Reflections on 1984 and Animal Farm, part one

>> Sunday, September 14, 2008

I wrote this the other day, and it seemed too long for one post, so I've broken it up to be published over two days. I hope you don't mind.

It had been so long ago since I'd first read George Orwell's 1984 that it seemed worth picking up a book club edition that combined the novel with Orwell's other famous anti-totalitarian novel, Animal Farm; and I couldn't even remember if I'd read the latter book, to be honest. Seen any number of movie and stage versions on TV and in community theaters, come across so many references to it that it felt like I'd read it, certainly. Both novels are ones that any literate--and of course I mean "literate" in the sense beyond being able to read, but "literate" in the sense of having read--person in the English-speaking world could probably quote from whether they've read either of them or not. Anyway, it had been so long since I'd read one or both of them that it was like reading them for the first time all over again, and unfortunately the timing seemed right.

After all, and let's face it, we live in Orwellian times. I don't know if this is new or news or not--that's one of the qualities of an Orwellian epoch. It's possible that our leaders have always been pretty liars and our culture ephemeral, and our memories shallow, and, yes, that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. It may well be that Orwell--or Eric Arthur Blair, but it will always be easier to call him "Orwell"--did nothing more than touch a live wire and ground the current in it for a moment. He may not have been prescient, but sort of omniscient, writing not about what could happen but what had already happened and had happened and will happen. You could certainly say that about Animal Farm, the obvious allegory for Stalinist Russia, but you might as well say it about 1984, too.

I can't remember whether I read 1984 late in junior high or early in high school; either way, it comes out to roughly twenty years ago that I must have read it, curiously close to the titular year. I remember not thinking much of it. I seem to recall that at the time, Orwell had mostly been co-opted by the right (yes, I was aware of those kinds of things even that young--I'd have been happier if I hadn't); it was easy enough for them to do, since the communist states, particularly the Soviet Union, were both the obvious models for Oceania and the Manor Farm, and totalitarian communist states like Romania gravitated towards the kinds of horrors you find described in the bowels of the Ministry Of Love in 1984. It was easy to miss the fact that Orwell was a socialist who had fought and been wounded at the front by the fascists in Spain. Orwell's critique of left-wing totalitarians was perhaps uniquely positioned from within the left itself and carried the sting Orwell clearly felt of having been betrayed by self-styled leftists; this may be why it's so damn powerful, actually, since one thing Orwell isn't is smug. The tenets of Animalism and the ideals of socialism are things to be taken seriously, and the betrayal of these tenets and ideals rank among the worst crimes of the pigs of Animal Farm and Inner Party of 1984. Orwell takes the ideological betrayals as seriously as the murders and purges and tortures; physical death is not really as bad as death of the spirit.

I also remember not thinking much of the linguistic ideas behind Newspeak--it seemed to me a bit foolish to claim that an idea can't be formed without the words to phrase them: we all struggle with words all the time, and everyone has thought of something that they couldn't quite describe or think of the word for. On a more mature reading, Orwell's Newspeak is a bit more nuanced than my childhood take on it: the notion is not that an idea can't be formed, but that it's stillborn if it can't be expressed. Furthermore, there's the idea of reducing existing words and thoughts to gibberish--for instance if you could reduce the word "equal" to one limited meaning (referring to size), you could make a statement like "all men are equal" into nonsense. I think there's more to it than I gave it credit for, so there's that surprise.


John the Scientist Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 12:26:00 AM EDT  

I prefer Homage to Catalonia out of his works. But then again, I'm a bit of a literalist. :p

Nathan Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 8:19:00 AM EDT  

I'm one of those who can discuss Orwell and his works because references to them are ubiquitous.

But, to my shame, I'll admit that I've never read any of his books. This will be rectified at the earliest opportunity.

(I think I may have mentioned before that I'm an idiot.)

Eric Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 10:04:00 AM EDT  

No, you're not an idiot. Like I said, he's one of those writers who has permeated western culture to the point that everyone's familiar with him even if they haven't read him. Tho' this may lead to some misunderstandings, which is something I get into in the second half of this entry.

I do think Orwell should be required reading, especially for people who like writing and want to write, and for reasons that have nothing to do with his cultural significance. The man could write: he had a clean, lean style that manages to be both spartan and elegant. (He's not one for poetic flourishes or loopy metaphors, but his language distinctly thrums.)

As a practical matter, Orwell is one of those writers who managed to slip partway into a crack in the global copyright regime: his work is copyrighted in the U.S. and Britain, for instance, but is in the public domain in Australia and other countries. So if you don't have a problem reading things online, you can find everything Orwell wrote free and clear on the internet or in various e-book-type formats. You already know the best ways to get physical media in New York, but I will point out that the large numbers of indifferent students who are forced to read (or pretend to read) Orwell's work in high school and college means you can probably find used copies in excellent (probably unopened, even) condition in your favorite used bookstore.

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