Monday, October 10, 2016

"Nineteen Eighty-Four" by George Orwell: A Review

‘We may be together for another six months — a year — there’s no knowing. At the end we’re certain to be apart. Do you realize how utterly alone we shall be? When once they get hold of us there will be nothing, literally nothing, that either of us can do for the other. If I confess, they’ll shoot you, and if I refuse to confess, they’ll shoot you just the same. Nothing that I can do or say, or stop myself from saying, will put off your death for as much as five minutes. Neither of us will even know whether the other is alive or dead. We shall be utterly without power of any kind. The one thing that matters is that we shouldn’t betray one another, although even that can’t make the slightest difference.’

‘If you mean confessing,’ she said, ‘we shall do that, right enough. Everybody always confesses. You can’t help it. They torture you.’

‘I don’t mean confessing. Confession is not betrayal. What you say or do doesn’t matter: only feelings matter. If they could make me stop loving you — that would be the real betrayal.’

She thought it over. ‘They can’t do that,’ she said finally. ‘It’s the one thing they can’t do. They can make you say anything — ANYTHING— but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you.’

‘No,’ he said a little more hopefully, ‘no; that’s quite true. They can’t get inside you. If you can FEEL that staying human is worth while, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.’

He thought of the telescreen with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy upon you night and day, but if you kept your head you could still outwit them. With all their cleverness they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking. Perhaps that was less true when you were actually in their hands. One did not know what happened inside the Ministry of Love, but it was possible to guess: tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning. Facts, at any rate, could not be kept hidden. They could be tracked down by enquiry, they could be squeezed out of you by torture. But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings: for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.

There is perhaps no better known dystopian novel published in the 20th century than George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1949, it prophetically warns of an omnipresent state ominously referred to as "Big Brother" that has taken over the fictional nation of Oceania. Big Brother has the power (and authority) to regulate every thought, every word, every belief, every vocation, and every citizens schedule and desires. In short, Orwell describes the fear of every citizen of an ever-increasing and empowered state.

The story introduces us to Winston Smith who lives in this dystopian world dominated by Big Brother who hates the all-seeing power of the state - a belief he cannot tell anyone at the risk of his own life. Orwell goes through great pains to slowly introduce the reader to this dangerous worldview of telescreens that allow the state to monitor every word and deed of each citizen, various government-run "ministries" which allow them to reshape history, limit the freedom and scope of language, and control the lives of Oceania citizens. Winston is an employee of such a "ministry."

As a reader, one is looking for a turning point that moves the depressing world so vividly described by the author to a world of hope and freedom. It comes briefly in the person of Julia who, like Winson, hates Big Brother. Yet unlike Winston, Julia is more open in her hatred and is willing to rebel against the oppressive state. For her, sexual liberation is the answer; a disappointing solution to say the least. To Winston, "love" is a relief, but a vain one. Winston knows that only a violent revolution will do. Big Brother must be thrown down and he begins the process of joining the resistance which only betrays him in the end.

That is all the light the book offers. Constantly Winston is looking over his shoulder and the one moment he allows himself to be vulnerable results in his arrest and torture. The story ends in despair as opposed to the expect "happily ever after." There is no good news to be found here. As Orwell argues, what sets Big Brother apart from other powerful states, like the Nazis and the Communists of his day, is that most gain power in the name of vain benevolence. Big Brother, on the other hand, simply wants power and will do anything - anything - to maintain it. Winston is too powerless to stand against such a machine.

As a reader in 2016, there are clear parallels between the world Orwell describes and our own. Whether that was Orwell's purpose or not I will let the scholar's decide. However, if one is expecting a perfect parallel between Oceania and our world, they will be disappointed. We are, after all, reading fiction. Nevertheless, there are some start parallels between Orwell's world and ours.

First, Orwell's description of newspeak is what we would today refer to as political correctness. Newspeak is Big Brother's way of controlling human language. In so doing, the citizens of Oceania are limited to pre-approved words and, therefore, concepts that reflect the philosophy and worldview of the state. Big Brother even goes so far as to public a newspeak dictionary and regularly updates removing words, adding words, and merging others. As described by Orwell, the English language is dumbed down. Syme is a character who explains this system to Winston (and thus to the reader). In one section he says:
It's a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn't only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it's an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there'll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don't you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.'s idea originally, of course," he added as an afterthought.
The parallel between newspeak and political correctness, I believe, is clear. Those who do not speak the correct language pre-approved by our secular do-gooders are labeled various types of bigots because they do not conform to the worldview and philosophy of secular society. Political correctness is nothing more than the left's effort to undermine the freedom of speech itself. It is self-censorship.

Related to that is Orwell's "doublespeak" which describes Big Brother's method of saying and promoting two contradicting things. Most prevalent in the book is the slogan: "War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength." In 2016, the liberal doublespeak promoted today would read, "Murder is Resurrection; Gender is Fluid."

Put together, newspeak and doublespeak is our Big Brother's way of controlling society robbing its citizens of liberty in the name of benevolence. There is no freedom of thought, religion, or press in Oceania and increasing it is being lost in ours. I do not believe America will become the extreme of Oceania, yet one cannot deny that government, by its very nature, is destructive of personal liberty, driven by a lust of power and control, by nature bent toward totalitarianism, and in the end dehumanizes its citizens in the process.

It is for this reason I enjoyed Orwell's novel. He utilizes, powerfully, narrative as a means to warn the reader of the danger of the state. I do not know what the political philosophy of the author is, but as one who is personally leery of state power, I am sympathetic to its criticism of statism. As a novel, it has its weakness. For example, Orwell is forced to dedicate most of the book describing the world of Oceania thus slowing the narrative. This prevents the characters from being explored in any detail. Perhaps the worse sin regards his use of a book to explain the worldview of Big Brother. This drastically slows the narrative down. The reader is forced to read a book while reading a book in order to better understand the antagonist of the novel which looms large over the world. This is unfortunate storytelling. Here he fails to show us and instead chooses to just tell us.

Nevertheless, I would recommend this political dystopian. For sure, there is no good news to be found here and that is Orwell's point. As a Christian, I am reminded of the words of the Psalmists, "Some boast in chariots and some in horses, But we will boast in the name of the LORD, our God." (Psalm 20:7)
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