Sunday, 24 April 2005

1984: A Warning from History?

Ingsoc. Doublethink. Sexcrime. The Thought Police. Minitrue.

Newspeak. The language of the revolution: the mutilation and destruction of the English dictionary. "It's a beautiful thing the destruction of words," muses Syme, member of the Newspeak Committee during lunch at the canteen at the Ministry of Truth. "It's an encouraging thought that by the year 2050 not a single person will be able to have a conversation like this."

"Except the proles..." interjects Winston Smith, our protagonist. Always thinking outside the box, always seeing the bigger picture, never subscribing to the propagandist world played out in front of his weary eyes. A sure fire way to a one way ticket to a firing squad.

A world so controlled, regimented and pessimistic; a world where the natural reproductive system is seen as inferior to artificial insemination; a world whose subjects are watched constantly. There's nowhere to hide - apparently. Yet we follow the clandestine activities of Smith and his lover Julia as they take on the Party and lose horribly. Two empty shells of humankind are left in the Chestnut Tree Cafe at the end of George Orwell's final work - Nineteen Eighty Four - stripped of hope, imagination and meaning. This book wasn't meant for a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Or maybe it was. Maybe its whole purpose - despite being a masterwork in storytelling, imagination and sheer, unadulterated negative escapism - was to charge the psyche of even the most un-political of persons, to enlighten and make aware the dangers our polarised human natures could exact upon our societal constructs.

Nineteen Eighty Four is a political statement, a futuristic conspiracy fiction and an erotic thriller bundled into one, 245 page book. Written in the immediate post-Second World War years, it was lauded, criticised, praised and derided by various sections of society. Its dramatisation by the BBC in the early 1950s raised questions in Parliament. Michael Radford's faithful and powerful film in which Richard Burton gave his farewell performance as Inner Party official O'Brien still has the ability to chill any viewer's spine. And the book itself still sells well, nearly sixty years after Orwell put finger to typewriter key.

But there has been one single issue that arises constantly whenever this book is mentioned in scholarly criticism or artistic review. Orwell's predictions have been proved unfounded. We are now in the year 2005, 21 years after the fabled time illustrated in the novel. Although closed, propagandist and militaristic societies exist in the developing world - most notably in North Korea - they are in the minority. Airstrip One of Oceania - the western world including Britain, Australasia and the Americas - is the most politically democratic portion of our globe. So the question now asked is what purpose does Nineteen Eighty Four serve? Will it slip into history along with Fahrenheit 451 as simply a work of fiction completely removed from modern society? Or do we still need Winston and Julia in our lives to remind us of what could theoretically happen? Should 1984 be re-dubbed 2084?

THE WORLD OF NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR
Nineteen Eighty Four was not the original title of the book. In fact, Orwell had started with 1980 as the setting for his post-revolution socialist society. However as work on the book continued through 1945-49 the novel advanced with the passing of time. Retrospectively, it's hard for any Orwell fan to imagine the book being called Nineteen Eighty One or Nineteen Eighty Two. The date, the year, even the number has passed into literary folklore.

The title of the book however is not the only aspect to have achieved near-legendary status. The terms coined by Orwell - Big Brother, Miniluv and Room 101 - and the language he invented are as much a part of the package as Winston and O'Brien. For an author in writing a book to envisage a completely new, sterile, skeletal lexicon completely removed from the textures and nuances of present day English - and then to apply it in such a way that the terms are ingrained in the reader's mind, shows us just what sort of person Orwell was.

Orwell himself had written the book against the backdrop of the political and social upheaval that he had witnessed before, during and after the Second World War. Fascism had been defeated in two European countries, and its polar political opposite - Communism - was now being seen as the new enemy. Mankind's ability to wage war in increasingly devastating fashion materialised in two Japanese towns. For a politically active mind such as Orwell's, this period of transition must have seemed like gold dust when it came to writing his pessimistic, twisted vision of the future.

Orwell's motivation aside, for years many were fearful of his prophecies coming true. The staunch anti-Communism felt by many during the various crises that typified the episodic nature of the Cold War materialised in the McCarthy "witch hunts" of the House Un-American Committees of the US Senate in the 1950s, and the final destruction of the USSR during a period which saw Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan governing the West - in the 1980s. So instead of a militaristic socialist dystopia, the states within Orwell's Oceania in the real 1984 were conservative right wing heartlands.

And what of Eurasia and Eastasia? Out of the three superpowers, Eastasia resembles most closely its counterpart in the real world. China and North Korea are both militaristic communist states, and until recently encapsulated a variety of military dictatorships and religious fundamentalist rulers. Although Eurasia was home to a number of communist states, particularly in the Balkans, it is now home to emerging democracies, new states and, peaceful revolutions aside, are relatively stable and peaceful.

It would seem therefore that by luck or judgement, Nineteen Eighty Four still has limited relevance, and Orwell's vision wasn't completely inaccurate and fanciful. However the years following the events of September 11 2001 have all but changed the world beyond recognition. With a seemingly war-hungry president in charge of the most powerful country in the world, can we call George W Bush "Big Brother"?

NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR - POST 9/11
My first encounter with this novel was when "Room 101" became one of my favourite television shows. Intrigued as I was as a ten year old watching his first post-watershed programme by this clearly comedy-based show, I was ignorant of the origins of the show's title - not that it concerned me. Seven years later a television show of an even greater popularity and magnitude was broadcast. In 2000 the first series of Channel 4's "Big Brother" was (to use a cliché) unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Described by listings magazines as "Orwellian", it had the effect of drawing me towards the book. Subsequently I discovered the reason for "Room 101"'s name.

Is this what Nineteen Eighty Four has been reduced to? A resource to be mercilessly plundered for modern television programmes? Well, not quite. However the Orwell Estate's concern and anger over the use of the term Big Brother by Endemol Entertainment, creators of the reality show can be understood. Yet when taking a look at the way the show is constructed - constant surveillance, manual tasks, ignorance of the real world, elimination of unpersons - the programme setup is perhaps as faithful to the ideas of the book that a post-modern televisual concept could get.

One wonders however how many of the Big Brother TV audience - usually around the six million mark - could name the novel from which the concept arises. Fewer still may be able to tell the story, and perhaps fewer still would understand the meanings, themes and other notions contained within its pages. One could therefore argue that indeed the novel is irrelevant - even Radford's impressive film being shown in the graveyard slot of 2am on Channel Four recently only confirms this.

Until we look at the novel when applied to the post September 11th world. Since 9/11, America has become a nation obsessed with surveillance and espionage. A new department for homeland security has made it near impossible for any would-be terrorists to enter the country.

However these new anti-terror laws also make it legal for the state to look at any of your public or private records if you are deemed to be a hazard. Anti-war or anti-Bush talk has been construed in the past as suspect activity. The black-and-white approach of the current administration leaves no room for conscientious objectors - labelled Anti-American by the right wing press - and for any forms of dissent.

George Bush is portrayed as the great leader - a man fighting for the freedom of his people. Characters like Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussain are the Goldsteins of this world - men to be hated and blamed for the deaths of Americans everywhere. This approach is further complicated by the fact that Eurasia and Eastasia exist in the form of the "Axis of Evil." Afghanistan and Iraq were once allies of America; then enemies, now allies again.

In America it is acceptable for newsgathering and journalistic organisations to have political leanings - for what would be called propaganda in any other country to be reported as factual, objective news. Embargoes on images of dead American soldiers, images of planeloads of coffins in opposition to the open celebration of "Fallen Heroes" mirror closely the reports spewed out from the novel's telescreens when reporting the battle at the Malabar Front.

Even the American language was changed by the war. With anti-French feeling rife the fries served at McDonalds and other fast food outlets became known as Freedom Fries. Terms such as "insurgents" and "homicide bombers" also became widely used.

Maybe Orwell was onto something. The Inner Party surrounding Big Brother are the crack team of advisors, secretaries and officials - including characters like Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld - who sell this new model of right wing politics to a wary world. The Outer Party are the working public who are encouraged to swallow this (mis)information and be persuaded that their government is doing the right thing.

CONCLUSIONS
The way the nuances surrounding the novel and post-9/11 America fit together may be seen as being a little convenient for anti-Bush sentiments. However one cannot help but marvel at the ironic way in which Orwell's socialist society so closely mirrors Bush's conservative society. For sixteen years Nineteen Eighty Four lingered in an irrelevant wilderness. Devoid of the novelty of prophecy which it held from publication right up to 11:59 on December 31st 1983, and of any semblance of political relevance due to the societal structure of the time, it had become a timepiece, an antique, another classic to be left on a shelf getting dusty.

The modern world has inadvertently given it a new lease of life. It has gained status by being the embryo of two successful television shows, and following 9/11 has gained a new respect as a comparator for the changes brought about by the neo-conservative regime in Washington.

Orwell would be happy to know that his book is being considered in the way he wanted it to be. He would be less happy that the very things he predicted were slowly and worryingly coming to pass. He would be even less happy that it was the right wing and not the left wing of the political spectrum that was exacting these changes.

George Orwell died in 1949, soon after his masterwork was completed. He never saw the Korean War follow hot on the heels of the Second World War. He never saw the building of the Berlin Wall or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Whether his book was a warning, a lecture or a fantasy, it had a profound impact upon all who read it and its importance should never be lost on anyone ever again.