1984 ~ George Orwell

Reading 1984 by George Orwell felt a bit like going back to my political philosophy classes. I studied Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and a few other books on totalitarianism then. It also reminded me of the relationship between language and politics.

It’s downright scary to think how relevant 1984 remains today, even though we convince ourselves we live in democracies. Sure there are worse places to be than France but I don’t delude myself; we’ve lived in a police state since 1962 and things have been worse since 1994 and 2001.

In 1984 we follow Winston Smith, a Ministry of Truth employee, who rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party led by Big Brother. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands total obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens. In his longing for truth and liberty, Winston starts a forbidden love affair with a colleague Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal.

I had never read the book in its entirety although I studied several excerpts throughout the years.
Everyone knows of 1984 and its themes even if they haven’t read it; censorship, surveillance, nationalism, purges… Big Brother is a word that has entered not only the day-to-day English language but we use it in French, as is, too.

I started reading Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer a few weeks back and somehow 1984 brought it to mind in a very specific way. Prose invites us to stop looking for social themes and political discourses in the books and really look at how the writers make each sentence a compelling part of the story itself.
In the case of 1984, it’s impossible to detach the writing from the social and political critic though. Every sentence seems to be constructed as if the tele-screen and the thought police truly could read your thoughts. The sentences are short, dry even when engaging in the love story.

On the one hand, it gives you that sense of secrecy and fear of being overheard (in your head) and on the other, when the love story is being staged you know there’s an urgency in the love making, in the short but sweet meetings between the two characters.
The only part that has long sentences – it’s almost dreary – is Goldstein’s ‘book’. Probably thought out as Marx and Engels’ Communist Party Manifest, it’s written as if it were a political philosophy essay.

That way of writing in short sentence also translates how crucial the relationship between language and freedom is. There are different types of languages in 1984, and all of them play an important part in the society represented.
First, you have Newspeak: it’s the state organized impoverishment of the language as a means to control the population’s thoughts. If you don’t have a word for science, how do you know what it is meant to achieve? One of the characters Syme – who ends up being a non-person – explains it to Winston at one point in the book. It’s terribly scary. And I can’t help being reminded of netspeak today: there is a de facto impoverishment of languages. Every year in French, words disappear from the dictionary. An example sticks to mind (don’t ask me why): some years ago the word ‘brimborion’ was removed from the Dictionary of the French Academy. It meant a ‘useless trinket or bibelot’. Arguably a bibelot/trinket is already useless and maybe that’s why it was removed but somehow it’s always been an example of shrinking the language.
Secondly you have the body language: that too is being controlled by the presence of tele-screen. Winston has learned to school his features so nobody can tell what he thinks. Everything you show in your face or how your body react can betray your thoughts and can make you a suspect with the thought police.

What’s interesting to me is that Orwell’s novel and Arendt’s book on totalitarianism were published 2 years apart and how close they are. Orwell uses a dystopian world to set up his story and he looks into the same elements as Arendt did when she analyzed the nature of the totalitarian regime.

  1. Totalitarian regimes seek to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life: the tele-screens, the thought police…
  2. Classes are transformed into masses: the two minutes of Hate, Hate week… people are merely a crowd incapable of individual, independent thought.
  3. Esoteric doctrine and propaganda: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. Anyone?
  4. Individual isolation and loneliness as precondition to totalitarian domination: isolation precludes trust and friendship, which in turn makes it possible to destroy human compassion and thus humanity. The choice made by both Julia and Winston to betray the other is the crux of the matter.

In Goldstein’s Book, there are a few sentences that made me wonder whether Orwell, who was born in 1903, regretted the Golden Age prior to World War One. Could it be there was a spark of idealism in him even though he wrote 1984 believing that fascism or bolshevism would end up taking over?

1984 remains frightfully relevant today. We’re bombarded with propaganda of every kind these days: sure they don’t always seem so but they are. Media – particularly social media – has turned us into masses of a different kind. And although the internet has made the world a smaller place, we remain quite isolated behind our screens don’t we? Have you ever looked around you in the subway? People’s eyes are glued to their screens (smartphones, tablets); they no longer connect with the people next to them.

Who hasn’t heard yet of people victims of crime with nobody attempting to intervene? I won’t link articles it would be a depressingly long list.

What did you take away from 1984 if you’ve read it?

I look forward to reading your comments.


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