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The Last Man in Europe
May 9, 2009 5:56 PM   Subscribe

1984: The masterpiece that killed George Orwell
posted by Artw (79 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
"...and now my work will live on forever, as a series of quotes on crappy messageboards whenever anyone is mildly outraged by some goverment action. *cough* *die*"
posted by Artw at 6:02 PM on May 9, 2009 [21 favorites]


Top 10 Most Depressing Quotes from Orwell's 1984
posted by Artw at 6:14 PM on May 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


The article asks why it was titled 1984? I wonder if they've read the book. I mean, it seemed quite clear to me when I read it that that was the year the story was supposed to be set in.

Still, a very interesting article. I love that book so much. It has pride of place on my bookshelf, next to Animal Farm, my collected Tolkien books and my tattered, beloved copy of Mice and Men. Reading it the first time was incredible. It struck me, reading it for the first time back in 2004, how applicable the story was to that years current day events. Just as I'm sure it struck everyone else, reading it for the first time in whatever year they first read it in, no doubt. It will almost certainly be a timeless work; its words, its themes and its message will be applicable no matter when you read it. This article was great in it gave me background to its creation; a kind of 'DVD commentary' for the book, for want of a better term. Fascinating from start to finish.

Thanks for posting it, Artw.
posted by Effigy2000 at 6:19 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love reading about what was going on in the author's life as s/he was writing a book. Somehow it doesn't surprise me it wasn't written on the Canary Islands.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:20 PM on May 9, 2009


Thanks for this post. Great article...
posted by HuronBob at 6:23 PM on May 9, 2009


Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides. Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday.

"Yes, luv, we're off to a rocky finger of heather in the middle of the ocean, where it shall storm and gloom for months on end! It'll be just what we need, a real chance to get away from it all!"
posted by five fresh fish at 6:33 PM on May 9, 2009


The article asks why it was titled 1984? I wonder if they've read the book. I mean, it seemed quite clear to me when I read it that that was the year the story was supposed to be set in.

I think the question is why he chose that year to set it in.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:35 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


This post is double plus good.

But really, it's a great story, and I love Orwell's work, including Nineteen Eighty-Four (however much I despise the clichés it whelped into existence). Sadly, I read it too long ago to remember any critical thoughts I had about it. But I know I enjoyed it.

Though I want to stress that we shouldn't mythologise this last great novel and Animal Farm too much, as it can detract from Orwell's earlier pre-war work. The candid and brilliantly penetrating observation which is trademark was already present in Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, On the Road to Wigan Pier, and Coming up for air are all worth reading too.
posted by Sova at 6:36 PM on May 9, 2009


Here's a map showing the location of the house (Barnhill).
posted by gubo at 6:37 PM on May 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the post. Two tangential thoughts, not mentioning Orwell's presicence...although he did have Stalinism as a model...

1. As a hippie in the 60's, I used to wear a button (probably near my Make Love not War button) that said 1984 is coming. Well.

2. It's too bad that Orwellian has become an adjective assigned to just one of his works, and especially to a trend he opposed, as differentiated from the adjective Kafkaesque, an adjective generally suitable to one of the author's primary themes.
posted by kozad at 6:50 PM on May 9, 2009


Thank you. I just reread the book not long ago, and it's good to have some background to keep in mind for the next time.
posted by metagnathous at 6:51 PM on May 9, 2009


It is likely, however, that many people watching the Big Brother series on television... have no idea where the title comes from

Ugh, that's depressing. I would hope that most people, even reality show viewers, would have a basic enough familiarity with Western lit to be able to place that reference.

But then again, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, so what do I know?
posted by maqsarian at 6:52 PM on May 9, 2009


The article asks why it was titled 1984? I wonder if they've read the book. I mean, it seemed quite clear to me when I read it that that was the year the story was supposed to be set in.

Well right, but then why was it set in 1984? He could have set it in 1973, 2052, or whatever. Why that year? Was it just his estimation of how quickly society could reach that state from it's current one? That would be my guess, and that it holds no special meaning.
posted by delmoi at 6:52 PM on May 9, 2009


It holds no special meaning. The year was rather arbitrarily chosen. It was not a prediction of of a certain amount of time. Some people say it was simply 1948 with the last two numbers swapped around.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 6:56 PM on May 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Unless there is a joke here I am blind to, his choice of the title and date of 1984 is probably one of the best-known bits of English literary trivia: it is widely held that he got it by merely reversing the last two digits in 1948, the year he finished it.

Whether or not this is true, I cannot guarantee, but is widely held, so that makes it factesque.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:59 PM on May 9, 2009 [8 favorites]


Wikipedia has a section about the title.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:59 PM on May 9, 2009


Oh, Henry!
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:00 PM on May 9, 2009


Whether or not this is true, I cannot guarantee, but is widely held, so that makes it factesque.

So widely held, in fact, that it was mentioned in the article, which is why we're discussing it in the first place.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:00 PM on May 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Whee! Now someone needs to say "Discussing what in the first place?" so we can go around again.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:01 PM on May 9, 2009


Orwell Redux
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:03 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the article: "Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man". I'm not sure this is how I would characterize someone who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain, and lived as a bum to see what was like.

Interesting to read about the conditions 1984 was written in though.
posted by MetaMonkey at 7:06 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the article: "Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man". I'm not sure this is how I would characterize someone who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain, and lived as a bum to see what was like.

One of the interesting things about Homage to Catalonia, though, is how up-front Orwell is about being a kind of half-assed soldier. He spends most of the book in a ditch somewhere in Spain, wasting time and talking politics and not accomplishing much, and then he gets shot and goes home.

Which, of course, is precisely what I'd have done under the circumstances. But Orwell feels bad about it, and he's got this British War Hero ideal that he kicks himself for not living up to. I was really struck by how different our baseline assumptions about the military were. I wouldn't kick myself for being a bad soldier any more than I'd kick myself for being a bad mime or a bad orthodontist. In my world, being a good soldier requires a totally weird and specialized set of skills and a sort of nonstandard outlook on life. But Orwell seems to have been raised to expect that any decent, well-brought-up man of solid character ought to be able to fight.

So, I mean, yes. He saw a lot of stuff, and "unworldly" is a little weird. But I get the impression, from reading his writing, that he felt like a wimp and a homebody by contemporary standards of masculinity — and maybe by those standards he was.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:20 PM on May 9, 2009 [7 favorites]


But I get the impression, from reading his writing, that he felt like a wimp and a homebody by contemporary standards of masculinity — and maybe by those standards he was.

I know what you are saying (and indeed I find the difference between modern men, and men of Orwell's time rather interesting), yet, "gentle and unworldy", seems like a particularly poor and misleading description of the man.
posted by MetaMonkey at 7:29 PM on May 9, 2009


Thanks for this, Artw. 1984 was one of the books my dad gave me in middle school as something I shouldn't miss, along with Brave New World, The Foundation Trilogy, and Catcher in the Rye (which was pretty awesome to my 12-year-old self.) I loved reading the history of how he wrote his masterpiece. Contrast that scene with the scene of at least one reader: a thirteen-year-old girl at band camp in Arkansas in 1976, sitting cross-legged on a tall dresser, where no one could bother her while she read one. more. chapter.
posted by zinfandel at 7:33 PM on May 9, 2009


He nicked all his best ideas off Jack Common.
posted by Abiezer at 7:37 PM on May 9, 2009


Yeah, I'll give you it's a bad phrase. I think I understand what the author meant by it, but you're right, there surely would have been a better way to get that meaning across.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:43 PM on May 9, 2009


Not to be a crank, but wasn't 1984 just a shameless rip off of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We?
posted by OntologicalPuppy at 7:49 PM on May 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


I wonder what Orwell would have to say about the last 30 years. The war on terror, war on drugs, the EU, and so forth. I can't think of any writers who have approached his level of insight - and would appreciate pointers if my reading is lacking.
posted by MetaMonkey at 7:49 PM on May 9, 2009


What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us. - Neil Postman
posted by Joe Beese at 7:51 PM on May 9, 2009 [52 favorites]


Not to be a crank, but wasn't 1984 just a shameless rip off of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We?
Oh all right then, he nicked all his best ideas off Jack Common and Yevgeny Zamyatin.
posted by Abiezer at 7:52 PM on May 9, 2009


1984 was the first literary novel I ever really loved. If I say I read it in high school, I don't mean I read it for a class, or read it once. I studied the book the way some people do the Bible, re-reading chapters and passages here and there, going back through the whole work numerous times. When I first got really political, it was a major inspiration of mine.

The problem is, Orwell isn't a good positive guide. One of the most outspoken would-be disciples of Orwell is the ex-leftist Christopher Hitchens, who went from being "some kind of Trotskyist" (as the phrase goes) to a vocal supporter of the Iraq War, to the bumper crop of "New Atheist" writers who are cashing in on books about how, hey, there is probably no God. There's no positive guide there. You say "we want to avoid totalitarianism," which is nice, but so do many people. By depicting it as an inexorable system, unstoppable and untameable, Orwell really does a disservice to the question of "What is to be Done?".

It's kind of funny, because in reality the USSR – one of the obvious models for 1984 – was never as good at being totalitarian as Oceania is. Cracks in the system were everywhere, and there's a very real argument that they successfully undermined the system there. I think it's a weakness in Orwell's work that he either overestimates the ability to control, or underestimates the impact of tiny cracks in the system. It's forgivable given his historical horizons, but it needs to be said for modern readers.

Still, it's a masterful work. Spellbinding, haunting, and captivating, although I think its particular relevance is diminished, it should still be read widely.
posted by graymouser at 7:52 PM on May 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think its particular relevance is diminished

In his nation which has instituted a panopticon and made nearly all weapons illegal?

I don't think any other work of fiction has ever captured a flaw in human society so perceptively.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 8:25 PM on May 9, 2009


I enjoy reading about any authors experience as they write a book, where were they, were they married, did they love their spouse, did their spouse love them, etc and etc. Or: Was it written on a stormy island in winter with TB -- I mean, that's just amazing. His home had been blown apart, his wife had just died completely unexpectedly, he's got a fatal illness, and he gives us this. Gives it to us from his bed, as he spit blood, typing it out yet again, 125,000 words, but just a few pages at a time, because that's all he has strength for...

It's an amazing account, I'm so glad to have read it -- this guy really had some jam. To be put -- if only in my head, from the comfort of my air conditioned condo and bright lcd screen and the easiest possible tools for writing -- to be put for just a few minutes into that room, no electric, having just gone through a horrific bout of chemotherapy, weak as a sick wet kitten, to watch him in my minds eye as he created this thing, and re-wrote it and re-wrote it...

Why are you all arguing about why he named it this or that? Get into that room with this guy as he gives us this gift.

A great post -- great find, Artw -- best of the blue in a long, long while.
posted by dancestoblue at 8:41 PM on May 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


The irony is that the UK did largely become as he'd envisioned. What is it, six cameras for every citizen? The whole ASBO thing. Ouch.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:47 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell is pretty awesome. It provides a lot of context for his books, and it's also a man-on-the-street perspective on history.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:48 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think it's a weakness in Orwell's work that he either overestimates the ability to control, or underestimates the impact of tiny cracks in the system.

The basic idea of 1984 is that words control how we think. That alone is more terrifying than anything else.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:50 PM on May 9, 2009


I have been rereading 1984 every few years since I was 15 in 1982. It's one of the few books that I keep going back to, and finding something new in each time.

My pet peeve is that the word "Orwellian" has come to fill in for a mishmash of concepts that basically mean that the person using the word does not like what is being described. That is exactly what Orwell said had happened to the word "fascism".

Also, when people say "Orwellian" they are usually referring to some sort of authoritarianism. That is not all he wrote about. I prefer to think of Babe - Pig in the City and Charlotte's Web as "Orwellian" because they feature talking animals.
posted by Cookiebastard at 8:55 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


The irony is that the UK did largely become as he'd envisioned. What is it, six cameras for every citizen? The whole ASBO thing. Ouch.
It's the automated boots stamping in our faces that really hurt.
I live in "communist" China and this is no longer a totalitarian society of the kind Orwell warned against. It's fatuous to pretend the UK or any of the Western democracies come even close, and something of an insult to the man's legacy. He was a far more serious thinker.
posted by Abiezer at 8:57 PM on May 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


#6 - "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power."

I should reread this book, it's been awhile. Thanks for the link, Artw.
posted by lullaby at 9:02 PM on May 9, 2009


I had a bit of a start when the article said that his flat was wrecked by a doodlebug, until I figured out that it was probably one of these.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:06 PM on May 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I just finished reading We, and I can definitely see the influence it's had on other dystopian works. Overall I think 1984 is the most prescient and had me pondering the current state of the world.
posted by Talanvor at 9:16 PM on May 9, 2009


Yeah, I recently read We for the first time and sure, it influenced many things that came after, but We reads more like poetic science fiction, while 1984 is more firmly embedded in reality and is the harsher for it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:29 PM on May 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Did THE REAL ROOM 101 exist?

At the BBC? 2 3 4

and if you didn't notice: 1984 (the film starring John Hurt) has recently been added to the Netflix "watch instantly" feature despite the fact that it's unavailable for DVD rental.
posted by Hammond Rye at 9:43 PM on May 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


There's a photo of Barnhill on this blog post about Corryvreckan, the famous whirlpool of the Hebrides. It's featured in the fantastic film made in 1945 I Know Where I'm Going^. Hardly anything else will give you the sense of island life in that era. Although there were telephones, the lack of immediate access to the mainland set them apart in a quite culturally distant way.

I have no further thematic connection to draw here, I'm just surprised I didn't realize how close the location was to this film.
posted by dhartung at 10:14 PM on May 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


graymouser It's kind of funny, because in reality the USSR – one of the obvious models for 1984 – was never as good at being totalitarian as Oceania is. Cracks in the system were everywhere, and there's a very real argument that they successfully undermined the system there. I think it's a weakness in Orwell's work that he either overestimates the ability to control, or underestimates the impact of tiny cracks in the system. It's forgivable given his historical horizons, but it needs to be said for modern readers.

Well the argument to be made is that while the united soviet state is gone, a measure of Big Brother has been well and truly internalized in several generations of its people and in us. Try spending any time outside of groupthink and alone and the kind of experience you will have, won't be dissimilar to Winston.

For me 1984 is a full list of ugly truisms and that makes it a hard book to love. "Ignorance is Strength" is the one that gives me the shivers. I can see how it might be a book of fears and warnings that one has to get off ones chest but would it have been different if he went to Hawaii and recovered his health.

Also Little Brother By Cory Doctorow is a more positive spin on the Orwellian potential present.

@Joe Beese Huxley admits that he loves big brother right up front. Foot stamping is so 20th century - now its all about the Krispy Kreme donuts stuffed into your face forever.
posted by vicx at 10:28 PM on May 9, 2009


The article asks why it was titled 1984?.

He finished the book in 1948 and switched around the last two digits.
posted by mono blanco at 10:31 PM on May 9, 2009


When I think "Orwellian," I think of NewSpeak and the desire to control people internally by controlling language.

Mere compliance in action does not satisfy. What you compulsorily must do or what is forbidden which you must avoid, these are not enough. Forget pipe bombs, or anonymous brochures, or even discussion amongst one's own friends. Rather, those with the Orwellian urge would attempt to erase even disagreement in the privacy of another's mind.

When the desire for control extends to how another thinks, feels, and reacts, that is Orwellian. When the mechanism for accomplishing this starts at diction, moves through what the subject must be made afraid to say, and finally the deliberate replacement of perfectly acceptable words with obviously problematic language (and that you must get the subject to accept the inherent contradictions and smile about it anyway), that is NewSpeak. What you thought was used for communication is instead deconstructed into gibberish designed to replace your own internal dialogue.

NewSpeak is the lever in the hand of the method, ready to move the mind; the fulcrum is the human desire to resolve contradictions. It is first to promote the thought that you have external listeners who will eavesdrop on everything you say, ready to disapprove. You know what they find objectionable because it requires almost no inference at all. Then, because you are reminded of it in all ways at all times. you internalize that listener. The spies they wish you to fear might everywhere just might as well may be, once the putative spy's virtualized in a chamber of your own mind. Next, the strain of having a supplied superego, ready to snitch at any forbidden thought, that is where the torture starts. Mere physical torture can be superfluous and is granted only as a further demonstration of your hopelessness.

Finally you quell the conflict between this internal judge and your own voice by relinquishing your thoughts. The only resolution offered is to give up your own manner of thinking for another's ideology:

"But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."

NewSpeak is not merely fitted to the hands of fascists and religious oppressors. It does not require colorless, crumbling concrete and shapeless uniforms. Perhaps one of the greatest horrors of the Orwellian method is that it might be used for any ideology which does not prize disagreement; all that is required is the urge to pick up the tool when you suspect another of harboring thoughts you find objectionable. That temptation, I am afraid, will never go out of style.
posted by adipocere at 10:34 PM on May 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


I think it's a weakness in Orwell's work that he either overestimates the ability to control, or underestimates the impact of tiny cracks in the system. It's forgivable given his historical horizons, but it needs to be said for modern readers.

Well, also, it's a cautionary tale. That's what you do in a cautionary tale — you show the worst-case scenario so people are motivated to avoid it.

A book where Big Brother was a grandiose fuckup barely holding things together with violence and duct tape wouldn't have been nearly so effective, even if was a more accurate picture of how real-world dictatorships tend to turn out.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:38 PM on May 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


and if you didn't notice: 1984 (the film starring John Hurt) has recently been added to the Netflix "watch instantly" feature despite the fact that it's unavailable for DVD rental.

Also available here.
posted by flamk at 10:43 PM on May 9, 2009


What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us. - Neil Postman

Very interesting quote. After reading 1984 I started to get into other dystopian novels, Brave New World being the first I read after that. Although many may disagree, I found Brave New World to have a more relevant message to our times, despite the rather odd ending. That's a great quote though for summing up the themes of both books. Thanks Joe Beese.
posted by leviticus8908 at 12:01 AM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


He finished the book in 1948 and switched around the last two digits.

And the answer to why it was called 1963 would have been that he took the year in which he finished the book, and then what, added 15?

The comment above, made a few times in this thread, is interesting, as it shows how few people actually bothered to read the article linked in the original post. But that's the perfect excuse to link to this, also from the Guardian. It reveals that Orwell's 1984 is the book people are most likely to lie about having read. You have to love snark like this:

If you assume the respondents are at least vaguely representative of the nation as a whole, almost half of us have pretended to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, which means when you're lying about it to impress someone, there's a very good chance they haven't read it either. Both of you are hiding your true selves in order to avoid recrimination, which, ironically enough, is precisely what the citizens in Nineteen Eighty-Four wind up doing, not that you'd know. My favourite sequence in the book, incidentally, is the bit where the monkey drives the car.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:04 AM on May 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Excellent article; thank you for posting it.

I posted the link on twitter and got this back. Couldn't help laughing.

I had a bit of a start when the article said that his flat was wrecked by a doodlebug, until I figured out that it was probably one of these.

Thanks! I just figured it was some kind of terrible, terrible insect, and considered putting England on my no-visit list like I just did Australia.
posted by sugarfish at 12:14 AM on May 10, 2009


.
posted by heyho at 12:15 AM on May 10, 2009


graymouser wrote: I think it's a weakness in Orwell's work that he either overestimates the ability to control, or underestimates the impact of tiny cracks in the system. It's forgivable given his historical horizons, but it needs to be said for modern readers.

Stalinesque authoritarianism didn't work for long before those cracks started showing, true . . . although I'd reckon the real problem was simply maintaining a stable economic system with that level of control invested in everything. It's hard to gauge whether those cracks necessarily would have developed into a loosening of control or not. It's even hard to know what were "cracks" and what were simply remnants of earlier patterns of thought, or whether something was a matter of control or just something else quite inexplicable.

When I was a little girl in Yugoslavia, my father - a very literate man, who owned a printing company and several bookshops - was accused, by a relative, of making a remark against Tito. This may very well have happened. In any case, he was arrested and held for some period of time - a night or two to maybe a little under a week. (I was young and my memory is foggy and the situation was certainly not explained fully at the time, though I more or less understood it.) Bosnians tend to fret, so there was a lot of anxiety in the air, until he was released, at which point pent-up worries came pouring forth. He had been beaten - how seriously I can't say. The consensus is that he was "different" afterwards, but it's tough to know how true this was, or whether the event was just shocking enough to alter behavior consciously. Having both been killed, my parents aren't there to be asked and I don't really think I'd get a straight answer (in the American sense) from any of the few surviving people who were adults then. It's a common thing to simply not discuss the inglorious past in any detail. One is considered a bit "off" in even wondering, which, of course, does not enhance one's likelihood in getting a thorough response.

Shortly after my father was released, my parents heartily encouraged me to join the Young Pioneers, which I was delighted to do - they had camp-outs and folk-dancing and sing-alongs and snappy outfits, and I was a bit crazy about all of that. The Communist / Titoist indoctrination was relatively subtle, and as it permeated everything in society anyway, it was nothing new. But my parents were not Titoists, and I recall my grandmother shaking her head sadly when I would put on my little red scarf and special shirt and skirt and beret. So was I made to join in order that my family show a little more dedication to the regime? I've no idea.

In the war, after my parents were killed, I found a large stash of books under our roof, while hunting for things to burn. There weren't a lot of banned books in Yugoslavia really; what happened was that somethings just couldn't get printed or were printed in very small editions or in poor translations which dulled their impact. Most of the books I found were clearly "frowned upon" titles or by "suspect" authors. Weird, I thought, that my father felt it necessary to hide them, as literary discussions were generally pretty open (and a common thing) in Communist times, despite what one might think.

When I returned to Bosnia for the first time, nearly two years ago, I found that I had lost much of my native language. But my aunts told me how proud my mother would have been of me, for my English was "nearly" as good as hers had been. This was a shock, as I'd had no idea at all that my mother could speak a word of English. Why was this kept a secret to me? I wasn't even taught English (though not encouraged, it was certainly a desirable talent) and couldn't speak a word when I arrived in America.

All of which is a long-winded of saying that the nature of "control" in my Yugoslavia was and remains hard to know, even for people like me who are reasonably intelligent and grew up under it. It's worth noting too, that the mildly repressive Yugoslavian regime (compared to Albania or Romania, for instance) might have carried on forever, were it not for a bunch of bozos who turned it into quasi-ethnic/nationalistic mayhem - something Tito was adept at keeping under wraps. So those "cracks" - it's hard to know if they would have amounted to much. In terms of control, Yugoslavia was kind of between the USSR and what we believed America to be. The idea was to keep the bread and butter flowing, to offer enough intellectual freedom that people don't realize how precious it is, and to push here and there to tidy things up ideologically - the love of Tito in the Pioneers, the magic of God's creationism in Kansas science classes. For me, the comparison is easy. Twenty-four hours of daily TMZ keeps most people from caring what's happening in Moldova or wherever. I voted today right before the polls closed (for the mayoral election in Austin) and was told that I was the 79th voter of more than 3500 in my precinct - slightly better than a 2% turnout! Who needs control when you've so successfully nurtured total apathy?

Orwell's depiction of control is horrifying largely because we see it through the eyes of the "last man in Europe." One could tell the story from the point of view of someone who really does love Big Brother - someone less than a "man" - and this story might resemble modern-day America or Europe quite closely. (I like to think of a Sarah Palin townhall meeting when I think of this.) The brutalist elements of 1984 portray a seemingly archaic terror, but hey, despite the low level of intelligence evinced by most media today, it's still not Newspeak, and one still needs a prescription for anything like Brave New World's soma. In this light, one can read 1984 and be rather charmed by the naive notion that control need ever be taken by such extreme measures.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:39 AM on May 10, 2009 [40 favorites]


The brutalist elements of 1984 portray a seemingly archaic terror

"Brutalist" is a pun on the french term "béton brut" which means raw concrete, it's a style of architecture, which isn't really all that bad, it's a sort of post-modern style and it can be kind of imposing if you think about it that way, and people often associate it with 'government' since a lot of projects and whatnot got designed in that style. 1984 came out before brutalist architecture really got popular.
posted by delmoi at 1:54 AM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


The basic idea of 1984 is that words control how we think. That alone is more terrifying than anything else.

That might have been what people thought in 1949, but the idea that language controls thought is the (strong) Sapir Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic determinism and it's basically been discarded. You can think whatever you want, even without the words to express them.
posted by delmoi at 2:03 AM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've read old Soviet literary journals as a part of my research and I can tell you that they really didn't like Orwell there. Ordinary people couldn't read his books (they were translated and printed in the Soviet Union, but only in a few hundred copies or so, for the perusal of the "inner circle" and for the closed collections of a handful of libraries), but the literary press still wrote about them and how crappy they were, and what an awful person Orwell was (they even went as far as misspelling his name, calling him "a George Oarwell").


Dee Xtrovert
: Stalinesque authoritarianism didn't work for long before those cracks started showing, true . . . although I'd reckon the real problem was simply maintaining a stable economic system with that level of control invested in everything. It's hard to gauge whether those cracks necessarily would have developed into a loosening of control or not. It's even hard to know what were "cracks" and what were simply remnants of earlier patterns of thought, or whether something was a matter of control or just something else quite inexplicable.

I don't think there ever was a time when the Stalinist system was "perfect", without any cracks. It was always a sort of a compromise between earlier social structures (which didn't change overnight), Stalin's present plans and ideas (it's not like he had a clear vision of the future, of how things would lead up to one another), and everyone else's ambitions and expectations. Even in a totalitarian society, you can never control everything, but you as the dictator can have a major influence on how things turn out. But the secret is not to let it show. If people think you have absolute control, they will act as if you do. All you have to do is set a few examples and they will work it out themselves. This is pretty much how the Stalinist system worked: the margins of the "permitted" area were set from the above, often setting a few positive and negative examples, and then you just had to fit yourself inside these margins.

Of course, this system needs repressions and fear to work - but not fear of repressions, but fear of what would happen without them. Convince people that repressions are necessary, and they will obey. This is what you could see happening in the Soviet Union: repressions could take place and took place because people - even the victims - were convinced that they were necessary. Stalin's power was absolute because he was able to convince everyone that it was necessarily so - and that they needed him to have absolute power (my grandmother once told me how her mother had cried when Stalin died because she was afraid of what would happen without him - one would think she would have been glad to hear he was gone). Downplaying Stalin after his death was the only reasonable thing Khruschev could do, because how could he have topped him, "Lenin's truest pupil"?
posted by daniel_charms at 2:17 AM on May 10, 2009


I've wondered about the date as well.

I have two theories. One, the story does actually occur in 1984. The title allows the reader to further separate himself from the dystopia in that he can cling to this basic and fundamental fact that is unavailable to the protagonist.

The more interesting theory to my mind is sort of the opposite. We don't know exactly when the story is taking place, and the year is arbitrary. Yeah, maybe it could be 1984, but given the time of writing it doesn't seem like the past events as recounted by the protagonist could have all happened that quickly, following on from WWII.

In this second scenario we are drawn in with the protagonist to the environment in which the past has been wiped clean so effectively and history rewritten so thoroughly that the Christian calendar is useless, irrelevant, and unknowable.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:18 AM on May 10, 2009


From the article: "Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man". I'm not sure this is how I would characterize someone who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain, and lived as a bum to see what was like.

Yeah, that line really jarred for me, too. I may be misremembering, but did he actually choose to live as a bum? I thought he ran out of cash while a tutoring job fell through, but it's been a while since I read Down and Out, so I could be wrong.

One of the interesting things about Homage to Catalonia, though, is how up-front Orwell is about being a kind of half-assed soldier. He spends most of the book in a ditch somewhere in Spain, wasting time and talking politics and not accomplishing much, and then he gets shot and goes home.

The thing is, of course, that this would probably be a pretty good description of what most soldiers spend their time doing.

(At least, until research from WW II, in particular, found as few as a third of soldiers ever fired their weapons because it turns out people don't actually like killing each other that much...)

Not to be a crank, but wasn't 1984 just a shameless rip off of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We?

Does no-one read the fucking article before they post?
posted by rodgerd at 2:47 AM on May 10, 2009


Digested Classics: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:55 AM on May 10, 2009


Does no-one read the fucking article before they post?

Yeah, a lot of the discussion here is remarkably pointless, especially the idiotic claims about the title. If you're too lazy to read the article or glance at Wikipedia, here's a clue: nobody knows why Orwell chose that title/date. There are various guesses, but we'll never know. Get over it.

For me, what stood out in the article was this:

As he prepared to leave hospital Orwell received the letter from his publisher which, in hindsight, would be another nail in his coffin. "It really is rather important," wrote Warburg to his star author, "from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible."

Just when he should have been convalescing Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising Warburg to deliver it in "early December",


I can only hope Fred Warburg had the decency to feel bitterly ashamed of himself. He probably never gave it a second thought, though, and went on squeezing other authors for manuscripts. Bastard.
posted by languagehat at 6:04 AM on May 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


As someone trained as a historian, one of the most frightful things I read in 1984, was the re-writing of history. That the government took original documents, re-wrote what they said, and then destroyed the originals. I find it nearly incomprehensibly scary to think that in the world of 1984, no one would be able to look to the past for a time different than their own. What is, has always been, and the past has been stolen away from all for the purposes of furthering the party line and strengthening it's control.
posted by Atreides at 7:00 AM on May 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


The Guardian's summary of the book's critical elements skipped on The Brotherhood, or at least the character of Emmanuel Goldstein: the concept of a funded or even entirely fictitious enemy, built to justify hate and the industry of hate, is now all too recognisable.
posted by specialbrew at 8:52 AM on May 10, 2009


seriously that book is going to rule so hard
posted by speicus at 9:28 AM on May 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Before I'd learned about Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis and its critique, I couldn't really believe the depiction of finality and power of newspeak in Orwell's world. Nothing in concept newspeak would prevent or disable people from drawing images of merry sexcrimes in bathroom stalls, and based on that thought, why not drawing subversive flowers, happy faces and images conveying optimistic messages? There are many, many important parts of life that we never bother to find words to describe. Taking words out of our mouth to describe some existing wordy good stuff wouldn't set us back much.

The ability of mankind to draw penises whenever there is a shared space is our hope and salvation.
posted by Free word order! at 9:51 AM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We" was originally going to be called "Ew", so they say.
posted by Rumple at 10:24 AM on May 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


2024
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:31 AM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


So why did he call it 1984?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:47 AM on May 10, 2009


The article asks why it was titled 1984? I wonder if they've read the book. I mean, it seemed quite clear to me when I read it that that was the year the story was supposed to be set in.

In defence of the Guardian, I am quite sure that their commenters on Orwell have read the books. It's hardly Fox News.
posted by jaduncan at 11:04 AM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.
posted by anthill at 12:05 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


2017 (a review, in Russian).

Google tells me that the books been translated to English, but the translation isn't out yet.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:27 PM on May 10, 2009


A book where Big Brother was a grandiose fuckup barely holding things together with violence and duct tape wouldn't have been nearly so effective...

Book, no. But film? Ah!
posted by SPrintF at 2:14 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I find it nearly incomprehensibly scary to think that in the world of 1984, no one would be able to look to the past for a time different than their own. What is, has always been, and the past has been stolen away from all for the purposes of furthering the party line and strengthening it's control.

Much easier in a digital world, of course. Plop, down the memory hole go those inconvenient documents!
posted by rodgerd at 3:23 PM on May 10, 2009


@daniel_charms: my grandmother once told me how her mother had cried when Stalin died because she was afraid of what would happen without him - one would think she would have been glad to hear he was gone

When Stalin died, my mother (who was a child) staged a funeral for him by burying a dog turd in a shoebox. Mind you, this was in Poland, not the USSR.
posted by acb at 4:54 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Orwell is referred to as 'the prophet' in Burma/Myanmar.
posted by one teak forest at 8:59 PM on May 11, 2009


Perhaps I should clarify: many of you are talking about recent times in which Orwellian qualities arose from the US gov't, and things that exist in other countries (cameras in London) but in Burma/Myanmar itself the super oppressive conditions have existed for over a decade now. Hope that encourages you to read the NPR article....
posted by one teak forest at 11:30 PM on May 11, 2009


Re - the title. This blogger makes an interesting and plausible - but inconclusive - argument that Orwell named it 1984 in riposte to GK Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill, which was set in 1984, but which (I've not read it) describes a London which had evolved into an apathetic place where nobody really gave a toss what happened. Orwell loathed Chesterton, apparently.
posted by ComfySofa at 3:54 AM on May 13, 2009


Follow up article by Robert McCrum, which includes this lovely anecdote:
Among the many fascinating responses I had to the article was an enthralling letter from a retired Scottish doctor, Professor James Williamson, who revealed that he had treated Orwell in Hairmyres hospital in 1948, politely correcting a misconception I'd repeated about the use of streptomycin in Orwell's treatment.

Williamson's letter gave an Edinburgh phone number, so I rang him at home, on spec. He turned out to be almost 90, but an eager informant, as sharp as a tack, and full of good recollections about his days as a junior doctor.

He could not, in all honesty, say that Orwell had made a great impression, though he had seen him every day for several months to administer his medication. "He was rather quiet, and very polite," he remembered. But he did recall two things. First, the strong aroma of Orwell's roll-up cigarettes and, second, the sound of Orwell's typewriter going at all hours.
McCrum then goes on to analyze Orwell's effacingness.
posted by Kattullus at 7:51 AM on June 2, 2009


The genius of George Orwell
posted by Artw at 3:09 PM on June 9, 2009


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