Welcome back for the belated Part 2 of my discussion of 1984 by George Orwell. You can find Part 1 here. In Part 1 I focused on 1984’s surveillance state and its prescient critique of the Stalinist Soviet Union. Today I will focus on another facets that probably receives less attention: 1984’s intellectuals’ dystopia, including, in particular, the assault on language. I will also briefly discuss its distinct Englishness and give some closing thoughts.
(Scheduling Note: I’ve finished Skelos No. 1 and Jack Vance’s The Narrow Land collection and need to get posts up, but my focus will be shifting to Vintage Science Fiction Month. I will post reviews in January of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit—Will Travel, and L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring.)
1984 is a dystopia, but it is a dystopia particularly directed at a certain sort of person. The ignorant proles are, at least in Winston’s eyes, quite happy. As are the particularly ignorant Party members. But anyone given to any higher thought? Anyone who would prefer to actually exercise their mind? For them Oceania is a very special hell.
To put an even finer point on it, it is a hell directed about the bastardization of the English language, a particular love of Orwell’s. In creating that dystopia, Orwell creates any number of neologisms, from those limited to niche usage—thoughtcrime, doublespeak—to those that have entered the vernacular—memory hole.
Winston’s original sin in the book is buying a journal (at a shop, committing the sin against the Party of “dealing on the free market”) in which to write. And the buying itself was sufficient.
Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed—would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper—the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it.
The government is oppressive not only in its architecture, but in its naming conventions.
Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously. They were the homes of the four Ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided: the Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts; the Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war; the Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order; and the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs.
(The U.S. War Department was renamed the Department of Defense in 1949.)
Oceania is startlingly progressive on matters of gender.
“Mrs.” was a word somewhat discountenanced by the Party—you were supposed to call everyone “comrade.”
Oceania is also progressive on matters of obesity and intelligence. Neither is required; in fact, the opposite in prized. Witness the perfect Party member:
He was a fattish but active man of paralyzing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms—one of those completely unquestioning, devoted drudges on whom, more even than on the Thought Police, the stability of the Part depended.
The truly useful idiot, though, is not in fact an idiot. Rather, it’s the very intelligent man incapable of critical thought. The common man is too tethered to reality. The truly intelligent man, on the other hand, has the brainpower to convince himself of anything, including that he doesn’t have to do the hard work of actually thinking to come to useful conclusions. Good for maintaining sanity, though.
In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane.
Critical thought would be critical to the State. Not that engineers and scientists have always been on the side of the angels. Everyone from Friedrich Hayek to Stephen King to Sterling Lanier has pegged them as the ones to ruin everything. Which may be true, although I would think that a hundred years of evidence would turn anyone evidentially minded off of communism permanently. If not for the privation and mass murder, then for the rejection of the scientific method.
In Newspeak there is no word for ‘Science.’ The empirical method of thought, on which all the scientific achievements of the past were founded, is opposed to the most fundamental principles of IngSoc.
Life is no better for lawyers. Oceania presumably took Shakespeare’s advice and killed liberty by killing all of the lawyers first. Which is why the “chaotic good” in my Twitter bio sits uneasily. I only embrace chaos so far as it comes to grips with the rule of law. Absent that there is no liberty.
In Oceania there is no law. Thought and actions which, when detected mean certain death are not formally forbidden.
Orwell also totally foresaw Twitter arguments. Or maybe he was just describing academic discourse.
What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?
This seems to be the motto of the modern CTRL-left.
Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own?
Orwell does see Oceania as somewhere where at least some people can be happy, if he doesn’t think much of those people. If you can close your mind, if you can blindly accept an alternative version of reality, then you will be fine. But a curious mind is a terrible thing. And if you love the English language, in all its sprawl and disorder? Then yours will be a particular kind of torture.
Of course Winston’s observation of the happiness of the proles is wrapped up in his own very class-based thinking, and Orwell’s. But I would take being a prole in Oceania over being a Party member any day, including over being an Upper Party member. That is part of the distinctly Englishness of 1984’s dystopia. For all its communist roots, Oceania remains very class conscious. Upper Party members drink (presumably terrible) wine. Regular Party members drink gin, albeit cheap, rotgut gin. Only proles drink beer. It’s the regular Party members who bear the largest burden from the surveillance state. Far less attention is paid to the proles.
One might also ask whether Orwell’s vision is realistic, especially today. That’s not quite the right question. Orwell was consciously criticizing Stalinist Russia. We shouldn’t be asking can it happen so much as recognizing that it already did. Of course concerns over the surveillance state are particularly warranted today, given the ubiquitous of cameras and, worse, the advance of software to make them useful without obscene numbers of manhours. 1984 is remarkable for the resources Oceania pours into keeping its boot heel on its people. It’s only feasible because Oceania’s only viable rivals are also communist states. It wouldn’t be able to sustain that combination of police state and centralized production (read: lack of production) faced with a capitalist liberal democratic rival. After all, an American grocery store killed the Soviet Union. A shift in America, then, isn’t just dangerous for Americans. It’s dangerous for the entire world if America ceases to be a global force for good.