Eric Arthur Blair was one of England’s finest authors and journalists, but sometimes, reading other people miserably fail to understand what he was on about makes me want to slit my own throat. Beginning in 1933 with Down And Out In Paris And London, under the pseudonym George Orwell, Blair has written half a dozen each works of fiction and non-fiction (this is just counting the ones published in book form) that form evidence that the English language does justify its existence.
But sometimes, when the discussion of language comes up, I find myself deeply dismayed at having to explain to people what his final piece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was really about.
If you are particularly stupid, you have bought into the hype that Nineteen Eighty-Four is about a super-survelliance state in which every move you make is watched and scrutinised until you begin to see secret police in your soup. Funny then, that during the novel, Orwell mentions surveillance very rarely, and always in passing, as if it is a mere fact of life not really worthy of deep mention or consideration.
But Orwell really goes into detail about two things, both of great importance to the culture of Oceania. One is the construction of media. Whilst every poster of Big Brother is contrived to make the viewer feel as if his eyes are constantly following them, the picture shows that make up a large part of Winston’s leisure activities show something very different. The Two Minutes Hate is literally nothing but a build-up of raw emotions against the embodiment of the Party’s enemies until Big Brother is shown coming to save them.
This is for a reason. Big Brother is the Jesus of the Party, and the Party feels that intense, powerful emotions are dangerous if they are directed at anyone other than Big Brother. In the final third of the novel we are even told that the Party’s scientists are working on abolishing the orgasm. No, I am not making that up. The Party wants to control peoples’ emotions as well as thoughts. And the Party is especially concerned with how both are expressed.
Early on in the novel, we are slowly informed that the Party has created a language based on what we today call English. What we today call English is renamed Oldspeak, and the new language is known as Newspeak. After the end of the novel, Orwell devotes a good twenty pages to explaining the workings of the language. It is possible for crude heresies to be uttered in Newspeak, of course. All mans are equal will still make some kind of sense in the language, but not the kind the utterer wants because the secondary political meaning has been purged out of the word “equal”. Similarly, it is possible to say things like Big Brother is ungood. But the sentiment and idea behind these words cannot be sustained by reasoned argument because the words are no longer available.
It is not a coincidence that the novel’s focal point, a middle-aged man named Winston, works in what is called the Ministry Of Truth. The Ministry Of Truth has a very powerful purpose in the world of Oceania. Day in, day out, its employees sit in cubicles and, in Winston’s case, alter newspaper stories to fit with what the Party deems the current version of the truth. I do not correctly recall all of the complex order Winston gets in one work day, but the phrases “doubleplusungood” (double plus ungood) and “refs unpersons” occur. In other words, “the prior version of this story you wrote for us is highly unsatisfactory and makes references to non-existent persons”.
Read those Newspeak phrases aloud, then read my translation at the end of the paragraph. If you have noticed that the two Newspeak phrases stimulate little activity or thought from your brain, then congratulations, you have figured out the reason why Newspeak was created. All words are deliberately designed to stimulate as little conscious mental activity as is possible, and all phrasings are designed to elicit no ideas that are not in keeping with Party ideology.
We like to think of English as an oh-so-modern and progressive language, but you will never find a word in English that has the opposite meaning of “slut”. That is, a word that celebrates and embraces a woman who embraces her sexuality. Thousands of years of Jewish and Christian hatred and oppression of women have resulted in this word having never come into existence.
Nor is the culture that Orwell grew up or lived in particularly conducive to the fear of the surveillance state that people believe he wrote about. Although the televisions in Nineteen Eighty-Four are capable of transmitting in both directions, there is no evidence that Orwell remotely believed this was even possible. Although television prototypes and prototypical systems or concepts date back as far as 1878, and the first televisions based on Cathode Ray Tubes date back to the late 1920s, regular commercial television network programming did not occur until 1948. And that was in America.
(In those times, a camera that could record twenty-four images of high resolution in one second was so large that it needed wheels, platforms, and miniature train tracks to move about. Cameras that can fit in a display device, and still transmit poor-quality, poor-movement-rendering images I might add, are a very recent thing by comparison.)
Orwell had a great sense of humour. He knew that telling someone they had to laugh now was ineffective, and that trusting your audience to know when to laugh was its own reward. Hence a moment in which Orwell/Winston explain to the reader that even one’s facial expression was monitored for heresy, and that there was a Newspeak word for not having the right expression at the right time. If you looked incredulous whilst a victory was being announced, you were hauled away for Facecrime.
Since Oceania and the Party have a thing about being economical with the actual truth, there is a lot of riveting dialogue during the final part of the story about whether Big Brother actually exists. This is a great parallel to our world. In one rare moment of bravery, when Winston is allowed to ask questions, he asks if Big Brother exists. He is told of course Big Brother exists, because he is the embodiment of the party. So Winston clarifies that he means does Big Brother exist in the same sense that he exists. He is told in a patronising manner that he does not exist.
Winston’s response is classically Orwellian. He decides to say fukk the needle for a second and challenge what he has just been told. He says that he thinks he exists in the sense that he occupies a physical space that nobody else can exist in at the same time. In that sense, he asks, does Big Brother exist?
The question is never answered. Whether the enemy, the heretic that the Two Minutes Hate and his own organisation dedicated to bringing down the party, exists is never answered. Winston is explicitly told that he could live to be a hundred years old and he will never actually know if the Brotherhood, as it is called, exists.
There is no real evidence that Jesus, the man depicted in the New Testament, actually existed, either. The fact that numerous volumes of histories that did not fit Christian worldviews elegantly were destroyed suggests that he did not, but this is just an aside to highlight how pertinent Orwell‘s last novel remains today.
The conversations that Winston engages in during the novel’s final act also suggest that he has been monitored by the state for many years before the novel is set. At one point, a moment in which a photograph is seemingly mistakenly sent to Winston demonstrates the Party’s control of its people. The photograph in question pertains to a story Winston fact-checked (that is, changed to suit the Party-line of that time). The version of the story Winston had recently entered into the record had three “traitors” meeting with the enemy to conspire with said enemy. But the photograph conclusively demonstrates that these three men were in the land of the State that Oceania was allied with at the time (in the novel, there are no real nations, just three super-states called Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia).
During the final act, when Winston is being tortured in order to bring him in line with Party thinking, he is shown another copy of the photograph.
Whether the photograph was put into his possession simply to set him up, or if it genuinely was a mistake that he obtained it, is never addressed. Much like whether the Brotherhood exists or not, Winston never knows one way or the other. And since Winston is the audience’s window into this horrible world, neither does the audience.
At one point, the question of why the State is going to all of this effort, to torture and brutalise Winston, is raised. Winston’s guess is that it is to make him confess. To punish him. Or something like that. But the interrogator reveals yet another truth far worse than anything Winston or the audience can imagine. To cure him, to make him sane again, as said interrogator puts it. To the Party, any thought not in keeping with their worldview is automatically an illness that must be cured.
(Does this remind you of anybody?)
During the first act of the novel, Winston writes in his diary, “to die hating them, that was freedom”. The Party goes out of its way to deny him that freedom. Not content to torture him until he will say just about anything to make it stop, his interrogator tells him at one point that it is not enough that he hates Big Brother. He must “love him”.
There are a number of beliefs that people in multiple places react with outright fear and hostility to. Muslims seem bewildered that we do not want them around when their more fanatical representatives proclaim we should be beheaded for any insult to them, real or imagined. Defenders of the Liberal In Name Only party here find it very odd indeed that people who are left to live in their own filth for the majority of each week give not two fukks whether the country’s budget is in surplus. And on it goes.
You do not change a person’s thoughts by sticking a camera in their face. In fact, there are certain types who call themselves celebrities, but should be regarded as paid narcissists, whose thoughts seem to grow uglier the closer the camera gets.
At any given time, people have at least one strong thought in their heads. Show me how others are treating a person, and I will tell you what that person is thinking. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that George Orwell knew this very principle.
I also doubt not that Orwell knew the Carter G. Woodson quote, “If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions”. Another example of how the Party takes this to heart is in the Proles mentioned repeatedly in the novel. Winston writes of them that they are unable to become conscious until after they have rebelled, and until they become conscious they cannot rebel. But it goes much further than that.
The small glimpse into the lives of proles that Nineteen Eighty-Four offers are both sad and quite revealing. They are numerous, estimated by Winston to comprise literally eighty-five percent of the population. A number that is more or less confirmed later in the novel. The exact number is not important. Suffice to say that the Party is outnumbered quite a lot.
Arguments ensue about winning lottery numbers. Winston knows, being an official in the Ministry Of Truth, that the numbers are set up by the Ministry to match non-existent entrants. It is effectively one big ruse to keep the Proles talking about something other than rebelling. On top of this, regular patrols of the Party, clandestine ones, go through the Proles and eliminate any Michael Collins types they find long before said Collins types can even think of becoming a threat.
Perhaps the biggest and most bewildering thing about the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that whilst intelligence is the prime requisite of being able to lead an overthrow of the Party, it is the Inner Party that has the most abundant supply of it. The Inner Party is essentially the elite of Oceania, the people who dictate policy and have all of the privilege. What is interesting is that what privilege the Inner Party does have, or at least what Winston observes them having, is very minimal and quite possibly all for show.
Whether wealth causes intelligence or vice versa has long been a point of bitter debate between conservatives and liberals. But the evidence of experience is in favour of the assertion that wealth nurtures intelligence. When a person is less worried about where their next meal is coming from, they have more time to learn mentally-stimulating things like calculus or abstract painting.
The squalor in which all Oceania citizens live, even those of the Inner Party (even if it is relative) is therefore deliberate in nature. Whomever controls the Party does not want even the Inner Party to be thinking things that do not promote the Party’s goals.
I am not joking when I say that if you took all of the content in Nineteen Eighty-Four that deals with surveillance or implies it being used, and made it a document of its own, it would not even qualify as a short story. But if you cut it out of Nineteen Eighty-Four and left just the political/communication content, you would almost have the exact same document.
Surveillance-centric folk have even less space to breathe when Orwell‘s other works are looked at. The man did not just write about fictional politics in future worlds that he envisioned. He lived and breathed social mores and customs like he was a Man From Mars. In A Clergyman’s Daughter, he even effectively demonstrates how a person can revert to what they know after experiencing an entire new world.
We live in a time where our language is undergoing more modification, more conscious modification, than ever before. And it is not a positive type of modification. We are not only being told how we can refer to others, but even how we are to refer to ourselves.
Orwell warned us about the present sixty-four years in advance. His final novel warned us that people would want us to refer to our most indelible characteristics as separate and therefore removable. His final novel warned us that people would start telling us words mean different things to what they really do.
Small wonder, then, that the political correctness brigades would so badly want to obfuscate his message.