By George Orwell
I first read 1984 back in 1983 because my mother wanted me to read the book before the year named actually occurred. Since then, it’s remained one of my favorite books. Not only is Orwell a master when it comes to crafting prose and plot, he is also an intellectual master, a master of “great ideas.” Also, the idea of a dystopia captivated me like nothing else ever had.
Now many years later as part of my quest to teach myself about good writing, I decided to revisit 1984. Is it still one of my favorite books? And if so, why?
I think humans inherently enjoy struggling against something. It’s the reason stories remain popular with us. We gather round the television (or campfire) to learn about how to overcome obstacles. We learn about how others have behaved in certain situations in order to steel ourselves against challenges we too will surely face.
This, I think, is the appeal of 1984. Its the “us against them” mentality that resonates to our core. Human tribes surely must have had this kind of thought process, as do countries today, and social groups. How often is it that we form bonds of friendship by participating in pointing out the weaknesses of others? We like to have something in common, and one easy thing to have in common is hate.
I know I mention the “unhistorian” Dan Carlin a lot in my posts, but it is because my world seems bereft of “thought leaders” and Dan, for me, fits this bill. From listening to Dan’s accounts of warfare, the idea of strangers following and dying for a leader they have never met and would never meet in order to fight strangers that they might even like and have much in common with, seems increasingly bizarre. The fact that I find this bizarre may be my own personal thought crime.
As I revisit 1984, I am flooded with memories of Russia. I lived in Russia briefly in the 1990s and found it to be a magical place. The onion-dome churches had survived (many had), the communist party as had the faith of so many of the Russia people. In the days of the party, believers were heretics.
That strange pairing of words and ideas, where they initially seem at odds with each other but upon deeper thought ring true, is one of the great ideas of Orwell’s book.
“War is peace.”
“Freedom is slavery.”
“Ignorance is strength.”
Over the years, I have wondered if slipping into Russian culture would be similar to slipping into the pages of 1984? And, have we in the U.S., already embraced such a life?
After meeting many Russians as well as people from other surrounding republics, the idea of hating them and warring against them became ridiculous. I saw strangers help each other on the streets in Moscow. And yes, people did smile.
But we have our own problems with this 1984 lifestyle in the United States. Glued to our televisions, computers, and phones, we let a barrage of “programming” speak to us, and after my own experiences in listening to hate radio during Hurricane Katrina, I see how I myself could be influenced. “Why didn’t those people just leave when they heard the storm was coming?” This was the cry of the Republican right. I believe we are very easily influenced, even though most of us are certain that we personally are in complete control. It is my shame to this day that I listened and accepted even 5 percent of the “logic” spewed by hate radio in the fall of 2005. The lesson was an important one.
Other big ideas in the book are sex and love. Julia passes a note to Winston that reads: “I love you.” As a skeptical female, I am sent reeling. Of course she doesn’t love Winston. They don’t even know each other. The note should have said something else. Something more direct. Or, is it far better to imply what you mean?
So then, when does love start? And when does it end? How can it be created? And, how can it be destroyed? To what extent is love based on dependence? How much decision is involved? These are more questions the book raises.
1984 is a book that captures so much in a relatively small space. It leaves you thinking and reminds you that thinking doesn’t always feel good. So why do it? Why think? Why ponder? Why ruminate?
More good questions. Although after reading 1984, I’m not convinced that thinking is bad.
“You think too much,” a fan of Sergei Dovlatov once told me.
That is irony.
What’s even more ironic is that I don’t think about him any more. Once you’re convinced that someone doesn’t love you, you can let go.
That’s where love ends.
And when it does, without all that craving and infatuation, we can return to an unnatural state of bliss.
Ignorance is power.
Bliss is ignorance.