If Ayn Rand were a democratic socialist...
I enjoyed this book when I first read it. I've a thing for dystopian futures, artlangs (like Newspeak or Burgess's Nadsat
), war, politics, economics, espionage, etc. For me, this book had it all. It really struck a chord with me; I remember actually very disturbed by its grim-seeming ending (the exact nature of which, and whether it's really all that grim at all, is disputed). I love the way the world was simultaneously fleshed out and obfuscated, particularly.
The more I dwell on the book, though, the less I enjoy it. In fact, I've come to dislike Eric Arthur Blair (Mr. Orwell) and Nineteen Eighty-Four's
spiritual sister Animal Farm
. Several things about it have come to bother me, not the least of which is its political message (in fact, in light of Blair's "demsoc" leanings, I may very well be the type of "bad communist" he wrote this book to vilify). However, I think I can safely say -not as a "Stalinist" but as a reader- that Blair's work here is simply not the poignant masterpiece it's made out to be. I compare Blair to Rand in the title of this review because I find some striking similarities in their works, even if Blair is -no contest- the better writer.
Even where anvils need to be dropped, a clear-cut good-evil binary is simply not interesting, and that's exactly what we have in this novel. The reader is not allowed
to come to any conclusion other than to the inherent evil of the Party. Sure, Smith is shown to have made some morally ambiguous statements (acid in a child's face?), but that doesn't mitigate the rather sophomoric moral
being spoon-fed to us. Masterpieces have points to make, sure, but they shouldn't have morals
in the way a fable might. And that's what this is: not a masterpiece, not a fully matured work of art, but a fable. It's a comic book without pictures and with a seriously downer ending. This is particularly frustrating for someone who wants to read a book to explore
new ideas and worlds, not to be converted
This book is also particularly infuriating in that, despite being a work of fiction and a self-admitted author tract, it tends to color people's view of the Soviet Union, knowledge of its actual history occasionally scribbled in as an afterthought, and socialism in general, despite Blair's personal politics.
17th Nov 10
18th Nov 10
19th Nov 10
If you continue calling him Blair, it just seems you're more fixated on him rather than his novels.
You're placing far
too much importance on what I'm calling him. His pen name was Orwell, his legal name was Blair; the same man wrote the book by whatever name. I'm not addressing a different emanation
, like Apollo Orwellos versus Apollo Blairos or something.
Does the matter of him not ever having lived in Soviet Russia actually matter when discussing the body of his work?
Yes it does, in fact. Let's set aside all arguments concerning Soviet history; Bla— I'm sorry, ORWELL
never actually lived under any kind of dictator or totalitarian regime. (He fought during the Spanish Civil War, on the Republican side, but this conflict began as part of the rebellion that eventually replaced
the republic with a fascist dictatorship.) Does this mean he's not allowed to write a book about dictators and oppression? No more than I'm not allowed to write a book about a GULAG prisoner's daily life, or about the turmoil of a Jew in the Auschwitz camps. But, then again, personal experience adds a certain soul
to one's writing. I might be able to write a very compelling pseudo-biography of a Polish Jew during the war (for the sake of argument; I honestly don't think I could), but how do you think it would compare to a work of fiction written by a Polish Jew who had lived through that time... or even someone who simply knew such a person? Or even someone who has professionally researched the Holocaust? I'm not saying Orwell's work is invalid
for those reasons (I am, in fact, keeping my politics out of this.), but I am saying the work lacks a kind of realistic emotional experience. See below as to why this impedes my enjoyment of the work.
I also don't see how clear-cut morality excludes something from being a masterpiece, nor do I agree with your idea that good-evil is uninteresting.
If this book had been more nuanced in the point it was trying to make, ultimately about oppressive government contra personal freedom, Nineteen Eighty-Four
could have become something akin to a very poignant science fiction story, one without necessarily fantastic elements... perhaps making predictions as to how developing technology will one day affect individual freedom or the preservation of history, truth, and culture (not unlike Aldous Huxely's Brave New World
and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit451
, both of which feature oppressive cultures
and oppressive mindsets
that affect things from the bottom-up, rather than from the top-down). Huxley and Bradbury explore a kind of oppression that arises out of irrelevance,
out of which people allow their culture, their values, even their families to decay or burn up, ultimately too distracted to stop it and discouraged from grieving through temptation, rather than punishment. Like Orwell, neither of these men lived underneath a dictatorship; Huxley was born in the United Kingdom and spent his later years in the United States, the latter the home country of Bradbury. Thus, these books simply seem more honest
because these men wrote from experience.
Good and evil is possibly the oldest trope in fiction...
Tropes Are Not Bad
versus Tropes Are Not Good
...for good reason. It works...
Does it? By "works," I assume you mean "creates an enjoyable reading experience." But this type of trope most certainly did work in the establishment of religion, something on which most people's mileage will definitely vary. As for the trope creating an enjoyable reading experience, do you read the Bible? Do you read ancient works in which this binary is present? Do you read these things for the top-notch writing and characterization? Or do you read them because of their historical context and overall importance to culture via religion/mythology?
...and subverting it won't inherently make something more interesting.
No, but recognizing that morality is much trickier than putting things into two distinct camps is a little more philosophically mature... and real
. I'm not interested in arguing about morality or the dichotomy of good and evil, but suffice it to say some of the most prominent (and most widely misunderstood) philosophers have denied any such clear distinction, and this is a very challenging notion... Not necessarily correct,
mind you, but certainly more involved than "Thou shalt not."
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that your political views actually are shaping your opinion of his work (since your beliefs happen to be obliquely playing the part of "evil" in Orwell's fictional tales).
That's a pretty shaky limb you're out on, friend, and here's why:
If your conditions for a masterpiece mean it has to be a certain level of nuanced or else, that's fine. But it sounds like you're more interested in attacking the man himself rather than anything else.
In two sentences, you mentioned the exact reasoning I demonstrated for not liking Orwell's book(s), and then went on to posit your own opposing hypothesis. I glean that this is based largely on two things, given what you've included in your post:
1. That I called him Blair
—and this, according to you, betrays a hidden disdain for the man's character; and
2. That I mentioned, quite briefly, that I hold views Orwell had ostensibly created this fantastic nightmare-world to criticize.
You'll notice I haven't yet addressed the ideas of democratic socialism or socialist reformism, despite having mentioned these things by name. I haven't given my thoughts on any of Blair's political treatises or even his work as a propagandist for the Allied war effort, about which I sincerely have no strong feelings one way or the other. But I have
addressed the elements of his writing
that make me dislike the book:
1. I feel the good-evil binary is philosophically immature.
2. I feel writing a book without the basis of personal experience runs the great risk of being emotionally forced or unrealistic. (I'm willing to buy that Blair/Orwell has felt a kind of anxious pressure to find privacy or freedom from judgment/scrutiny, especially concerning issues of love. I buy that he probably had his eye, at one point, on a woman who was frustratingly chaste or even misandric. I buy that he's probably had coworkers he hated and unsatisfying sexual encounters and weird conversations with old people. The governmental oppression? Not so much.)
3. I feel that writing a book designed
to drop a big ol' anvil ought to have personal, emotional experience with that anvil's "forge". I feel that, if it does, its emotional sincerity will make the book seem less like proselytizing
and more like thoughtful social commentary.
(I'm not saying personal experience automatically makes a work great. Ayn Rand had, herself, lived in the Soviet Union and had, in fact, enjoyed an education that would go on to form her... ahem... philosophy. And yet when I read her books, it was like... looking at a 4" x 4" word-search puzzle in the newspaper with just one big 4" x 4" letter "A". You happen upon it and you look at it and you scrutinize it and then after a while you're like "What the fuck am I even looking at?")
As an aside: I do realize Huxley personally congratulated Orwell on having written and published '84
. In fact, he personally felt it was going to some day be a very important book... and as far as I know, this exchange was wholly devoid of sarcasm. I enjoy Huxely's take on dystopia, but I can also disagree with his opinion regarding Orwell's.
19th Nov 10
20th Nov 10
You know what, maninahat? That's a damn fine argument. I never really thought about it like that.
20th Nov 10
Wow...really? Shit, that never normally happens.
22nd Nov 10
Well, now that I do think of it, I still have some problems with it (given the author himself stated that it was a very political tract). But to read it as apolitical and more a tale of human drama in a fantastic setting, it becomes a much better book.
22nd Nov 10
13th Mar 11
Anvilicious works typically rely on making half the characters act like total dumbasses and the other half given Deus Ex Machinas disguised as competence to enforce their Aesops. Nothing new.
15th Mar 11
5th May 11
(edited by: jejl)
6th May 11
This review made my day and I like how you exposed your critics (which I share) in a way clearer than mine. Unfortunately, 400 words aren't enough to analyze the defects of this book; however, since you defined yourself a "bad Communist" from Orwell POV (which, if I have understood you correctly, would apply to me too), it would be interesting to do an historically and dialectically structured counterattack to this book. In any case, thanks for your analysis.
15th Jul 12
15th Jul 12
Uh no orwell was spot on. Stalin and the Soviet Union leaders were monsters on par with Hitler who caused untold suffering
24th Sep 14
As one who Orwell might characterize as a "Good Communist" (Or general anti-authoritarian leftist), I'll give a go for an apology of him here;
1 You nailed it when you said Orwell was a far better writer than Rand. Both are doing the same /genre/ but to equate the two is basically saying 2Chainz is basically Shakespeare because both use rhymes. Having read a sampling of both, Orwell hits human nature closer and I think it's possible with the political context removed and still enjoy it as a psychological thriller. Rand is entirely message without much to speak of for likeable characters; if you disagree with her, then you're going to see the characters as either awful people or plain boring.
2. Orwell was wrong. I mean, he hit some elements of human nature but as a means of predicting the future of society? Ehn, he over stated his cards. On the other hand, 1984 was written as the dust settled on WWII. You don't need to look as far as Soviet Russia to see fucked up Totalitarian shit; Britain or the US will do. Everything became more centralized during that period and horrible abuses of power on the allied side went on all in the name of a national victory against some one who even 70 years later is hated as an almost demonic figure by those who have very little understanding of why (not to detract from the horrible shit Hitler did). During this period, people sort of accepted whatever the government deemed necessary in a rather resigned way even after the great failures that lead and continued through the great depression; Orwell can hardly be blamed for imagining what might happen if they didn't want to give up these powers. Also, Sapir-Worf is pretty safely refuted (at least to the degree Ingsoc holds it).
3. 1984 drops a few simplified morals and presents problems in a very digestable way, yes but I don't think that makes them sophmoric. If you don't think there is an undercurrent of double think in our culture, try asking an American about the invasion of Afghanistan and then the invasion of Crimea. Or otherwise reasonable people who are willing to accept the Patriot Act since it secures their freedom. Yeah, it isn't the insanity that is shown in the book but if it was merely remarked on rather than drawn to a logical conclusion, then it would have been written off as simple social commentary rather than something which is pretty deeply fucked up and is exploited for political ends.
4. Where the hell is this Good/Evil Binary? Ingsoc is an allegory about absolute power corrupting absolutely; Soviets and Fascists allied and Democratic nations abandoned civil liberties, every nation abandoned tenants of their philosophy for survival and people didn't question it. Orwell is cautioning then that with an ever looming vague threat power could be perpetually centralized and tenants could be slowly lost, while the power itself became more and more divorced from any individual person. The Inner-Party is essentially anyone in the Outer-Party who has been sufficently endoctrinated that they no longer have their own views; They aren't evil but they have wrong views in terms of what morality and freedom even are. No one said Wilson would run shit any better only that he wanted to. In fact, the treatise implies that a rebellion succeeding within the inner party would only see a new regime rise up. What is true and what is a lie, what exactly Wilson ought to be hoping for is left very ambiguous, except the vague idea that it will come from "the masses".
4b. The Regime being "evil" can also be seen as an example of horror; it's not evil so much as it is inhuman, uncaring and incomprehensible. This also plays into the move of politics away from local issues and towards a massive and largely uncaring bureaucratic machine. The same themes can be seen at the time in Tolkien's works which idealize the Shire. Orwell is asking for a bit of humanity in a government.
5. New Ideas; Orwell explored a lot of shit that was novel in his time and now everyone has borrowed from to one degree or another. If you think that he is trite and cliche for terms like "double-think" or "new speak" keep in mind that this was pretty novel at the time. If you want to call him a hack, you might as well call Chaucer and Shakespear hacks for writing in London English like everyone else has been doing for nearly 700 years now (I wonder why...). A classic becomes a classic when the themes and ideas have been so throughly explored that they've become almost cliches and it takes a radical new angle on the story not to simply be a vulgarized retelling. Orwell seems to have hit that in your books, which all the more makes him a classic.
So yeah, Orwell hits some anvils. There may be reasons as well to adopt some of these things which he held in horror which may or may not be pretty justified over all. However, the call for governments to encourage open minded thought, have some decency and humanity towards their own people (and not merely treat us as numbers) and for people to be aware of how their own understandings of the world might be affected by the socio-political agenda of the ruling class, may appear to obvious to some but it's a lesson many still need. Not in the least the high-schoolers who this book his often recommended to (I read it around 16 and I'd say 14-24 would be a decent age range, with it being more of a light background read for the higher age demo in there)
29th Sep 14
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