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1984: Minitruths and Maxiluv

1984: Minitruths and Maxiluv

2003 marked the centenary of George Orwell's birth, an anniversary preluded by Christopher Hitchens' welcome eulogy, Why Orwell Matters (2002), and consolidated by two new biographies from Gordon Bowker and D.J. Taylor. Back in 1999, fifty years after the publication of 1984, the Waterstone's poll for the (pseudo-)millenial novel put it in third place in tandem with The Lighthouse, behind the winner Ulysses and runners-up Proust and The Great Gatsby. As is still too often forgotten - his 1991 biographer Michael Sheldon well calls it his most misunderstood work - the novel is satire, not prediction. As political satire, it ranks second only to his own Animal Farm. The "profound and terrifying" (Lionel Trilling's New Yorker verdict) impression left on the reader will not be dimmed by nit-picking. Still, to work fully, satire (like farce) depends upon coherent detail and inner logic. Writers on Orwell, even admiring ones, tend to disparage his novels, an attitude encouraged by Orwell himself who, while composing 1984, wrote (10 May 1948) to Julian Symons, "I am not a real novelist anyway." All this, plus a re-viewing of Michael Radford's generally excellent film version with Richard Burton in his last role as O'Brien - the 1954 BBC effort with Peter Cushing, Yvonne Mitchell, and Andre Morell, which I remember seeing, now seems forgotten, while Michael Anderson's 1956 abomination, despite the presence of Michael Redgrave, ending with a defiant Winston Smith (Edmond O'Brien) shouting "Down With Big Brother", deserves to be - led me back to the book itself and some consequent ponderings, now (2009) cued in by the 50th anniversary of 1984's publication.

Is there anything new to say? The Sunday Telegraph (18 May 2003) recently came up with a pseudo-novelty, the 'revelation' that Orwell thought he had killed a fellow pupil at Eton through voodoo. The source given is a letter by his school friend, the great Byzantine historian Sir Steven Runicman. In fact, a version of this story was given by Shelden (pp.65-6), who takes it from the 1956 Orwell biography by Christopher Hollis.

How Orwell would have laughed at this! But Runciman, with whom Orwell kept in post-school touch, might have a more real relevance to 1984. Namely, its opening sentence with the clocks famously striking thirteen. It may not be easy to visualise a 24-hour clock dial, much less the one later mentioned on Winston's wrist-watch. Yet Jacopo Dondi's pioneering 1344 Padua clock had such a one; cf. Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine (Penguin, 1976, pp.160-1). Orwell might have known of this via Runciman. At all events, he would have been horrified by the philistine remark of Labour Education Minister Charles Clarke (quoted in the Spectator, 17 May 2003) that mediaeval historians are mere "ornaments", undeserving of state support (Mini-Ed, indeed!). Orwell would have preferred Oxford don K.B.McFarlane's (Alan Bennett's tutor) contention that mediaeval studies are "just a branch of the entertainment industry."

At school, Orwell was a prize-winning classicist. There are some visible elements of this that go generally unremarked in 1984. The old codger in the pub who tells Winston that one advantage of age is "no truck with women, and that's a great thing" is actually repeating a well known observation by Sophocles. O'Brien's Party-approved astronomy has a lot in common with both the relativist Protagoras' "Man is the Measure of All Things" and the beliefs of both the pre-Socratic Anaxagoras and the Greek atomists (a major influence on Karl Marx whose doctoral dissertation was devoted to them) that the sun and stars were just bits of fiery stone, no nearer or further away than they seemed to be and no bigger than the human hand which could blot out their sight by covering the eyes. For good measure, O'Brien adds the doctrine of Aristotle and others that the sun revolves around the earth, an item uncannily anticipated in Winston's thoughts much earlier in the book: "At one time, it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun."

We all know, or thought we did, that the title 1984 simply reverses the digits of 1948, the year of its completion. However, Sally Coniam in the Times Literary Supplement (31 December, p.14), exhumed a poem entitled 'End of the Century 1984' published in 1934 in her school magazine by Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, and concluded that "surely nothing before has so directly suggested the influence of his clever first wife as this poem." Shelden was attracted to this notion, Bernard Crick (one of Orwell's other most distinguished biographers) and Peter Davison (editor of the 20-volume complete Orwell) less so. At least, the idea of an uxorious Orwell does something to dispell the nonsense still pedalled (e,g, in Philip Hensher's Spectator review of Bowker and Taylor) about his supposed misogyny: "women are repeatedly humiliated in small ways throughout his work, and from time to time he gives full rein to a fantasy of ugly violence," a striking example of the 'biographical fallacy'. The "ugly fantasy" is illustrated by Winston's early thoughts about Julia when he suspects she is a Thought Police agent: "He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian." The only thing worth a word here is actually Winston's surprising remembrance of the Sebastian story itself. The fantasy suits Smith, not his creator: "Winston disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones."

Despite Coniam and media-manufactured images of 'the dreaded year', 1984 remains a simple reversed 1948, with no other significance. When his American publishers, Harcourt Brace, jibbed, an unconcerned Orwell said they might call it whatever they liked. H ehimself had been talked out of his own original title by his British publisher, Fredric Warburg. When he began drafting the novel in 1946, it was to be called The Last Man in Europe. There is a remnant of this in the Ministry of Love torture scenes where O'Brien sarcastically says to Winston "You are the last man."

But how could Winston Smith be the last man in Europe? He lives on Airstrip One (Britain), third most populous province in Oceania. According to 'The Book', The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, supposedly written by the arch-traitort Emmanuel Goldstein but actually the work of O'Brien and the Inner Party, Oceania comprises the Americas, the Atllantic Islands including the British Isles, Australasia, and the southern portion of Africa. The whole of continental Europe is subsumed into Eurasia.

London is still London (and Colchester, the only other island city mentioned, is still Colchester), but Britain is now Airstrip One. Why? Apart from France and Germany, whose new designations are not given, all other countries and cities have kept their old names Probably the reason was to help the subsequent joke of Nelson's Column being replaced by a statue of Big Brother commemorating his vanquishing of Eurasian aeroplanes in the Battle of Airstrip One. The parody of World War II iconography is obvious, the logic less so, since the War is Peace chapter of Goldstein's book states categorically that "no invasion of enemy territory is ever undertaken." And was the statuary changed every time Oceania switched alliances between Eastasia and Eurasia? Julia may have been right to suspect that the rocket bombs falling daily upon London were actually fired by the govenrment "just to keep people frightened" - nowadays, that would be an Internet conspiracy theory. Here, she is brighter than Winston, to whom this idea "had literally never occurred." Was The Last Couple in Europe ever contemplated as a title? Probably not. It is remarkable that Julia should never have heard of The Brotherhood, since we have earlier been told that everybody else has, while her notion that the war was not really happening leaves unexplained the parading and executions of captives since "foreigners, whether from Eurasia or Eastasia, were a kind of strange animal. One literally never saw them except in the guise of prisoners." Perhaps they were fakes, a trick allegedly pulled throughout history from Caligula and Domitian to Idi Amin. Something else left unexplained is how the atom bombs dropped on Colchester and an unspecified rural spot in1953, also the hundreds that fell all over Europe and North America, had apparently no radio-active effect at all. Outside Goldstein's book, America is virtually never mentioned, apart from the tell-tale Times photograph of the former leaders Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford attending "some Party function in New York." Canadians, by contrast, might be flattered that this treacherous trio flew on their perfidious mission to Eurasia from a secret airfield in their country, less so by the Party's version of capitalist times in Britain when recalcitrant workers might be "shipped off to Canada, like cattle." The rest of Oceania is completely marginal.

According to Goldstein's book, the basis for Oceania was laid by the British Empire's absorption into the United States. As Orwell frequently mentions in his journalism, his notion of the three superstates was inspired by the post-1945 carve-up of the world. America is evidently the biggest country in Oceania. As Shelden puts it, "this does not necessarily mean that Big Brother himself is American - simply that his empire is dominated by his largest possession, and its standards have been imposed on smaller places. But Big Brother is neither a capitalist nor a communist."

Well, Big Brother could be Uncle Sam rather than Uncle Joe, though his heavy black moustache points more to Stalin. Clement Attlee is not a contender. Orwell insisted "My novel is NOT intende as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party of which I am a supporter," an affidavit wasted on Hensher for whom the book "can only posibly be read as a vicious satire on the depivations of Attlee's England." Airstrip One's currency is now the dollar, not the rouble, but it also has the metric system, which to this day America refuses to adopt. Are the Americans the unspecified "buggers" who dropped the atom bomb on Colchester (why this small provincial town?)?. If so, why is Oceania governed by the principles of Ingsoc rather than Yanksoc? Whatever its national origin, the imposition of this ideology with its attendant textbook emphasis on the evils of capitalism surely puts Big Brother firmly into what used to be called the socialist camp.

Big Brother's empire has no capital, yet when Julia talks of the "government of Oceania," Winston does not correct her. How does this vast state extending from Britain to New Zealand work? Especially when it is said that the Party's faking of big lottery winners is facilitated "by the absence of any real inter-comunication between one part of Oceania and another." Not that this prevents "spontaneous demonstrations all over Oceania this morning when workers marched out of factories..." - how would London know this, and have time zones been abolished?

We are told in the opening pages that "Nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws." This comes straight after the information that the Ministry of Love maintains Law and Order, and before the remark "There was no law, not even an unwritten one, against visiting the Chestnut Tree Cafe." Later on, Party-produced pornography is purveyed to proletarian youths "under the impression that they were buying something illegal." In general practice, there is nothing to distinguish between laws and the frequently mentioned "rules", e.g. the one against consorting with prostitutes which carries a penalty of five years in a labour camp.

Talking of sex, we all know the old line which claims it is good for the complexion. This seems to have worked for Winston, whose running leg sore cleared up after he began sleeping with Julia. According to 'The Book', nothing is efficient in Oceania save the Thought Police, a cue for the famous telescreens, remarkable devices in a society otherwise so tehcnically primitive, in whose Newspeak there is no word for Science. These transmitting-receiving communicators are a giant advance on Dick Tracy's two-way wrist-radio with which Orwell, well versed in American comics, will have been familiar. Winston says they are "Quite delicate enough" to detect any irregular heartbeat. Supposedly, they watch people all the time: the Physical Education instructress on them can pick Winston out by name and number from the entire thirty-to-forty segment of the population, as can the screen watcher in a crowded cell in the Ministry of Love. Overall, in Oceania, the Inner Party has six million members, about 2% of the total population; 85% are proles; the rest belong to the Outer Party, to which Winston probably should not have been admitted, since both his parents had been purged back in the 1950s. An impressive feat of 24-hour electronic invigilation. Perhaps this is why the "great majority" of proles do not have telescreens in their homes, even though the Thought Police had agents "moving always among them." Winston is surprised by the absence of a telescreen from Mr Charrington's antique shop in the prole district, but blithely accepts the explanation "I never had one of those things. Too expensive," even though this implied notion of choice is utterly alien to an Outer Party member. And how did the proles pick up and take a fancy to the new Hate Week song, disseminated by "endless plugging" on the telescreens most of them hadn't got?

Regarding Mr Charrington, later revealed to be a Thought Police spy, was Orwell having a bit of quiet inner semantic fun here? Some years ago, a newspaper item revealed that 84 Charing Cross was used for wartime security work. As our earlier classical allusions showed, the novel is rich and varied in its linguistic and literary nuances. Many previous writers have connected the Ministry of Truth with Orwell's wartime experiences of BBC bureaucracy and censorship. One further matter has escaped attention, namely the 1948 (of all years!) BBC Variety Programmes Policy Guide for Writers & Producers, with its absolute ban on: jokes about lavatories, effeminacy in men, immorality of any kind; also on suggestive references to honeymoon couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, prostitutes, ladies' underwear (e.g. "winter drawers on"), animal habits (e.g. "rabbits"), commercial travellers. This makes an ironic counterpoint to the Ministry's Porno Section where Julia works.

At a higher level, after the marathon rewriting of history in Hate Week, to cover up the latest sudden switch of alliance from Eastasia to Eurasia, "A deep and as it were secret sigh went through the Department. A mighty deed, which never could be mentioned, had been achieved." Phraseology and sentiment are strikingly similar to those of Himmler's speech of 4 October 1943 (in volume 4 of the Nuremberg documents on Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression) apropos The Final Solution: "This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written."

Winston realises that renting Mr Charrington's spare room to pursue his affair with Julia was a fatal folly. Not to mention leaving his incriminating diary with the words DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER open for all to see - "An incredibly stupid thing." All too typical, though. He knows that the Newspeak lexiographer Syme is ill-advised to frequent the Chestnut Tree Cafe, disreputable haunt of the old discredited Party leaders. So, why had he been sitting there in mid-afternoon back in 1966, in the midst of its telescreens, at the next table to the arch-traitors Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford? Little wonder that, after his arrest, he learns from O'Brien that the Thought Police had had him under surveillance for seven years, although no key incident for 1977 appears in the novel - Winston dwells only on 1973, when he saw the Times photograph that proved the trio's confessions were false. Dates, though, are not Winston's strong point: at one moment he reflects that Big Brother was unheard of till the middle Sixties, the period of the great purges when "the story really began;" yet his own parents had been "swallowed up in one of the first great purges of the Fifties." Given such imprecisions, it is no great shock that, having twice reflected that the Thought Police always came for you in the middle of the night, he and Julia are actually arrested by them at 20.30 of a summer evening while it is still light.

If Syme was vaporised for being "too clever", how has O'Brien himself survived so long? Everything Syme predicts to Winston about language and thought is repeated at greater length by O'Brien in the interrogation scenes. Mind you, O'Brien is a difficult character to weigh up. He is introduced as "a member of the Inner Party and holder of some post so important and remote that Winston had only a dim idea of its nature" - Winston had seen him "perhaps a dozen times in as many years." Not formally named as a Party Leader, O'brien leads a versatilely busy life: he helped to write the fake Goldstein book, he was an interrogator not only of Winston and Julia but of victims ranging from the Jones-Aaranson-Rutherford trio to Syme, as well as these annual visits as agent provocateur to the Ministry of Truth. In the Ministry of Love, Winston does not understand the first reference to Room 101; neither does a co-prisoner, his fellow-worker, the poet Ampleforth. Yet when she is ordered there, a female cellmate "seemed to shrivel and turn a different colour," while its mention drives another prisoner hysterical with terror. According to O'Brien, "Everyone knows what is in Room 101:" how anyone could, before being in it, is not explained.

Winston is not the last man in Europe or wherever. Julia was "in some ways far more acute than Winston, and far less susceptible to Party propaganda" - as she says, "One knows the truth is all lies anyway." Moreover, "She took it for granted that everyone, or nearly everyone, secretly hate the Party and would break the rules if he thought it safe to do so." This certainly applied to her many previous lovers, while (as seen) everyone in the Party knew the lottery prizes were faked. It is not clear why the Thought Police release some and not others. This conundrum is acknowledged ("Sometimes people were released and allowed to remain at liberty for a much as a year or two years") but not explained. Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford are tried, convicted, set free, re-arrested, re-tried, and shot. Most, like Syme and Withers, are simply vaporised and become 'unpersons'. Julia is quite literally (to use a favourite Orwell adverb) a burnt-out case in terms of her rebelliousness and sexuality: how many other such - neither persons nor unpersons - were walking the streets of Oceania? As Winston wonders, how could Goldstein continue to attract so many followers? Even if all were innocent, the phenomenon implies a mass ability to disbelieve. Winston himself is not only released but given a sinecure sub-sub-committee position with four others "all very similar to himself" at the Ministry of Truth relating to the Eleventh edition of the Newspeak Dictionary - what happened to the Tenth, still months away from publication just before his arrest? - dealing with the question of putting commas inside or outside brackets.

The famous finale is also problematic. At face value, the 'cured' Winston loves Big Brother: "Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache," albeit earlier he could not recall hearing of Big Brother before sometime in the Sixties, not to mention the fact that he is himself only thirty-nine. But, a couple of pages before, in his last, chance meeting with Julia, both understand very well what has been done to them: their love has been destroyed by consciousness of mutual betrayal, not diverted to Big Brother.

Various other things jar. Is it really credible, at any level of satire, that Julia, while aware of oranges, does not know what a lemon was? Or that neither she nor Winston had ever seen or tasted wine? O'Brien remarks "Very little of it gets to the Outer Party;" the constituent states of Oceania are full of wine-producing countries. There are also slack repetitions, e.g. we hear twice at some length in almost identical language about the interdict on proles drinking gin and the kaleidoscopes and versificators that mechanically produce their songs and pornography. I dare say some of this is attributable to the conditions of the novel's final production. As described by Shelden, as late as November 1948 the manuscript was still too disorganised to send to the printers, so the desperately ill Orwell re-typed the whole thing himself in three weeks. On the other hand, he was subsequently unwilling to accept any alterations to the text of the American edition; and one wonders (we are not told) if none of this was noticed or queried by the sub-editors and proof-readers at Secker & Warburg? These are all amiable puzzlements. I should like to think that Orwell, for whom my admiration is almost boundless, would welcome them for debate. Perhaps I am simply insufficient at Doublethink. There is no need to redo Shelden's excellent account of Orwell's sources, especially Cyril Connolly's little-remembered short story Year Nine. On the documentary side, it may be noted that when O'Brien threatens Winston with the caged rats, he observes that it was a common torture in imperial China, whereas we now know (E. Nolte, Der Europaische Burgerkrieg 1917-45, Berlin 1987, pp. 115,564n24) that it was a method practised by the Cheka. The demented confessions extracted by the Thought Police find a black farcical antecedent in the one produced at the Moscow Trials of 1937 admitting to "placing broken glass in workers' butter" - V.Z.Rogovin, 1937: Stalin's Year of Terror, London 1988). When he has Winston reflect on how Party histories of the Revolution were pushing Big Brother's role ever further back into the past, Orwell anticipates North Korea where Kim Il Sung's supposed leading of anti-Japanese guerillas has been officially dated to 1926 - when he was just 14.

It seems wryly appropriate that at least one famous Orwellian scene should be plagiarised in a recent novel, The Concert (English tr. 1994) by the wildly-overpraised Albanian writer and fake dissident Ismael Kadare, whose native land was for half a century under the surrealist, quasi-1984 regime of Enver Hoxha - the Ministry of Plenty's favourite slogan "Our New and Happy Life" was actually ubiquitous in communist Albania. Kadare describes a Chinese committee engaged in the invention of Lei Feng, that famous (in real life) paradigm of all virtues of the communist 'New Man'. This copies Winston's fabrication of the cynosure of Party virtues, Comrade Ogilvy - is the name a tribute to his fellow St Cyprian's pupil, advertising mogul David Ogilvy? When his job is done, Winston reflects that "It is curious that you could create dead men but not living ones," loudly echoed by Kadare's punchline "They'd just given birth to a dead man." On the big issue, Winston was right: "If there is hope, it lies in the proles." How Orwell would have enjoyed watching the Berlin Wall come down and the general collapse of what passed as communism. Albania, again, can be invoked. I have seen two editions of Hoxha's book Conversations with Stalin. The first (1979) contains a sentence lavishly praising his senior colleague and fellow wartime resistance leader, Mehmet Shehu. The second, rushed out after Shehu's mysterious death and denouncement for simultaneously spying for at least six countries (how did he keep all these treasons straight?), omits the sentence - he is now an unperson. Despite holding all the military, police, and secret police (Sigurimi) aces in 1990, the Party and all it works were (in Winston's hopeful words) blown to pieces by a few peaceful demonstrations of workers and students. Quite simply, the Party had lost its voodoo - Doubleplusgood!

Canadian novelist-critic Margaret Atwood, in her collection Moving Targets (Toronto 2004, pps. 331-337, reproducing her talk 'Orwell and Me', given June 13, 2003, on BBC Radio 3 and published in 'The Guardian' (June 16), writes: "The essay on Newspeak is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen and that language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of 1984 is over. Thus, it's my view that Orwell has much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he's usually been given credit for."

Atwood's point had (apparently unknown to her) been anticipated by David Smith & Michael Mosher, Orwell for Beginners (London 1984), p. 178: " The Party tries hard to seem invincible and permanent. However, in the Newspeak Appendix Orwell indicates that this appearance is unjustified - Newspeak, the Appendix says, was the bizarre product of a failed dictatorship, which gave rise to a better society afterwards." This unusual interpretation is well worth discussing. How else might we take the Newspeak Appendix? What do other Orwellians think?

-- Barry Baldwin (01/10/2009)

Readers Comments

  1. This from the writer of some of the most inept reviews on this site!

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