"Orwellian, Dude!"
May 3, 2003 4:35 PM   Subscribe

"Orwellian, Dude!" Elusive, legendary author Thomas Pynchon resurfaces to intoduce a new edition of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four with a critical eye on the present. And finds optimism in the appendix.
posted by Bletch (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It is the boy's smile, in any case, that we return to, direct and radiant, proceeding out of an unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted - a faith so honourable that we can almost imagine Orwell, and perhaps even ourselves, for a moment anyway, swearing to do whatever must be done to keep it from ever being betrayed.

Phew! Pynchon's syntax from hell has got to have Orwell turning over in his grave.

[ Thanks, Bletch! ]
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:37 PM on May 3, 2003

Thanks for the heads-up. Pynchon on other writers is always a treat--he has wonderful things to say about Donald Barthelme, for example, in the intro to The Teachings of Don B

I liked this bit:

In a New Statesman review from 1938 of a John Galsworthy novel, Orwell commented, almost in passing, "Galsworthy was a bad writer, and some inner trouble, sharpening his sensitiveness, nearly made him into a good one; his discontent healed itself, and he reverted to type. It is worth pausing to wonder in just what form the thing is happening to oneself."
posted by palancik at 5:38 PM on May 3, 2003

"Thomas Pynchon's latest novel is Mason & Dixon." "Latest". That was in 1997. That's forever and a day in internet time. Here's the essay that made me by a couple of very thick books.
posted by wobh at 5:39 PM on May 3, 2003

"buy"! *rolls eyes*
posted by wobh at 5:41 PM on May 3, 2003

From Pynchon's essay: "'The Principles of Newspeak' is written consistently in the past tense, as if to suggest some later piece of history, post-1984." Pynchon suggests that the essay's being in the past tense indicates that the Newspeak era didn't last and "the social and moral order" was restored.

Errr...the whole book is written in past tense, from "It was a bright cold day in April" to "He loved Big Brother." I think he's reading a lot into the tense of the appendix.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:02 PM on May 3, 2003

kirkaracha, I like the sneaky way you quote that passage as though it were a whole sentence. In fact, it runs
From its first sentence, "The Principles of Newspeak" is written consistently in the past tense, as if to suggest some later piece of history, post-1984, in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past - as if in some way the anonymous author of this piece is by now free to discuss, critically and objectively, the political system of which Newspeak was, in its time, the essence. Moreover, it is our own pre-Newspeak English language that is being used to write the essay.
I would allow that argument has considerable force, especially considering the peripheral nature of the Principles essay to the 1984 narrative. There is a strongly hopeful subtext that emerges in the inclusion of a scholarly and reasoned essay on totalitarian language, written as though from the reasoned perspective of some future narrator, in the midst of an otherwise despairing portrait. What's more, this argument is supported by the fact that Orwell strongly resisted a publisher who wanted to cut the essay out for that reason.

As an aside, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in what Orwell had to say should read his As I Please columns from World War II. They make for truly fascinating reading.
posted by Bletch at 6:24 PM on May 3, 2003

TRIBUNE - January 7, 1944

Ummm... Gandhi was a dictator?
posted by slipperywhenwet at 7:49 PM on May 3, 2003

I've heard the "happy ending" argument before, and I just don't buy it. It doesn't feel right when the whole tone of the book is so fatalistic, and every glimmer of hope is so methodically stamped out.

Ok, people are free to read whatever they like into a book, but to make statements about it you need evidence from the text, and Pynchon's evidence (in this essay anyway) seems to rely on huge leaps of logic, like saying that since the appendix was important to Orwell it must have been the true ending. He uses Orwell's defense of the appendix as evidence, but of course the fact that he defended it only indicates it is of some relevance, which nobody is questioning. About cutting bits out of his books to increase sales, he said "A book is built up as a balanced structure and one cannot simply remove large chunks here and there unless one is ready to recast the whole thing," which is pretty far from saying, "if you cut that part it will ruin the message."

And as for "why end a novel as passionate, violent and dark as this one with what appears to be a scholarly appendix?", one answer would be that that is where appendices go. Another answer would be what seems the most obvious -- you end a book about the last gasp of passion and dissent in the human heart with an explanation about how all passion and dissent was eleminated from the human heart.

Anytime someone asks a difficult question that demands a complete rethinking of a book, then goes on to say "The answer may lie in simple grammar," I am immediately suspicious. It never lies in simple grammar, unless you're grasping at straws. I think I used that same line in an English paper once. It's a sign you're trying to hard.
posted by Hildago at 10:42 PM on May 3, 2003

"Thomas Pynchon's latest novel is Mason & Dixon." "Latest". That was in 1997. That's forever and a day in internet time.

Or, if you prefer, the entire lifespan of the Web (if not the Internet itself) is three-sevenths of a second in Thomas Pynchon time.

Bet him and Salinger have some wild parties, huh?
posted by arto at 2:13 AM on May 4, 2003

hanks for the link. Excellent writing is always a joy to read.

In the June 7 entry, Orwell is talking about world leaders, not dictators. The word "führer" (fuehrer) means leader, guide or captain - not dictator. For instance, "reiseführer" means guidebook or travel guide.

For those interested, here's an excellent German language resource run by the Computer Science department at the Munich Technical University:
posted by syzygy at 3:48 AM on May 4, 2003

Orwell certainly had it in for Gandhi, though: the tactic of non-violent resistance didn't cut much ice with him during the Spanish Civil and Second World War. For a long time he thought Gandhi was a useful idiot of British imperialism, too. He modified his opinion later on, but Gandhi's other-worldliness repelled him, and his feelings about Indian nationalists in general were somewhat mixed. There's a great story in Crick's biography, told by a colleage at the BBC (aka the Ministry of Truth) who didn't like Orwell's cod-proletarian ways. Orwell, he says, would sit in the staff canteen ostentatiously slurping his tea from the saucer (probably to wind the guy up). And he claims to have overheard him speaking proto-mockney in a heated argument with an Indian scriptwriter: "The fack that you're black had nuddin whad-evva to do wiv it" - or something like that.

Anyway, I thought the Pynchon piece was pretty good, for what it's worth, although I note that the Guardian's version is an edited extract. Nice to see Orwell being reclaimed for the Left, as well - especially after watching Christopher Hitchens give vent to his Orwell complex by supporting the war on Iraq and the 'war on terror' as if if were 1939. Not to mention Andrew Sullivan - or the brilliant American columnist (I've forgotten his name) who invoked 'Shooting an Elephant' to support the Afghan war: Orwell didn't want to shoot the elephant, but he did it to protect the village, was his argument, and in the same way America has to do the right thing...
posted by Mocata at 6:08 AM on May 4, 2003

Bletch, I was trying to summarize Pynchon's windy prose (which I think I did fairly), not be sneaky.

Pychon says, "our own pre-Newspeak English language that is being used to write the essay." It's also used to write the book. Bletch says the appendix is "written as though from the reasoned perspective of some future narrator." So is the book. When the main part of the book is written the same way as the appendix, there needs to be something more to the appendix for it to provide a happy ending.

It's more likely that Orwell insisted on the appendix because he was very interested in politics and language and the appendix goes into English-major nerdly detail about Newspeak, which he felt was central to the book.

Want an appendix to a dystopian novel that actually provides a "happy" ending? The Handmaid's Tale.

p.s. Nice work, Hildago
posted by kirkaracha at 9:39 AM on May 4, 2003

I'd like to understand why an interpretation of Orwell's vision as "a world he was not so much wishing upon them as warning against" is "trying too hard," as Hildago says. Orwell's vision was bleak. We're all agreed on that. What I'm getting from Pynchon is the idea that Orwell wanted to warn future generations about the consequences and insidiousness of fascism. Can an understanding of the relationship between politics and language help the heroic aspects squashed in "1984" triumph in 2003?
posted by divrsional at 10:43 AM on May 4, 2003

This late comment may not get read, but to Hildago and others skeptical of Pynchon's point, I'd point out this passage from Orwell's appendix:

Some of the B words had highly subtilized meanings, barely intelligible to anyone who had not mastered the language as a whole. Consider, for example, such a typical sentence from a Times leading article as Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc. The shortest rendering that one could make of this in Oldspeak would be: 'Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism.' But this is not an adequate translation. To begin with, in order to grasp the full meaning of the Newspeak sentence quoted above, one would have to have a clear idea of what is meant by Ingsoc. And in addition, only a person thoroughly grounded in Ingsoc could appreciate the full force of the word bellyfeel, which implied a blind, enthusiastic acceptance difficult to imagine today; or of the word oldthink, which was inextricably mixed up with the idea of wickedness and decadence.

I would submit that the highlighted phrase fits rather awkwardly with the past tense used throughout, unless this appendix is supposed to represent a fictional future essay on newspeak.

I suppose it's possible that Orwell is here using the past tense for fictional future events and using the word "today" in the same sentence to mean the literal (author's/reader's) present, but it doesn't scan too well -- the first interpretation that jumps to my mind is the grammatically obvious one.
posted by cps at 11:31 AM on May 4, 2003

i think the best argument for the essential relevance of the appendix to 1984 should be derived from its similarity in narrative function to the foreward to jack london's iron heel, which had a huge influence on 1984. this framing technique is cleverly used in all sorts of fantasy, from the prologues of plays to the metanarrator of Frankenstein, but its effects are equally varied. i think it is hard to see 1984 in intent as anything other than a member of that didactic / philosophical group of novels: utopias [which includes the dystopic inflection]. the framing device for such a work is where the author critiques the ideas contained in the work; he tries to anticipate criticisms. the appendix to 1984 seems to me primarily an exposition of the real threat of newspeak, as a preemptive answer to those who would view 1984 as an extreme fantasy of the kafka [the trial, in particular] type that has no chance of ever really occuring.

to say that the experience of reading the book without reading the appendix would arouse in most readers a pessimistic feeling, while reading the appendix afterwards mitigates that pessimistic feeling to a considerable degree, seems completely accurate to me. but my view of just how the appendix accomplishes that end differs substantially from pynchon's.

i find the appendix hopeful not because it points to the eventual downfall of the totalitarian regime [a sort of marxist hopefulness in the triumph over all totalitarianism], but because it answers the question begged by the horrors of the book: "If totalitarianism is so bad, how can we avoid it?" this impulse to give hopeful advice after painting a dark picture is suggestive of the stump speech, the opinion piece, and the moralizing tale. it strikes me that the extra-narrative tagline of the moral proverb found in folk tales is a sort of germ of the framing device.

it interests me that orwell does not provide any description in the appendix of how the government of big brother is overthrown. one can easily imagine such a story would be quite violent and confusing, more similar to the french or russian revolution than the american. it would be characteristic of orwell, i think, to expect that such a revolution would likely go awry.

as i see it, orwell could not go into detail about the post-1984 world ["2048"? or perhaps 4189] or how it came to be "free" - and interestingly, returned to the same language [and by association, the same values] as 1948. to attempt to do so realistically is impossible, because the world of 1984 is essentially the end. abandon hope all ye who enter; the reader enters like dante and simply wanders out again after he's had enough horror. there simply is no revolution possible when newspeak has done its work; or at any rate, revolution in such a land is practically inconceivable to orwell. that is one of the arguments against totalitarianism, in fact - no good society should be immune to revolutions.

to nevertheless include an appendix from the normal england-like heaven beyond this ultimate hell is certainly a deus ex machina. that is why it is not comforting to me at all, from the perspective of the narrative. it's rather like the happy ending of Brazil. or suppose orwell does believe that such a horrible government could be overthrown... if so, it doesn't change the fact that the way it is presented, through a sort of "of course today we are free, no need to tell you how or why" scholar's epilogue, still feels like a cheat if one is looking for hope. this second equally inadequate way of reading the appendix as "a happy twist" is like reading gibbon's decline of the roman empire as a happy tale because we know that mr. gibbon enjoyed visiting the rome of the mid-19th century, which had solved most of its problems with heathen invaders.

i step back from the narrative - this is what framing devices tell one to do - and view the appendix as a reader of a philosophical/didactic tract. the appendix is very helpful, very hopeful, a moral spelled out: because often today i worry that late capitalism is dangerously immune to revolution, and change must come through gradual repair.

i think one must use this "utilitarian" approach to better appreciate orwell's art - he is a pragmatist, and wants his reader to be strengthened and not just entertained.

as a big fan of orwell i must admit that this utilitarian approach is of course not the only way to view his work, but i do think it is the way he wanted one to. i don't have as much use for the didactic point of animal farm - i am only to quick to label governments fascist - so i overlaid a bit of surrealism onto the text when i read it in high school. my take on keep the aspidistra flying is even weirder [it's kind of a self-negating book about a guy who abandons writing for ad jingles - pretty interesting self-condemnation]
posted by mitchel at 2:25 PM on May 4, 2003

Louis Menand's take on Orwell from a recent New Yorker is also very good. (It also quotes an article by Orwell in the Partisan Review in which he says of a Big Brother-esque government, "Civilizations of this type might remain static for thousands of years.")

Pynchon's is an interesting argument, but accepting it also means accepting a much weaker book -- not just because it means Orwell cheated (yes we all went to hell but it all worked out in the end anyway, yay), as mitchel just said, but also because tacking on a happy ending violates the integrity of the prophecy. "His anger, let us go so far as to say, was precious to him", Pynchon writes of Orwell, but if 1984 is an angry work -- a deliberately angry work -- then it's hard to reconcile Orwell's suggesting (if in fact he did) that its vision was but a passing phase, as if in the end he had somehow chosen to make a philosophical point, after all. And even if Orwell wasn't angry, the book would still be better served for not compromising, for going all the way. For some prophecies, what hope there is lies in the chance that telling them will help ensure they never come to pass -- but if the telling is to have value, the teller had better not blink.
posted by mattpfeff at 3:41 PM on May 4, 2003

I guess you're right, cps, it's hard to get around that little bit there. But I think it's a mistake to have put it there, telling a very powerful story with big consequences then hedging all of that at the end for no obvious reason. Pynchon thinks it's profound, but I disagree with him for the reasons mattpfeff so succinctly lists.
posted by Hildago at 4:14 PM on May 4, 2003

« Older Richard Carlier's Cocktail Database   |   Court Decision - Internet Jokes Found Illegal For... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments