Reflections on 1984 and Animal Farm, part two

>> Monday, September 15, 2008

This is the second part of the long rumination on George Orwell's work that I began the other day. I can't promise any of it's particularly deep or original, but I hope I haven't lost your interest.



The most uncomfortable revelation or rediscovery is realizing that the thing most people seem to think of as "Orwellian" is in fact one of the least consequential things in 1984. That would be the technological aspect of it, the constant electronic surveillance through telescreens in 1984 or our own telephones in the GWOT (Global War On Terror) world. Cameras on streetcorners and everyone's e-mail being subject to intercept and airport security and so on are all described with varying degrees of accuracy as "Orwellian" developments because "Big Brother Is Watching You" is an iconic phrase in the book (despite only appearing three times in the novel: twice in the first two pages of the novel and once in the very last chapter of the book) that lends itself to visual references like movie adaptations and artworks. (One also can't help also wondering if the fact that it appears so prominently on the novel's first two pages has also made the phrase memorable for people who were assigned the book in school and quickly lost interest in it.)

But technology isn't really the means the Inner Party uses to hold power in 1984. No, the Party's trump card, actually, is apathy. It's quite clear that no number of hidden microphones, no deployment of two-way televisions would save the Party if the Proles rose up against the political machine. It's even suggested that if the Outer Party (the minor bureaucrats, administrators and party-affiliated workers, including the novel's protagonist, Winston Smith) could shake their terrified indifference and grow backbones, they could change the entire political structure of Oceania. But the Proles don't care and the Outer Party members are cowed into passivity. The ubiquitous surveillance people think of when they think "Orwellian" is anything but total: Winston Smith spends a good bit of his time avoiding the camera in his apartment by simply going around a corner, and the Proles, we're told, mostly don't even have telescreens.

So why doesn't anyone rebel? It's not because the rebellions are observed and quickly nipped in the bud. It's because nobody can be bothered to try.

A nastier version of the same theme shows up throughout Animal Farm: the pigs do well mostly because everybody on the farm is illiterate or an idiot or both. The sheep can easily be induced to mindlessly repeat the last thing somebody said and the horses are merely happy to work even if they can't get past the letter "D". The only intelligent, literate non-pig on the Manor Farm is a fatalistic donkey who is so convinced that everything will always be as it was that he's prone to respond, "Donkeys live a long time," i.e. whatever it is, it's the same old shit somebody else did yesterday. Whether he's right because he's right or it's an example of self-fulfilling prophecy must be left to the individual reader. In any event, 1984 is commonly seen as the uglier book and yet it's perhaps feels the most pity for the underclass; in Animal Farm, the joke is on the workers.

Anyway, I've found it hard to read those parts of 1984 and Animal Farm without the sinking, queasy feeling that the public may be just as stupid and indifferent and/or frightened as Orwell makes them out to be. I suppose that sounds horribly elitist in a bad, bad way, but what else do you make of groups of people who re-elect the worst President in American history based on--well, based on what, exactly? To this date, there are people who apparently believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks, that George W. Bush has military experience, and that John Kerry's bravery under fire is dubious, just to name a few things. You don't even need to spy on everybody all the time if everybody thinks everything is just swell, and the few people who don't aren't actually going to do anything about it.

I regret that I've found Orwell to be a good bit more observant and wise than I first took him for. I regret it because these books should be interesting curiosities, relics of the brief years between the dark of World War II and the dim of the Cold War. They should be interesting and depressingly rare examples of a leftist critique of Stalinism; it has to be recognized as a historical fact that many liberals failed to speak out against the evils of Stalin (and, while we're on the subject, Mao and Castro) because the grasping hope they were still fellow-travelers overwhelmed common sense and morality. Orwell should be credited as a left-wing intellectual who hewed to his principles and fairly called evil out when he saw it, and that should be the end of it. Or, perhaps, Orwell should retain some relevance as a teller of cautionary tales--warning us of what life could be like if we don't remain vigilant. What Orwell shouldn't be, but remains, is an observer and commentator on contemporary life and ever-present realities. That is less interesting, I'm afraid, than it is depressing and terrible to contemplate.

4 comments:

vince Monday, September 15, 2008 at 6:10:00 PM EDT  

I think history suggests that most people are easily controlled as long as their personal lives have safety or are perceived to have safety. This is the primary lesson of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party prior to WWII (in my opinion). The more insecure the times (or the more they are perceived to be insecure) they easier it is to manipulate people. This is why Orwell will always be relevant.

We've all seen and/or heard the George Santayana quote about being doomed to repeat history if we don't learn from it. There's truth in that, but history isn't a recipe book where if you mix the same ingredients you get the same results. Historical events are infinitely variable - you never get the exact same ingredients. And how they are interpreted is a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past.

As others have noted, the main thing history should teach us is human actions have consequences and that certain choices, once made, can't be reversed. These choices close off the possibility of other choices, and in doing so, determine future events.

Jeri Monday, September 15, 2008 at 11:54:00 PM EDT  

The youngest son did a major paper on Animal Farm last spring and it was eerie re-reading it in today's context, post-Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay.

I am not a babbling, paranoid conspiracy theorist but it would be pretty easy to get that way if I spent too much time dwelling on the decisions of current political leadership related to civil liberties and privacy rights.

Arya Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 12:19:00 PM EDT  

I know you don't have cable, but there was a really great film that showed on (that really cool channel that showed Democracy Now. I threw the televisions out the house last November, and I can't remember the cool channel's name).

For a few weeks it aired a film called "Orwell Rolls in his Grave" that touched on all the ways the US was allowing fear to overide their freedom. It pointed out things I hadn't noticed the five times I've read 1984. It's worth hunting down and watching.

I first read 1984 (and then Animal Farm) in sixth grade when a teacher couldn't find anything else in the room I hadn't already read. I was kind enough to not discuss it with my parents. I don't think they would have approved of some of the racy parts. But that book changed the way I looked at the world at the tender age of 11.

I make it a point to listen to the audio book about once a year, usually around elections.

I made the HUGE mistake of watching the movie version on HBO. Not because the adaptation was bad, because it was very good. It had Ian McKellen playing Winston Smith.

The mistake was watching after the last presidential election. My husband had to tear me away from the movie, because I couldn't stop crying.

Wow. That's just creepy. I did an IMDB search for the HBO movie and even searched through Ian McKellen's credits and could not find the movie.

Perhaps I was driven insane by the last presidential election.

Or it was hormones. I gave birth on January 16th 2004.

I remember looking at my little girl and thinking "She's going to be heading for kindergarden by the time we get rid of this idiot in office."

And here she is, walking, talking, and asking "Why?"

May she never stop asking!

Eric Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 5:15:00 PM EDT  

I haven't seen any of the movie adaptations, or IMDB'd it, but I suspect you're referring to the version that came out around '84 or '85 starring John Hurt as Winston Smith and Richard Burton as O'Brien. The movie, as I recall, received midling reviews but Burton's performance was raved over--he was dying during the filming, and I'm told he used it to give a level of pathos to O'Brien's villainy that suits the character. As I was re-reading the book this time, I kept imagining Burton in the part, actually, and it seemed to work so well.

I need to add the movie to my CafeDVD queue. Of course, I also need to watch Leaving Las Vegas and Affliction and send them back, too.

Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting! Because of the evils of spam, comments on posts that are more than ten days old will go into a moderation queue, but I do check the queue and your comment will (most likely) be posted if it isn't spam.

Another proud member of the UCF...

Another proud member of the UCF...
UCF logo ©2008 Michelle Klishis

...an international gang of...

...an international gang of...
смерть шпионам!

...Frank Gorshin-obsessed bikers.

...Frank Gorshin-obsessed bikers.
GorshOn! ©2009 Jeff Hentosz

  © Blogger template Werd by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP