Reading Orwell’s 1984 for the first time since high school

Nabokov said, “One cannot read a book; one can only reread it.”

So when one of my MFA students suggested we read 1984, I didn’t think, “yes, our dysfunctional times, veering toward totalitarianism, demand that we revisit this indispensable classic”; I just thought, “okay, why not have another go at it and see what I make of it now?”

Like most of my generation, I read 1984 in high school, when it was part of the flux of fascist dystopia we all absorbed. Of course since its publication in its inverse year, 1948, its themes and phrases have been digested by the mainstream imagination and remain triggers into one of our favorite nightmares. But the truth is, beyond “Big Brother” and “Newspeak” and “Thought Police,” I didn’t really remember much about it.

Orwell was too obvious and didactic for Nabokov — but then, Nabokov didn’t care for Dostoevski, Pound, Conrad, Faulkner, Hemingway (except for “The Killers”), among many others, either. And indeed I would more highly recommend Bend Sinister.

Still, I found 1984 engaging. It is didactic, extremely, and the characters are more functions than people, and the action is more simplistic and predictable than a dystopian lashing unmitigated by humor should be (give me Brazil) — but for all that, the narrative pulled me right along, and forced me to reckon with the hideous ideas.

During the Cold War there was a lot of paranoia about the Russians — supposedly infiltrating our schools, our government, our Boy Scout troops; we created an image of them as superhuman masterminds, but when the Soviet Union fell, we saw the bumbling and inept side of them. Not that we should underestimate the Russians, God knows, but bureaucracies by their nature generate ineptitude, and conspiracies need gross exaggeration to survive. I’m not saying their recent subversions to our way of life are not worth taking seriously — far from it — only that the human need for villains makes us vulnerable to being carried away by the allure of nefariousness.

So I see the nightmare at the heart of 1984 not as a warning of what could be — because I don’t think it could — but as just that, a nightmare.

The human brain, in dramatizing its deepest fears and insecurities, creates in its own image, and projects super intelligence onto its pet villains: the mad scientist, the evil genius, Lex Luthor, the Illuminati, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, “the Russians,” Putin, Big Brother, Satan, what have you. Like your kindergarten teacher who knew if your eyes were closed at nap time, or God who listens to your thoughts and can see you going to the bathroom, our villains have some version of telescreens and microphones everywhere and know all about you and tirelessly scheme to control you. Don’t think they don’t.

Only, nobody’s that smart. Orwell knew how effective a constant pummeling by propaganda can be. It still is — witness political advertising and the 24-hour belching of agitprop from our “news” outlets. But I think what drives it is not so much an omniscient Big Brother as economics. Each side thinks the other side is spewing shit and their side is delivering “news,” and there’s money to be made from that. If we started getting along with each other they’d be out of a fat-cat gig, and millions of people wouldn’t know what they thought and would have nothing to do. News outlets have every incentive to keep our dysfunction and mutual mistrust alive, except for its undermining the foundation of our society but, hey, that’s abstract.

Then there’s Newspeak, a purged and fabricated language that curtails reality by eliminating vocabulary. But it actually works the other way around. Language is a folk phenomenon: it is created by a vast communal process that we don’t understand at all. The grammar comes straight from the wiring of the brain, as inevitably as thought, and if a word or idiom is needed, one appears, very rarely coined, but mostly provided by the collective human consciousness that always has something to put in the blank spaces, God knows how. Many speculations about humanity in the far future feature the “hive mind” — a term our recent information technology has invigorated, even if most of that technology is proving more effective at separating than joining us. The hive mind is far more credible to me than Big Brother. Noah Webster got a few patriotic spelling changes to stick, but no one has ever succeeded in dictating language.

Winston Smith comes to understand that reality is created in the human brain. To me this is self-evidently true, and though to Orwell the idea is the key to hijacking and controlling another’s mind, I see it as a liberating new way of contemplating human experience, intuitive and counter-intuitive at the same time. There is no reality, only individual renderings of it — whatever “it” is — and what your brain creates is your reality. If you believe you’re a very stable genius and your hair-do is fetching then, for you, you are and it is. If you believe you aren’t worthy of love, then you aren’t. Like the old story of the kid asking his father if Santa Claus was real. “As long as you believe in him, he is.”

By the time we get to the end of 1984, the book has beaten us up so badly we just accept the horror of the ending. We’ve been teased with the idea that the only way one can “win” in this hellish world is to die with one’s hatred of it intact, and we’re expecting our hero to pull this off. But he doesn’t.

Man is not the master of his fate, nor the captain of his soul, and there ain’t no light.

It does seem that in any complex social system something like fascism is inevitable, but I don’t really see the incentive in reducing people to soulless, emotionless, joyless automatons. The whole point is “power,” O’Brien the evil mastermind says — but you make people do what you want, and buy what you’re selling, by manipulating, not destroying, their emotions. But nightmares don’t need to make sense, and this one really did make me think about human nature: what we believe as an ingrained function of our consciousness, self-perception, and personal experience — how our believing can change and why it mostly doesn’t — how it is commodified by others.

I will say, Orwell got me bad on one thing: how O’Brien destroys Winston Smith’s belief in love by making him arrive within himself at his willingness to throw Julia to the wolves to save himself. It triggered one of my worst nightmares: my own O’Brien saying, “you will be buried alive forever, or your son/daughter will be. You have five seconds — choose.”

Now please don’t tell them in Room 101 I said that. I’ve always had a deep-seated terror (see above) of bringing to life my deepest fears by imagining them clearly.

Orwell is also right that it takes a lot of work to be stupid. If you work hard enough at believing something, you will succeed.

I’m retired from academia and live in LaGrange, GA. I write fiction, non-fiction, and plays, and read everything. I blog at johnmwilliams.net/blog

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