Reviews: Nineteen Eighty Four
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.
I liked it, but something was missing.
I managed to read the book blind, without any spoilers. And I liked it. I won't say it was an enjoyable read, because it wasn't, but that's to be expected of the genre. To cover the two minor quibbles I have first: the pacing. The plot just seemed to drag on and on until suddenly everything happened at once, and at the end of the book I was left checking if I had somehow missed several chapters or so. I don't mean the essay in the middle of the book. I mean that the first two-thirds of it just seem to be nothing but description of the world, interspersed with Winston and Julia's affair. Which was a little disappointing, because while world-building is fine, there wasn't exactly a huge world to build. It's a poverty-stricken dystopia where everyone is watched by the Party. Everything else is just details. I'd much rather have read about how the Inner Party works, or the lives of the supposedly free proles, but we don't see it apart from vague observations by Winston. The second quibble is that it's a hard book to finish. It gives me no reason to finish. It becomes quite clear pretty early on that Winston and Julia are not going to succeed in their rebellion, and since that's the force driving the plot, why continue? The major problem I have with the book is that I couldn't understand what its message was. I mean, I understand that totalitarianism is bad in all forms, but that's hardly a message I needed to be told. I asked a few people and I tended to get one main answer, and it's very unsatisfying to me. Most people said that Orwell wanted us to recognize the signs of totalitarianism when we saw them. Except that he doesn't tell us what those signs are. The book is irritatingly vague on the origins of the Party. I get that the vagueness is supposed to be part of the "this could happen anywhere, under any philosophy" idea, but if he really wanted us to know when Big Brother was coming, he could at least tell us what his car looks like. I already understand that government control tends to be a slippery slope. I didn't need a depressing Shaggy Dog Story to tell me it again. So I'm left slightly confused as to exactly what, if anything, Orwell wanted us to know. I certainly learnt a lot about how to run a dictatorship, but not how to stop it, and Orwell seems to claim it can't be stopped. What did I miss?
A pathetic, ultra-nihilistic work slightly more subtle than a Saturday Morning Cartoon
As the book points out, Nazis and the USSR at least had realistic inner reasonings: notions of highly twisted utopias. The Party? It's not that they care about power only - power hunger is such an omnipresent trait that not even most idealists bother to deny that. But here's the thing: power hunger has limits. A politician feels empowered by the control s/he has over the populace, but most politicians stop there. It's not because of limitations to their "creativity", but because most people simply don't feel like torture and manipulation are worth wasting their time on. They'd rather preffer to abuse their authorithy in self-indulgence: catering to their greed and/or lust, spreading their philosophy, you name it. There are people who like to do what the Party does, but they aren't politicians nor any sort of master minds. They're petty run of the mill sadists who can never rise to power not even in the most insane possible environment because psychopathy = "dumb", for the lack of a better term. Studies show that emotions directly correlate to decision making, and as proven again and again, people who can only feel sadism or anger are not manipulator material, as they blow their cover very easily. For the idea of a bunch of self aware Saturday morning supervillains to seize control, everyone on the face of the planet would have to be several magnitudes more idiotic than the most stupid jellyfish that has ever existed. The people the Party is based on, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Salazar, et cetera, they were power hungry, but it was a secondary concern. They killed millions, but they deluded themselves to be the pinacle of moral perfection, and that their actions were probably for the best anyways. They were very monstruous, but they weren't cartoony caricatures that think that Bad Is Good And Good Is Bad. They had human traits, and their atrocities relied on causing death rather than setting people up to torture into being puppets. Their direct followers lived in fear, but to this day several areas in Russia still declare Stalin to be a hero (especially the church. Srsly, National Geographic even made an article about that). Bottom line, this doesn't work because it demands the reader to be misanthropic as all hell, as well as rejecting all forms of logic. This doesn't mean Big Brother won't exist, but it means the Ministry of Love won't.
Hold on now. Its not what you think.
To me, this work is not really about which type of government is the worst. That used to be my read of it. I see this as being a statement on how far we can go with our technology and how those means may make us overshoot our end. Consider that any and all past governments had one check on their power, no matter how tyrannical they were they didn't have the means to completely enforce their will, which is part of why revolutions were even possible. The king's men were generally not omnipresent, records were not universally kept and accountability was hard to accomplish. A private citizen was more accountable to the village than to the king. Orwell took what was then either modern technology or at least imaginable technology, telescreens (broadcast television was new), helicopters, language as a thought shaping tool, and microphones (I can only imagine how frightening the polygraph must have been). It was these things along relatively current political theory that enabled the regime of Big Brother. This was a story about how the tools mankind was always clambering to improve upon enabled us to do something terrifying, and considering when he wrote it, nobody could blame him, with Hiroshima having only been a few years earlier. And that part remains true. With drones, satellites, databases, and technology like the Kinect, and the ability to access smartphone mics and camera's, the means for ever present government are ever more available. And with increasingly powerful and efficient weapons, trained combatants, riot gear, and a military that has been increasingly trained for urban warfare, lets face it, we couldn't rebel if we suddenly were to find ourselves under a regime we needed to rebel against. The most frightening part is how far the regime is willing to go to achieve order, shaping and conditioning the very thoughts of it's citizens. It doesn't matter exactly how they do it, it matters that they somehow became willing to do it because if it is possible to do, we will eventually discover the means, and indeed we are already pretty good at conditioning, chemical mood altering, aggregate behavior (economics, sociology, marketing, public relations), mind reading (brain scan based controller, brain scan based lie detection that beats the polygraph). If Hitler or Stalin had access to these means, they certainly would have used them.
A Masterful Work of Societal Horror
Nineteen Eighty Four is a great societal horror book, and George Orwell is a pivotal Trope Codifier for the genre. The goals of societal horror are to present a plausible extrapolation of the world as it could be that stirs up dread and terror. Orwell postulates a fascist United Kingdom ostensibly under the rule of a greater regime that takes up the whole of the Anglosophere, where the impoverished masses are living in the rubble of an intentionally perpetual war. The main 'monster' of this book are the members of the Party collectively, who wish to maintain and revel in their power by whatever means they deem necessary. What makes Nineteen Eighty Four terrifying is that the Party members are not individual sadists or slashers of Psychological Horror, who could only target so many people, and they are not the demons, ghosts, vampires, zombies or aliens of Gothic Horror, Religious Horror and Cosmic Horror respectively, which all are of dubious veracity. The Party is an inescapable threat that is also parsimonious: all of the elements needed for the Party to arise in real life are known (they have even been made reality in nations like North Korea) and if such a threat does arise on the scale described in this work, it would be to the detriment of almost everyone. This is why the world's geography and the societal pyramid are important; not only because they're interesting ways to develop a Constructed World, but they emphasize who no one is safe from at least one of these fascist super states. The inescapable nature of these regimes is one of the prevailing themes of the book, in that the hope that they will fall is also slowly and deliberately squelched by the Party to Winston and the audience. On that point, Winston functions more like a device for the audience to project themselves onto, which is justified in that the work's pathos is being developed more through horror than drama. The flaw is perhaps that it's not as plausible as it could be, which is the key advantage that societal horror has over other forms in scaring the audience, but the presentation of the world is visceral enough to languish in the imaginations of most reader and fill them with a dread of fascism, and more broadly, a horrified and somber respect for the cruelties that people can inflict upon one another.
Anti-communism masked as alleged "anti-totalitarianism"
The term "totalitarianism" was a Cold War creation to compare Communism to Nazism, which is pure and simple bashing. Orwell's 1984 is a perfect example of this kind of propaganda. The book, praised beyond any objective quality, merely repeats stereotypes that would later make the fortune of Robert Conquest and similar alleged "historians". The worst part is, the author presents his view as the true Socialist one. But this is just Trotskyism and revisionism. It's rather easy to see what lies behind the curtain: "doublethink" is a sick, twisted parody of dialectical materialism, the description of the Party doesn't show any kind of actual analysis and is just a pile of gratuitously anvilicious Complete Monster traits, Goldstein's section is nothing but an extremely heavy Author Filibuster moment to expose loads and loads of Trotskyist / Social Democratic propaganda. As a Marxist-Leninist, I find this book utterly revolting and despicable. However, I must admit that it completely succeeds in its main target: to spread every possible lie about the Eastern Bloc and the men who carried on the results of the October Revolution, under the pretense of an "universal message of freedom" that is just imperialistic trash. It succeeds so well that most people believe this is a valid document to judge Soviet Union. What's next, Jurassic Park used as biology documentation in universities?
Not really sure if it works.
There's not much I can criticize regarding the novel in and of itself; the writing is flawless, as is the actual story. The problems I have are with the underlying implications. My first problem is that I guess the moral is along the lines of, "If we allow totalitarianism, we get this shit, so don't let it happen," but this work didn't inspire or invigorate me at all, partly because George Orwell took apart and shattered what may well have been his own goddamn beliefs. I don't mind a good Downer Ending, and I know precious little about Orwell as a person, but Winston Smith seemed to be a bit of a mouthpiece for his own opinions regarding totalitarianism, a character the reader was supposed to take a lesson from and listen to. Then he got broken and absorbed by the evil mass. So, there's no point in being like him and fighting against totalitarianism, because we're all self-centered bastards deep down and it will always win? Animal Farm didn't end too happily either, but at least there the message seemed clearer. Revolutions usually end up in a vicious cycle, repeating the patterns of their opressors, undoing their own good work and betraying their original intentions. That's significant. In Nineteen Eighty Four, on the other hand, it's as if Orwell disagreed with his own values, crushing them and their vessel in a bizarre attempt to drive people to action by shooting their hopes down. My second problem is that I'm not convinced totalitarianism is something a society or individual can consciously "avoid" or "prevent". It's not as if the Bolsheviks and the masses who supported them were cackling wickedly in 1917 that everything was going according to plan, that in a few years they'd have Stalin. It's not as if the Germans said to themselves, "Hey, let's put the Nazis in power so we can get a repressive military dictatorship and a Holocaust!" Society will follow the course it thinks is best; hindsight is 20/20. We can read 1984 and think, "Yeah, we'll never let this happen!", but those under the Weimar Republic and Nikolai II probably would have used it as toilet paper. If things get bad enough, so will we. Who needs liberty when you can have stability? Short version: I think this book shoots its own message, and any lessons garnered from it will be forgotten under the right circumstances.
This book is just very silly. I honestly can't take it seriously because... well, the Party is a bunch of Dastardly Whiplash one dimensional Villain Sue, who always win because the plot say so. Seriously, the entire thing is as realistic as the Never Ending Story, only the later had a more beliavable internal structure and economic work. 1984 is the Poster boy of Dystopia Is Hard and the bad dreams of a Socialist fearing Author. Is broken, badly managed and just plain wrong. Goodness, at least in Equilibrium show an actually form of Control, how does (somewhat) work and show that in the end is as fragil as a towers of cards in the Middle of a Hurricane. And it was still silly nonsensical blandness (but highly entertaining) My sense of Disbelief is just not enough to swallow this nonsense. And no, is not like North Korea or Russia Stalin. While those parts are/where very brutal, they have neither the level of control and power that the Party supposed possesd and they have so.. much... trouble that it was not funny and are, as of know/where, only surviving by the tips of their fingers All in all... meh. It was like reading a 1900 story of how we where going to land to the Moon. The fact that this is show as example Humans Are Bastards is kind of like an Emo Wangst of "Suburbian Kid, my life is hell" kind of seriousness. Read it, but don't take it serioulsy.
The Warning and the Place in History
1984 found itself a position of the most notable: litrature critics observing this book and Animal Farm will note the similar styles of how both the former's Oceania and the titled farm of the later. Let while Animal Farm was the demonstration of the rise to power of Stalin's expy as done in a very grand style, 1984 is the demonstration of those living under such toterian rule lived... done also in a very grand style. The book's influence served as a warning, with critics of the US goverment noting links with the military missions of the US Defence Spending and the Ministury of Peace, while fear of a rising totalism of the USSR remained. Even today after the passing of the USSR, North Korea shows itself to been styled after this book's nature and CCTV does leave worry for some. That is the influence and waring of the book. Now... is its place in history worthy? The book is told through the eyes of Winston Smith. This is not only in contrast with a general third person narrative of Animal Farm but also demonstrates the difference of story: 1984 is from experience of living under a toterain dictatorship. The pacing allows understanding, the use of teleescreans are a very scary Harsher In Hindsight and the ending secrence is one of the most visual observations of how far a power based system would go in dehumanising its own people. The ending (which I guess even those who have not read the book are aware of) has proven itself with the brainwashing occuring in the Korean War and the current nature of the North Korean dictatorship. That said the book does have some things that may not be for all. The pacing is good and gentle but may turn off some. The world being a contest between 3 evil forces may prove itself unreal and rather a producer of apathy for the reader, though keep in mind this was written in the Cold War where the world looked like it was going to be doomed in one way or another. Fianlly the message of Animal Farm (that dictatorships are bad and exstreams leads to evil actions) may seem to be repeated in this. That said the work pacing is well enough and characturs are well done, even the vile nature of the Party has a shocking elerment to it. However attention must be bought to the ending: after thee ending what appears to be a observation of a PAST New Speak is shown: sign that the dicatorship fall or what? Confusses even critics!
Dystopia and Utopia: An Odd Fixation
I enjoyed 1984. It was an interesting view of Orwell's own view about how shitty this world and the people in it can become. I just don't find it realistic, like every other great work on perfect or purely horrible societies. Humans are just too damn selfish. Most people think this is bad, but it's also the reason why we work together. We always want something better, so we will always find a way too work together and get in each others way in the process. This why we can't ever have a Utopia or Dystopia for long, at least until we change our base nature. Sure, the inner party thinks that nothing can ever go wrong with their system, that taking out all the possibilities they think can break it will keep their dystopic nightmare of a society going forever. They'll eventually be proven wrong. Some tiny crack in their system due to all to common human error, missing just one little prole that decides "enough is enough", and their foot on humanities face gets chopped off and the beaten down man decides too have some thorough payback. So in conclusion, while I did enjoy Orwell's writing skills in giving a sense of dread in me that few other writers can ever attain, any writer who thinks their view point could be absolutely correct (Like Orwell's "Perfect" Dystopia) in realities infinite variance can thoroughly go fuck themselves.