The Books: “1984″ (George Orwell)

Orwell1984.gifDaily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

1984, by George Orwell. I covered much of my thoughts about this book in my post yesterday about Animal Farm.

A bit more about Orwell the man (there’s so much there): Orwell himself wrote about his youth:

I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.

His entire life can be seen as a process of “facing” (something that Christopher Hitchens goes into in depth in his book Why Orwell Matters). What does it mean to “face”? To really face? Not just unpleasant facts about outer reality – but unpleasant facts about how you think about things, and where you might be wrong – or just too rigid? I mean, how many people do that? As in: Okay, I can feel I have a bias against such and such … it’s a strong bias … Can I look at that bias and see where it might be really coming from? Is it just from “the way things are” and I am convinced I am right … or am I missing something? Am I afraid of something? Am I wrong? Orwell’s whole life was about asking such questions about himself. It is truly remarkable. He questioned Empire, racism, Stalinism, Communism, misogyny, anti-Semitism … he recognized his biases in all of these areas. Some could not be overcome, some were not meant to be overcome, but ALL were “faced” … and he did it through his writing. A straining questioning curious ruthless sensibility he had. No wonder he intimidates. No wonder he is seen as an enemy by many. Not just for his views (or, I don’t think it’s just because of his views) … but because he shames those who refuse to question themselves. He shames the “people of the lie” – those who absolutely refuse to examine themselves, refuse. People have blinders on. People insist that SUCH AND SUCH IS TRUE … you ask me why it is true? Well, that should be obvious – because I FEEL SO STRONGLY ABOUT IT. Strong feelings are not enough for Orwell. They are just the jumping-off point to ask the tough questions. He is not above having “strong feelings” … but instead he wonders: Maybe such and such is NOT true … you ask me why it is not true? Well, that should be obvious … BECAUSE I feel so strongly about it … I’m thinking of the raging (loud) homophobic folks – preachers, politicians, whatever – who inevitably are discovered paying some gigolo for gay sex and having a wide stance in a bathroom stall in the midwest somewhere. These people (as far as I know, I don’t know them obviously) … are not questioning themselves. They are not saying: “I have a violent reaction to homosexuals. Where is that coming from? Is it because I REALLY believe that it is wrong? Or is something else going on?” If you really believe it’s wrong, that’s one thing – I don’t respect your position, but I see that it’s a sincere belief. But these loudly homophobic anti-gay guys have been revealed, time and time again, as closet cases … you know, an example of “he doth protest too much”. Orwell had his blind-spots, just like everybody else on the planet. He worked at himself. He looked, he examined … he was not afraid to break with the pack, and he was not afraid to show himself as in process – which I think many people find VERY threatening. I have found it in small doses on my blog – when I write a post that is mainly about questioning or contemplating, or NOT being positional … overwhelmingly, people show up to tell me what to think, how to react, whatever. The very fact of NOT taking a position, or questioning one’s own motives or thoughts … is seen as contemptible by many. Or – not contemptible. I’m going to stay with the word “threatening”. When I see these what seem to be kneejerk reactions to me being in process … it always makes me think – I don’t know … people get threatened by that. They can’t stand it. It makes them nuts.

Sometimes a violent anti-reaction to something is indicative of deeper issues. That’s been my experience anyway. Not just in observing others but in observing myself. There have been times in my life (and I’m sure we’ve all experienced stuff like this) – where I will have a really bad reaction to somebody – like they just rub me the wrong way, they push my buttons … I find it uncomfortable to be around them, etc. And usually I suffer through the situation, getting annoyed, ranting about it to my friends, writing in my journal, whatever … But it’s happened a couple of times that eventually I have a breakthrough in my thinking about this person. It happened with a woman in an acting class I was in a couple of years ago. She was what I could call an “emotional vampire” … she was very talented, but her self-deprecating manner was overwhelming and eventually annoying. She would almost bow in front of me, like, “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy” … and it made it impossible to have a conversation with her. She latched onto me. She would glance at me during the notes given to her during a scene, seeing how I would respond. It made me so uncomfortable. I could feel she was giving me WAY too much power. Listen, babe, I’m struggling just like you, I’m in the shit just like you … focus on your own damn self!! She took up a lot of brain space. Like – I thought about her a lot. I bitched about her. I was in a state of unconsciousness – I was just reacting. And I’m not sure what it was that snapped … but eventually, after all of this, I finally asked myself the question, “Sheila. What is going on with YOU right now? Forget about her – what is happening with YOU?” It was not a comfortable moment. I was so certain that I was “right” in my opinion, I felt harassed by her – she hovered by my side, she over-complimented me, whatever – I felt “right”. So to take a step back from that and say, “Wait a second … why am I so invested in being RIGHT here? What is going on with you??” And I made some realizations. I saw myself in her. (Of course). It’s not a part of myself that I am particularly proud of, and it is a part of myself that I work to suppress. The openly insecure person, the one who doesn’t feel worthy to be in the same room with tremendously talented successful people, the one who is unable to take a compliment without brushing it off, the one who is so talented – but can’t ever own it. Blah blah blah, the list goes on. My anti-reaction to this person was a reaction to those parts of myself that I am ashamed of. That she was just wearing on her sleeve. Jung talks about shadow sides … the darker side of you, the things you can’t admit or won’t admit … This woman was my shadow side. I’m suddenly moved. I’m not sure why. And as I made these realizations, all of my annoyance at her dissolved … immediately. Never to return again, actually. I was so far removed from being all righteous and annoyed that it was like I was a different person. My birthday was that week, and I was having a huge party at a club in New York. Dear friends, family members, etc. And impulsively – without stopping to examine it – I called her – using the number on the class roster I had in my address book. She answered. When she heard it was me, she did this big “oh my god I can’t believe you’re calling me” thing – which would have driven me up the freakin’ wall a week before – but now, I felt kind towards her. And in being kind towards her, I was being kind to myself. Forgiving of myself. I know that “Oh my God I can’t believe you’re calling me” feeling. And I invited her and her husband to come to my party. She had three grade-school age kids – so I knew it would be a long-shot that she could come out on a weeknight – but she was so thrilled to be asked – it made me want to cry. I had been withholding something from her, something that was good and kind and soft … and I was so rewarded when I let go. She basically just wanted to be my friend, for God’s sake! She and her husband got a babysitter and came to my party, and they were totally awesome, and we all had the best time. She was terrific! We played ridiculous games. For example, someone had brought a pack of Bubblicious – you know, the kind that has a fortune in the wrapper. And we would do dramatic readings of the fortunes … or turn them into songs … we were acting like total retards, and laughing so hard we were crying. It was an awesome night. She and her husband had a BALL. It wasn’t the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” – she eventually left that class, and I never saw her again … but it was a real learning moment for me. The “power of facing unpleasant facts” – not focusing on what was wrong with her, but focusing on what was it in me that was having such a strong negative reaction to her?? And maybe I was a bit “off”? That I was “off” BECAUSE I had such a strong negative reaction to her!

I have strayed far from my topic, but that felt really good to write. And it is relevant, in its way. I have written before about my problem with those who “relish their rightness” and I hope I was clear in my post – that one of my biggest problems with those kinds of people is that it reveals to me my OWN “relishing” of my OWN rightness – and it’s a button I don’t want pushed … and I have a hard enough time NOT relishing my rightness … so I have to actively avoid such people. It’s my choice. I do not set myself above or beyond them. It is that I am in process … and I am trying to NOT be that way anymore. I can certainly go there, and it doesn’t mean not having strong opinions … but there’s a huge difference between having a strong opinion and relishing your own rightness. It’s a line I walk, and those who do not question their own rightness, who are incapable of seeing that maybe THEY have a little bit of work to do … I experience them as toxic. Actually toxic.

And so this is one of the main reasons why I find Orwell so, not just refreshing, but exhilarating. He shows me the way. He really does. Bless him!

Hitchens writes about this whole “facing unpleasant facts” thing:

A commissar who realizes that his five-year-plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact. So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’. The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’. Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoubling of efforts to overcome the obvious. The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.

And that’s really the jist of it.

It’s an interesting point. Stalinist tyranny required of the Party members to be “self-critical” – meaning: to examine their own thought processes and admit where they were “incorrect”. Self-criticisms. But we can see how bogus that really is – that what that brand of “self-criticism” represents is a whittling away of independent thought. And not just independent thought but man’s ability to know that he even does think independently. Mikhail Bulgakov has some amazing scenes in The Master and Margarita – where someone realizes, through coercion, double-think, double-speak, and intense psychological pressure, that what they REALLY saw (a huge black cat riding the streetcar, holding onto the rails as though he was a human being) was NOT what they really saw … they were mistaken. Even though, in their hearts, they KNOW what they saw. (An excerpt from that great book illustrating this point here.) Stalinism required human beings to split themselves. And so with all the damage Stalin wrought – the aftermath of which we still live in today – the psychological damage was the most shattering.

And that’s what Orwell addresses so brilliantly in 1984. I have so many favorite sections of this book – but I figured I’d go with the “newspeak” section because it is so chilling. (And highly relevant still.)

Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz (my post about him here) who grew up in Poland – suffering under the Nazis and then under increasingly Stalinist Communism, wrote this about 1984 in 1953:

A few have become acquainted with Orwell’s 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden by the New Faith because allegory, by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.

What a compliment.


EXCERPT FROM 1984, by George Orwell.

“How is the dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting.

“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape – the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.”

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.

“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 words? 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.

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm.

“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,” he said almost sadly. “Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in the Times occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useful shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled sympathetically, he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-colored bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,” he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. “Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050-, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

“Except –” began Winston doubtfully, and then stopped.

It had been on the tip of his tongue to say “Except the proles,” but he checked himself, not feeling fully certain that this remark was not in some way unorthodox. Syme, however, had divined what he was about to say.

“The proles are not human beings,” he said carelessly. “By 2050 – earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

One of these days, thought Winston with sudden deep conviction, Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.

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4 Responses to The Books: “1984″ (George Orwell)

  1. Kate P says:

    The timing of this post is uncanny. I just confessed to someone yesterday that I had not read it. How I got past high school without having read it is very strange. Considering the fact that people reference it constantly, I think I’ll have to tackle it come summertime.

  2. Dave E. says:

    “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

    That just gives me the creeps. In fact, the whole book scared the hell out of me, more than most horror stories ever did. I must have been about 16 when I read “1984″ and I think the reason it was so scary to me was that there was a real life example(the USSR) that made it all seem so plausible.

    We have have our own thought police and language cops now, but they don’t compare at all to the Iron Curtain, gulags, or the KGB. I wonder what it’s like for people who have no memory of those things to read that book for the first time. Is it less scary, less plausible?

  3. Today in history: November 7, 1917

    One of the most seismic events of the 20th century: The Russian Revolution. Look at that gathering of rogues. I love the grainy old photographs of all of them – they always look so twinkly and jolly, don’t they? It’s…

  4. Sung says:

    There’s an audiobook version of this book that’s read by Frank Muller — I believe Record Books puts it out. You can probably find it at your local library — and you should. I remember reading 1984 in high school and thinking, “Jesus, what a downer.” Muller’s rendition nails this book like no other.

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