something grand, and intriguing, something that you could aspire to actually make a career out of, and not just if you were the best of the best or had several syllables in your name preceded by ‘Dr’. I shall subsequently without a hint of irony call Vernon by the title his contemporaries gave him in honor of his contributions and vast knowledge of the craft: ‘the Professor’.
The Professor’s project has continued to this day, but while the goal is the same, the approach has become very varied, to say the least. Specifically, in card magic, which I shall talk about briefly in this post, whole cultural movements have sprung up over the years. When a book, The Expert at the Card Table, leaked inside information from the world of the card shark, sleight of hand was elevated to a new standard. On the one hand, was the revolution in Europe (and Fawkes’s Britain) of conjuring as an art. On the other hand came, in America, the revolution of sleight of hand as a craft. The Professor’s main contribution, on the global scale, was really to merge the two. Those (of which I am one) who are part of the direct pedagogical lineage of the Professor, try to embody this marriage in their performances. But so do many who are outside of this lineage, and unfortunately, I feel there is an element of misguidedness about much of it. While David Blaine is certainly a brilliant sleight of hand artist, as well as simply a brilliant artist, what with his character and performances, his wish to bring magic back to the streets where it originated (like some rappers these days), has lead to many of his peers missing the point entirely of this effort (cough-Dynamo-cough). They are only after bigger and more expensive illusions. They’ve taken the old adage ‘the world is a stage’ a bit too literally I think. Bigger is not always better, and camera tricks (movie magic) are not magic. In my opinion, if we want magic to be given respect, such as is given painting or music, we need magicians who respect it. We have far too many who want to use it to prove that they are special or have superpowers or whatever. We need real passion, a drive to, as Michael Vincent has said, leave magic better off than we found it. I’ve seen what magic can be, and this gives me hope.
I brought up card magic a little earlier. What is it about the pasteboard deck, this little prop, that is so emblematic of magic and magicians? Well, there’s the esoteric side, of course, the 4 suits representing the 4 seasons, and other such numerology, but the real reason is much more practical: cards are small and easy to carry in one’s pocket, but they are also versatile and filled with infinite potential for creativity. There are also many properties of cards, like their individual physical dimensions, flexibility, and even destructibility that allow for the kinds of subtle sleight of hand which is possible at the highest level. But then- and perhaps numerology does serve a purpose after all- cards have deep mathematical properties which allow even the most inexperienced newbie to dazzle and amaze, along with the cunning mentalist. And to top all this off, cards are cheap. No other prop has this kind of value for money, other than possibly money itself, for magic.
I believe you can actually write an entire history of modern magic just by examining the myriad ways in which cards have been used- from Dr. Hofzinser to Daniel Madison- and how they, to a large extent, embody the philosophy of deception adopted by the different schools of witchcraft and wizardry. In fact, I may one day do this very thing. Here though, I want to simply allude to the general ideas people subscribe to and explain why I am decidedly opposed to some of them. Today, any schmuck can go out into the street, call up someone’s attention, take out some cards and amaze them with a couple of torn and restored card tricks and a not-so-ambitious-card routine – all while the deck receives half a dozen signatures and a dozen irreversible crimps, making it virtually unusable thereafter. This attitude to cards, that they are just disposable objects, is actually what I think is the problem with most magic today. It does not call for respect, because the magician him/herself does not respect magic. It calls instead for hits on YouTube, and it is, not entirely by coincidence, that these are the types who readily reveal secrets on the internet for free. They did not have to work for any of this, their attitude is ‘practice schmactice, as long as I get hits’ [reference]. The problem is that such a street performance is worth a dime a dozen, about as disposable as cards to be honest. Because of the lack of respect for the performance, the audience, and the atmosphere of magic (these types usually just want to freak people out or pick up chicks), their audience does not respect them. Does anyone really respect Chriss Angel, apart from 13-year-olds who think he’s edgy? Or those other idiots on YouTube (and I’m thinking of one in particular as I write this) who try to emulate him, teaching 13-year-olds how to produce rolled up cards from cigarette packs? Nope. Interesting to note, we now additionally have the cardistry phenomenon, which is quite literally card juggling. We’ve gone full circle it seems.
On the other hand, there is what has now become known as “classical magic”. Michael Vincent is the most accomplished proponent of this style. The feel of the style is that of cleanness and precision. The few magicians in the world who are skilled in this form practice for years, hours and hours a day (I should know). The main point is minimal movement; a reduction in excess; the beauty of simplicity. The deck of cards is no longer treated as disposable pieces of paper, but a highly tuned instrument, like a grand piano with 52 keys. Not present is the gimmicky/cheap feel of the prop an in the hands of a street or YouTube magician, instead, they are granted a certain integrity. Also, whereas street/YouTube magicians tend to handle the cards way too much, fiddling, fumbling, shuffling and twirling them (and I am not exaggerating) the classical magician abstains from all but the most refined and purposeful movement. The state of the deck must be clear to the spectator at all times. This is important. It must seem as if the magician does nothing at all but the most natural and unsuspecting cuts, shuffles, spreads or adjustments. Otherwise, the cards should be placed flat on the table, in full view of everyone. Sleight of hand should be a refined skill. There should be no chance for suspicion.
There is, however, one more school which I think deserves a mention. This is that of Daniel Madison. He believes that the techniques of deception have artistic merit in and of themselves. There are others, such as Derren Brown, who sometimes like to give away the secrets of their tricks, but Madison is the card man. He has decided that sleight of hand is itself an art, not just a tool from which the art of magic emerges. Because of the fact that magicians are seemingly more fascinated in magic than a lot of spectators, having an understanding both of what is behind the scenes and on the stage (similar to how the biggest film buffs are often themselves filmmakers) it is fitting that Madison should allow his spectators in on the secrets of the craft. A huge upsurge in people’s interest in film has occurred recently with the rise of the internet. The deconstruction and analysis of the film, yes, does surely break the illusion- but only for the purposes of allowing one to appreciate more how that illusion was created, and to understand it at a deeper level. This is the beauty of what Madison is doing with card magic, and it is certainly a lot of fun to watch. How does this conflict with my views? Well, not as much as the YouTuber who shares secrets for free (most of which are not theirs to share) and passes on their shoddy advice to the next generation. Why? Well because for one Madison is actually highly skilled, and two, Madison is not teaching you anything. He is just showing you the trick from the wrong angle. If you want to learn what he does, you’ll have to pay handsomely and buy his book. [The paywall is important because you should learn properly and from a professional. People who don’t ask for money do not do so for one very simple reason: they are not qualified or experienced enough to teach you properly, were they to ask for money, they would simply be laughed at by real professionals. There are other ethical reasons why the intellectual property of a magician should not just be flaunted on the internet by some random person, but since what Madison is doing technically does violate these ethics, in a way, discussing this here would only confuse things.] Yes, Madison is technically a ‘YouTube magician’, but he uses the platform for performance purposes only. He is a performance artist and a very good one at that. His videos are works of art and deception is his theme.
It is tempting to go back to the days of the jongleur, but in the modern world, this easily becomes a corrupted effort. My hope is that we can instead do something original, elevate the craft and the art of magic, give it the respect it deserves- and maybe one day, we can do the Professor proud.
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.