I had to make a very long drive last Thursday, and the day before that I was in town, so I stopped by the library to see what recorded books they might have. There was plenty of stuff I had no interest in, but one caught my eye, George Orwell’s 1984. It’s been at least thirty years since I last read it, and my interest in Orwell has lately reawakened, so I checked it out.
First, I have to give a plug for listening to unabridged books on tape. When I’m reading a good book I suffer from some bad habits—I read much faster than I ought to, letting my eagerness get the best of my thoughtfulness; and occasionally I’ll scan along for awhile before realizing that I haven’t been paying attention, but I’m usually too lazy to go back and see what I missed. When a book is read aloud, though, it seems to unfold at just the right speed. I have the time to think about something profound that was just said, before the next thing comes along to crowd it out. And sometimes it’s delightful not being able to act on my eagerness, but to have to wait for the situation to unfold at the writer’s speed.
Back in the early 90s I listened to a lot of recorded books; we lived far out in the country, there was lots of driving, and so I kept one always at the ready. I favored the ones produced by Recorded Books, and in particular the ones read by Frank Muller, who Library Journal called “the first true superstar of spoken audio.” It takes a certain talent for underacting to be a good reader, to distinguish between the different characters in a dialog or to indicate mood or emotion without becoming a distraction, to let the writer’s words themselves provide most of the drama. This particular recording was by Muller, and I was pretty excited about that.
Well, thirty years on the story is just as powerful. More so, really; I think it takes a lot of living to be able to relate to Winston Smith’s physical cowardice, or O’Brien’s uncompromising cynicism, or the oppressiveness of Oceania society. Those all hit home very hard, especially without the distancing effect of the printed page, and I don’t know if I could stand hearing it read again.
Over the past thirty years there has been a lot written about the two classic dystopian novels of the twentieth century, 1984 and Brave New World. Usually the verdict on their predictions is that Orwell was wrong and Huxley was right. This is how Neil Postman introduces his 1986 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and at the time he wrote it was an important observation; up to that time most folks had focused on the dangers of the overt sort of totalitarianism that reigned in Orwell’s world (and had so many real life parallels around the globe), but had failed to take much notice of what the modern media onslaught had done to enslave the public mind, as prefigured in Huxley’s book.
Well, that was then and this is now, and it seems to have become conventional wisdom that it is our own mindlessness that oppresses us, rather than a state-run thought police. Perhaps. But Orwell’s world, while so different in many particulars, shared so much of the spirit of our times that I’m wondering if maybe there isn’t all that much difference between Orwell’s vision and Huxley’s, once you strip away the superficial details. I’ll have to go back and re-read Brave New World, again thirty or more years from being fresh in my mind, before I can go further down that path.
Meanwhile, I have to wonder why, if Orwell’s vision was off the mark, that we have fallen into so many of the patterns that he thought would be imposed on us. I look around me and see an inner party, and an outer party, and a mass of proles. I see a true elite that seems to be enjoying privileges that far exceed what the vast majority enjoy, and a middle layer of elite wannabes enjoying fancified gruel that they persuade themselves is fine cuisine only by comparing it to the much worse rations of the great obese unwashed in flyover country. I see two-minute hates, and even Hate Weeks. I hear tales of outer party members who hide their true thoughts for fear of being found politically incorrect and losing their jobs. I see the war is then against Eurasia, now against Eastasia—who even remembers that only recently it was Democrats winning points against Republicans by claiming they wanted children and old people to starve and suffer? I see that every facton has its Big Brother and its Goldstein. The only real difference seems to be that Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia have turned out to be cultural factions rather than geographical nations; the nature of the wars, and the motivations behind them, seems to be much as Orwell portrayed them.
The second most interesting idea in the book to me was O’Brien’s long explanation of the motivations of the inner party, the ones who have their hands on the true levers of power. The explanation rings true, and yet is so cynical that I haven’t decided if Orwell has truly identified a culprit, or simply filled the hole at the core of this mystery with a writerly construct so well constructed that it only looks true. Is power really its own self-justifying rationale? I can’t yet wrap my mind around that idea.
The most interesting idea is the concept of doublethink, from which all else flows, or so Orwell claims. Doublethink is the cultivated ability to sustain inconsistencies and contradictions in one’s thinking, primarily for the sake of expedience (in the case of the book, because the Party demands it). At least when Orwell wrote, it was a horrifying thought that one might be forced into such a mental state.
More than anything, the sustained effort to make my own thinking consistent and coherent has forced me to grow up, for lack of a better description. And I am always amazed at how many people, especially in this internet age, unashamedly set themselves up as authorities by applying rhetorical polish to sloppy, uninformed, inconsistent, and incoherent thinking. Worse, their fans don’t seem to care when this is pointed out to them. Worst of all, the authorities themselves don’t seem to care, either—a fan base is all the justification they need for their otherwise baseless high opinion of themselves.
Is this actually doublethink at work? Absent a Party to actively impose it on us, have we somehow managed to impose it on ourselves?