I read “1984”, the dystopian novel (1) of George Orwell, after 14 years from the year I started writing “2000+X”, after 28 years from the year in the title of the book, after 63 years from the year it was written.
Although I had not read the book or watched the movie (2), I had heard a lot about it before. “Big Brother” was known to everybody. I also had general information on the Ministry of Truth.
What is the meaning of reading “1984” in 2012?
My first remark will be that now in today’s world it may not be a big issue to have telescreens watching everybody everywhere. We are lucky, we already have them. High resolution cameras and spying tools not only work for intelligence agencies but also for individuals to watch the people they care, they are jealous of, or they hate.
My second point is the power of the book. It was first published after a world war during the starting period of cold war between the United States and Soviet Union. Eurasia and Ocenia may not make the same reflections in minds now as they did before the collapse of the walls.
Finally and as a third point, I feel a permanent value in the story of Winston and Julia. Not due to the extra-ordinary love theme between them, but since they reflect human behavior under hard conditions with a level of psychological depth. Looking at them in today’s world after many changes occurred since World War II creates a different perspective.
Orwell does not seem optimistic in “1984”. Today there may not be more reasons to be optimistic, but individual human values can be accepted to be still valid. The cities, the walls, the windows are less dusty and the general appearance is not as dark as painted by the writer in 1949, just after the World War II.
Novels create images and memories in minds. These can be clear or blurry. In most cases, the author sets a high level of clarity throughout the story for common readability. In 1984, there is a definite picture of the darkness in a future world, but the human level in characters, daily life, details of social organization, technologies, economy and politics have been kept below the high definition level. This can be considered as a critical factor for the value of a fiction for future.
Being born in 1903, witnessing two world wars within his life time, and signing on with the Burmese Indian Imperial Police in 1921, he later commented: “In order to hate imperialism, you have got to be part of it.” He quit five years later to become a writer. If he had not, he would still understand the structure of the imperialist system, but probably complete his life without leaving the findings of his experience.
Considering the pain people had in world wars and civil wars during his lifetime, it is not difficult to understand why he did not write an utopia but wrote a dystopia.
In the afterword of the book, Erich Fromm identifies “1984” as the expression of a mood and a warning. He defines the mood as a despair about the future of man, and the warning as the risk of losing human qualities.
He explains the facts behind the pessimism of Orwell as:
1. World War I in which millions died for the territorial ambitions of the European powers, under the illusion of fighting for peace and democracy.
2. The betrayal of the socialist hopes by Stalin’s reactionary state capitalism.
3. The severe economic crisis at the end of the twenties.
4. The victory of barbarism in one of the oldest centers of culture in the world, Germany.
5. The insanity of Stalinist terror during the thirties.
6. World War II in which the fighting nations lost some of the moral considerations which had still existed in World War I.
7. The unlimited destruction of civilian populations, started by Hitler, continued by destruction of cities such as Hamburg,
Dresden and Tokyo , and use of atomic bombs against Japan.
8. Destruction risk of civilization by thermonuclear weapons.
He states that Orwell is not alone in his endeavor and adds “We” of Russian Zamyatin, “Brave New World” of Aldous Huxley, “The Iron Heel” of Jack London to the list of “negative utopia”, “dystopia” books, and emphasizes the own original contribution of “1984” to the question as “How can human nature be changed?”
“1984” has an appendix for the principles of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania (one of the three divisions of the world), where the relation between language and thought is analyzed. Declaration of Independence is given as an example of texts which are quite impossible to express in Newspeak.
Winston was born in 1945 and Julia in 1958. He was 39 years old, and Julia 26 in 1984. Orwell (1903-1950) wrote the book in 1949.
Although I heard a lot about the book, I had never met Julia before reading it. Julia is the main female character of the book, and she was born in the same year with me. I never met Michael Jackson and Madonna too. They were both born in 1958 too. We feel close to people having the same birthday with us. Being born in the same year is also an important common aspect. 1958 is a dog year in Chinese calendar.
In Chinese calendar, years have names that are repeated every 60 years. There are two components used sequentially. The first component is a Celestial Stemm (1:jia 2:yi 3:bing 4:ding 5:wu 6:ji 7:geng 8:xin 9:ren 10:gui), and the second component is a Terrestrial Branch (1:zi(rat) 2 chou(ox) 3:yin(tiger) 4:mao(hare, rabbit) 5:chen(dragon) 6:si(snake) 7:wu(horse) 8:wei(sheep) 9:shen(monkey) 10:you(rooster) 11:xu(dog) 12:hai(pig). The first year of the sixty-year cycle is jia-zi, the second yi-chou, the third year bing-yin. (3)
The current sixty-year cycle started on 2 February 1984 with jia zi, a rat year.
There are several points I noted while reading the book. These have no objective criteria for selection, but they can provide some hints to remember or to discuss some thoughts mentioned or initiated in the book.
“With the establishment of self-contained economies, in which production and consumption are geared to one another, scramble for markets which was a main cause of previous wars has come to an end, while the competition for raw materials is no longer a matter of life and death. In any case, each of the three superstates is so vast that it can obtain almost all of the materials that it needs within its own boundaries. In so far as the war has a direct economic purpose, it is a war for labor power.” (Page 166)
I would comment that automation seems to change this estimate. China, Far East have low rate workmanship rates currently, but in a future automation and the increasing need for specifically skilled labor can change the picture. This issue seems not to be clear yet. In a way, automation eliminates the need for human power, but economies still need human services in many areas.
“At the apex of the pyramid comes Big Brother. Big Brother is infallible and allpowerful. Every success, every achievement, every victory, every scientific discovery, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue, are held to issue directly from his leadership and inspiration.” (Page 185)
This picture reminds the leadership of a conservative leader using an absolute authority on behalf of a universal spirit.
“Below that comes the dumb masses whom we habitually refer as the “proles” numbering perhaps eighty-five per cent of the population.” (Page 185)
Aziz Nesin had said 70 % of the population was dumb, but then corrected the value as 90 % commenting that he had underestimated it. The average of his figures is 80 %. Dumb masses in the book are mentioned to be 85 %.
“The poet Ampleforth shambled into the cell.”
“I allowed the word ‘God’ to remain at the end of a line.”
“Do you realize that there are only twelve rhymes to ‘rod’ in the entire language? “the whole history of English poetry has been determined by the fact that the English language lacks rhymes?” (Pages 205-206)
Parsons says “‘Down with big brother!’ Yes, I said that.” “Who denounced you?” asks Winston. “It was my little daughter.” says Parsons and adds “In fact I’m proud of her. It shows I brought her up in the right spirit, anyway.” (Page 208)
“If I could save Julia by doubling my own pain would I do it? Yes, I would.” But that was merely an intellectual decision taken because he knew he ought to take it. He did not feel it.” (Page 212)
“Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain. In the face of pain there are no heroes, no heroes, he thought over and over as he writhed on the floor, clutching uselessly at his disabled left arm.” (Page 212)
“The confession was a formality, though the torture was real.” (Page 214)
Middle ages, inquisition, German Nazis, and Russian Communists are referred by O’brien. (Page 226)
“We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us, so long as he resists us, we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we bring him overto our side. … We make him one of ourselves before we kill him.” (Page 227)
“We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” (Page 234)
“The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. …. The object of power is power.” (Page 235)
“The old civilisations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. …. We have cut the links between child and parent and between man and man, and between man and woman.” (Page 238)
I was not able to notice that the link between woman and woman was also cut. This may not be intentional, and just been omitted. It can also be considered that the internal interaction of women were not found worth attention.
“children will be taken from their mothers at birth. …. The sex instinct will be eradicated. We shall abolish orgasm. Neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness.” (Page 238)
These all can be considered as parts of a systematic intervention to destroy human features for complete mechanization.
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping a human face – forever.” (Page 239)
This is obviously not an optimistic visualization but considering the period he lived and his life, it is difficult to expect optimism from Orwell. Pessimism can be considered to be a required feature of dystopia, but they absolutely contain a bright picture when looked with a corrective filter replacing blacks with whites.
Winston “If they could make me stop loving you …. that would be the real betrayal.” (Page 147)
Love is probably the most human part of any individual. It contains belief, hope, and a meaning for existence. When love is dead, all positive aspects will fade for a real betrayal to life.
“You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases – to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the party?”
“Yes.” (Page 147)
I was not sure whether this was a conscious expression of the hopeless view of Orwell or not, being discouraged to believe and go after anything positive after many years spent witnessing the problems of the world, of international movements, and of socialist countries in particular.
“You are prepared, the two of you, to separate and never see one another again?”
“No!” broke in Julia. (Page 153)
The response comes from Julia, not from Winston. This may be a reflection of the general look considering female as more emotional.
“The brotherhood cannot be wiped out because it is not an organization in the ordinary sense. Nothing holds it together except an idea which is indestructible.” (Page 156)
The corresponding example for this argument can be the mechanism of ideologies and religions. Both refuse discussion and flexibility, both hold people together around ideas and concepts, and both cannot be discussed with individual and free wills.
Julia: “If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year-Plans and the Two Minute Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?” (Page 118)
“So long as human beings stay human, death and life are the same thing.” (Page 120)
Julia: “This is me, this is my hand, this is my leg. I’m real, I’m solid, I’m alive! Don’t you like this?” (Page 120)
“A rocket bomb must have dropped quite near at hand. Suddenly he became aware of Julia’s face a few centimeters from his own, deathly white, as white as chalk. Even her lips were white. She was dead.” (Page 114)
O’Brien: “We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future.” (Page 156)
He hooked up at O’Brien, “I have not betrayed Julia,” he said. He had told them everything he knew about her. … everything. And yet, in the sense he intended the word, he had not betrayed her. He had not stopped loving her… (Page 244)
“The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself. The process should be automatic, instinctive. Crimestop, they called it in Newspeak.” (Page 248)
“It is not enough to obey him, you must love him.” (Page 251)
“The last step. You must love Big Brother.” (Page 251)
“They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human is helpless.” (Page 254)
“They” in the above sentence refer to rats being a final hit to the exhausted strength of Winston.
I believe dystopia include too much darkness making it difficult to find light and hope in the systems created, but still expect to see some brightness at the end of the tunnel described throughout the work. It may be difficult to trace such an optimism in “1984”, but it is absolutely a very powerful warning on the consequences of losing human character.
1. George Orwell, 1984, Plume, 1983.
2. Michael Radford, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), 1984, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087803/.
3. The Chinese Calendar, http://www.webexhibits.org/calendars/calendar-chinese.html#anchor-count-years