FOR SOME reason, one that I’m still not quite so clear about, I had an urge this weekend to pick up and power-read George Orwell’s 1984. I finished up sometime near midnight — or near twenty-four, to use a device from the book. And since it was quite late the narrative entered my dreams.
Some of my reasoning for entering the text at this moment might have to do with a confluence of conversational topics swarming about of late (“War is Peace”), internet memes (“Facebook is the telescreen”) and the like. And too, 1984 is sort of a benchmark for me. It was one of “those years” when I was to walk through a door into the free world and transform into something closely resembling an adult.
I’ve always been fascinated with how the past conceived the future — yesterday’s tomorrow‘s, as it were. Back when I worked in a bookstore — right around that very year — there was big picture book that I’d hunker down with and flip leisurely through. Futurists imagining our late 20th/21st Century lives. Orwell’s late 20th Century, of course, wasn’t optimistic, but does indeed feel eerily prescient and therefore alarmingly unheeded 30 years gone.
Poor Winston Smith, citizen of Oceania, an employee of the Ministry of Truth, spends his days airbrushing the present and the past, sending the the “truth” down the “memory hole” to be incinerated. Haunted by what he too has been implicated in, he pours over the hidden history about Oceania’s on-going war with Eurasia trying to gather some sense of clarity:
The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. but though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs. War, it will be seen, i a purely internal affair . . . . In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep thte structure of society in tact.”
And so, as the plot thickens, three-quarters of the way through, Winston’s reality pulls into focus: Oceania as a society distracted by faux news, high-octaine alcohol and is run by a government that mutes real-world tragedies and danger — truth is “classified.”
Of course it’s a mirror. All of this is potent, particularly now as we seem to live on a diet of distraction and obfuscation. I think about this more and more as I’ve been grading student papers — their pieces of journalism. Not all, but some are studded with of idiosyncratic placement of capital letters (california is Awesome) — a feature of Newspeak, strange leaps at geographical location, “Next year, he will be traveling to Afghanistan, Iraq to film the music video.) — conflation a tenet of Newspeak as well. Or pop-culture placeholders standing in for their own ideas “The eggs are cold . . . . the Jell-O’s jigging.” I suppose, themselves, slogans. If you can’t communicate with clarity — if you don’t even know what it is you think — where does that leave you? We’re held together by language and our memories — our sense of our place in the world. The manner in which we express ideas, facts and impressions make us who we are. The past and present are the foundation of the future, but what if we don’t know either?
Revolution, Orwell underscores, does begin with language, rhetoric and its power to sway us emotionally. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” Controlling that language: it’s verbs and adjectives it’s nouns — controls its power and breadth and possibility — and so too it’s people.
Remember, says Winston’s co-worker Symes, shortly before he is disappeared: “The revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”
War is Peace
Slavery is Freedom
Ignorance is Strength
I ended up at the movies today (rare treat) where I saw Fair Game with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn as ex-CIA-operative, Valerie Plame and ex-U.S. ambassador, Joe Wilson, respectively. The timing too, was eerie, with Orwell’s Newspeak still in my head. Talk of WMD’s and top-down control of the official government narrative and the like — it was most likely much more effective for me because of the larger context.