Monday, 24 April 2017

#4 A book set in the future

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Okay, so this book isn’t exactly set in the future. But, in my defense this grim old classic was written in 1948, predicting a dystopian future set in 1984 – and that prediction may be coming true today. And it is uncannily creepy. 

[Statutory Warning: Any parallel one may find, connecting this dystopia to modern day life is purely intentional.]

Opening with one of the most memorable lines, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”, 1984 is set in an imagined dystopian society called Oceania. Winston Smith is the thirty-nine year old protagonist who works in the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue as it is known as in Newspeak, the official language. The world in 1984 is divided into three states, originated from the ashes from World War II: Oceania (British Isles, the Americas, Pacific, Australia), Eurasia (Europe & Russia), and Eastasia (the rest of it). Continuous warfare between those three (who hold similar ideologies) is required to keep the society's order and peace.

The regime which governs Oceania has complete and manipulative control on the lives of the people. To begin with, there is the enormous poster with a man’s face staring at you , which is captioned ‘BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU’  - and it is plastered everywhere – in his room, in the corridors, in his workplace, across the streets….the all-seeing eye follows one everywhere. I don’t think one could convey the fact that you are always being watched more eerily than through this single image of the relentless eye.  

 “Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed – no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull” 

Winston’s life is merely a dull, lifeless, routine, made insufferable with mindless drudgery and continuous falsification of history (which was what he did daily). One day he begins a diary – a crime, which if detected could be punishable by death, or at least twenty-five years in a forced labour-camp. But he starts writing nevertheless.

At this point let me point out the importance of language, and why his act of thinking, and writing is revolutionary. As mentioned earlier, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania. It had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. The purpose of Newspeak was to provide a medium of expression to the devotees of Ingsoc, and simultaneously make all other modes of thought impossible. For instance, the word free exists in Newspeak in a restricted meaning, i.e one could say that , “This building is free from polluted air” or “this dish is free from artificial colouring”, but one cannot use it in the old sense of “intellectual or political freedom”  since such a concept doesn’t exist in Newspeak, it has become nameless. 

“Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

So a word like bad isn’t used anymore. Rather it is good or ungood. Or to express the superlative – doublegood or doubleplusgood.Newspeak is used with a conscious purpose – to make speech independent of consciousness. For instance, by abbreviating a name, its meaning is narrowed and slightly altered. It cuts off the associations with the word – for instance Nazi or Comintern or Gestapo. Comintern is the abbreviated form of Communist International – a phrase which makes you think of the idealogical standpoint of communism and its associated symbols, but when reduced to Comintern, one can utter it without any association to those concepts. Language which eliminates thought. Scary, right? 

“In a world of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Thus, when Winston writes, not in Newspeak, but in the language he is supposed to have forgotten, with an ink pen, which had become an obsolete instrument by then, becomes a revolutionary act in itself. 

At work, Winston has to constantly work on past news reports and alter it as per the requirements of the present. Let me explain, Oceania is at war at all times with either Eastasia or Eurasia. But this can keep changing…..crazy, but that is what happens. If the government was fighting with Eastasia for the past three weeks and suddenly they become their allies instead, ALL the reports have to be altered. “If all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth.” That’s what the Ministry of Truth does, it didn’t merely change the past but changed it continuously.

Another word to be explained here is doublethink. It means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. Conscious deception was the key to the party’s power – any power really. Let me use a dialogue from a 2011 film Detachment , where Adrien Brody in the role of a substitute teacher, Henry Barthes quotes Orwell, to emphasize the need to read: 

"How are you to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you? Doublethink. To deliberately believe in lies, while knowing they're false.

Examples of this in everyday life: "Oh, I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I need to be thin, famous, fashionable." Our young men today are being told that women are whores, bitches, things to be screwed, beaten, shit on, and shamed. This is a marketing holocaust. Twenty-fours hours a day for the rest of our lives, the powers that be are hard at work dumbing us to death.

 So to defend ourselves, and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read. To stimulate our own imagination, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds."

Well, if you think this is that kind of a book where, things are so bad, it can only get better – you would be wrong. Winston starts an affair with Julia, a co-worker. They meet in a secret room to avoid the constant surveillance and control imposed on them otherwise. But they get caught eventually. And after that, it is a painfully stark description of the torture meted out to these ‘thought criminals’ at the hands of the Thought Police. I probably shouldn’t reveal it all – but it is brutal, nasty and mind-numbing torture. They in fact torture their prisoners according to what scares them the most – individually. And what scares the living daylights of Winston? You wouldn’t have seen this coming – but the answer is rats. So, you can probably put it together.

Orwell’s vision of the future is grim, probably too grim. But with Donald Trump quoting ‘alternative facts’  we come to a shocking realization that what 1984 predicted is probably coming true.After all as he Winston himself realizes: “The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you already know.”

1984  with its illustrious record, is however far from perfect. Its characters lack depth, its rhetoric is sometimes didactic, its plot (well, half of it anyway) was supposedly lifted from Yegeny Zumyatin’s We (written in 1924, banned from publishing in the Soviet Union till 1988). It is unlikely we would have heard of We, but it is said to have inspired both Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. See, a bit of erasure of history already at work!
Initially titled The Last Man in Europe , this dystopian fiction by George Orwell has withstood the test of time and is meant to show us what can happen if we give in to the powers of unconscious ignorance. In this age where conformity is more important than actual facts, it is important we preserve our own minds. Hopefully, we will.

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