Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: George Orwell's 1984

Though most people today have no fear of left-wing totalitarianism, and though many people alive today were born so recently that they cannot remember anything about the history of the Soviet Union (which doesn’t appear to be taught in schools at all either), 1984 is still a fascinating book in many ways. 1984 is a novel that takes place in what, in Orwell’s time, was the future. George Orwell wrote the book around 1948. But part of the point of the book is that the main character doesn’t even know that the year is actually 1984.

Winston Smith, the central character of 1984, lives in one of the three totalitarian societies that together cover the entire globe in the hypothetical year of the novel. In this society, there are three classes: the proletariat, the party, and the inner party. The inner party uses the face of “big brother” as its ubiquitous symbol. In all probability, big brother is not even a living human being. Instead, he is an invention of the party. The state in 1984 has complete and utter control over the lives of party members and inner party members. It pays little attention to the lives of the proletariat, but nevertheless dominates them as well. The party meticulously trains their members from childhood upward to be ruthless informers and to police their own minds through techniques of thought discipline. This thought discipline is aimed at eliminating all unorthodox thoughts that are in any way contrary to the doctrine, ideas, facts, and teachings of the party. But I must use the word “facts” loosely because one of the main points of 1984 is that the party has created a society in which they treat all facts as mutable. The party also seeks to facilitate this by creating a new language in which all unorthodox thoughts are essentially impossible because the words necessary to formulate them - like “right,” “liberty,” or “justice” - are no longer part of anyone’s vocabulary.

The party uses not only constant propaganda and intrusive monitoring, but also insidiously clever undercover operations and meticulous torture to force all party members into complete and utter submission. Big brother wants not only physical obedience, but the souls of his captives.

The idea of the mutability of history, of current events, and of reality itself is extremely post-modern. It’s interesting that Orwell had such a post-modern vision of the future as early as 1948. The pieces were already all there, but no one was putting them together in quite the way Orwell has. 1984’s post-modern vision is also curious because of the idea of the immutability of history. The party in 1984 is able to collect all books, papers, newspapers, magazines and documents that contain information that they wish to change, and to destroy those old documents and replace them with new ones that contain only what the party wants people to know or believe. The old Soviet Union actually tried to do this. There is a remarkable book called the The Commissar Vanishes that shows sequential picture modification in the old Soviet Union. First a picture will appear with both Lenin and Trotsky, then in a subsequent release of the same picture, Trotsky will disappear, and then in yet a later incarnation of the picture, Stalin will be standing next to Lenin, then Stalin will disappear and a young Nikita Khrushchev will be standing next to Lenin when he could not possibly have been there at all. This sort of attempt to manipulate reality was common in Soviet Russia even though the Russians could not obliterate existing documents to the contrary of the party’s new legends. Today we need not fear this in our own day because there is such a proliferation of documentary sources about the past. But I suppose that with the digitalization of information and the rotting of so many books that were printed on acidic paper, an attempt by government to change perceptions of history is certainly a real threat. We already have an academy full of revisionist historians who sometimes discover unknown truths about the past but who just as often perpetuate new fictions about a past that never really was. It has almost always been popular in modern times to discount historical accounts of people who were close to events when often those are the best accounts of what happened that we possibly have. Why should anybody start off presupposing that there was no Trojan War despite Homer, or that George Washington was a profane and godless man despite the accounts of his early biographers and friends? With the digital age, it some day may be possible for a government to meddle with the internet sufficiently to change most of the digitalized texts on past history. If every book is on Kendall and the worldwide web and none of them are on paper or vellum, there would be little difficulty to manipulate the history and texts of the past. It is now true as it has always been that libraries full of good, true, and beautiful books are one of the best defenses against tyranny. But of course it only works if you read them and believe the true things that they say.


A variety of things jump out at you when you listen to or read Orwell’s book. He has a strange insistence on the reality of class differences. While it is very true that different people have different gifts, and that not everyone is gifted in the same way, Orwell’s understanding of the people who he regards as proletarians as being completely un-thinking and only interested in drinking, gambling, and the like, may occasionally be true of many people, but it is certainly not true of everyone within that supposed class. Every level of society has its brilliant minds, its intellectuals, and its students of philosophy. And every level of society has those who have common sense and spiritual depth. Each level also has those who may be gifted in loving or in some other way, but lack wisdom and understanding. But Orwell seems blind to the dignity and variety of what he thinks of as the lower classes. I suppose Orwell might defend himself by saying that the party absorbed everyone that they regarded as intelligent. But the truth is that not all kinds of intelligence are measurable by standardized tests or the other ways in which technocrats try to discover what they believe to be natural aristocrats. Every person has something they do well, and many more people than we appreciate have practical wisdom in one area or another. Hence, I found Orwell’s apparent insistence on class troubling. The same thing appears in his story, Animal Farm. Orwell seems to believe that it is reasonable to think of the different classes of society as being like different animals with different levels of intelligence and ability. This is simply not true. The image of God appears in every human being. There are no lower human beings. Yet even human beings who are highly gifted in working with their hands, or in working with plants, or in being a help to others in vocations that the elites of society do not value, still have the inherent dignity of being created in the image of God and often have depths and complexities that are completely unappreciated.

It is also interesting that Orwell’s story seems to imply a fundamental selfishness of all political orders. Orwell’s characters concede that some past orders may have developed certain sympathies for idealistic principles, but treats these mainly as weaknesses rather than strengths. Perhaps I am misunderstanding Orwell’s pessimism, or mistaking Orwell’s mere pessimism as a description of reality in 1984. Yet so little light appears in the story that this seems to be his assumption.

One thing that clearly stands out in 1984 is the persistent nagging of natural law. Orwell never mentions natural law or the objectivity of morality or right and wrong. In fact, I wonder if he really believed in such things. But the whole effect of his book is premised on the notion that we will find the states’ obliterating the truth about facts, and substituting their own will as immoral and wrong. If you don’t feel this when you are reading the book, it really isn’t working. Orwell’s character evidences that there really is some kind of an objective reality that gnaws at the conscience of even extremely selfish and flawed human beings even after they have been extensively trained, conditioned, and educated in the opposite notion, and even after they have been tortured to beat objective truth out of them. Despite all of this, the conscience still gnaws at us, and, as J. Budziszewski would say, “It has its revenge.” In the end, big brother and his minions are able to break the people of 1984, and to cause even those who harbored the notion that perhaps two plus two must equal four, to finally conclude that if the party says two plus two equals five, or three, or seven, then that is true and real and to be loved and embraced. But the people who are forced to believe these things through torture, conditioning, and manipulation lose their souls in the process. They become shells of human beings who are torn and hollowed out in a way that has sucked the life out of them. This is caused not merely by the torture itself, but by what is lost when a human being is finally separated from his connection with reality, truth, conscience, and beauty. We all desperately need the good, the true, the beautiful, the divine—and when we don’t have it, it scars us deeply. When we turn our backs on it and reject it, it destroys us even if our physical body continues to go on for some time after our soul has died in addition to the Adamic spiritual death that we were born with. Of course I mean “died” here in a certain way.

We have the comfort and the fear of knowing something that Orwell’s characters have long forgotten: that there is an eternal kingdom of God in which those who believe in Christ will be comforted, blessed, have their tears dried and their hurts completely healed. By contrast in this eternity, those who rebel against God will enter into a darkness, a loss, and a hollowing out that is far worse than the pale foreshadowing of the torment faced by the people of 1984.

The state in 1984 has sought to make itself god. It seeks to control reality, to control the minds and thoughts of its people, not merely their external actions. It has sought to re-define right and wrong, language and truth, and to make its own reality. In doing so, the big brother state is the ultimate fulfillment of post-modern philosophy. Post-modernism insists that there is no objective right or wrong, no objective reality behind language or ideas, and no real way to communicate effectively across cultural boundaries. Instead, the committed post-modernist believes that all reality is constructed by human communities. We make and shape our reality in our own image. We use force to make people concede that reality is what the community says, and that words mean what the community says they mean. The post-modernist rejects the centrality of an objective logos of God, and instead embraces a shattered world in which each community is its own miniature pantheon of deities. The Oceania state of big brother is the ultimate fulfillment of this post-modern vision because it creates a unified perception of “reality” throughout the community, creating complete harmony and homogeneity. It then labels this totalitarian nightmare as joy, happiness, peace and love. And who can discount these labels, or dispute them if there is no objective reality beyond the will of the community, or beyond the mind of big brother?

Thanks be to God that there really is an objective, divine logos. Thanks be to God that there is a God, and that He cares about human beings and has entered our world in order to reveal to us the truth about goodness, truth, beauty, morality, sacrifice, sin, and atonement. And especially we ought to be thankful that God has come into our world, died for us, and revealed the truth about resurrection. In 1984, the central protagonist wonders often if there is any hope that big brother can ever be destroyed, or that anyone can escape from his iron grip. Orwell gives us no hope. He leaves no chink of light gleaming through any small crack or window. But Christians know that this dark vision can never be fully fulfilled except in hell because there is a God who transcends the universe but who involves Himself in the affairs of mankind. There is a God who not only provides objectivity, but who restrains human governments. There is a God who will ultimately at some point end human history and bring all to judgment. If some day a real big brother succeeds in attaining global hegemony, he will be crushed by the return of Christ or by God’s sovereign hand.

I suppose for some people they think of God or Christianity as being somewhat like big brother. This is not the case. God actually is a source of objectivity. He has created us and given us our sense of right and wrong. God is the source of goodness itself. But unlike big brother, He is entitled to His position as being the source of goodness itself as the creator of the universe. Big brother and his ilk are distorters of what God has already created. They are those who bend and break, and seek to remold God’s creation into their image. But they are not God. Certainly it is popular today to find fault with God. The “new atheist’s” essential argument is to say “I strongly disagree with the ideas and actions attributed to the Christian God, ergo He must not exist.” Of course this doesn’t follow logically and usually they distort the ideas and actions actually attributed to God. They long for an impossible world that bears more resemblance to the old hobo song about the “Big Rock Candy Mountains” instead of moral adventure of real life.

2 comments:

Jane Steen said...

Hi Don, I last read 1984 many years ago. I remember learning at some point that Orwell wrote the book as a reaction to the state of affairs in 1948 Britain, where the government still had a very strong grip on all sources of public opinion after the war. Orwell was warning where this could lead, especially combined with the rise of large international power blocs that was happening then. Even the title, 1984, was just a reversal of 1948.

Orwell's class consciousness was also very reflective of his day, and indeed as a Brit I can confirm that we are still very conscious of class differences, even though upward mobility is accepted to an extent that would have surprised the generation born in the early 1900s. I think you still find the "let them drink beer" attitude towards the "proles" in British society, along with a degree of paternalism and patronism that doesn't seem to occur as much in the USA.

It was interesting to see you relate the book to postmodernism, new atheism and natural law. I may put it back on my reading list.

Dean McConnell said...

Thanks for the comment Jane. I think the whole way of looking at things that led to the secular version of socialism and the way of looking at things that led to Postmodernism are very much the same. I suspect that in capturing the spirit of athiestic socialism Orwell unknowingly foreshaddowed the ways of radical postmodernism.