When the clocks strike thirteen

1984In the local library today – this is progress – I had a look at Thomas Pynchon’s foreword to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It’s a great essay, written in 2003, and although so much has been written about Orwell’s masterpiece Pynchon has a couple of points worth thinking about.

Firstly: is Orwell’s concept of ‘doublethink’ really a bad thing? For as Pynchon argues:

This is nothing new, of course. We all do it. In social psychology it has long been known as ‘cognitive dissonance.’ Others like to call it ‘compartmentalization.’ Some, famously F Scott Fitzgerald, have considered it evidence of genius. For Walt Whitman (‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself’) it was being large and containing multitudes, for American aphorist Yogi Berra it was coming to a fork in the road and taking it, for Schrödinger’s cat, it was the quantum paradox of being alive and dead at the same time.

The idea seems to have presented Orwell with his own dilemma, a kind of meta-doublethink—repelling him with its limitless potential for harm, while at the same time fascinating him with its promise of a way to transcend opposites—as if some aberrant form of Zen Buddhism, whose fundamental koans are the three party slogans, ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Freedom is Slavery’ and ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ were being applied to evil purposes.

Another intriguing discussion point is the ‘happy ending theory’ also posited by Margaret Atwood. This rests on the existence of the Appendix that appears after the main body of the novel. I never saw the point of this coda – we understand the principles of Newspeak by now, and like the banned book Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, it is a large chunk of academic language whose ideas should be disseminated throughout the novel. Yet Atwood finds a different purpose:

However, the essay on Newspeak is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen, and that language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. Thus, it’s my view that Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he’s usually been given credit for.

It would be great to believe that, like the epilogue of Atwood’s own dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, this indeed points towards a post-Big Brother world. Yet the body of Atwood’s text is revealed (implausibly) to have been based on clandestine tape recordings made by the narrator. Is Nineteen Eighty-Four also a ‘found’ document? It seems unlikely, since O’Brien tells Winston that all traces of his existence will be destroyed (‘Posterity will never hear of you’). A reconstruction of the average life under totalitarianism?

Who knows. But it strikes me as important that Orwell insisted on putting the appendix in, even at massive financial cost. From Pynchon:

Back in 1948, this final section apparently bothered the American Book-of-the-Month Club enough for them to demand that it be cut, along with the chapters quoted from Emmanuel Goldstein’s book, as a condition of acceptance by the club. Though he stood to lose at least £40,000 in American sales, Orwell refused to make the changes[.]

I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four at fourteen. The power of it almost destroyed me. I’d wake up with its phrases on my lips. Everyone is told that fiction and politics don’t mix, but that was Orwell’s victory – he fused literature and politics. You don’t have to know much politics, or much literature, to be gripped by Nineteen Eighty-Four. That’s why Orwell matters and that’s why the book has provoked so much discussion.

Which I have little to add to, apart from the following points.

1) Language

Pynchon notes that ‘[t]here is a game some critics like to play in which one makes lists of what Orwell did and didn’t ‘get right.’… ‘Wow, the government has turned into Big Brother, just like Orwell predicted! Something, huh?’ ‘Orwellian, dude!” 

Orwell wasn’t a prophet and did not see himself as one but there is one feature of Nineteen Eighty-Four that is replicated in our world: language.

The Party’s official language, ‘Newspeak,’ aimed to replace English completely by 2050. Its vocabulary got smaller as the language was developed. Here is Winston’s friend Syme, a Newspeak philologist:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that.

The language of most official bodies and private businesses is arguably a version of Newspeak: hearing the same strategic buzzwords and buzzphrases from the police to local councils really does make you think that language has been harnessed as a means to narrow the range of thought. Revolutionary rhetoric segues seamlessly into this kind of business whalesong, as the journey of the 1980s Trotskyite far left to 2000s New Labour government showed. It’s not language as expression, it is language as signalling: progress in organisations depends on how well we learn the right script. Winston terms it ‘duckspeak’:

Whatever it was, you could be certain that every word of it was pure orthodoxy, pure INGSOC. As he watched the eyeless face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.

2) The power of mediocrity

Pynchon touches on this – briefly.

From the opening, with its cold plunge directly into the grim April day of Winston Smith’s decisive act of disobedience, the textures of dystopian life are unremitting—the uncooperative plumbing, the cigarettes that keep losing their tobacco, the horrible food—though perhaps this was not such an imaginative stretch for anyone who’d had to undergo wartime shortages.

The word totalitarianism conjures up great twinkling machines, everything polished and sanitised and frightening in its efficiency. Many forgotten dystopian writers have portrayed totalitarian societies in exactly this way. Orwell is remembered because he portrayed totalitarianism in all its incompetent, frustrating, haphazard, cloying, miserable reality. Here Winston ponders the contradictions:

The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering—a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons—a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting—three hundred million people all with the same face. The reality was decaying, dingy cities where underfed people shuffled to and fro in leaky shoes, in patched-up nineteenth-century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories. He seemed to see a vision of London, vast and ruinous, city of a million dustbins, and mixed up with it was a picture of Mrs Parsons, a woman with lined face and wispy hair, fiddling helplessly with a blocked waste-pipe.

For the contemporary reader, the images of Oceania’s late and crowded trains, its houses falling apart, its eternal shortages of razors and cigarettes, its Victory Gin, all this will provoke the response: ‘Yes! Tell me about it!’ This reader might not be so convinced by Brave New World. By bringing us down to earth Orwell terrifies us. This is recognisably England: and fascism could happen here.

Winston also observes that while the Party’s physical models are ‘tall muscular youths and deep-bosomed maidens’ the people who actually do well in Oceania tend to be ‘little dumpy men, growing stout very early in life, with short legs, swift scuttling movements, and fat inscrutable faces with very small eyes.’ O’Brien says that when the Party’s work is complete ‘there will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness.’

The Party is fighting a war on beauty: it wants to abolish literature and the orgasm. Dreams and ideals and perspective – the qualities in humankind that bring about change – are killed, daily, by the routine ordeals of harsh weather and disintegrating clothes and unsmokeable cigarettes. Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil. Orwell’s genius was in exposing the evil of banality.

3) Faith and power

Pynchon says that Orwell missed the boat on religious terrorism: he ‘did not foresee such exotic developments as the religious wars with which we have become all too familiar, involving various sorts of fundamentalism.’

I’d argue though that religious elements are present in Oceanic society. The supreme being of Big Brother, who is apparently immortal (‘How could he die?’ O’Brien snorts) the demonic figure of Goldstein, the subservience of the individual to the organisation, the surveillance of human thoughts, emotions and dreams, the fact that one is never truly alone… Sound familiar? Anyone?

Explaining the ultimate motive behind the Party’s rule, O’Brien claims that ‘God is power. We are the priests of power.’ It’s then that we discover the true nature of totalitarianism: it’s not that the ends have become corrupted by the means, the means are the ends.

The Party doesn’t want power for ideals or pleasure or wealth, but entirely for its own sake. It’s a cult of purity based around the purity of power. And this also explains one of Winston’s lesser-known lines: ‘I hate purity, I hate goodness. I don’t want a virgin to exist anywhere. I want everyone corrupted.’

Still, to paraphrase Hitchens: at least you can fucking die and leave Airstrip One. Or as Winston put it: ‘To die hating them, that was freedom.’


2 Responses to “When the clocks strike thirteen”

  1. Lauri Shaw Says:

    Excellent essay about a true classic. “Orwell’s genius was in exposing the evil of banality.”

    Yes. Yes, indeed.

  2. Classic Books: The Handmaid’s Tale « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] and remote that I doubt any contemporary reader can take it seriously. The dictators of Nineteen Eighty-Four generously provide Winston Smith with a book that explains the dictatorship in its entire theory […]

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