George Orwell’s 1984 is such a well-rubbed thing that there isn’t much left to say about it. It’s also a much-abused thing, the Bible of oath for fear mongers everywhere and university slicks goading their hordes of vacant-eyed activists.
So let’s step back a little, take a swig of that Victory Gin and let the juniper swallow the swill.
Winston works for the Party in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting Oceania’s history and fixing facts into fibs such that the historical record will bow down and toe the line of every Party whim. It strips language of its meaning and forces through this contraction a single ideology wherein no other thoughts have even a chance to form against it.
At the end is self-annihilation.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949, and its imagery is loosely based on Stalinist U.S.S.R.: Big Brother looks a lot like dear Josef, 3-year plans take the place of the 5-year plans and purges within the Party happen as regularly as the chimes on the clocks that tick ‘round to a military 24:00.
But like any lasting novel, 1984 tickles the free world circa now. The party governing Oceania takes from the left that awful utopia of homogeneity and from the right the supposed economic need for permanent war (“Department of Defense” is just happy semantics to cover its old name – the Department of War).
Might just make you think that the Ministries of Peace, Truth, Love and Plenty concern themselves with things other than peace, truth, love and plenty.
Liberalism (as with progressivism) is in our current state of things a co-opted word for a group whose ultras shout down anyone in disagreement, brand its opponents racists and homophobes and send dissenters into a 24-hour Twitter Time Out if the SJW’s shout for it.
And what rises up is a blank wall of sameness, endless, opaque and unsympathetic. There’s no room for difference. “Your rights end where another’s begin.” You see, this blank equality still has a huge capacity for infringement.
Well, for more examples I suggest you turn on your cable. Again, it’s the ultras of either side, but 1984 trades in the black and white.
But it’s alright. You’re safe. There aren’t any telescreens here. Our Two Minutes Hate is done for the day. My name is not O’Brien. This is not Room 101.
1984 is mundane in its first pages, didactic through its middle and capable of provoking its readers to nightmarish anxiety at its end.
O’Brien asks Winston to remember that freedom is slavery – and then, too, that slavery is freedom (and is ignorance also bliss, O’Brien? No, ignorance is strength just as war is peace).
Orwell hashes out the party slogans through a book authored by a faceless opposition. It’s a double heresy that Winston reads such a tract to his Julia when they’re sweetly licked by a post-coital sweat and serenaded by the laboring prole in the lot beneath the window.
It’s hard to know what’s real because damn if that lovely affair isn’t cause for arrest (and a tortuous re-education) in Oceania.
And in Room 101 O’Brien hammers that home – BAM! BAM! BAM! – that reality is created in the mind before it’s expelled into the miasmatic comforts of a life structured by the convenience of mutually exclusive ideas. One man’s truth is another man’s lie, and the spin doctor has a thriving practice. We can make two and two equal five if equaling four means an uncomfy thought. Shove it all in there, make it fit, what’s a few broken bones?
Another way to put it: if it’s guns that kill people then sorry to say, it’s also the short skirt that tempts a rape. You can’t have it two different ways. It’s either the man or the article that prompts the violence in each instance, not one of each depending on your mood, opinion of guns or your feminist clout – that’s just doublethink.
Point is, this book has been thrashed about for some time and hurled at all corners of the political compass. It’s easier to pick and choose our views because that way we can skirt around the fact that we all hold our prejudices. We can pretend we’re not all of us bigoted in at least some meager way.
Maybe that’s not supposed to be the takeaway here, and maybe some amount of doublethink is necessary to keep things moving and mankind sane (sane-ish). There’s no shame in being a minority of one but there sure is in shouting me down with Two Minutes of Hate.
1984 · George Orwell · 1949
Berkley, 2003 · 323 pages, paperback