domingo, 16 de dezembro de 2012

George Orwell`s 1984: The Downward Journey by Brian W. Aldiss

“they say that time heals all things,
they say you can always forget;
but the smiles and the tears across the years
they twist my heart strings yet!”

"I love you": The most revolutionary and unconditional statement ever.

There is a word in Newspeak', said Syme, 'I don't know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.
Neologisms such as duckspeak and slogans like WAR IS PEACE provide dramatic signposts in the landscape of George Orwell's 1984, and direct our attention towards the oppositions and paradoxes of which it is constructed. The whole novel charts an example of enantiodromia, that is, the inevitable turning of one thing into its opposite; its strategy is to anatomize Winston Smith's progression from hatred to the time—dramatically achieved in that resounding last sentence of the text—when he comes to love Big Brother.

In this mirror effect, left has become right, right left. I shall deal here with some of the ways in which Orwell mirrors life.

One major mirror effect is proclaimed in the very title, for Nineteen Eighty-Four is itself a piece of wordplay, the year 1984 being a mirror image, at least as far as the last two digits are concerned, of the year in which Orwell was writing the novel, 1948.

The novel itself is full of similar oppositions. Winston Smith's barrack-like flat is contrasted with the love-nest over the antique shop. The elaboration and importance of his work at the Ministry is contrasted with its triviality. The astronomical number of boots manufactured on paper by the state is contrasted with the fact that half the population of Oceania goes barefoot.
When O'Brien holds up four fingers, Smith sees five, in the final obscene triumph of doublethink.

It is a profoundly disturbing view of life: everything depends on words and what goes on in the head. External reality no longer exists, at least as far as the Party is concerned. 1984 might have been written by Bishop Berkeley.

There is another hierarchy of oppositions, the ones which most grasp our attention because they are mirror images of assumptions we make in the everyday world. We do not believe that IGNOR­ANCE IS STRENGTH or that FREEDOM IS SLAVERY—although the novel shows clearly how these things can be. We believe that peace is the norm and war is the exception, unlike the rulers of Oceania.

Nor do we readily accept that political confessions, extracted under duress, are true.

All these oppositions, which are word-orientated, are paraded in order to unsettle us. If the novel's title is 'merely' wordplay, then we are entitled to ask to what extent Orwell was actually trying to predict the future, or to what extent he was simply deploying 'the future' as a metaphor for his present; in other words, using the future for yet another mirror effect.
In many of its aspects, 1984 captures accurately daily existence in World War II for the civilian population. Reading Orwell's sordid future, we relive the tawdry past.

Here are the run down conditions under which people in England, Germany, and elsewhere actually lived, here are the occasional bombs falling, the .spirit of camaraderie, and the souped up hatred of a common enemy.

The rationing, the propaganda, the life lived in shelters, the cigarettes which must be kept horizontal so that their tobacco does not spill out, the shortage of razor blades, the recourse to cheap gin: these are details of common experience in the 1940s, gathered together for maximum artistic effect. At the same time, on a more personal level, Smith's work at the Ministry of Truth reflects Orwell's work at the BBC in Broadcasting House.

In such aspects, Orwell used a general present. It is the general present which provides the furniture of the novel.

More deeply part of the centrality of the book are some of Orwell's own obsessions.
The familiar Orwellian squalor is in evidence throughout. The woman poking out a drain in The Road to Wigan Pier reappears as Mrs Parsons with her drain problem, and so on. Such matters are in evidence even in Orwell's first novel, Keep the Aspidis­tra Flying, and a preoccupation with illness and personal decay infect the novel—hardly surprising, in view of Orwell's deteriorating health. He died only a few months after 1984 was published and proclaimed. In the final scenes, when Smith and Julia meet for the last time, it is age as well as torture which has ruined them:

'her thickened, stiffened body was no longer recognisable from behind'.

But this is a novel operating beyond the compass of the ordinary realist novel. Being a political novel—that rare thing, an English political novel—it has more dimensions to it than the physical. Its principal preoccupation is with betrayal, betrayal through words.

In this respect, it is a sibling of Animal Farm. ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS is a step, or rather a long stride, towards duckspeak, and the betrayal of the deepest intentions of a revolution.

Winston Smith, right from the start, is not only a secret enemy of the Party he serves. He also betrays himself by his enjoyment of the work he does for it. 'Smith's greatest pleasure in life was his work'—and his work is bound up with words, distorting the truth by falsifying old records even when those records are themselves already fake.

Orwell's deployment of the philosophical entanglements inherent in words and phrases is masterly.

He was early in life fascinated by G.  K. Chesterton's unparalleled talent for paradox. 1984 may owe something to Chesterton's future-fantasy, The Napoleon of Notting Hill; it certainly extends its paradoxes. One example must suffice. When Smith asks O'Brien if Big Brother exists 'in the same way as I exist', O'Brien answers immediately, 'You do not exist'. Here the paradox is that no paradox exists, for, in Newspeak terms, Smith has become an unperson and indeed does not exist.

Nor is it too fanciful to imagine that Orwell believed that his novel would falsify the future. Certainly, that seems to have been one of its effects. Fear is a great hypnotizer, and some people are prepared to believe that we live in an actual Orwellian vision of the future, in that world whose image is a boot stamping on a human face forever.
In a literal sense, of course, this is totally untrue. We still live in a world worth defending. War and peace are still distinguishable states of mind. (And in 1984 at least one atomic bomb has been dropped on Airstrip One; that has not happened in our real world.)

The West may, like decadent Byzantium apeing the manners of its besiegers, ultimately betray itself from within to the enemy without.

But we still live in a community where diverse opinion is tolerated, where individual salvation may be found, where TV sets have an Off button, and where we are not subject to that prevailing Chester- tonian paradox which subjugates Orwell's proles: 'Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.'

To see 1984 as a nest of paradoxes is not to denigrate its power.

Indeed, it may be in part to admit that to attempt to chronicle the future using the past tense is itself a paradox, one committed unwittingly every time a science fiction writer puts pen to paper. But 1984 is a more humorous novel than is generally acknowledged, though admittedly the humour is decidedly noir. In that respect, it bears a resemblance to Franz Kafka's work, about which learned commentators have rightly expended much serious thought. (Learned commentators are correct in regarding humour as subver­sive.) Yet when Kafka read extracts from Der Prozess to Max Brod and friends, they all laughed heartily, and Kafka often could not con­tinue for tears of laughter. But Kafka and Orwell both acknowledged Dickens among their masters of grim humour.

To Orwell's own paradoxes, time has added another. For many years during the Cold War, Orwell's phrase 'Big Brother is watching you' was popular. It referred, of course, to all those TV cameras which were never switched off, keeping the population of Airstrip One under surveillance.

But as social life became nastier, rougher, during the 1980s, as the murder count rose in New York, London and elsewhere, the public in their malls and supermarkets began to beg for more cameras to be installed everywhere.
They begged for more surveillance. They wanted to be watched. In an age when we no longer believe in the attention of an omni-present God, even the cold eye of the camera is welcome.

When I first became interested in Orwell's play with paradox and mirror image, I conceived the idea that the plot of 1984 is much like that of an A. E. van Vogt science-fantasy novel, in which one man alone has a vision of the truth, sets out to overturn the world, and finally manages to do so ('Asylum' is one such example).

Orwell took a great interest in trash literature. This interest manifests itself in 1984 in the passages where Smith, as part of his work, invents a story about a fictitious character called Comrade Ogilvy. 'At the age of three, Comrade Ogilvy had refused all toys except a drum, a sub­machine gun, and a model helicopter ... At nineteen, he had designed a hand-grenade which... at its first trial, had killed thirty- one Eurasian prisoners in one burst. . .' This clearly is a kind of science fiction story at whose absurdity we are meant to laugh.

In pursuit of the van Vogt connection, I once took the opportunity of asking Orwell's widow, Sonia, if Orwell had read much pulp science fiction (it existed at that period only in pulp magazine form).

Had he ever read any A. E. van Vogt, with plots centering on world­wide conspiracy?

Her answers, like so many answers life gives us, were enigmatic. She thought he had read some science fiction. She did not know the name of van Vogt.

About H. G. Wells Orwell was much better informed. He expressed his delight more than once in Wells's scientific romances, even going so far as to claim that 'thinking people who were born about the beginning of the century are in some sense Wells's own creation'. But he disagreed strongly with Wells as political sooth-sayer, and in particular with Wells's views concerning a world state, of which he said, 'Much of what Wells has argued and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany'.

Shortly after World War I, Wells rebuked Winston Churchill for speaking of the Bolsheviks as if they were a different order of being. Orwell argued that Churchill was more realistic and that he was right and Wells wrong. With totalitarianism, a new order of men had come into the world, perverting science for their own ends. 1984 is the history of that new order.

O'Brien and the Party members are Orwell's ghoulish mirror image of Wells's Samurai in A Modern Utopia, while at the same time representing the new totalitarianism rising to threaten the post-war world. The debt to Wells is unavoid­able; he was the man who had created the future as a forum for debate on present ends and means at the turn of the century.
We can now see the answer to our question. Was Orwell trying to predict the future or was he using the notion of the future as a mirror for his present? Of course the answer is ambiguous. Most of the novel mirrors the past (' “The past is more important", agreed O'Brien gravely'), including the tradition of constructing utopias, but this is built about a core of futurism, that core in which Orwell conjures up the spectre of England under a totalitarian regime, a regime in which science is at the service of a new brutality, and in which the world is locked into a kind of dreadful unity through the war that is peace. The future and its polemics are given reality by the employment of the furniture of the past.

As with many novels, 1984 mirrors the author's own life and the books to which he is indebted. What is different about 1984 is that it utilizes the most powerful lever available to science fiction; it places the events it depicts ahead of us, and so to be yet experienced, instead of behind us in the past, and so safely out of the way.

In Orwell's world, the very word 'freedom' has been banished. Whereas in our world, words like 'freedom' and 'democracy' are bandied about in everyday use on all sides. But has freedom in fact been banished for the fictitious inhabitants of Airstrip One?

In order to maintain a boot stamping on the human face forever, the owner of the boot must suffer as well as the owner of the face. The price of loss of freedom is eternal vigilance.

There are few rewards for the Party faithful except power. Power is seen as an end in itself. The real, undeclared aim of the Party is, we are told, to remove all the pleasure from the sexual act. This startling but negative aim, which Orwell does not consistently pursue, reflects the negativity of power; it is doubtful whether Big Brother actually exists, while higher up officials like O'Brien are merely inquisitors with some new, some ancient, tortures at their command. Orwell can imagine rats but not Stalin.

  Power, like money, is useless in itself. There has to be something to spend it on. It is true that 'purges and vaporizations' are a part of the mechanism of the Party's regime of government, but this is scarcely enough to satisfy a Party member. Puritanism is all they get. Orwell himself was possibly dissatisfied with this arrangement. When Smith gets to O'Brien's flat, we see that it is not as austere as all that. There is wallpaper on the walls, the floors are carpeted, the telescreen can be switched off, the butler pours wine from a decanter, and there are good cigarettes in a silver box. Not sybaritic, exactly; more the sort of thing to which typical Old Etonians (Orwell was an untypical example) could be said to be accustomed.

Even in these elegant surroundings, O'Brien is discovered still working. The proles he helps to oppress enjoy greater freedom.

 For the proles in their seedy bits of decaying London there are trashy newspapers, astrology, films 'oozing with sex', pornography, rubbishy novels, booze, sport and gambling. These are all in plentiful supply. Orwell shows his traditional mixture of despisal and envy of the working classes; Smith's attitude is very much that of Gordan Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, written thirteen years earlier. Gordan 'wanted to sink down, down into the muck where the money does not rule'. The proles are free from worries, only the proles have double beds, and no one cares if there are bed bugs. Smith manages to reach that place mentioned longingly by Gordan: 'down, down, into some dreadful sub-world that as yet he could only imagine'. Orwell did finally imagine it, in his most extraordinary novel, and that repeated 'down, down' shows how far the journey was.

One can see how George Orwell enjoyed writing 1984 for its own sake. I believe the prophetic element to be only part of its attraction, and in any case the prophesy was apotropaic, intended to warn. Thus, the more it succeeded in conveying its warning, the less likely was its picture of the future to become reality. Its success is that it fails to paint a true portrait of the true 1984.

However grim we may hold our 1984 to be, it is not Orwell's grimness. We perhaps owe Orwell some gratitude that his widely influential 1984 is not our 1984.

Some commentators have claimed as a weakness the fact that the dialectic of the novel is all with the Party, with O'Brien, with the Thought Police, and that nothing positive is offered by the way of opposition. Such comments show a misreading of the book. In the long line of utopianists, Orwell has an honourable place.

H.  G. Wells perceived that for a utopia to exist in a period of rapid communications it had to be world-wide; and for 1905, before the First World War, this was an acute perception. By the late 1940s, after a second World War, Orwell saw that a countervailing paradox was required. His way to happiness on Earth lies in the subversive message which Julia slips Smith in the corridor, a note saying merely I LOVE YOU. And utopia, far from being worldwide, has shrunk to a shabby little room over a shop, with a willing girl, a double bed, and plenty of privacy.

Thus have our expectations diminished over the century. 

Such a utopia needs no dialectic. Its strength is precisely that it does not require words. For the true enemy in 1984 is ultimately words themselves, those treacherous words that will serve any vile purpose to which they are put. Even Julia's message has a taint to it, since its three words hold the most important one in common with that other well known three-worder, the much-feared Ministry of Love: indeed in Smith's case, one leads almost directly to the other.

In place of words came objects, and the inarticulate life of proledom, personified in the old washerwoman singing under the lovers' window as she hangs out her washing. It is a distinctly nostalgic substitution. As Smith says, referring to a paperweight he has bought, a piece of coral embedded in glass, 'If the past survives anywhere, it's a few solid objects with no words attached to them, like that lump of glass there'. Words are the allies of doublethink. 

In a television broadcast made over the Christmas period, 1982, the novelist Anthony Burgess claimed to have read 1984 thirty times. He said of it that it was one of those rare books which tells us what we need to know, which informs us of what reality is.

Like all of Orwell's novels, with the brilliant exception of Animal Farm, 1984 is not a masterpiece judged purely as novel. Judged as a vehicle for putting over what Orwell wished to tell us, for conveying that pungent mixture of squalor, nostalgia, disillusion and analysis of betrayal, it is brilliant.

Although 1984 does not on the surface hold up a mirror to our 1984, I believe that Burgess was right on a more inward plane. In 1948, that drab year best never relived, the novel seemed indeed to be a prediction of the future, exact in each realistic detail. Read in the year of its title, it turned disconcertingly into a secret history of all our lives. For we have lived in a parallel world of political bullying and hypocrisy, of wars and totalitarianism, of cultural revolutions and anti-cultural movements, of blind hedonism and wild-eyed shor­tage.

Even if these things have not overcome us, they have marked us. Our shadows—to use the word in a Jungian sense—have con­spired with the Thought Police and the Party. What has happened to us here is, in O'Brien's words, forever.

We see the novel's transformation through time: from a prophecy of the future to a parable of our worldly existence, 1948-1984.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of Orwell's novel now that the year 1984 is over and concentration on it has died away. It would be pleasant to believe that Animal Farm would be more generally read and recognized, for it remains the book on revolution and revolution's betrayal and one of the seminal fables of our century.

My personal feeling is that 1984 will continue to be read and loved by ordinary people; and this for a good reason. Though we prefer to overlook the fact, many aspects of 1984 closely correspond to the lives of those 'ordinary people'. For most, life is a battle against poverty, shortages, inadequate housing, ill health.

They too experi­ence betrayals which may prove fatal. They too come to experience in their own anatomy—and without needing words—what Julia experienced, a thickened stiffened body, unrecognizable from behind. They too are manipulated by uncaring governments.

In one film version of 1984, the ending showed Smith and Julia reunited, clinging happily to each other, unchanged by their ordeal. We have a contempt of that sort of thing. Not only is such nonsense untrue to Orwell's novel: it is unfortunately untrue to most people's experience.

What we value most about Orwell's work is not its prophecy or even its polemics, but rather the way it faithfully mirrors the experience of the majority of the people.

In: The Detached Retina. Liverpool University Press, 1995, pp. 92-100.

6 comentários:

  1. Good article. I really want to read the book again now, it's been too long. I read it in 1984.

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