The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime and found among his papers, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49). I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

I’ve decided to discuss the numerous points made in the introductory material and essays in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1). In this blog post I am commenting on the two major fragments of fictional text itself, which are titled A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

In Iron In the Soul we followed the activities of Mathieu, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, both retreating in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ending up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself volunteering to quit his pack of demoralised men and throw in his lot with a lieutenant and his platoon who arrive in the village having carried out a fighting retreat. Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied them to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. They begin shooting at the Germans, which leads into a fierce firefight, which is ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu was killed.

Not so Brunet. Without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, tough Communist Brunet has also ended up in the same village, where he makes the strategic decision to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising the French prisoners of war into a communist cell. The final part of Iron in the Soul follows Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others; before feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and prisonhood.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet finds himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background – and at key moments points out flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident the descriptions of the camp and the conditions are accurate.

What happens in A Strange Friendship is there is a bunch of new arrivals at the camp and one of them is Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by revealing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was expelled from the Party
b) Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, organising to undermine the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a mouthpiece for the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy). He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over, the USSR will crush Germany, the workers should reject the armistice, the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, the prisoners should consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, the Vichy government is illegitimate, the armistice was treason. (He is, of course, dead wrong – all these things came to pass and be accepted as orthodoxy.) With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a streetwalker for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his ‘guys’ must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the ‘Krauts’, the party should cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and get a foot into the National Assembly again. To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle who is a mouthpiece for British imperialism, and direct the workers towards pacifism (p.63).

Brunet listens, obeys, tries to quell his misgivings, makes himself a servant of the Party. Maybe this is Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the ‘guys’ he has deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with the fact that the ‘guys’ don’t trust him and the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as explored in Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unquavering faith is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to free thought i.e. ruthlessly repress it.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(Worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture after the war.)

And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider. Brunet comes to the latter’s rescue, but the ‘guys’ he interrupts hitting Schneider don’t get it: Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too? In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the guys in the face and the pair slope off, at which point Brunet realises he has burned all his bridges. Now the ‘guys’ belong to Chalais, everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. The Party has decreed he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape and in the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans. As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death. Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. I can see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes point out, the official Party line was itself changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, so much had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse. Why write about the arcane disputes ot his increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? And so Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, they all seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all obsessively blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the Communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain. And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koeslter’s fictional recreation of the interrogation of an old Bolshevik in readiness for his show trial, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls dogs. (It is important to remember that the PCF called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.) He prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. Wow.

And this exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’. Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on Brunet who wants to be a loyal Party servant but is aware of the cost to himself and his ‘guys’. I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom etc – as Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic — but refuses, in the end, to give up – insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, once the scaffold was in place.

This text consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose use to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to. Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose. I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section enacts and embodies the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals. Whereas the moments of high delirium Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but there’s

a) no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see is extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape, they are just disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically – after all, the Germans don’t need to do anything: they know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics – the French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted: I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting. Vive la France! Vive la Revolution!


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

We all thought Mathieu Delarue, the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher, had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul -but no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The segment just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s transferred out into the wider camp. The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed.

As usual, two things happen immediately: Mathieu is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on. And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and was also a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to even perceive themselves as human, become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on. I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things. Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insets, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground og crabs and lobsters. he was fascinated by these prehistorica crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He wasmost certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes Vasey explains that the structure of the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running  his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the guys gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations. The
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagining killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of  his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, he returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. Then gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • It is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is boredom and mild dislike. climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should triumphantly complete the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him. Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu not only ‘became free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked. But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And there this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia. This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie. Worst of all the men or blokes become ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial translation choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the whole reading experience and its continual repetition has the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’
French prisoners of war in 1940

French prisoners of war in 1940


Credit

This edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

Seeing Things As They Are by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison

The full title is Seeing Things as They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings of George Orwell and it does what it says on the tin. This long densely-printed paperback is a treasure trove of Orwell’s best book, film and theatre reviews, along with his BBC radio broadcasts and numerous magazine articles, interviews and short essays. It does not include the full-length, often literary-minded essays – these are collected in a number of other selections.

Peter Davison (b.1926) has devoted his life to editing the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, to identifying and cataloguing everything Orwell ever wrote into one thoroughly annotated, indexed format, first published in 1998. For this massive labour of love Davison was awarded an OBE for services to literature.

In the 480 pages of this handsome Penguin paperback Davison presents a selection of the very best of Orwell’s writings from across his fairly short (20 years, 1930-1950) but prolific career. It brings together an astonishing variety of writings, from a school poem right at the start, to an deleted passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four right at the end of his life. For a start, it is an eye-opener to see what a diversity of channels were open to a freelance journalist in the middle of the twentieth century. He writes for:

  • The Adelphi (literary magazine), New Statesman and Nation (founded by the Fabian Society), New English Weekly, Time and Tide, Left Forum, Horizon (founded in 1940 by Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender), Tribune (founded in 1937 by Labour MPs), Left News, Partisan Review (an American left-wing magazine), The Listener (the BBC’s radio magazine), PoetryThe ObserverThe Manchester Evening News (founded 1868), The Windmillthe Times Literary SupplementThe New Yorker and more.

Davison not only prints the pieces but gives detailed, sometimes page-long, notes explaining the background of each of the magazines in question and Orwell’s relation to them – for example, including correspondence between the editors of Partisan Review and Orwell, when they commissioned a regular ‘London Letter’ from him in December 1940.

Orwell worked for the BBC from the start of 1941 to November 1943. He was involved in a variety of projects, initially writing and reading weekly News Reviews, generally describing the political situation, which were broadcast to India and the Far East (there appear to have been 59 of these). But he also worked on a variety of other programmes, for example, giving four talks on literary criticism in 1941, or six editions of a poetry magazine, for which he personally persuaded leading poets of the day to contribute – and so on.

Orwell quit the BBC in November 1943 in order to join the left-wing newspaper Tribune as its literary editor. He commissioned others to write its book reviews, wrote reviews of his own, and created a regular weekly slot called ‘As I Please’ in which he wrote about subjects that took his fancy. He wrote 80 As I Please columns, and since each one often contained three or so subjects, that’s a lot of issues, ideas and areas of contemporary life which he covered. To take a random selection, subjects included: insulting nicknames, Ezra Pound, anti-Semitism, clothes rationing, the decline of religious belief, Dickens and country life, foreign words, flying bombs, the Warsaw Uprising, and so on.

One of the standout items is a page on ‘the colour bar’ (As I Please 37, Tribune 11 August 1944) which argues why it is so important to call out racist pubs, clubs, restaurants who forbid admission to non-whites, which sounds very relevant to our own race-conscious times.

The ordinary Indian, Negro or Chinese can only be protected against petty insult if other ordinary people are willing to exert themselves on his behalf. (p.290)

If one thing emerges it is that, although he writes occasional literary criticism on authors he likes or thinks important – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Henry Miller, Jack London – the lion’s share of the texts, whether BBC broadcasts, book reviews, Letters from London or As I Please columns, are concerned with politics and with Orwell’s particularly pessimistic take on the world around him.

Stepping back from the multitudinous details of these pieces, it’s possible to summarise Orwell’s core worldview thus:

  1. The world is going to hell: capitalism is visibly collapsing before our eyes: its days are numbered.
  2. Already it has been replaced across much of Europe by a new kind of authoritarian government – totalitarianism – which seeks to control not just what people do and say but even what they think.
  3. Ranged against these forces of social and mental repression is the key Orwellian virtue of Decency, the term which sums up honesty, fair play, justice and which, in Wigan Pier, he put at the centre of his definition of Socialism.
  4. Imaginative literature, of the kind he likes and would like to write himself, is only possible in a world of free individuals, free to think what they want and free to express it how they want.
  5. Given that the old order, with its antiquated class system and its reassuring certainties, is being swept away, the only way to preserve decency and the dignity of the individual in the coming world will be by supporting a democratic Socialism – Socialism because the only choice is between Socialism and Fascism – and ‘democratic’ to signal its difference from Stalinist totalitarianism.

Almost all Orwell’s writing takes place against this bleak background and pretty much every one of the pieces here refers to at least one of these ideas: whether he’s reviewing plays, films or books, one or other element of the basic argument crops up – capitalism is collapsing; totalitarian thought-control threatens; the private decency of the old writers is no longer possible; only a Socialist revolution and the advent of democratic Socialism can a) fight off totalitarianism b) ensure the survival into the future of all the aspects of human decency and literary freedom which Orwell cherishes.

It is very interesting to learn that this tendency, the tendency of all his writing to return to the same fundamental issue, was noticed at the time. The book includes the first ever sustained essay written about Orwell, by Jonathan Cape’s leading reader, Daniel George, who comments:

Most of Orwell’s essays have a literary starting-point. But he quickly deserts literature for life and politics… All of these [the essays in Orwell’s Critical Essays, published 1946] become, sooner or later, but chiefly, moralisings upon modern tendencies in thought and behaviour; and all illustrate his dislike – almost his fear – of a totalitarian system of government… Insidious persuasion is his method… (Davison pp.375, 377, 379)

In the light of the enormous effort Orwell poured into his writings, it seems ungrateful and churlish to point out that very little of what he predicted actually came about. Certainly Stalinist totalitarianism conquered Eastern Europe, but the Fascist powers in Germany, Italy and Japan were defeated. America emerged as the world’s military and economic superpower, capable of defending democracy in Europe and the Pacific, at the same time! In fact, with vast funding from America, Germany and Japan in particular were transformed within a decade of the end of the war into paragons of modern capitalism.

Orwell fails to see this coming because of his instinctive anti-Americanism. It comes out strongest in the novels whose protagonists routinely despise American consumer culture, despise soda pop and breakfast cereals and slick movies and streamlined advertising. This cultural-emotional anti-Americanism made Orwell underestimate America’s growing power as the war progressed, and fail to anticipate what it would mean for the ‘West’ as the war draw to an end – i.e. not only the survival, but the triumph of the kind of consumer capitalism he despised and thought was doomed, and the concomitant flourishing of all the freedoms he thought were so threatened.

The totalitarian mind-control which remodelled human nature to render it supine forever, creating a new race of zombie slaves – this never happened. Even in the darkest days of the Soviet Union and its control of Eastern Europe, there was samizdat literature, there were dissidents, people rebelled, in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and again in the 1970s, setting up Charter 77.

(To be fair, in a mea culpa piece for Partisan Review dated October 1944, Orwell does concede that nearly all his predictions about the war had turned out wrong, including his belief that only by having a Socialist Revolution could Britain win, pp.301-307).

And although I wanted to like Orwell, as I read through these pieces I found myself repeatedly disagreeing with him, on issues large and small. He is against the metric system and in favour of keeping rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights (p.416) – an opinion of purely historic interest to us today. He speculates that, if four-letter words were freely published in fiction and newspapers, it might remove their magic and mystique,

and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common. (p.396)

Well, that didn’t work out, did it? On the larger scale, Orwell says capitalism is finished – well, put simply, it triumphed and defeated communism around the world. He says the novel is dying – well, the 1950s saw some great novels written and the 1960s saw an explosion of writing of every type. He says the English language is in irreversible decline – well, that’s what gloomy Guses in every age claim, the English language looks alive and kicking to me today.

And quite often not only does his journalism reference one or more elements of the worldview I summarised above, but it takes a visceral pleasure in saying so. He is thrilled by the bleak future he envisions. It gives him – and is designed to give his reader – the shivers.

The era of free speech is closing down… The time is coming – not next year, perhaps not for ten or twenty years, but it is coming – when every writer will have the choice of being silenced altogether or of producing the dope that a privileged minority demands. (Written in 1938 – p.69)

That just didn’t happen. As political and social and cultural prophet, Orwell is wrong again and again. When blurb writers and reviewers claim that Orwell ‘still speaks to our time’, is ‘more relevant than ever’, I don’t get it. We do not today face the threat of external totalitarian regimes invading and conquering us. If we do face a political challenge today, it is from the political instability caused by the prolonged rule of neo-liberal capitalist ideology which has produced an unequal society, exacerbated by the tensions caused by mass immigration.

But then, society was also grossly unequal in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. In fact, it’s a working definition of a free democracy that it is always struggling with various crises of unrest and complaint. I am old enough to remember the endless strikes of the 1970s, the Miners’ Strike of 1984, the Poll Tax riots in the early 1990s. In comparison the situation we find ourselves in now, in 2017, seems like a kind of consumer utopia for a large percentage of the population.

And far from living in a society of zombies who supinely accept the mind-numbing slogans of a totalitarian government, do we not live in the extreme opposite – a society which, due to the internet, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, and millions of blogs like my one, has more voices yelling complaint about every possible issue under the sun than ever before in human history?

On the plus side Orwell’s journalism offers trenchant commentaries on particular events of his day, and a good deal of nostalgic fondness for imperial weights and measures, forgotten Edwardian novels and boys comics. It contains thoughts on social issues and trends which are often overlooked by the history books. The fact that shopkeepers got ruder as rationing got tighter (p.308), tensions between American soldiers and the native English, the significance of the lonely hearts columns in wartime newspapers (p.278) – Orwell’s writings present a fascinating social and intellectual record of his age, specifically the 1930s and 1940s. This volume amounts to a useful primer on the texture of ordinary life in the era of the Great Depression, the Second World War and the start of the Cold War.

Preparation for Nineteen Eighty-Four

Maybe the best way of seeing all these essays and reviews – in fact the way in which they themselves often suggest they are read – is as a steady, thorough and obsessive working-out of the themes and ideas which reach their perfect expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Whenever Orwell mentions thought-control, or the implications of totalitarian society on culture, or the death of free speech, or control of the past, or the likely division of the world into three superstates (p.315), the reader can’t help but think of hos these ideas will end up informing his great novel.

In this respect, Orwell was tremendously lucky. As this selection shows, from almost the start of his career he was obsessed with the idea of totalitarianism and how it would destroy the decencies and freedoms he remembered from the Edwardian boyhood which he held so dear. Over and over again he nags and worries at the implications of this terrifying threat. I call him ‘lucky’ because he was lucky enough to find an imaginative structure into which he could pour a lifetime of brooding and thinking. And lucky that he managed to complete his masterwork, considering just how close a race it was against his worsening health in the late 1940s.

That he was able to finish the book which is one of the great masterpieces of the century was partly because its central ideas and their application in every detail had been brooded on and worked through for decades – as the hundreds of pieces gathered in this book testify.

This book contains scores of passing insights and ideas, all expressed in his brisk, no-nonsense prose, deliberately denuded of rhetoric and fancy, always nudging and persuading you to agree with his common-sense-sounding assumptions. These are all enjoyable and make the book a great pleasure to read. But what it shows more than anything else is the length of time and the depth and variety of thinking which went into the creation of Orwell’s masterpiece.

Anti-Left

Another major theme which emerges is Orwell’s consistent opposition to and criticism of the left-wing orthodoxy in the England of his day. Barely a page goes by without some withering criticism of left-wing intellectuals. This is because, ever since his experience in Spain in 1937, he had grasped that Soviet Communism was a completely amoral extension of Stalin’s nationalist foreign policy. Orwell’s image of totalitarian thought control doesn’t come from Nazi Germany – which he never visited – but from his actual personal experience of the kind of lies and distortions carried out by the communists in Spain, as he watched them take over the republican cause and proceeded to vilify, arrest, torture and execute all their political enemies.

When he came back to England he found that all the left-wing publishers refused to publish his account of his experiences, Homage to Catalonia because they didn’t want to undermine ‘the cause’,because they wouldn’t accept its criticism of Soviet policy. And when the book was eventually published, it prompted negative reviews from most of the left-wing press as well as personal attacks calling Orwell a lackey for capitalism and imperialism, a Trotskyist, a saboteur etc, all the hate terminology he’d seen the Stalinists using in Spain.

And he realised – It could happen here. It could happen here because the entire deracinated, unhappy intellectual class had given its heart to a foreign power and to a Great Leader who they slavishly believed would transform the world and make them happy. And because the left-wing intellectuals have imposed a stifling orthodoxy of thought over all the publications they control, creating an atmosphere of political correctness which you speak out against at your peril.

Thus, although he routinely criticises the Tories, whether in or out of power, the lies of the right-wing press, and has harsh words for the Catholic church’s instinctive support of all right-wing causes – the real animus in his writings is consistently against his own side. The real enemy is the slavish devotees of Stalin’s Soviet communism.

Typical comments are:

  • I don’t share the average English intellectual’s hatred of his own country and am not dismayed by a British victory. (p.304)
  • Particularly on the Left, political thought is a sort of masturbation fantasy in which the world of facts hardly matter. (p.303)

Now readers up-to-speed with left-wing politics in general and the tortuous situation of the 1930s in particular, Orwell is making subtle and important points. How many people would that have been? As an indication, some of Orwell’s books only sold a few thousand copies in his lifetime. But to someone a bit further removed from the cat fights of the English Left, it can all too easily seem that Orwell’s Socialism is associated with violent revolution, burning down churches, locking up, torturing and executing your opponents and imposing totalitarian mind control. In other words, his calls for a Democratic Socialism only really mean something to someone who already knows quite a lot about left-wing politics and can distinguish between its multiple strands and traditions.

Political correctness

This is one of the few ideas I think we can actually apply to our own times. For we also live in times when a ‘progressive’ orthodoxy has imposed politically correct axioms right across the mainstream media to do with race, gender, sexuality, with immigration and identity, which you criticise or question at your peril. As he wrote in his essay, The Prevention of Literature:

To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox. (The Prevention of Literature)

‘One cannot be politically orthodox.’

In a similar way, today in 2017, there are a number of progressive causes which you criticise or question at your peril. While I was reading the book and thinking about the issues it raises, the resignation was announced of Shadow Equalities Spokesperson, Sarah Champion, after writing an article in the Sun newspaper about British Pakistani men:

I am not taking any opinion whatsoever on the article or its subject matter – I am just pointing out that we live, like Orwell, in times where you have to be extremely careful what you say on certain issues – if anyone in the world was going to be politically correct and careful what they say, you’d have thought it would be Labour’s equalities spokesperson. If even she can’t speak casually and openly on certain subjects, then the rest of us better keep quiet.

The peril doesn’t come from the Right. I can say or write whatever I like about Donald Trump or Theresa May, I can insult Brexiteers or English nationalists till the cows come home, and I will be praised in the mainstream media. It is the Left which has erected certain orthodoxies, certain ‘correct’ attitudes, which anyone writing, or even talking out loud, must be careful to comply with.

To repeat – I make no comment whatsoever about the subject raised in Champion’s Sun article – I am just pointing out that her resignation shows that we live in a time of powerful orthodoxies which you infringe at the risk of your job and your career – and that I find Orwell’s thoughts about the impact of unquestioned orthodoxies on freedom of speech and imaginative literature far more relevant to our present-day situation than his more directly political analyses.


Credit

Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings by George Orwell edited by Peter Davison was published by Harvill Secker in 2014. All references are to the 2016 Penguin paperback edition.

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’

I read this when I was 16 in 1977. The Soviet Union still existed, Eastern Europe was ruled by communist dictatorships and England was visibly falling to pieces. The external situation was bad enough but being a teenager and new to this kind of adult literature, it scared the bejesus out of me, in fact it helped introduce me to what books could really do, their power to change your entire view of life.

Quite clearly Nineteen Eighty-Four is the summary towards which all of Orwell’s writings were heading. It brings together numerous themes, ideas and obsessions which thread through all his previous work:

  • The theme of political lying, of the power of political propaganda if applied with ruthless consistency to utterly distort ‘the truth’ – something which Orwell had seen at first hand during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.
  • I have pointed out in other reviews how the theme of privacy and the dislike of being spied on appears in his earlier novels (creepy landladies or venomous headmistresses spy on the protagonists of A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying). A concern for privacy is one of the key characteristics Orwell lists in his delineation of the English character in The Lion and The Unicorn.
  • A post-war world of where the population lives in permanent poverty ruled over by loudspeakers telling everyone what to think is a recurring nightmare of the narrator of his 1939 novel, Coming Up For Air.
  • The image of posters everywhere blaring their relentless messages is anticipated by the bitter hatred of adverts and posters of earlier Orwell protagonists, notably Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
  • And the idea of finding escape from the relentless shabbiness of life in a rural idyll is a) as old as the industrial revolution b) the central theme of Coming Up For Air.

But these themes become turbo-charged in this final book, brought together with an extraordinary imaginative power to produce one of the most famous books in the world, the one which made his pen-name, Orwell, into an adjective, Orwellian, which denotes a nightmare world in which every aspect of our lives, along with all our conversation and even our thoughts, are surveilled and controlled, and the slightest deviation from the official party line is punished by torture, ritual confession and then ‘vaporisation’.

The plot

As presumably everybody knows, the plot concerns Winston Smith, a citizen of Airstrip One (formerly known as Britain) a province of the world superstate, Oceania. Winston works at the huge pyramidal Ministry of Truth, which dominates the ruined skyline of London. As the book opens Winston, a scrawny sickly 39 year-old, has woken up to his unhappiness in the down-trodden, impoverished society set in the year of the title (35 years in the future when the book was published). Airstrip One is ruled by the Party under the control of Big Brother who is ‘watching you’ not only from hoardings and newspapers, but from telescreens installed in every living space, which blare out martial music and endless lists of triumphant industrial achievements, but also watch and monitor every movement, every word of the citizens.

The world consists of three super-states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Oceania is at any one time allied with one of the others against the third, thus producing a state of continual warfare which justifies the poverty and misery of daily life. But Oceania switches ally and enemy almost at random and each switch requires all records of the previous alliance to be expunged from all records and even from the memories of its citizens.

Language is being reduced to Newspeak, a drastically simplified form of English in which it will soon be literally impossible to entertain a thought contrary to the Party line. Any such deviant thought is labelled a ‘thought crime’, for which you are arrested by the terrifying Thought Police.

Winston begins to rebel in a small way when he discovers a tiny alcove in his apartment which the all-watching telescreen camera can’t reach. In this little corner he begins to keep a diary in a beautiful old notebook which he picked up at an antiques shop on one of  his many prowls round downtrodden London in the zone inhabited by the proles, chavs who are outside the Party system, who fritter their lives away in pubs and gambling.

Winston meets a fellow dissident, Julia. They make a visit to the countryside where they briefly enjoy a sense of freedom and life (and sex). But on returning to Winston’s flat they are both arrested for thoughtcrime.

In the final section, Winston is interrogated at length by a Party interrogator, O’Brien. O’Brien says he doesn’t want to kill Winston. He wants to break his spirit so completely that Winston will end up genuinely loving Big Brother, genuinely loving the force which has ruined his life and destroyed his love. In the long philosophical conversations which O’Brien and Winston have, O’Brien explains the basic principles of life in 1984. Imagine a boot pressing down on a human face, forever. That is the future of the human race.

The book is divided into three parts.

Part one

The novel is immediately reminiscent of Orwell’s previous novel, Coming Up For Air, in that the entire 80-page section takes place on one day.

Winston arrives home at his scuzzy apartment block, Victory Mansions, just as the clocks are striking 13 (because Airstrip One runs on a 24-hour clock system). He’s barely got into his pokey flat before there’s a knock at the door and he has to go and help his neighbour Mrs Parsons with her blocked sink – which gives him an opportunity to see her hateful children, who are dutiful members of the youth Spies movement and already spying on all adults.

Winston returns to the secret alcove in his apartment to begin his diary and suddenly finds himself pouring out a torrent of memories and thoughts. This was his lunch break so he hurries back to work in time for the Two Minutes Hate, in which the girl with dark hair and O’Brien sit close by. In the Two Minute Hate everyone must yell at the features of Emmanuel Goldstein, the great traitor, the man blamed for everything which goes wrong in Oceania (obviously based on the cult of hatred for his opponent Leon Trotsky which Stalin cultivated in Soviet Russia.)

Winston does his afternoon work of rewriting history, then meets up in the works canteen with Symes, the expert on Newspeak and the chubby idiotic Parson. After work it is a fine day so he sets off for a walk, roaming east then north and ending up somewhere near St Pancras, where he follows an old man into a noisy pub and tries to get him to remember the past, but fails. These scenes show how utterly hopeless the proles are; no good or change will come from them.

Wandering further Winston ends up at the pawn shop where he bought the diary he’s now writing in and is shown round by the old owner. On exiting, Winston is horrified to almost bump into the black-haired girl from the Ministry who he’s sure must be spying on him. He makes several detours to throw off any tail, returns to his apartment by 23:30, writes a few last thoughts in the diary and falls asleep.

It is worth emphasising that all these restrictions, this life of complete surveillance and subjugation, applies only to Party members. They do not apply to the 85% of the population who are universally referred to as ‘the proles’. The proles are considered stupid sheep, uneducated chavs who are only interested in boozing, wenching and gambling. (This is pretty much how Orwell described the English working classes in his great essay, The Lion and the Unicorn.) Theoretically, there are laws and a police force to govern them, but mostly the proles get on with their petty lives, boozing and worrying about football results and the (completely fixed) lottery. They are subdued and poverty-stricken but they aren’t subject to the extreme surveillance and minute-by-minute terror of members of the Party, like Winston.

Part two

A few days later, walking down a corridor in the ministry, Winston sees the same dark-haired girl walking towards him. She trips and falls on what is apparently an injured arm and cries out. Winston chivalrously helps her up and is startled when she slips into his hand a small object. His heart thumping, Winston is sure she must be denouncing him in some obscure way. Back at his desk he takes his time then unfolds the paper among the other work-related sheets on his desk and is startled to read ‘I LOVE YOU’. What? Is it a trap? Orwell describes the way Winston has to repress every trace of anxiety on his face and continue with his work, despite his thumping heart. Even a flicker in his eyes might give him away to the telescreen facing him and betray his treason to the Though Police.

They manage to meet in Trafalgar Square (now renamed Victory Square) and, among a mob baying at trucks full of Eurasian prisoners, briefly exchange details of a rendezvous.

A few days of stress later, Winston follows Julia’s instructions, takes a train from Paddington to the country. It is the second of May, bluebell season. Spring. New life. He walks down a road, along tracks, across a field and is stooping to pick flowers when – she meets him. She takes him to a secluded dell from which Winston is amazed to realise the landscape perfectly matches that of a recurrent dream he has, and which he has labelled ‘the Golden Country’. Just as in his dream, Julia strips off, with one gesture throwing off all the restrictions of Big Brother, Ingsoc, Newspeak, all the tyrannical repressions of his life.

They make love and, unlike Winston’s long departed wife, Katharine, Julia actually seems to enjoy it. Winston feels incredibly liberated. Julia freely confesses that she’s had a dozen lovers and loves sex. She says more people are rebels against Big Brother than you’d think, but she has – alas – never heard of ‘the Brotherhood’, the legendary underground organisation which Winston pins his hopes on. In fact, she is not a very intellectual girl, she is more a free spirit, beautiful young animal etc. (She is, in her way, as much a symbol of sexual and animal freedom compared to the crushed middle-aged impotence of Party life, as the country is a symbol of ever-renewing beauty set against the dirty, crippled landscape of London.)

Back at work they have to pretend to ignore each other, but manage to exchange words in the crowded prole parts of town and arrange one more opportunity to make love, in the ruined tower of an abandoned church ‘in an almost-deserted stretch of country where an atomic bomb had fallen thirty years earlier.’

Once in a prole part of town they are both knocked to the ground when a flying bomb (about 20 a month fall on London) detonates nearby.

But they stumble on a way of going beyond these snatched moments when it occurs to Winston to rent the bedroom over the pawn shop where he first bought the diary and where he returned and was shown round. The owner, Mr Cheeseman, gladly accepts a few dollars per visit. It becomes their regular love nest.

Even more momentously, Julia and Winston decide to go and visit O’Brien. This is because O’Brien himself one day approached Winston in a corridor in the Ministry of Truth. He suggested Winston come round to visit him and wrote out his address in full view of a telescreen. Winston, influenced by the strong feeling of understanding he has for O’Brien, agrees. A few days later he and Julia arrive at O’Brien’s flat which, as he is a member of the Inner Party, is notably luxurious, with a servant, carpet and even – something Winston has read about but never seen – wine!

Here Winston and Julia immediately, almost as if in a fairy story, make a clean breast of it, admitting that they are rebels against the Party, have committed thoughtcrimes and sexcrimes, support Emmanuel Goldstein and would like to join the Brotherhood. O’Brien astonishes our heroes by turning off a telescreen, something they didn’t think possible. He responds positively that he is a member of the Brotherhood, explains its cell-like structure and secretive aims, and says someone will be in touch to give Winston a copy of the book, the definitive text by Goldstein himself. Then he bids Julia and Winston depart by different routes, five minutes apart. Good God! Is Winston now in touch with the Underground? Is there hope for revolution and change?

The next week is taken up by frantic work, 15-hour days, grabbed meals, because the whole of the Party cranks itself up for the annual festival of Hate Week, a grotesquely extended version of the Two Minute Hate.

At its climax, Winston is at a mass rally, flanked by thousands of children in their Spies uniforms, and a Goebbels-like man is raising the crowd to hysterias of hate against Eurasia, Goldstein and all the other enemies when – right in the middle of the speech – it somehow becomes known that Oceania has stopped being allies with Eastasia and at war with Eurasia, and is now allied with Eurasia and at war with Eastasia! At a stroke all the flags and posters which have been lovingly created hating Eurasia have been rendered out of date. The crowd hysterically tears them down. Most eerily, as in a dream, the vituperative speaker doesn’t even stop talking but changes the subject of his bitter hatred and venom in mid-sentence.

Winston is awed by this spectacular example of doublethink, the technique whereby citizens of Airstrip One are raised from birth to know something is wrong or inaccurate but to do it anyway with complete sincerity. Within minutes the entire crowd is chanting its hatred for Eastasia – which had been its ally only minutes before.

With one mind and without any orders being issued, Winston and his colleagues know they have to go straight to the Ministry of Truth to undertake a wholesale rewriting of the past in order to swap the words Eurasia and Eastasia, in order to make the past conform with the new present. Not a trace must be left of the previous arrangement: the new arrangement must always have been true. For a week Winston and everyone at the Ministry work like dogs. Only on the sixth day do the requests for rewrites dry up and he staggers home, almost passes out in his shallow tepid bath, and then sleeps for 12 hours.

When he wakes Winston makes his way to Mr Cheeseman’s proley pawn shop. He has his own key and lets himself into the bedroom. Here, at last, he opens the case which was slipped to him in the crowd during the Hate Rally, and begins reading The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein.

The text of this fictional book is itself embedded in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It purports to be a detailed explanation by the chief hate figure of Ingsoc’s society, of the history leading up to the current state of society. It explains that there was a nuclear war in the 1950s and from the ruins arose the three main totalitarian states around the world – Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia.

But the book also gives a densely-argued explanation of why society is as it is: all human history has been the succession of various ruling classes which held power until they went soft or got out of kilter with new technological developments. Ingsoc has learned from this history and established a permanent oligarchy based on eternal warfare. The new technology which developed at the start of the 20th century would have supplied more and more consumer goods, giving people time to educate themselves, thus creating democracy and preventing centralised power. This is the reason for the permanent war of 1984 – it is a permanent excuse for the shortages of everything, including food, which keep the entire population in a permanent state of servitude. Permanent war justifies the rule of a strong centralised government. And permanent war allows a frustrated populus to vent their frustration and hatred on external targets.

The book is obviously a fictional tactic which allows Orwell to embed into the narrative an enormous amount of the thinking he’d been doing over the previous decade about exactly how the totalitarian world of his nightmares would come about in a purely factual way. It is a riveting alternative history, and a fascinating insight into all kinds of fears and intellectual currents of its time.

And this is just the chapter on why there is permanent war from Goldstein’s ‘book’. There is an equally lengthy explanation of the theory behind doublethink and other aspects of Ingsoc ideology which Winston is going on to when Julia arrives. They make love, and then Winston continues reading the book out loud to her.

He is enjoying, for the first time in his life, the sensual feel of being in a safe secure place, reading a book beside a warm beloved partner. He stops reading and listens to the fat prole woman in the yard below singing the latest pop song concocted by an entertainment machine in the Ministry of Truth. He and Julia know their days are numbered but he lives in hope – surely some day everything that Goldstein has written, the ‘truth’ about Ingsoc, surely this must one day be revealed to everyone and their repressive society be overthrown.

Meanwhile, he repeats the phrase he and Julia have often used, jokingly, ironically, fatalistically many times. ‘We are the dead’. She also repeats it sleepily and then – to their absolute horror – another voice repeats it. ‘You are the dead.’ They jump out of their skins with terror.

It is the voice of the telescreen which was hidden behind an old print on the wall all along. This has never been a safe space. They have always been under surveillance. There is no escape.

Within seconds the room is flooded by brutal-looking Thought Police who make Winston and Julia stand naked. One punches Julia in the gut and picks up her doubled-over body, carrying it off. That’s the last Winston will see of her.

Old Cheeseman the pawnbroker enters the room, but without his usual stoop, grey hair and hook nose. He has thrown off his disguise. Cheeseman is in fact a member of the Thought Police and they have been well and truly caught.

Part three

The novel has been saturated with Winston’s, and then Julia’s, powerful sense of doom. They know their ‘rebellion’ can change nothing; they know they will be caught, tortured and shot. They even speculate about how they will fare under torture and promise each other that, in their secret souls, they will never stop loving each other. Now it is all coming true.

Part three is a gruelling description of Winston’s incarceration. It starts in a common police cell surrounded by prole criminals and he is surprised to meet a number of his acquaintances from outside – the snivelling poet Ampleforth, and then his cheery, harmless neighbour, Parsons, him of the blocked drain. In a satirical note Parsons says he was turned in by his own seven-year-old daughter, a fully trained-up young Spy, who overheard him muttering sedition in his sleep, and so ran to immediately tell the authorities. He’s pathetically proud of her.

But soon Winston is taken from the common gaol to a solitary cell and here there begin days, weeks, maybe months, of breaking him, first through common beating and then by torture using electrical shocks and drugs.

And his torturer is the man he trusted most – O’Brien. The two features of the process are that it is an immensely intellectual process: O’Brien isn’t interested in extracting confessions about conspiracies or collaborators: he is solely concerned with completely breaking down Winston’s personality and remaking it, remodelling it so that he doesn’t just intellectually accept the Party line, so that he lives and believes it, genuinely.

The second feature is that despite the agonising torture – specifically the long session of electric shocks O’Brien administers – Winston continues to admire and respect O’Brien. For the torture is not only designed to break him it is meant to educate him in the new reality. Thus O’Brien delivers an extended lecture on the true nature of the Party, on its worship of power, on the way it will expunge every other feeling from the entire human race except hate, carefully cultivated through the Two Minute Hates and Hate Week. For the rest, humanity will be reduced to utter subservience.

All previous dictatorships claimed to want power for a purpose, to eventually reach some utopia of peace and equality. The Party is the ultimate evolution of all such revolutionary movements: it wants power for its own sake.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. 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. Now do you begin to understand me?’

This is the tone of the final part. All Winston’s fears are confirmed, and worse. This isn’t a temporary phase. The Party is devoted to the possession of unlimited Power, forever. O’Brien confirms how every aspect of Oceania society – Hate Week, Newspeak, anti-sex, telescreens – is devoted to that one end and that alone.

And all through the agony, as his back arches in animal pain under the electrical torture, Winston is aware of the unbeatable superiority of O’Brien’s intellect and grasp. O’Brien knows what Winston is thinking at every stage of his demolition, he anticipates his every thought and question. He has seen it all before.

He knows to the word what Winston is thinking. Winston lies back on the torture bed, gasping and sweating when the current is temporarily turned off, thoughts racing through his mind, and O’Brien speaks – putting into words exactly what Winston was thinking. The effect is more than uncanny, it is like a dream in which everything has been foretold and is now enacted with nightmare inevitability.

The actual plot is simple – the torture sessions almost completely break down Winston’s intellect – eventually we see him genuinely accepting that two plus two makes three or four or five or whatever the Party decrees.

But still inside him a little bit of soul holds out, a tiny fragment of emotional resistance. O’Brien knows this as he knows everything and when the time is right – takes Winston to the dreaded room 101. This is the place of your worst fears, different for everyone, but always their most intense phobia.

It is here that the torturers get out the cage of rats which they intend to tie to Winston’s face. The starving rats will gnaw through his face and eyes in seconds. As they bring it closer, Winston goes into agonies of terror, knowing he needs to put something, someone, anything between himself and this terror. And suddenly he screams out, ‘Do it to Julia, not to me, do it to Julia.’

He has betrayed the last secret innermost part of himself. He has betrayed his pledge to Julia. He is a completely broken man. That is the point of room 101.

In the final few pages Winston has been released back into society but as a shambling wreck. He spends his days at the Chestnut Tree café, drinking Victory gin and working on chess problems from The Times. The text goes inside his thoughts to describe how they have been completely aligned with Party thought, how he steers himself away from any doubts or dissident thoughts by using the mental technique of crimestop. When the telescreen announces a terrific victory for Oceania in Africa, Winston cries tears of joy and relief. He looks up at the massive poster of Big Brother looking over the cafe with tears in his eyes.

He loves Big Brother.


Elements of the uncanny

Orwell despised cranks, health food nuts, vegetarians, sandal-wearers, naturists, feminists, he lumped them all together. Spiritualists and clairvoyants also came in for knocking whenever he was making digs at contemporary fads. He prided himself on his straightforward, manly, no-nonsense mentality. Thus in The Lion and the Unicorn he doesn’t pussyfoot around the issue of fighting: we must fight Hitler or Hitler will conquer us, simples. Their limp pacifism accounts for his dislike of sniggeringly superior Bloomsbury types.

Having now read hundreds of pages of this blunt speaking, it came as all the more surprising to realise that this, his last and greatest book, contains not only the extremely well-known ideas Newspeak and thoughtcrime and Ingsoc and Big Brother i.e. not only the well-known analytical and political elements — it also contains a strongly irrational, spooky and voodoo element.

The Golden Country

It is full of strange dreams and ghostly anticipations. Take the Golden Country. In chapter three Winston has what he says is a recurring dream of an idyllic rural landscape, has it so frequently that he’s taken to calling it the Golden Country.

Suddenly he was standing on short springy turf, on a summer evening when the slanting rays of the sun gilded the ground. The landscape that he was looking at recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world. In his waking thoughts he called it the Golden Country. It was an old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot-track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side of the field the boughs of the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair. Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.

The girl with dark hair was coming towards them across the field. With what seemed a single movement she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed he barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm. That too was a gesture belonging to the ancient time. Winston woke up with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. (p.28)

This is itself a powerful description of a dream vision, but what lifts it into the eerie is that later, when Julia takes him to the countryside to make love to him, it is in the exact same place he has dreamed about all these years – even down to the pool by the trees full of dace.

They were standing in the shade of hazel bushes. The sunlight, filtering through innumerable leaves, was still hot on their faces. Winston looked out into the field beyond, and underwent a curious, slow shock of recognition. He knew it by sight. An old, close-bitten pasture, with a footpath wandering across it and a molehill here and there. In the ragged hedge on the opposite side the boughs of the elm trees swayed just perceptibly in the breeze, and their leaves stirred faintly in dense masses like women’s hair. Surely somewhere nearby, but out of sight, there must be a stream with green pools where dace were swimming?
‘Isn’t there a stream somewhere near here?’ he whispered.
‘That’s right, there is a stream. It’s at the edge of the next field, actually. There are fish in it, great big ones. You can watch them lying in the pools under the willow trees, waving their tails.’
‘It’s the Golden Country – almost,’ he murmured.
‘The Golden Country?’
‘It’s nothing, really. A landscape I’ve seen sometimes in a dream.’ (p.101)

How do you explain that? There is no rational explanation. It is almost as if the super-rational, totally controlled world of the novel requires not only the escape to the (rather traditional) rural idyll – but at some level also requires the presence of the irrational. Nineteen Eight-Four is a profoundly phantasmagoric narrative in which dreams literally come true.

O’Brien and destiny

Take another irrational element, which doesn’t make sense but is terrifyingly compelling. Right from the start Winston is aware of the identity of the senior party official man O’Brien, a man of commanding presence and visible intelligence. What is eerie is the way Winston is drawn towards him in some subtle, almost homoerotic way, and especially haunting-odd-notable way that O’Brien seems drawn to him as well.

Or is he imagining it? Is Winston’s desperate need to talk about his ideas and feelings so overflowing that he is seeing conspiracy and rebellion where there is none? Whatever the cause, Winston is certain that during that morning’s Two Minutes Hate some kind of spark leapt between them.

Of course he chanted with the rest: it was impossible to do otherwise. To dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing, was an instinctive reaction. But there was a space of a couple of seconds during which the expression of his eyes might conceivably have betrayed him. And it was exactly at this moment that the significant thing happened – if, indeed, it did happen.

Momentarily he caught O’Brien’s eye. O’Brien had stood up. He had taken off his spectacles and was in the act of resettling them on his nose with his characteristic gesture. But there was a fraction of a second when their eyes met, and for as long as it took to happen Winston knew — yes, he KNEW! — that O’Brien was thinking the same thing as himself. An unmistakable message had passed. It was as though their two minds had opened and the thoughts were flowing from one into the other through their eyes. ‘I am with you,’ O’Brien seemed to be saying to him. ‘I know precisely what you are feeling. I know all about your contempt, your hatred, your disgust. But don’t worry, I am on your side!’ And then the flash of intelligence was gone, and O’Brien’s face was as inscrutable as everybody else’s. (p.17)

Partly he is drawn towards O’Brien because years previously, he had had a powerful dream about him.

Years ago – how long was it? Seven years it must be – he had dreamed that he was walking through a pitch-dark room. And someone sitting to one side of him had said as he passed: ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.’ It was said very quietly, almost casually – a statement, not a command. He had walked on without pausing. What was curious was that at the time, in the dream, the words had not made much impression on him. It was only later and by degrees that they had seemed to take on significance. He could not now remember whether it was before or after having the dream that he had seen O’Brien for the first time, nor could he remember when he had first identified the voice as O’Brien’s. But at any rate the identification existed. It was O’Brien who had spoken to him out of the dark. Winston had never been able to feel sure – even after this morning’s flash of the eyes it was still impossible to be sure whether O’Brien was a friend or an enemy. Nor did it even seem to matter greatly. There was a link of understanding between them, more important than affection or partisanship. ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ he had said. Winston did not know what it meant, only that in some way or another it would come true. (p.

‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ becomes a repeated phrase, a kind of talisman, a mantra for Winston. It becomes one of his images of hope, hope for some kind of change or escape.

‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ O’Brien had said to him. He knew what it meant, or thought he knew. The place where there is no darkness was the imagined future, which one would never see, but which, by foreknowledge, one could mystically share in. (p.86)

Thus throughout the first parts of the book, O’Brien comes to figure in Winston’s mind as the person he is writing his diary to, the person he is recording his innermost feelings of rebellion for.

The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?
But no! His courage seemed suddenly to stiffen of its own accord. The face of O’Brien, not called up by any obvious association, had floated into his mind. He knew, with more certainty than before, that O’Brien was on his side. He was writing the diary for O’Brien – to O’Brien: it was like an interminable letter which no one would ever read, but which was addressed to a particular person and took its colour from that fact. (p.68)

What is so voodoo about this is that part three of the book reveals that O’Brien does know and understand all about Winston, but he is far from being a friend: he will be his interrogator. And they do meet in a place with no darkness, but it is not a place of freedom: it is the torture room of unimaginable pain and complete mental abasement.

Right from the start of the novel Winston is convinced there is something special between him and O’Brien but it is a shock to the reader and to Winston that the relationship will turn out to be the weirdly intense twisted one of torturer and tortured.

And not just any torturer, not just a sadist administering punishment in a blunt way to gain spurious confessions. In a weird uncanny way O’Brien can see right into Winston’s soul. He anticipates all of Winston’s thoughts, every question and doubt, even down to using the exact phrases in Winston’s mind. He has a supernatural power. He is a supernatural figure.

Dreams of his mother

And then there are other dreams, pure and simple. Winston is aware all the time of a sense of loss, a sense that this isn’t how life shouldn’t be, that he can’t quite express. The feeling is reinforced by the strange dreams he has of his mother, who ‘disappeared’ when he was a boy. Chapter three opens in the midst of a dream, which like so many dreams is full of obscure, powerful meaning and leaves a strong aftertaste.

At this moment his mother was sitting in some place deep down beneath him, with his young sister in her arms. He did not remember his sister at all, except as a tiny, feeble baby, always silent, with large, watchful eyes. Both of them were looking up at him. They were down in some subterranean place — the bottom of a well, for instance, or a very deep grave — but it was a place which, already far below him, was itself moving downwards. They were in the saloon of a sinking ship, looking up at him through the darkening water. There was still air in the saloon, they could still see him and he them, but all the while they were sinking down, down into the green waters which in another moment must hide them from sight for ever. He was out in the light and air while they were being sucked down to death, and they were down there because he was up here. He knew it and they knew it, and he could see the knowledge in their faces. There was no reproach either in their faces or in their hearts, only the knowledge that they must die in order that he might remain alive, and that this was part of the unavoidable order of things.

He could not remember what had happened, but he knew in his dream that in some way the lives of his mother and his sister had been sacrificed to his own. It was one of those dreams which, while retaining the characteristic dream scenery, are a continuation of one’s intellectual life, and in which one becomes aware of facts and ideas which still seem new and valuable after one is awake. The thing that now suddenly struck Winston was that his mother’s death, nearly thirty years ago, had been tragic and sorrowful in a way that was no longer possible. Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason. His mother’s memory tore at his heart because she had died loving him, when he was too young and selfish to love her in return, and because somehow, he did not remember how, she had sacrificed herself to a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable. Such things, he saw, could not happen today. Today there were fear, hatred, and pain, but no dignity of emotion, no deep or complex sorrows. All this he seemed to see in the large eyes of his mother and his sister, looking up at him through the green water, hundreds of fathoms down and still sinking. (pp.27-28)

‘Looking up at him through the green water, hundreds of fathoms down and still sinking…’ A haunting, terrifying, upsetting image. Later, in the torture room, he remembers this and other dreams, and the dreams and the unbearable world of pain become increasingly mixed up.

Precisely because he lives in such a regimented, rational world, his dreams seem all the more portentous, haunting and obscurely revealing.

The importance of dreams

Nineteen Eighty-Four is designed as a political fable and has over the past 70 years prompted vast discussion of its many rational, analytical qualities – the nature of totalitarianism, the likelihood of a surveillance state, the use of political propaganda etc etc, lengthy debates about its relevance to contemporary socialism or totalitarian states, or discussion of Orwell’s brilliant invention of a whole language of repression, Newspeak.

Less attention is given to the strange dream-like quality of the narrative. Nineteen Eighty-Four is saturated with both literal dreams and of dream-like coincidences, premonitions, of uncanny coincidences, of people feeling drawn towards their destinies which are then eerily fulfilled.

Winston moves in an atmosphere of terror, sure, but he also moves among phantoms, in a world of forebodings and omens, himself feeling drawn inexorably towards…. towards some obscure but powerful revelation. (It is a small but significant indication of the role of the irrational in the novel that Orwell describes the bond between O’Brien and Winston as mystical.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is often described in a loose way as a ‘nightmare’ vision of the future. I’m highlighting that it does quite literally contain nightmarish elements – it is not only full of dreams full of dreamlike qualities – eerie repetitions and anticipations and above all the whole narrative feels driven along, compelled by the kind of supernatural, unstoppable, hellish compulsion of a real nightmare. And the figure of O’Brien, is a figure from a nightmare – the man you think can see right into your soul and is your saviour, redeemer, father confessor, and mentor — turns out to be your arch torturer, punisher, abaser and instructor in an unstoppably satanic vision of the end of humanity.

Half way through Winston has another of his vivid, powerfully meaningful yet obscure dreams.

[Julia] pressed herself against him and wound her limbs round him, as though to reassure him with the warmth of her body. He did not reopen his eyes immediately. For several moments he had had the feeling of being back in a nightmare which had recurred from time to time throughout his life. It was always very much the same. He was standing in front of a wall of darkness, and on the other side of it there was something unendurable, something too dreadful to be faced. In the dream his deepest feeling was always one of self-deception, because he did in fact know what was behind the wall of darkness. With a deadly effort, like wrenching a piece out of his own brain, he could even have dragged the thing into the open. He always woke up without discovering what it was: but somehow it was connected with what Julia had been saying when he cut her short.

This nightmare, also, will come true. It is his premonition of Room 101.

In summary, although the rational ‘issues’ are the ones which get enumerated and discussed, it is in fact to the book’s astonishingly powerful dream-like quality, to the nightmarish inevitability of the plot, and to the hallucinatory omnipotence of the diabolical O’Brien, that the novel owes its tremendous imaginative power.

The movie

Three film adaptations have been made. This is the first, a live BBC adaptation starring Peter Cushing.


Credit

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1949. All references are to the 1975 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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