Sunday, 24 October 2010

Who Is No. 1?

Nineteen Eighty Four

I read this in early summer this year while on holiday in the Balkans, mostly by train, and discovering the coast of southern Montenegro.  I was reading it for probably the fourth time, having first read it when I was about twelve or thirteen.  The introduction to the edition I was reading was by Thomas Pynchon, a writer I once tried and failed to read, and who quotes Orwell from 1946 "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 hass been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I know it.". Pynchon goes on, "Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism [sic] had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not yet even come into its own" - how right he was.  And how surprised Orwell would (perhaps) have been to see the support for clerical fascism on the left that we see today.  But maybe not.

At the start of the book Winston Smith sees "torn paper in spirals" eddying down the street in the wind.  Very rare now, even on a windy day and in the most litter-strewn street, but clearly commonplace in 1940s London, which is the setting for this book, whatever its pretended provenance.  And my early memories of my 1950s childhood in outer London include there being scraps of paper on the street and blowing along the pavements.  You never see that now.  It has gone the way of white dog poo
I remain utterly unconvinced by the scenario of this book, masterpiece though it may well be.  But on this reading it struck me that the book is first and foremost about memory.  If there is no way to go back and check on what you thought you knew, because history is constantly being rewritten, then what do you actually know, what do you really remember?  Nowadays newspapers change their websites, take down or change stories you know you saw but can never find again, and change content by way of "correction", exactly as Winston Smith did for a living.  But at the same time, Facebook updates are there for ever.  The plot has a glass paperweight as a McGuffin.  I suppose it doesn't matter why.

Always be careful of technology when you write.  When. O'Brien turns off the tele-screen (p. 219) there is a "sharp snap" which is the sound I remember appliances used to make when being switched off, but only up until the 1970s - by the 80s they no longer did.  The mention of that sound anchors you in postwar austerity Britain, which lasted until the adulthood of this boomer.  But maybe that is no bad thing.

There is so much in this book which reads false.  The world of the book is fought over by three great powers, the UK is "Air Strip One" and is a small fiefdom of one of those powers, so why should "Ingsoc (English Socialism) be an important world ideology?  It's a bit like "Eurocommunism" - who remembers that now?

A couple of quotes I thought worth repeating - "All past oligarchies have fallen from power either because they ossified or because they grew soft.  Either they became stupid and arrogant, failed to adjust themselves to changing circumstances, and were overthrown; or they became liberal and cowardly, made concessions when they should have used force, and once again they were overthrown" (p. 268).  In my experience it is a little of both for most.

"Power is not a means, it. Is an end.  One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship - the object of power is power." (p. 324).  Which of course is what always happens.

But, aside from all that, the book's alleged premise "the future is with the proles" is of course utter bollocks.  Which does not stop the book being a masterpiece.  The chapters in which torture takes place are almost unbearable reading.  And what I suspect has never been done since (readers may correct me) is the portrayal of someone AFTER the torture, brainwashing, call it what you will, who daily expects a bullet in the back of the neck.  And the torture  meted out to him is that, er, the bullet is never fired.  Winston Smith is left alive, self-medicating with alcohol and, allegedly, he has learned to love Big Brother.

Always go back to Orwell.  Whose real name of course was Blair.   


Augustus Carp said...

During the Henley By Election I took quiet pride in delivering a leaflet through the letterbox of Orwell's childhood home in St Mark's Road. (Why no Blue Plaque?)

His novels may mis-fire occasionally, but his essays never fail to impress. I try to re-read his "Politics and the English Language" every year - his understanding of the use and abuse of language, the inmportance of clarity, and the relevance of vocabulary is inspired and inspiring.

I recently learned from my mother in law that my late father in law, then a junior houseman, had looked after Orwell/Blair during his last days at University College Hospital. I wish I had known, and had ben able to find out a bit more about his patient - a writer, thinker and philosopher whom I regard as one of the most important and influential of the 20the century.

Anonymous said...

Eric Blair.
And although much of his work is about the 'proles' he did not have a 'prole' background or schooling. Quite the reverse.

You mention about the post-torture aspects;Winston medicating with alcohol , having learned to love Big Brother.
Very much like the character played by Jack Nicholson in the film of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' - based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey.

A very powerful novel - can't remember the name of the Nicholson character - but he is broken in the end. No doubt Kesey had the earlier model in mind albeit subconsciously.
The two books should be read. together - certainly would make a good pair for discussion/teaching.
No, of course the future doesn't lie with the proles. It never has and it never will. Not here anyway.
Oddly enough, I have always preferred the shorter Animal Farm.
Forget all the 'Snowball equals Trotsky/Napoleon Stalin/Major ( the old pig, not the ex PM) equals Lenin rubbish.
Two things stand out - really the same thing and linked to what you have said about memory.
Memory, really, being what we choose it to be at a particular time, according to convenience.

And so we have 'Four legs good; two legs bad' and later
'Four legs good; two legs BETTER'.
I would also link that with the final para in the book where the narrator observes that at the dinner of the pigs ( dressed in human clothes,carrying whips and walking on two legs) and the local farmers, it was now impossible to tell who were the men and who the pigs.....

Also link in with Humpty Dumpty in Alice saying that words are what he wants them to mean at any different time and depending on how he feels.

On a final note, the best, truest and most difficult thing in 1984 is where Winston, with his head in the cage and the nasty old whiskery rat looming ever closer, screams 'Do it to Julia - not to me'.
For that one observation and sentence, Orwell deserves his reputation.

Foprget all that heaving and panting in teh field , or teh comic cuts in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Just that.

Anonymous said...


Augustus Carp said...

Where have we got to these days with Orell's other Big Idea, which is that if we do not have a word for a concept, then we cannot have an idea of the concept itself - we need words like Justice, and Freedom, and Mercy, and (one for our times!) Fairness, if we are to have any inkling of how to ensure that we understand the ideas, and can thus implement them.

I get the impression that this view is now somewhat discredited in philosophical and academic circles, but I don't know enough about it in order to keep up to date.


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Anonymous said...

The social construction of historythe nature of historical memory:everyone remembers Enoch Powell and his 'rivers of blood'speech but who remembers Michael De Fretias[Michael x]who was imprisoned ,under the Race Relations Act,for calling for the killing of whites.Apparently it took place in Reading..