1984 , read in 2009 (thoughts and reflections)

I read 1984 in the space of 3-4 days. This is a surprise for me. Often, books that I really like and get into (which happens to me about once every 5 years) are read very quickly. I read multiple books simultaneously over the months and weeks: I’m still reading Twilight (I’m on p18x), I’m still reading a book on modal logic and non-classical logical systems (excellent to read on the tube, may I add), and I’m slowly wading through Aquinas. For some reason, perhaps its availability on my bookshelf, and the few articles I saw on the book, I was reminded of Orwell’s original work and wanted to revisit it.

I had read 1984 when I was about 13, at the same time that I had a very sinister english teacher. This offending english teacher had a cold grey face and bordered on sadistic; she would treat us in very demeaning and harsh ways at some times while appearing entirely casual and jovial at the next, one was always at a worry as to how she would react. She was a teacher who assumed too much her class. We were asked to read 1984 as a background reading task, at an age and level where ‘background reading’ didn’t exist in our vocabulary. I read 1984 when I was thirteen, and i barely understood it. All I remembered about it as a bit about how the world was depicted, and the sex scenes.

Reading it now, I have a much more vivid imagination of the book. I imagine London when I read 1984. The proles exist today, as they always have, and I suppose, as they always will. I understood the manner of the people. I understood the annoyances and ugliness of the reality that it shows. I particularly resonated to the description of the razor blade situation: namely, that in the futuristic world of 1984; razorblades and other necessary conveniences like electrical or housing maintenance are so scarce that improvisation is a must. I shall list some of my considerations of the book in a list format:

1. Winston Smith represents the human spirit, this is explicitly said in the torture scene. The human spirit is the siprit of rebellion against obvious repression, the subversion of conformity when it needs and rightly needs to be oppressed, and the curiousity of one’s sense of place in the world, whether of history or their biography. In numerous occaisions, Smith defies the party line, by writing his thoughts in a diary, and by having thoughts at all; he goes against the doctrines that are unquestionable by society. The moral of the story is that the human spirit is mutable. Despite objecting against the party, every person, like the human spirit in general, has its limitation. Every person has their ‘room 101’, the point at which all debate or objection or will power is to be thrwarted in a sense of fear and self-preservation. The story of 1984 is the failure of the human spirit. Winston refused to be a martyr and accept certain death as an enemy of a party, but instead, it is uncertain if he ends up being killed by the party, but it is certain, that his spirit is killed when he defects to the party and his romantic love.

2. Re-writing history does make me think a bit. There are many people who question the figures about the deaths after world war 2.  A certain story about historical events are given and accepted. While it is in the space of historical debate and scholarship to question history and our interpretation of history, there is an almost unbearable prejudice and normative impulse to leave some issues as unquestionable. People who question the 9/11 attacks or interpret it in a way different to the ‘official story’, or the ‘six million’ figure of the holocaust, are labelled as eccentric at best or somehow deviously immoral at the worst. There are some aspects or tidbits of history or our political sentiment that are almost like INGSOC’s party line. I have no position about questioning historical figures, although the social acceptance of positive discrimination and ‘diversity’ policies  to the extent of undermining meritocracy and the status of elite (viz meritocracy) institutions are abhorrent.

3. Doublespeak. Although not as obvious as in 1984, i remember back in the late 90s how I heard two things: hospitals and experiences in the NHS are terrible, and, hospitals are getting increasnigly better, more hospitals are being built, targets are being met and exceeded, and more money is being put into hospitals. Healthcare was doublespeak. Contradictory to the point of being completely obscrue as to what the clear and balanced truth was. I suspect that a similar ‘doublespeak’ will happen with higher education in the near future.

4. Ministries. The government ministries, whenever I hear the names of them, make me laugh out loud. There is a ministry for sport and a ministry for culture. I suspect that the culture secretary is a philistine fool, and I suspect that the sport secretary is pyhsically unfit. Although this is a personal insult more than an argument; a serious point must be made as to the kind of extent such a ministry can genuinely help rather than hinder the object of their ministry. How much, for instance, can a ministry of sport help either an individual sport, or sport as a whole. There are some sports which are so established not to be really addressed by a government (except when it goes wrong). Football has a national and international federation where conduct is managed and there is some sucess to the bureaucracy of this organisation, insofar as football is a beloved pasttime. A similar case may be said of Rugby, and to a lesser extent, Cricket.

It is a fair point to make that sports that do not have commercial help do need governmental support. Athletes must maintain ‘amateur’ status in order to compete for international competitions like the olympics, and finding financial support will always be difficult. However, to have a ministry of sport by definition is to establish a notion of an ‘establishment’ of sports. To focus on olympic sports is to ignore underground or emerging sports. A similar point can be made of culture. Do we support avant garde movements that are too new to be known whether they will succeed or be fruitful? or, does the place of a government ministry place unhealthy support towards certain kinds of perspectives on art, culture and archictecture (consider the unhelpful case of Prince Charles on debates concerning modern archictecture).

5. How should we interpret this book? There are many people who consider ‘Orwellian’ as an adjective for the current political and social climate. I don’t think that is very accurate, for the fascistic control of the government and the overt nature of the ‘thought police’ is too far away from how control is established. As a side point, I wonder how Foucault would have thought of 1984. Perhaps he did indeed read it. I should check out if he did know of it. Foucauldian is perhaps a more apt depiction of the degrees of control over conduct than Orwellian. The discourses of the mid-20th centruy had advanced with the end of Stalinism. A next step of reading 1984, if one is trying to apprehend our notion of the current age, should be complimented by reading Foucault.

Michael

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