It has been nearly thirty years, but we still find ourselves reading the future as if it is light years away all the while recognizing the fulfillment of many forebodings as happening during the present. It happened this semester that I have had some opportunity to read for pleasure, and this led to a novel I had been planning to read for some time, George Orwell’s 1984.
If it is at all possible for a new teacher to over plan, I believe I caught myself doing so and thus resolved to reign in my hectic schedule with a dash of pleasure here and there. Despite choosing an excruciatingly depressing novel to relax too, I did find enjoyment in what is perhaps the most popular of dystopic novels. Orwell certainly did not begin questioning the future, but he may as well be called the “father of modern dystopia” for his work with 1984. As literature I — in my snobbish arrogance — actually do not consider the book to be anything spectacular — at least at first glance. The prose was very well done, but for me the symbolism seemed to fall flat, and the novel became nearly too preachy. The darkness did not seem dark enough, and yet it was such a far cry from satire, and I nearly felt it was lost in some realm in between. But perhaps this is what Orwell was going for. In any case, there were no images to which I could really attach myself and make sense, and all the images that were given were bleak. Negative emotion suffocated positive emotion leaving the reader seeing grimy rooms, smelling moldy scents, and feeling claustrophobic as result. Like most twentieth century novels, it was far too psychological at times for me to care at all. It offered no hope.
Though I found these frustrations in the novel, I do consider it a highly important work of literature. And importance is of higher necessity than literary value by its nature. Though it may have lacked the darkness one finds in Crime in Punishment and the satire one discovers in Swift, it offers something else entirely: hate. We do not empathize, do not even sympathize with Winston Smith, the protagonist. We cannot because his situation is foreign to us. We cannot because Winston is not a hero. He is not lovable. He is not even memorable. As he is told at the end of the novel, he is nothing. Even his name is a drab name (not to offend Smiths) that is quickly forgotten and discarded. Yet, the novel teaches us to hate Big Brother, to resent everything that Big Brother exemplifies. Big Brother is the root of our problems, and we are justified in hating him.
As I read the novel, I imagined my conservative brothers and sisters reading and lauding the book as a perfect example of how corruption in government can lead to a totalitarian regime that eventually suppresses the masses. But this is where we fail. Who would argue with this novel? Who would stand up and fight for Big Brother? It is a generalized “absolute” in nearly every culture that totalitarian governments are evil. If you argue against this novel, you are arguing against the very nature of man. Every man desires freedom. The freedom to work, to play, to live as he would. This is where conservatism in America is falling apart. We are so focused on what Big Brother is doing to us, that we often forget what we are doing to ourselves. We cherish freedom, but we use freedom as a cover up to watch more sitcoms and sports as our fellow humans die of starvation.
I felt, therefore, that the novel was absolutely right. Our world could very well be heading to some form of a totalitarian regime. We see our freedoms falling by the wayside as each election passes us by. I get that. But I also feel that the novel, and conservatism, are only half right. It is not “everyone else’s” fault that we are suppressed. It is our own. The novel suggests that a revolution of some sort occurring roughly at the end of the 1950s or early 1960s turned our world upside down, leaving it in three major empires. The new government of Oceania, where we spend our time in the novel, is governed by Big Brother. Everything is controlled by the government down to one’s very thought. It is a fascinating (and well created) world that Winston Smith inhabits. Everything is monitored by the telescreens which can pick up on even the slightest twitch in facial expression. It is, like the world we inhabit now, a world in which the search for isolation is becoming increasingly more difficult. As Big Brother not only controls speech and thought, he also alters the past.
This altering of the past made a significant impact on me as I read. The book is set in the future but is almost more about the past. Winston’s very job is to alter the past by changing written records so as to make the regime look better. The past is very alterable in Winston’s world. In fact, it is so alterable, that it begs the question: what really is the past? The question is brought to Winston at some point in the novel, and he responds with the declaration that the past is in the written records. But when the records can be changed and tweaked at any whim as happens in the novel, Winston mentions that the past is also kept in our memories. We cannot forget our past, and thus it is kept alive in our memory. Ironically, Winston has even his memory finagled, and we leave the novel with as many questions about what happened as to what will happen.
Whenever we read dystopian fiction, we must, of course, apply the literature to our own day and age. What is Orwell saying about our current culture? This genre of literature functions as such because 1984 could and will never actually happen. The date is not literal so much as a warning on our generation. How then do we alter the past now? We alter it by forgetting it. We spend a good majority of our time thinking ahead: the next bit of technology, the next champion of whatever sporting event, the next president. We forget the past by the constant distractions of the future, and these distractions cause us to lose one of the most fantastic perspectives we could ever adopt: historical perspective.
What does a healthy historical perspective look like? It may look like this: In your endeavor to be “with it” and to minimize the number of machines in your life, you have decided to purchase an Iphone. Goodbye time spent on the computer. You are so elated to have this trendy little device at your beck and call that when the times comes (and, oh, the time will come!) and that trusty trinket has proven untrustworthy and finally fallen apart (for all technology has been created only to be replaced), you are devastated. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, the GPS is not working and the whimsical world of gadgets has abandoned you in a deserted location. Devastation leads to wrath. Cursing. Bewailing the gadget gods, you thrust that device to the vultures surrounding your car and derail into despair. It is at this precise moment, when you are utterly alone that a slight glimmer of hope enters your breast, and the anger slowly begins to melt away. It was not too long ago (ten, fifteen years maybe) that no one even carried a phone, let alone the world wide web, in their pocket leaving every stranded automobile literally stranded and abandoned to their fate. And though your situation is certainly embarrassing and laughable to our generation (and we do laugh), you are in so much of the majority of the long line of humanity that has come before you, that you can begin to laugh yourself. You decide that, long before you ever existed, great men such as say Abraham Lincoln lived entire lives without watching the next great sitcom or sporting event and each died without experiencing cars, planes, Ipods, and microwaves. History can free us from our materialism.
I have strayed somewhat from 1984, however, and for this I apologize. But I do feel that the novel had so much to do with the past as it did with the future, that it was incumbent upon me to write about the importance of history. This is where I feel our culture is straying more so than the other aspects of the novel. Certainly, government is gaining more control, and with every election comes a more corrupt and debase politician to the throne. I too am a member of the “apathetic cynics” political party. But when we really begin to look at our culture, we cannot continue to point the finger at our elected officials for all the problems. How much can we change by remembering history? At what point do we need to, as individuals and as a culture, begin really questioning how much of this crap we actually need? When is it our responsibility to start using our freedom for the better of society than merely playing with our toys? All of society has this grand ideal of a future utopia in which we spend all of our time on ourselves. But no such utopia exists. The only future anywhere near a utopia is one in which every individual is so perfected that he is no longer thinking of himself but of every single creature around him because all selfishness has not merely been replaced with selflessness but with love. The greatest country that has ever inhabited the planet forgets this little act. We replace history with the remote, but instead we should, each of us, take time out of every day to remember the past — a brief moment in time that has passed us by so suddenly that we often forget, a portended moment that will creep upon us before we are ready. As has happened to each man before us will happen to us. We too will one day become the past, and all the present and future will fade away before our eyes as we join the great throng of the foreshadowed past before us.