I used to think Orwell and Huxley were saying the same thing. Dystopian worlds, oppression of the masses, big bad government, the whole schtick. To my mind, they couldn’t be that different. (This was before I actually studied it for myself, you know.)
In the forward to his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman explains why Orwell and Huxley were not saying the same thing:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
“Inflicting pleasure.” I like that. It conjures up images of something damaging, and we don’t usually think of pleasure that way. Maybe we should. Maybe, in our quest to avoid being undone by external oppression, we should remember that it is far easier to be undone from the inside out.
Lord, save us from ourselves.
The premise is so well known that there’s little need for an in-depth explanation on my part. 1984 is the story of Winston Smith, a poor stiff who pursues an illicit love affair in a world of constant war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation and deception. Life in this futuristic hell might be summed up in five simple words:
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.
I have yet to compile my top ten list for fiction read this year; but I can guarantee you this book will be on it. As political fiction and dystopian sci-fi, it is almost without peer – a brilliantly written and thoroughly nightmarish vision of “negative utopia” even more relevant today than when it was written.
Some have called it a satire as well, but that strikes me as rather misleading. Satire is generally humorous, or at the very least, amusing. 1984 is neither. I’ve also heard people interpret it is merely as another indictment of Stalinist savagery. How pitiful. They do not see that it is a warning to us, too.
There is so much discussion-worthy material here that I hardly know where to begin. It’s a book you could write books about. In Orwell’s world,
I saw individuality crushed in favor of mindless dependency on the state.
I saw perpetual war and desensitization to violence.
I saw the indoctrination of young minds, the turning of children against parents.
I saw the rape of language and the destruction of words.
I saw a heavy emphasis on “statistics” and the reduction of man to a number.
I saw the distortion of marriage and the degradation of sex.
I saw the falsification of the past, the disarmament of the people.
I saw worship of the state replace worship of God.
In short, I saw a world that began and ended with man. Where there was nothing outside of man. Where man made his own truth. It really was one hell of a world.
Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of a world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will not grow less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy – everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman, No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. (pp. 266-267)
And through all of this, the words of Chesterton kept running through my head:
Once abolish God, and the Government becomes God. Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.
From the opening sentence to final four words, 1984 is disturbing and believable. It is disturbing because it is believable. As I read it, I thought, Thank God I’m a Calvinist. What comfort to know that no matter what happens, no matter how badly we mess things up, God still sits upon His holy throne, sovereign and immovable. William Law said it well: “There is no foundation for comfort in the enjoyments of this life, but in the assurance that a wise and good God governeth the world.”