Sunday Pages: "Nineteen Eighty-four"
A novel by George Orwell
I read Nineteen Eighty-four in 1984, the year I turned twelve. Orwell’s classic was the first “real” novel I ever read, and it had a profound effect on me. For years after, I remembered every little detail: Newspeak, Ingsoc, thought-crime, doublethink, Two Minutes’ Hate, Room 101, 2+2=5, WAR IS PEACE FREEDOM IS SLAVERY IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, the Ministry of Truth, proles, Airstrip One, the little hair Winston puts on the drawer to see if anyone had opened it while he was gone, the party uniform Julia wears, the rat in the cage, the boot on the face forever.
Although I was in sixth grade, too young and pampered to fully appreciate the nuances, I read the whole thing and loved it. I was proud of myself for deciding to read it, acquiring a copy, finishing the assignment, and most of all for enjoying it. I particularly liked that George Orwell shared my initials, and that his name was almost—but not quite—an anagram of my own. In many ways, reading Nineteen Eighty-four set in motion my literary ambitions.
In hindsight, Orwell’s dystopia was a strange book for a spoiled suburban American kid to read at the tail-end of the Cold War. There was no Big Brother figure in my life. I may have felt like I was under constant surveillance, but I had plenty of privacy. The story felt like science fiction, like something that would never happen here.
As it turns out, Orwell was better at predicting what was going to happen than forecasting when. Twenty-twenty-two is closer to Nineteen Eighty-four than 1984 was. The novel is much more relevant now than I ever dreamed—or feared—it would be. And not just because it’s an obvious critique of Russia, mass surveillance, and authoritarian rule.
What Orwell’s book is really about is the destruction of the spirit—which, as experts in Soviet propaganda have long told us, is the ultimate objective of all these Russian active measures. Tyranny feeds on the souls of the citizens it oppresses into submission. When it destroys our spirit, as Big Brother’s oprichnik O’Brien destroys Winston Smith’s, despotism prevails. Democracy dies when we all throw in the towel.
How does tyranny destroy our spirit? By getting us to betray that which we love most, just as O’Brien does to Winston and Julia.
The last line in Nineteen Eighty-four is famous: “He loved Big Brother.” Orwell expounds on how this came about a few pages before, describing the final, awful meeting between Winston and Julia, who were once in love, after their trauma at the hands of the state:
“They can’t get inside you,” she had said. But they could get inside you. “What happens to you here is forever,” O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover. Something was killed in your breast: burnt out, cauterized out.
He had seen her; he had even spoken to her. There was no danger in it. He knew as though instinctively that they now took almost no interest in his doings. He could have arranged to meet her a second time if either of them had wanted to. Actually it was by chance that they had met. It was in the Park, on a vile, biting day in March, when the earth was like iron and all the grass seemed dead and there was not a bud anywhere except a few crocuses which had pushed themselves up to be dismembered by the wind. He was hurrying along with frozen hands and watering eyes when he saw her not ten meters away from him. It struck him at once that she had changed in some ill-defined way. They almost passed one another without a sign, then he turned and followed her, not very eagerly. He knew that there was no danger, nobody would take any interest in him. She did not speak. She walked obliquely away across the grass as though trying to get rid of him, then seemed to resign herself to having him at her side. Presently they were in among a clump of ragged leafless shrubs, useless either for concealment or as protection from the wind. They halted. It was vilely cold. The wind whistled through the twigs and fretted the occasional, dirty-looking crocuses. He put his arm round her waist.
There was no telescreen, but there must be hidden microphones: besides, they could be seen. It did not matter, nothing mattered. They could have lain down on the ground and done that if they had wanted to. His flesh froze with horror at the thought of it. She made no response whatever to the clasp of his arm ; she did not even try to disengage herself. He knew now what had changed in her. Her face was sallower, and there was a long scar, partly hidden by the hair, across her forehead and temple; but that was not the change. It was that her waist had grown thicker, and, in a surprising way, had stiffened. He remembered how once, after the explosion of a rocket bomb, he had helped to drag a corpse out of some ruins, and had been astonished not only by the incredible weight of the thing, but by its rigidity and awkwardness to handle, which made it seem more like stone than flesh. Her body felt like that. It occurred to him that the texture of her skin would be quite different from what it had once been.
He did not attempt to kiss her, nor did they speak. As they walked back across the grass, she looked directly at him for the first time. It was only a momentary glance, full of contempt and dislike. He wondered whether it was a dislike that came purely out of the past or whether it was inspired also by his bloated face and the water that the wind kept squeezing from his eyes. They sat down on two iron chairs, side by side but not too close together. He saw that she was about to speak. She moved her clumsy shoe a few centimeters and deliberately crushed a twig. Her feet seemed to have grown broader, he noticed.
“I betrayed you,” she said baldly.
“I betrayed you,” he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
“Sometimes,” she said, “they threaten you with something something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to So-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself, and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”
“All you care about is yourself,” he echoed.
“And after that, you don’t feel the same towards the other person any longer.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t feel the same.”
There did not seem to be anything more to say. The wind plastered their thin overalls against their bodies. Almost at once it became embarrassing to sit there in silence: besides, it was too cold to keep still. She said something about catching her Tube and stood up to go.
“We must meet again,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “we must meet again.”
He followed irresolutely for a little distance, half a pace behind her. They did not speak again. She did not actually try to shake him off, but walked at just such a speed as to prevent his keeping abreast of her. He had made up his mind that he would accompany her as far as the Tube station, but suddenly this process of trailing along in the cold seemed pointless and unbearable. He was overwhelmed by a desire not so much to get away from Julia as to get back to the Chestnut Tree Café, which had never seemed so attractive as at this moment. He had a nostalgic vision of his corner table, with the newspaper and the chessboard and the everflowing gin. Above all, it would be warm in there. The next moment, not altogether by accident, he allowed himself to become separated from her by a small knot of people. He made a halfhearted attempt to catch up, then slowed down, turned, and made off in the opposite direction. When he had gone fifty meters he looked back. The street was not crowded, but already he could not distinguish her. Any one of a dozen hurrying figures might have been hers. Perhaps her thickened, stiffened body was no longer recognizable from behind.
“At the time when it happens,” she had said, “you do mean it.” He had meant it. He had not merely said it, he had wished it. He had wished that she and not he should be delivered over to the—
Divide and conquer, down to the individual. That’s the playbook. The Nazis did that. The Soviets did that. The fascists in America are trying to do it right now. Destroying our spirit is the purpose of all of this mass trauma: the rampant gun violence, the slaughter of the innocents by weapons of war the GOP take great pains to preserve; the heinous assault on the rights of women, of minorities, of the LGBT community, visited on us by sadists in statehouses all across the so-called heartland and radical Catholics on the captured Supreme Court; the disgusting income inequality that rewards psychopathic billionaires with tax breaks while the rest of us suffer; the social media trolling and nastiness; the stubborn refusal to act on climate change, even as extreme weather events get more frequent, causing more destruction; the egregious criminality of Trump and his regime, the delight of his pardoned acolytes like Bannon, Stone, and Flynn in rubbing our noses in it, and the apparent lack of gumption by the Justice Department to fight back with any sense of urgency. Thus is trauma visited upon us—all of it man-made, all of it intentional.
We must resist, always. Even in our darkest moments, we must not give in.
Down with Big Brother!
Shireen Mitchell joined us on The Five 8 on Friday:
Photo credit: Борис У. “Big Brother is watching you” painted onto the wall of an industrial building in Donetsk, Ukraine, 2010.