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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Who’s your daddy?

Well, I managed to read yet another book by Orwell during my spare time at work. Despite the many interruptions, deft window-switching with the Alt /Tab button combination, I managed to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I already knew so much about it, and - typically - was ready to write it off as overrated and paranoid. Big Brother, Orwellian, Thought Police … all those words are now in our everyday vocabulary. The amazing thing, though, is that we actually live in a society frighteningly similar to the one Orwell predicted way back in 1949 - when Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published. It’s tacitly accepted, for example, that pretty much everywhere we go we are being watched. Surveillance cameras are everywhere from banks, to troublesome city corners, to subway stations, to the lobbies in our apartment buildings. Our email is being filtered, our search queries are being scrutinized … and we all know about it, and have come to accept it.

"The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering -- a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons -- a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting -- three hundred million people all with the same face."

Having literally just finished the book, I haven’t had time to digest it. It usually takes a few days for something this profound to really sink in. But, from what I read, it goes well beyond the superficial reference the book has become. It’s a diatribe against warped socialism, against Stalinism, against fanatical idealism, infantile utopianism - yet it is also a reflection on our own "western" society and where it’s going. This is one of those books that I completely understood. I didn’t totally identify with its main character, Winston, but I understood so much of what was happening to him.

The book works because it disguises whatever didacticism it has within a truly driven plot structure which hardly ever falters. The last fifty or so pages - dealing with torture and mind control … the infamous Room 101 - are breathless.

It’s about one lone man, the last "man", it seems, who rebels against the omni-present, godlike behemoth of Big Brother. He encounters other illuminated souls, and even love. But one day he realizes those whom he most implicitly trusts might turn against him.

Orwell takes the classic theme of impossible love and does something so twisted and original with it that I felt both inspired and hollow inside after reading it. This guy levels everything around him.

My only critique, fresh from reading this, and after a double espresso (work perk), is that while his descriptive style is unmatched, his writing lacks a certain spark when it comes to dialogue, or human interaction. Like:

'We are the dead,' he said.
'We're not dead yet,' said Julia prosaically.

Much of the book takes place in Winston’s head, through necessity, but in the moments where he actually interacts with his lover, Julia, or his friend the shopkeeper, there is always a sort of stilted feeling. Like the dialogue had overshadowing it that driven purpose and rigor that enveloped the book, without any of the characteristic meandering and tangents in everyday speech. Also, there were many places where he could have written the dialogue instead of summarizing it in a "And then they talked about …" type paragraph. I would have liked action instead of paragraphs summing up Julia’s philosophies …. But I digress.

The end result is a fantastic and prescient book. It shows the origins of post-totalitarian thought. It’s a critique of English Socialism (Ingsoc) within the context of mid-century Britain when Stalin was on her doorstep, and people were still blindly defending him. It’s a critique on the hysteria of the masses. It’s about the individual who stands back and says, 'wait a second, something's wrong'.

Funny, while writing this I was reminded of Diogenes, the original Cynic. He used to walk through the streets of ancient Athens holding a lit lantern in broad daylight, looking for honest men.

I wonder if he ever found one.

"How could you tell how much of it was lies? It might be true that the average human being was better off now than he had been before the Revolution. The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different. It struck him that the truly characteristic thing about modern life was not its cruelty and insecurity, but simply its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness. Life, if you looked about you, bore no resemblance not only to the lies that streamed out of the telescreens, but even to the ideals that the Party was trying to achieve."

This is as good as it gets. Read it online, for free. Trust me, copy it into your word processor at work and one will ever know.