Saturday, June 9, 2018

When dishonesty is the best policy: 1984

I've fielded over the years various interested-yet-confused questions about why I read so much, how I remember so much of what I read and watch, and how on earth (with all I have going on) I manage to find the time for all of this! I don't know how I ended up such a dedicated lover of stories, but I have a feeling it came from having parents (one is a book person, the other a TV/film person) who loved stories themselves. Learning music at an early age probably helped with the memory bit, but honestly, remembering my favorite passages of writing or lines of dialogue makes me pretty happy, too. I might never be a stage performer or a great public speaker but if you need the exact wording of Violet Newstead's sexist bigot speech from 9 to 5, are wondering in which Harry Potter book Snape flapped off, "looking ludicrously bat-like," or are curious about the differences between the Song of Ice and Fire novels and their television show counterpart, Game of Thrones, I GOT YOU. 

What does any of this have to do with George Orwell or the Great American Read book list? I love words, I love stories, and I love that there are people out there, right now, talking about words and stories. Controversial stories, I think, are the very best ones; they force us outside our comfort level and expose us to "truths" we may not have considered. I hope these acts--reading challenging material, seeking different narratives, learning of others' truths--never vanish from our world because these things are necessary! Not just for the sake of literacy or even happiness but to know and to understand each other as people. Without stories life would be just gray emptiness, boring apathy. It would be like Oceania in 1984. 

INGSOC=English Socialism in Newspeak
1. Nineteen-Eighty Four by George Orwell

The word Orwellian means "of or relating to the works of George Orwell (especially his picture of a future totalitarian state)." If you've read anything else of his, maybe Animal Farm or even the nonfiction work Down and Out in Paris and London, you know that status, power, the plight of the labor force, and the search for truth all have had a strong influence on his writing. 

What most people remember about this novel is Big Brother, maybe the Thought Police, or perhaps even Room 101 where bad citizens were taken after they were caught defecting or committing thought crimes--in other words, the main events, as it were. These items make up the action-heavy parts of the book, all the spying, the disappearing, and the torturing; it's well-written and engaging content, no doubt about it. What makes this novel a slightly challenging read but yet deserves equal attention to the memorable scenes are the pages and pages of descriptive language of the places, the objects, and the reflections of the main character, Winston Smith over what his life and country has become. The wars and the dystopia are very interesting, but this story, at its core, is really about the loss of humanity seen through Smith's eyes, and you have to be observant to catch all this and put it all together. 

Photo by Errata Security
The setting is Oceania, a global superstate made up of the Americas, the British Isles, disputed parts of Southern Africa, and Australia/Oceania proper. Oceania is always at war with one of the other two superstates, but exactly which one changes several times throughout the course of the book. The government that controls the citizens is known as "The Party," and the philosophy it enforces, "IncSoc," (English Socialism). Language has changed to something called "Newspeak," literature has been largely destroyed, and food consists mostly of rationed portions of supplemented, mass-produced, facsimile product and Victory Gin. Citizens' roles and opportunities are defined by how advanced they are within The Party, which rules over all.  

Proles are unskilled, unaffiliated with The Party, and poor but have managed to hold onto what are widely considered to be unsavory human acts such as folk singing and breeding
Low Party members comprise the workforce, enjoy a minimally comfortable standard of life but are constantly monitored by Thought Police, telescreens, and even their own children for signs of disloyalty
Inner Party members dictate policy and enjoy the highest standards of living while encouraging lower members (and their children) to report each other for any perceived slight toward The Party
Big Brother is the celebrated icon, leader, and champion of The Party, referenced often and seen in propaganda but never in person
Emmanuel Goldstein is a mythical leader of Oceania's opposition to Big Brother, the subject of many hateful demonstrations (i.e., Hate Week, Two Minutes Hate) whose human existence has never been officially confirmed
Winston Smith is a low party member, employed by The Party's Ministry of Truth. 

Winston Smith
played by John Hurt
On the surface Smith is a loyal party member, dutifully spreading lies for his department, eliminating contrary evidence against The Party, and participating in patriotic events, but something is at conflict inside Winston Smith from the very first chapter. Nearly everything The Party puts out is a lie, represented as the truth, the whole truth, always having been the truth (even when evidence exists to the direct contrary). As we read what his days are like, what rules are enforced, and how he responds to all this, we begin to recoil a little--most of us aren't accustomed to cheering on explosions that kill fleeing prisoners, seeing violent acts committed by children toward their parents, or being witness to direct government falsification of facts or destruction of questionable evidence on the regular. Such are the first topics Smith begins to write about in an illicit diary he secretly obtains in an old shop, but as time goes on we see that despite everything The Party has taught him, he finds himself seeking out forbidden objects, images, and memories. He wakes from a dream murmuring "Shakespeare" for no apparent reason; he longs for his own mother and sister long since vanished or killed; he talks with a shopkeeper about lyrics to a song about the churches of England. All of these things that were once valued, literature, the family unit, singing, and religion, have been replaced by The Party's sterilized version of them (with the exception of religion, which is now unnecessary), and Winston Smith isn't having it. 

Everything one needs to know about this novel is presented in the very first chapter, but the format is more or less the same throughout. Descriptive language and exposition, reflection, small bits of action, and usually a significant reveal are all interwoven in each chapter together with occasional pieces of IngSoc philosophy presented as listed rules or writings taken directly from Party (or oppositional) sources. Paranoia and repressed emotion are constant.

From the first page: 

"The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for an indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran."

"It's inner party coffee. There's
a whole kilo here."
Things change for the positive for a bit with the coming of Julia, a younger party member who becomes Smith's love interest, but only briefly. There are glimpses of happiness and color through objects such as a coral paperweight or real sugar and coffee, but these are only moments; the greasy, foul-smelling world that has become reality persists aggressively and in the end, Smith is made to question (in the infamous Room 101) even these most sacred memories and whether or not he really experienced them.   

Although it's a great story, one gets a very wrinkle-nosed feeling reading it. Nearly all of the smells described are of cabbage, surfaces are always greasy, and there's bodily harm being done pretty frequently throughout (specifically beatings, humiliation, starvation, torture, and early on rape is mentioned but never committed). The vibe is dismal and gray. 268 pages isn't too bad, it's probably only a few more than this review ended up being, but this is still a book that you have to want to read. Films such as Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), The Matrix Trilogy (The Wachowskis, 1999, 2003), and V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2006) introduced different "enemies" into the narrative but still have their roots in the same kind of story. John Hurt played Winston Smith in the British production of the film, 1984 (in 1984). 

If you're intrigued but still on the fence, read Animal Farm, first. The story is very similar and half the length. If you enjoy that, you'll probably enjoy this. I think Americans should read this, and in summarizing why I'll again reiterate how important I think the little things are, the things that make us us. Our words, our books, our food, our songs. We're all human, but we are also our own unique selves (Americans just ❤❤❤❤ being individuals!)  This story explores what it feels like to be symbolically made into a human robot and to be denied one's own thoughts and feelings. The idea of burning literature is upsetting to me, but even more so is the idea of printing a volume of lies to prop up in its place (think this doesn't happen today? It IS happening). Children are turned against parents, human biology and impulses are disregarded, and opinions become punishable-by-death offenses. 

Be an informed American. The minute someone in power starts telling us who we are and taking our books away, we're done.