Yesterday, I finished George Orwell’s classic work of dystopian psychological horror, 1984, which I read for the Mythgard Institute’s Dystopian Tradition class, taught by the estimable Amy H. Sturgis. It’s the second time I’ve read the book, though I’m not entirely sure when I first read it. In college, perhaps? In any case, it was more than ten years ago.
This time around, I’ve come to the conclusion that I both love and hate this book, which is likely a form ofdoublethink. I found myself rooting for Winston Smith to retain his humanity, despite my previous knowledge of his outcome — possibly another example of the aforementioned Newspeak concept. What struck me in particular this read-through was how blatantly the things that will happen to Winston are stated throughout the book. More than mere foreshadowing, we get actual description from very early in the book of the sorts of things that Winston winds up having to endure. The mantra that the result is concurrent with the act is thematically reinforced through Winston’s anxiety, torture and deprivations, which makes the story even more chilling with a second reading, at least for me. O’Brien’s obviating statement upon first entering Winston’s cell (“You knew this, Winston…. Don’t deceive yourself. You did know it — you have always known it.”) seems directed more at the reader than at the character: We knew what was going to happen, we read what was going to happen, we were told nothing else ever happens, yet we still hoped and deceived ourselves that it would not happen. C. S. Lewis, in his essay “On Stories,” notes that a person who re-reads a story “is looking not for actual surprises…but for a certain surprisingness.” In1984, this surprisingness comes from the fact that the conclusion is played out exactly how we are told it will be. (It may be worth noting that Lewis called 1984 “merely a flawed, interesting book.”)
It’s likely impossible to read a book like 1984 without drawing parallels to one’s own place in time. Without getting to much into modern politics, there’s some interesting comparisons that can be made between Oceania and contemporary America. For example, privacy concerns about products like Google Glass, which are like telescreens for your face — especially in light of Google’s fight with the FBI over “National Security” letters, which are basically non-court-reviewed subpoenas that nobody’s allowed to talk about and, thus, don’t really exist…. Or the relatively new legal “mosaic theory” of surveillancewhere at some vaguely magical point a certain amount of public scrutiny by police violates 4th Amendment rights, but in a stunning display of Sorites Paradoxism, nobody (including SCOTUS) can really determine where that point is, and thus, it effectively doesn’t exist. We don’t know if or how these things will change over time, but that doesn’t reduce the relevance of books like 1984 that help us think about these issues, and hopefully prevent abuses.
On a personal note, I read 1984 this time on my telesc— er, I mean, iPad. This is the first ebook where I’ve actually spent a bit of effort highlighting quotes and passages in that medium. In a stunning display of stupidity, I removed the ebook from my iPad, as is my wont with ebooks to reduce clutter and free up space. Fortunately, when I synced it back, all my highlights were still in existence — thank you Apple for storing my information in iCloud or whatever place you keep it where I don’t know it exists and which you use to improve my user experience while also increasing your own profitability. [Pause for a moment of self-reflection.]
Given the providential event of my restored highlightings and the effort I went through, I now present:
A List of Things I Highlighted in 1984
The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. (I’m thinking of Season 1, Episode 6 of Buffy, titled “The Pack,” here…)
At those moments his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Asia, and Goldstein, in spite of his isolation, his helplessness and the doubt that hung about his very existence, seemed like some sinister enchanter, capable by the mere power of his voice of wrecking the structure of civilisation.
He hated her because she was young and pretty and sexless, because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so, because round her sweet supple waist, which seemed to ask you to encircle it with your arm, there was only the odious scarlet sash, aggressive symbol of chastity.
Winston woke up with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips.
All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary.
It struck him as curious that you could create dead men but not living ones…
Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
Rebellion meant a look in the eyes, an inflection of the voice; at the most, an occasional whispered word.
…in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy, but always against one’s own body.
But before death (nobody spoke of such things, yet everybody knew of them) there was the routine confession that had to be gone through: the grovelling on the floor and screaming for mercy, the crack of broken bones, the smashed teeth and bloody clots of hair. Why did you have to endure it, since it was always the same?
Some kinds of failure are better than other kinds, that’s all.
[People incapable of understanding orthodoxy] could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane.
Confession is not betrayal. What you say or do doesn’t matter: only feelings matter.
They can make you say anything — anything — but they can’t make you believe it.
They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious, even to yourself, remained impregnable.
At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little.
Nevertheless the dangers inherent in the machine are still there.
The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.
But no advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimeter nearer. From the point of view of the Low, no historic change has ever meant much more than a change in the name of their masters.
Inequality was the price of civilisation.
The essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living. A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors.
For the secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with the power to learn from past mistakes.
Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad.
“You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?” (Parsons)
In the face of pain, there are no heroes…
It is not easy to become sane.
Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.
You must stop imagining that posterity will vindicate you, Winston. Posterity will never hear of you.
We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him.
What happens to you here is forever.
We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.
One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
Reality is inside the skull.
Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain.
It was all contained in that first act. Nothing has happened that you did not foresee.
For the first time he perceived that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.
To die hating them, that was freedom.
I’ll note with hints of both humor and chagrin, that I once managed the domain prolefeed.org.
A shorter version of this review was posted on Goodreads.