Staying Human: Orwell’s “1984” Revisited


George Orwell’s 1984 is riding the bestseller lists again, spurred by Kellyann Conway’s ominous reference to “alternative facts” when discussing the crowds at President Trump’s inauguration. This passage from 1984 leapt to many people’s minds:

In the end, the party would announce that two and two made five and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they would make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.

It’s easy to dismiss Orwell’s masterpiece as a quaint and dated dystopia, a banal nightmare of the future cobbled together in 1948 out of the dingy present and the recent past: the bombed out London of the novel looks like nothing so much as that city under the blitz. The scarcities and rationing, the war frenzy, the propaganda and paranoia required no imagination to describe. They were right in front of him. These critics use Orwell’s merciless reportorial skill as a brief against his imagination. His grim fantasy is all too realistic. It fails both as fantasy and prophecy.

The titular date has come and gone, they point out. The world is not divided into three super powers perpetually at war; no telescreens invade our privacy. No all-powerful totalitarian state controls our lives, which are in fact more free and prosperous than anyone could have imagined at the bleak and dreary end of the Second World War. Of the computer and the Internet, plausibly the most significant new developments since that time, Orwell had not an inkling.

Tragically naive and MISGUIDED

But this superficial reading of the book, whereby we comfort ourselves with the fact that we drink Bombay Sapphire rather than Victory Gin, is tragically naive and misguided. In fact every basic concept, every philosophical and political development Orwell addressed in his book has come to pass almost exactly as described.

The terminology he created colors our thinking every day. Trump seems to be putting the archive of EPA data on climate change into the  memory hole, as he derides the press and tries to change the past as recent as one week ago, and as visible as his own Twitter account. No doubt his administration tries to rewrite the past and obliterate or classify any evidence that disputes their revisionism. More and more, as each scandal breaks in the news, as Edward Snowden releases more NSA files, it’s obvious that Big Brother is indeed watching us.

Even the On-Star GPS units in our SUVs are tricked out to function as surveillance tools. Doublethink abounds – from the “Peacekeeper” missile to the “Clear Skies” initiative to the “No Child Left Behind” program, which are – respectively – a weapon of mass destruction, a blank check for polluters and a shockingly effective attack on our basic educational system, complete with drastic funding cuts.  Even the shrill “America First” slogans and threat of perpetual warfare evoke the continuous military hysteria of Orwell’s novel.

He nailed the degeneration of mass culture, whether in the big novel writing machines that generate plots on giant kaleidoscopes or the ‘versificator’ which manufactures generic popular music for the proles. Reading any romance novel or watching any episode of The Voice confirms Orwell’s mordant prescience with disheartening precision. He was just as accurate about Mass Millions and The Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes, or  “the Lottery” as he called it:

The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principle if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory.

Far more importantly, Orwell analyzed the way people driven by the need for power actually think. This is the most useful insight in his book, delivered by the Grand Inquisitor O’Brien:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury, or long life or happiness: only power, pure power … We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture … How does one man assert his power over another? … By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering how can you be sure he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.

To this bleak vision the battered and terrified Winston Smith replies: “Somehow you will fail. Something will defeat you. Life will defeat you.”

Of course in the novel it is Winston Smith who is defeated and obliterated, after learning to love Big Brother. The story is unrelenting, a harsh tragedy in which the human spirit crushed and the future is too horrible to contemplate. The good guys lose. They are crushed, forced to betray their deepest beliefs and emotions, gutted of their souls and left to wander the streets like hollow eyed ghosts. Evil wins, over and over again, with a shriek of glee and blare of military music. The book ought to be profoundly depressing

Does 1984 provide Giddy hope?

And yet it isn’t.  Just the opposite: it’s uplifting and thrilling. It’s a form of meta-text; the fact that you are reading the book at all, that it was written and published, confounds the darkness of its message. Winston Smith knows no one will ever read his journal; however, people will be reading the novel that contains it for as long as books exist. The authors of the Newspeak Dictionary, in 1984 exult in the destruction of language; the mandarins of the Inner Party continuously dismantle all passion and morality and truth.  But the novel itself, with its vivid prose and ferocious probity creates an exhilaration, a giddy hope in the reader that its characters can never share.

And it sounds a warning that any reader can act on. Many have acted on it, five million women acted on it, the day after the disputed inauguration, invoking Orwell once more in the fight against tyranny, from HUAC to the Patriot Act to the Muslim ban and the Mexican border wall.

The book remains an inspiration and a surprisingly durable bulwark against the very world it so brilliantly described. That’s about as much as you could ask from any novel, but this one has so much more: the vibrant density of authentic literature, visible on every page. It serves the ultimate purpose of literature: it helps us stay human, an effort every bit as delicate and critical in 2017 as it was in 1948, when Orwell’s masterpiece was published.

It’s never going to get any easier, but this book will always help.