Essay on George Orwell’s 1984 by Joe Canuck

GeorgeOrwell
Newspeak: “War is Peace”

Newspeak is the fictional language in the novel 1984, written by George Orwell. It is a controlled language created by the totalitarian state Oceania as a tool to limit freedom of thought, and concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, and peace. Any form of thought alternative to the party’s construct is classified as “thoughtcrime“. (Wikipedia)

Preface

This essay was written in the fall of 1983 at UBC (University of British Columbia) on George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. I found it in my mother’s basement, after being there and collecting dust for more than 30 years. There are a few more essays there. If I ever get around to digging them up, I’ll post them here one of these days, when I have more spare time.

Incidentally, my professor was Dr. Fred Stockholder, who gave me a split grade of B-minus/C-plus on this paper. Dr. Stockholder taught a literature course on the dystopian novel and this was my first essay for the term. The final term paper was on J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting For The Barbarians. This was the 2nd course I took with him. The other course was on the theories of literary criticism. Dr. Stockholder’s comments on this particular essay were: “Disorderly — this paper is filled with good ideas which need development. Go back and read Orwell’s essays. The style, the orderliness of his prose is a good model for so cynical a temperament as the one you displayed here.”

I remember Professor Stockholder well. He was one of the more intelligent professors whom I go along with swimmingly; perhaps this may explain my arrogance, which, along with my “cynical temperament” is also on full display in this essay. If I do say so myself, this paper strikes me as highly implausible for an academic paper. I was 23-years-old at the time, which may mitigate the bad writing.

Rereading my essay, I am rather shocked that I got as high a mark as I did. His comments were equally generous and forgiving. For the sake of clarity, I have slashed quite a bit from the original 10-page essay and rewritten some passages. Despite the heavy editing, some passages still read like a freshman essay. In retrospect, this is probably one of my first attempts at reinventing the essay and or first experiments at writing in the free-flowing, all-knowing voice of the Bard.

Surrey, August 6, 2013

1984

George Orwell’s relationship to the past, to history, and how he uses it in 1984 is more interesting to me than his critique of totalitarianism, which I believe is the standard reading of his famous novel. Like so many of his literary contemporaries, Orwell is obsessed with the past, with, ostensibly, the centre of power and the men who write our history. Hence, his famous dictum in the novel: Those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past control the future. This is the greatest lesson and warning of 1984.

Evidently, the pining for a lost golden age has become a literary convention which, as early as the 18th-Century, was employed by English poets to convey their disaffection for the culture of their own time. And in the 20th-Century, this disaffection for the culture of their own time, or rather, the dissatisfaction with the lack of culture of modern times was most profoundly expressed by T.S. Eliot in his poem “The Waste Land” and by his lesser known contemporary but great mentor, Ezra Pound, in the latter’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Orwell’s novel 1984, too, it seems to me, is pining for a lost golden age.

But this pining for a golden age is made more complex and complicated by the fact that individuals in a totalitarian state are not permitted to have a memory. Everything is controlled in Oceania, where private memories are supplanted by collective memories manufactured by the State. For Winston, “everything faded away into a shadow world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.” Essentially, what you have here is a State induced amnesia and alienation, exactly what the Party must sustain in order to remain in control. However, Winston becomes aware of his past when fragments of his childhood memories resurface after years of being repressed:

“The first fragment of chocolate had melted on Winston’s tongue.The taste was delightful. But here was still that memory moving round the edges of his consciousness, something strongly felt but not reducible to the definite shape, like an object seen out of the corner of one’s eye. He pushed it away from him, aware only that it was the memory of some action which he would have liked to undo but could not.”

Indeed, Winston’s awakening directly corresponds with the surfacing of his subconscious. The faint memory of chocolate from his childhood is a catalyst of this awakening that reaches its climax with Winston’s analysis, if not psychoanalysis of his long repressed dream. For the first time in his life, he begins to question everything. Consequently, he not only gains insight into himself but also into the proles. More importantly, he now understands why he must rebel against the Party, which comes (no pun intended, and not insignificantly) after having sex with Julia.

“The terrible thing that the Party had done was to persuade you that mere impulses, mere feelings, were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world. When once you were in the grip of the Party, what you felt or did not feel, what you did or refrained from doing, made literally no difference. Whatever happened, you vanished, and neither you nor your actions were ever heard of again. You were lifted clean out of the stream of history. And yet to the people of only two generations ago this would not have seemed all-important, because they were not attempting to alter history. They were governed by private loyalties which they did not question. What mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself. The proles, it suddenly occurred to him, had remained in this condition. They were not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they were loyal to one another. For the first time in his life he did not despise the proles or think of them merely as an inert force which could one day spring to life and regenerate the world. The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened inside. They had held on to the primitive emotions which he himself had to re-learn by conscious effort. And in thinking this he remembered, without apparent relevance, how a few weeks ago he had seen a severed hand lying on the pavement and had kicked it into the gutter as though it had been a cabbage-stalk. ‘The proles are human beings,’ he said aloud. ‘We are not human.'”

In time, Winston arrives at a vision of the world not unlike William Blake’s vision. The original innocence of childhood lost and the natural sex impulse distorted, are for Blake and for Orwell, evidence of society and power corrupted. And just as Nature (with capital “N”), for Blake, is the restorative norm, so too, one senses that Winston’s and Julia’s countryside rendezvous and the act of making love is perhaps the closest thing to being natural or normal in Oceania.

“There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy. For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force? The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it into account.”

ControlWasNotDifficult

Blake, the idiot-savant of English poetry, is blissfully resigned to the universal truth that so long as evil men exist, evil things will be done to the good men and women on this earth. It matters not what form of government or political system is in place. Evil people will do evil things for the sake of simply being evil. Blake puts it concisely in his short poem, “The Human Abstract”: “Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor / And Mercy no more could be, / If all were happy as we.” Orwell also comes to the same conclusion as Blake, but is much more prosaic when he writes:

“All of the disputed territories contain valuable minerals, and some of them yield important vegetable products such as rubber which in colder climates it is necessary to synthesize by comparatively expensive methods. But above all they contain a bottomless reserve of cheap labour. Moreover, the labour of the exploited peoples round the equator is not really necessary to the world’s economy. They add nothing to the wealth of the world, since whatever they produce is used for the purposes of war, and the object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war. By their labour the slave populations allow the tempo of continuous warfare to be speeded up. But if they did not exist, the structure of world society, and the process by which it maintains itself, would not be essentially different.”

What is described in the above passage is arguably more akin to imperialism than to totalitarianism. Perhaps the two are not that different, not according to Orwell. Whereas the quintessential novel against imperialism is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Orwell’s 1984 is the quintessential novel against a totalitarian police state, against, what, some have argued, England was becoming in the post-war years. (1984 is the inverse of 1948, the year the novel was completed.) Both novels are stridently anti-authoritarian, if not overtly anti-imperialist works of literature in my opinion. Both novels argue against Imperialism and Totalitarianism in their own way, if the two aren’t really the same thing. If it’s the subjugation of an alien race, it is called Imperialism, but if it’s the subjugation of your own race, then it is called Totalitarianism. Same dif’, as we say here in Canada.

In conclusion, Orwell’s main thesis in 1984 is this: Those who rule the world get to write the history. In this respect, Orwell’s obsession with history, with, really, those at the centre of power who write our history, is typical of political writers of his generation. Indeed, the task of politically aware writers such as the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott has been to rewrite history for the oppressed peoples of the 3rd-world and former colonies. In his epic poem of self-discovery called “Star-Apple Kingdom” Walcott writes:

And these groined caves with barnacles
Pitted like stone
Are our cathedrals
And the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
Into marl and cornmeal
And that was Lamentations—
That was just Lamentations,
It was not history

So, truly, it’s relative, as Albert Einstein said it all was. The questioning of history, or rather, the rewriting of it is perhaps the most political and powerful act of dissent, the most dangerous threat to Power, in whatever form that power or system may take. And just as “TWO AND TWO MAKE FIVE” is “newspeak” to Winston, so “DOCTOR LIVINGSTONE DISCOVERED LAKE VICTORIA” was “newspeak” to the sons of the black men who carried the sick and dying Livingstone through the jungle to where he “discovered” the lake. This discovery, of course, is rubbish. Lake Victoria existed long before it was “discovered” and named by the White Man. This is the fallacy and folly of Empire that is exposed by Orwell. Newspeak is now part of our lexicon and I984, is, indeed, a classic novel and important lesson that we should never forget.

Vancouver, 1983

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