The savage satire of `1984' still speaks to us today
All that Orwell left out from this bleak view of what keeps the workers happy was television
Tuesday 08 June 1999
Does Nineteen Eighty-Four still speak to us? We got through the year, didn't we? But that is not the point. It was not a prophecy, though many think it was. Nineteen Eighty-Four is part sardonic, part savage Swiftian satire. Some of the themes of the satire take their main meaning from the context of the immediate post-war world. But others still speak to us directly.
Many people read the book far too literally. That is why I invoke Swift. For neither Swift nor his readers believed that there were giants in Brobdingnag, but that mankind can be brutal and the great may not notice when they tread on the small.
Orwell said that his book was a satire - a warning certainly, but in the form of satire. When Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, he read the American reviews in his last bed. Many of them took the work literally, as if "Ingsoc" represented Attlee's socialism as well as Stalin's, and thought that the writer had deserted socialism. He replied to an American trade unionist, worried at the tone of the initial American reviews, with a press release: "I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will necessarily arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive." In the same letter he calls it "a show" of the "perversions to which a centralised economy is liable and which have already been partly realisable in communism and fascism".
One could put them differently, but I see seven main satiric thrusts: the division of the world by the super states; the mass media as an agent of "prolerisation"; power-hunger in general and totalitarianism in particular; the betrayal by the intellectuals; the abuse and degradation of languages for purposes of control; the rewriting of history for political purposes; and the theses of James Burnam (who believed that the social systems of the seemingly totally antagonistic USA and USSR would come to converge in an authoritarian techno-managerial capitalism - perhaps like China today?).
Certainly it is not "just" a satire of communism. The details of imaginary Oceania (of which we were Air Strip 1) simply do not fit Stalinism; they are an infernal and deliberation conflation of communism and Nazism. But a reader is pretty thick if he or she reads it simply as a satire of the Soviet Union. "Consider also the beam that is in thine own eye." The political propaganda of the regime seems to be only aimed at the party, while the proles are treated very differently.
Consider Julia's job, and also the fate of The Times in the book - still to perform its old, pre-Murdoch pompous role of official mouthpiece. Julia's section of Minitrue produces cheap porn for the proles, using machines that manufacture novels; and the party newspaper, which cannot be trusted, still needs human agents although in a mechanised way. Above all, consider that 85 per cent of such a model totalitarian state are, we are told, proles.
They are left outside the systematic use of propaganda, surveillance and terror; they are controlled instead by deliberate corruption and debasement. The proles are allowed their petty quarrels, their crime, their drugs, their pornography, their "rubbishy newspapers", gambling, beer and sadistic war films. All these are named.
All that Orwell left out from this bleak and savagely caricatured view of what kept his (our?) working-class politically ineffective was television. He dreaded its growth, but in the novel it figures only as a surveillance device within the party. Proles are seen as so debased that they don't need much watching.
In reality, of course, television now fulfils exactly the same role that Orwell attributed to the popular press. So part of the satire is not about totalitarianism at all, but is a bitter rage that the democratic franchise, mass literacy, and compulsory education had resulted not in an educated and active citizenry but rather in a semi-inert mass society of subjects feeding off very low level, sub-literary, thought-deadening products. "Dumbing down" puts it in a more cuddly way. Julia, it will be recalled, quite liked her work. "But she was not interested in the final product. She didn't care much for reading," she said. "Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces."
Below Julia's floor "there was a whole range of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, and entertainment. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, films oozing with sex and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope called a versificator." Now, intellectuals try to ignore the popular press, because it is vicious and bites its critics; but occasionally an Orwell portrays it as it is.
But today we should celebrate Orwell for more than his book. Orwell the critic, the libertarian, the egalitarian, above all the essayist and the sardonic humanist. Anthony Burgess called Nineteen Eighty-Four "a comic novel". That goes over the top. But think on it - black humour more than prophecy perhaps. Above all, praise him and regret his absence as the last serious writer, since Dickens and HG Wells, who could reach the common reader - that vanishing class whose only university was the free public library.
The writer is a Fellow of Birkbeck College, London, and author of `George Orwell: a Life'
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