George Orwell’s (Eric Arthur Blair) dystopian nightmare was written with such a fervor and cauterized, compact intensity that the quality of the prose killed the already physically frail author who saw Stalinism as being the probable victor in human history. While a democratic socialist in every sense of that term, Orwell would allow not a hint of light into his vision as it would have been irresponsible given the historical situation.
Winston Smith is a party member in a year that never changes–1984. His every movement is scrutinized for any possible “treasonous” or even pleasurable traits. Everyone he knows takes pleasure in being a marked individual by the Party which is all powerful and is so inherently malicious that it demands a full two minutes of observed physical hatred toward *real or imagined* enemies in front of telescreens. (The party members are forced to do that. They don’t do it out of choice).
Winston, for whatever reason, possesses the gift of free thought. He is not a team player and things do not get better for him every day. He hates his society and he hates the Leninist/Hitleresque decal that rules it: Big Brother, who is always watching. His attempt to evade the authorities that so crushingly rule him fail, and his lover, Julia, a kind of fatalist hedonist, are both captured and tortured. There is no restraint and Winston’s mind is atrophied: he loves Big Brother. His torturer, O’Brien, captures him as surely as flypaper attracts a buzzing insect with talk of Emmanuel Goldstein, some nebulous figure who represents rebellion and all that is evil.
There is no longer the luxury to interpret this book as the product of the British schooling system, or the work of an agitated depressive at the height of his literary powers; this book has more meaning at the present time than it ever has possessed. Social media memorizes personalities algorithmically and IP addresses move at the speed of human thought; the attraction to Big Brother comes from the larger population, not vice versa.
Meaningless questions like “Is it 1984?” only serves to degrade a book which could not be more clear in message and purpose: that totalitarianism arrives through our brutal and base sides, though small increments (Winston notices that some people leave their telescreens/smartphones/computers on at night though they have no choice but to use it during the day) and finally through force (a political candidate threatening riots if he is not elected after superseding all known political standards in an electoral democracy.)
George Orwell is a penultimate case of “What else can the artist say or do?” After 13 years of not having read it, I can still recall every word of this book, right down to the poem Winston remembers when looking in on the dissenters who have been destroyed in body and mind for their treachery.
What does it take for the larger public to take themselves seriously enough so that they don’t end up like Winston or Julia? How many alarms have to be sounded in how many symphonies and books, really? it would seem that the arrival of 1984 is as banal as Eichmann’s evil. Indeed, the NSA has a record of each user who accesses Orwell’s book on popular websites. Maybe it will be Yevgeny Zamyatin, the person Orwell plagiarized most of his ideas from with his book “We” who proves more correct: we will end up living in a self invented surveillance hall of mirrors, self built glass houses.
But it is Orwell who assesses human nature more accurately and drives it home so that we are not able to ignore what happens in human history: that when there is a population of transparent citizens who are vulnerable a force comes along to manipulate and shape them, to make them in their own image. It is distressing how often this book becomes relevant over time, but it is a must read and uncompromising and hardly just “literary” vision any more.