Monday, October 26, 2009

Today's title: "1984" by George Orwell

Monday, October 26, 2009

1984 by George Orwell
copyright 1949

Assigned: 1960's. (my classmates say we were supposed to read it in high school, but I cannot believe that. It has sex in it, with people getting naked. Admittedly, they don't seem to have that much fun, but still...)

Read for the first time: last week (2009);
Original book report grade: C

Above: The author, Eric Blair, AKA George Orwell, was born in India and died at the age of 49 of a neglected lung disease. He wrote other stuff besides 1984; Animal Farm is probably one of his better known works. It is the only other thing I have read by him. He was, according to Wikepedia, interested (if not obsessed, if you ask me), with political ideology. The main impression I got from 1984 is that he thought the political ideologies were all pretty much hopeless. I think he may have been a Socialist but NOT a Communist.

I hate it when you have to read a load of stuff about the author and then read about his work before you start the book, but I have to report a smidge of what Erich Fromm, the renowned social psychologist (who had some pretty weird ideas of his own), said about 1984. It helps to know some of this stuff.
Fromm was a German scientist who was super smart and studied at prestigious places, and taught and wrote and is really respected for all that as well as his clinical practice in psychoanalysis.
Fromm (right), says that 1984 was one of three "negative Utopias" written after World Wars I and II. Sometimes negative Utopias are called "Dystopias," but that doesn't matter. One of the others is Brave New World, which I have to read next. Negative Utopias are supposed to serve as warnings of what the world will become if we don't stop it right now.


Okay, It's 1984 and there are three superpowers on Earth: Oceana, Eastasia, and Eurasia. They are all at war with one another--two of them usually ganging up on the other, and the enemies keep changing, according to The Party, which controls everything, and reports everything to the population of Oceana, which consists of folks in the Inner Party, (privileged), the Outer Party (not so privileged), and the Proletariat, or, as they are affectionately known, the "Proles."
The main character is an unattractive, cockroachy little man named Winston Smith, who has a terrible cough (maybe Orwell identified with him?) and a varicose ulcer above his ankle which itches and weeps and won't heal. Nice.

The head of The Party is "Big Brother," who is hard to miss (and who, judging from the description, appears to look a lot like Saddam Hussein), because posters bearing his picture and the slogan, "Big Brother is Watching You" decorate the sides of buildings and the walls inside buildings, and just about every surface poor old Winston lays his watery eyes on.

Winston is a member of the Outer Party, and works in The Ministry of Truth. This is funny because the other Ministries are the Ministry of Plenty, the Ministry of Peace, and The Ministry of Love. These Ministries are the tallest buildings in a bombed-out London.
Did I mention the story takes place in London?

And of course, the names of the ministries mean exactly the opposite of their actual activity. The Ministry of Plenty produces nothing--or very little--in the way of consumer goods for the population of Oceana because most of its resources go to build weapons to fight the interminable war.

The Ministry of Peace wages war.

The Ministry of Love is where dissenters and prisoners of war are tortured and killed after they have confessed publicly to every sort of offense imaginable--including stuff they just made up to confess to.

Three slogans adorn the Ministry of Truth:

This makes sense in "Doublethink," an exercise of the mind which makes it possible to hold--and believe--competing ideas simultaneously.

Winston's job in the Ministry of Truth is to adjust the news, changing the messages of newspapers and magazines, to reflect whatever happens to be the "truth" at the moment. For instance, any person who was unlucky enough to have disappeared into the Ministry of Love has to be eradicated from the records. Every indication that the person had ever lived is removed, and the stories creatively rewritten by Winston, who is pretty proud of his work. The newspapers and magazines bearing the unfortunate person's name are then shoved down a "memory hole" next to Winston's desk, where they are vaporized.

There's a LOT of work for Winston to do. Sometimes Big Brother would declare that the Enemy was Eastasia, and the next day, Oceana would be allied with Eastasia against Eurasia. The allies and enemies keeep changing so Big Brother's words have to be adjusted constantly.

"Telescreens" which seem to work as one-way wall-sized video monitors are ubiquitous. They infest homes, workplaces, the sides of buildings, and even small hidey-holes in rooms where you think you are safe.

In Winston's dreary apartment, there is a recess in the wall next to the screen, and anyone sitting at a small desk there is safe from the constant monitoring. But by the time we learn this, we are so paranoid that we know Winston is doomed. (Who isn't in this book?)

It is considered suspect to hide from the screen. On top of that, Winston has been into the Prole section of town, where you can still buy old stuff, and has bought--a diary!! And a pen and ink!
He is getting ready to write his thoughts onto a piece of paper!

He's thinking about the Proles, who are so oppressed they don't know how oppressed they are. They are so insignificant that telescreens do not monitor them. They live and love and reproduce and hang out their laundry. Of course, every few days or so, a bomb falls into their neighborhoods and takes out a few hundred of them, but they blame it on whomever Big Brother has designated to be the latest Enemy.

"If there is any hope," writes Winston in his new/old diary, "It lies in the Proles."

(At this point, I am telling anyone who will listen that the only way this poor sap's life could get any worse is if he somehow got an actual ray of hope--and had it taken away.)

Why doesn't he just call up Big Brother, and recite a banned poem? You know he's cutting his own throat, but, hey--it's his throat, right?


He's caught the eye of a girl at work, who inexpiclably takes a shine to him and slips a note to him and they start meeting and having sex. In my opinion, their main attration to one another is their mutual fear and hatred of the Party and Big Brother. They decide they're in love. Her name is Julia.

Someone else at work has caught Winston's eye. A big guy named O'Brien, who is a member of the Inner Party. Winston fantasizes that O'Brien is an ally against Big Brother.

There have been rumors of an underground resistance to the rule of The Party, led by a man named Goldstein who has written a manifesto called, simply, "The Book."

Cutting to the chase, Julia and Winston wind up at O'Brien's apartment, where O'Brien tells them that he is indeed a member of the underground movement, and he then "inducts" them into the Underground through a series of questions, including:

"Are you prepared to give your lives?"
"Are you prepared to commit murder?"
"Are you prepared...[to kill] hundreds of people?"
"Are you prepared... to throw...acid into the face of a child?"
"Are you prepared, the two of you, to separate and never see each other again?"

This idealistic couple answers "Yes," unhesitatingly to all the questions--except the last.

I gotta say, at this point, I realized there were no good guys in this book. Winston and Julia weren't any better than the oppressive Party they are trying to escape.
Usually when I get to the point where I don't like anyone in a book, I just stop reading it. But I'm committed to this book report thing.

Winston receives The Book by Goldstein from O'Brien and begins reading it aloud to Julia in a room they have used as a retreat--in the Prole section, with no telescreen.
The Book turns out to be a screed denouncing, it seems, every form of social organization or governmental rule, advocating for nothing that I could tell. It goes on for PAGES.

Well, what do you know--right in the middle of all this, here come the hobnail boots, the secret telescreen reveals itself, and darn if old Wintson and Julia aren't surprised at being betrayed.

Off they go to the Ministry of Love. We only follow Winston's experience there.
Torture, torture, torture, starvation, beatings, torture, humiliation, torture, degradation, get the picture.

Then--I guess this is supposed to be a big surprise--O'Brien shows up to participate in the torture. Old Winston has already confessed to every crime he could think of, and made up a few to confess to. O'Brien reveals that he is "Goldstein," that he wrote "The Book," and that, by the way, the only objective of The Party or any of its members is Power.

There's a lot of stuff about subjects of The Party being made to think and even believe that two plus two is five. I guess the meaning being that if you can get someone to believe what he knows is not true, you then have complete Power over that person.

Well, Winston has apparently been put through all this hell just to break him to the point that he will betray Julia. They confront him with his greatest fear--rats eating his face--approaching him with a wire cage of rats, fitted with a place for his face to fit. He breaks and screams, "Do it to her--do it to Julia--not me!"

Then they clean him up, feed him and let him go to await the unknown moment when a bullet will crash into the back of the skull in the distant or not so distant future.

This is SUCH a paranoid nightmare that it is really silly. Who cares about a nobody like Winston who will never be anything but a nobody and whether or not he admits that two and two equal five, or even whether or not he believes it?

He and Julia run into one another briefly, and with much disinterest and discomfort, confess that each betrayed the other. They are changed, their bodies thickened, hardened, their minds weaker. They part emotionlessly.

But how does this give The Party any Power? Winston's conversion is a private one in the end. Even when he realizes, tears dripping into his gin, that he loves Big Brother.

What difference does it make to anybody but Winston?

I personally like the movie "Enemy of the State," starring Will Smith, in which the innocent pursued person is being pursued for a reason--he actually does have something that is dangerous to those in power, even though he doesn't know it.

But then I like more action and less talk.

You can imagine how much I'm looking forward to reading Brave New World!


Okay, it gets 2 Aretha hats for being one of the first "Negative Utopias" written at the dawn of the Atomic Age, and Orwell gets extra credit for writing Animal Farm.


I'm afraid I have to give it a noose.