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

Insidious persuasion is his method (p.379)

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 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, identifying and cataloguing everything Orwell ever wrote into one thoroughly annotated, indexed format. For this massive labour of love Davision 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 unfinished notes on Nineteen Eighty-Four right at the end of his life. It is an eye opener to see what a diversity of channels were open to a freelance journalist in the middle of the 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.

As the parentheses suggest, Davison not only prints the pieces but gives detailed, sometimes page-long notes, explaining the background of each of the magazines, 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, to India and the Far East (there appear to have been 59 of these); but also working 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.

He quit the BBC in November 1943 in order to join 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. Subjects include: 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 and so on.

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 fairly simply:

  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 under threat; only a 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 nature and literary freedom which Orwell cherishes.

It is interesting to learn this was noticed at the time: the book includes the first ever sustained essay on Orwell, by Jonathan Cape’s lead 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 Orwel’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. (pp.375, 377)

It seems ungrateful and churlish to point out that very little of this 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. In fact, with vast funding from America, Germany and Japan in particular were transformed within a generation into paragons of modern capitalism.

Orwell is anti-American. It comes out in lots of places in the novels that he despises American consumer culture, despises soda pop and breakfast cereals and slick movies and streamlined advertising. And this cultural-emotional anti-Americanism made him underestimate America’s growing power as the war progressed, and fail to anticipate what it would mean for the ‘West’. I.e. not only the survival but the triumph of consumer capitalism and the flourishing of all the freedoms he thought were so threatened.

The total mind control which remodelled human nature to render it stupid and supine forever, creating a new race of zombie slaves, this never happened. Even in its darkest days, there was samizdat literature in the USSR, there were dissidents in Eastern Europe, people rebelled, in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

(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 turned out wrong, including his belief that only by having a Socialist revolution could Britain win, pp.301-307).

As I read through I found myself repeatedly disagreeing with Orwell, 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. 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, did swearing become less common? No. On the larger scale, Orwell says capitalism is finished – well, it triumphed. 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, but it looks alive and kicking to me today.

Not only does his journalism pick up on one or more elements of his worldview, 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 prophecy he 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 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 grossly unequal in the 1970s and 80s and 90s – and it’s a working definition of a free democracy that it’s always struggling with various crises 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 now, in 2017, seems like a kind of consumer utopia.

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 etc etc has more voices yelling complaint about every possible issue under the sun than ever before in human history?

Orwell’s journalism may well offer trenchant commentaries on particular events of the day, and a good deal of nostalgic fondness for imperial weights and measures, alongside forgotten Edwardian novels and boys comics – but when they refer to precise movements of British government ministers (Sir Stafford Cripps is a particular obsession of Orwell’s – who nowadays has any idea who he was?), their diplomatic missions to India or Russia, their proposals for this or that treaty or negotiation, all this is of purely historical and pretty arcane interest now.

Preparation for Nineteen Eighty-Four

The best way of seeing these essays and reviews – in fact the way in which they themselves 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 thinks of his great novel.

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 ideas and implications of this terrifying threat. I call him ‘lucky’ because he eventually found an imaginative structure into which he could pour a lifetime of brooding and thinking. And that he managed to complete it, considering just how close a race it was against his worsening health in the late 1940s. He completed and finished in every detail the book which is a masterpiece partly because its central ideas and their application in every detail had been brooded on and worked through for decades, not least in the hundreds of pieces gathered in this book.

This book contains hundreds 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 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

What is maybe a little unexpected is Orwell’s consistent opposition to and criticism of the Left wing orthodoxy in England. Barely a page goes by without 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 isn’t from Nazi Germany – which he never visited – but from the 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 crush, to hound, 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; they didn’t want to undermine ‘the cause’. And when it was eventually published it prompted 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. It could happen here, he realised: because the entire deracinated, unhappy intellectual class has given its heart to a foreign power and a Great Leader who they slavishly believe will transform the world and make them happy. And because they 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 criticises the Tories, the instinctively fascist Catholic church, the lies of the right-wing press and so on – the real animus in his writings is consistently against his own side. To him and aficionados of left wing politics he is making subtle and important points: 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, executing Tories, the upper class, and random members of the bourgeoisie, and imposing totalitarian mind control. This is why, after its initial support had run out, Attlee’s Labour Party was kicked out in the 1951 election and replaced by the Tories who governed the country for the next 13 years.

Only when the Labour Party under the youthful Harold Wilson managed to identify itself with the new generation and with shiny new technologies, did it manage to regain power in 1964 and govern for the rest of the Swinging Sixties (a little like Tony Blair’s harnessing the excitement of a new generation who wanted change after 18 long years of Tory rule in 1997).

Back to Orwell – beside the countless anticipations of Nineteen Eighty-Four scattered throughout these pieces, maybe the next most consistent strand is his relentless criticism of Left-wing intellectuals and the mind-controlling orthodoxy of the Stalinist communists so prominent in England’s cultural life at the time. Although he says his opponents are capitalism, the Tories, the class system and so on – the people who attract his real and repeated ire, his really emotional contempt, are his fellow Left-wingers who he thinks live in a world of delusions which they try to impose on everyone else. 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)

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)

In a similar way, today in 2017, there are a number of progressive causes which you criticise or question at your peril. For example today’s resignation of Shadow Equalities Spokesperson, Sarah Champion, after writing a Sun article on British Pakistani men:

I am not taking any opinion whatsoever on the article or its subject – 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, and that this fact makes his reflections on what that kind of orthodoxy means for freedom of speech and for imaginative literature makes those parts of his essays surprisingly relevant to the present day.

Social history

That said, it also contains his 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. A must-read not only for Orwell fans, but 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.


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 bejasus 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 to which Orwell’s writings were heading. It brings together:

  • The theme of political lying, of the power of political propaganda if applied with ruthless consistency to utterly distort ‘the truth’ – something he 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). 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 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 protagonists, notably Gordon Comstock in Aspidistra.
  • 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 are turbo-charged 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). His society 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 both blare out martial music and endless lists of industrial statistics, 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 be literally impossible to entertain a thought contrary to the Party line. Any such deviant thought is labelled a ‘thought crime’ which is enforced by the 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. Here 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. He meets a fellow dissident, Julia. They make a visit to the countryside where they briefly enjoy a sense of freedom and life. 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. 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

This 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). In his room he helps 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. He returns to the secret alcove in his apartment to begin his diary and suddenly finds himself pouring out a torrent of memories and thoughts. He returns to work in time for the Two Minutes Hate, in which the girl with dark hair and O’Brien sit close by, yelling at the features of Emmanuel Goldstein, the great traitor, the man blamed for everything which goes wrong in Oceania. Winston does his afternoon work of rewriting history, then meets up 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, failing. Wandering further he ends up at the pawn shop where he bought the diary and is shown round by and old owner. On exiting he is horrified to almost bump into the black-haired girl who he’s sure must be spying on him, then 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. it does 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 to govern them, and a police force, but mostly they 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 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 hearth thumping he 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 the Though Police.

They manage to meet in Trafalgar Square (renamed Victory Square) and, among a mob watching trucks 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 road, 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. She freely confesses 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 as against 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.)

They have to pretend to ignore each other at work, 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 their occasional whispers are eclipsed when Winston has the idea of renting 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.

But even more momentous, 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 they 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, 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.

The next week is taken up by frantic work, 15-hour days, grabbed meals, while the whole of the Party cranks itself up for the annual festival of Hate Week. However, Winston is at a mass rally, flanked by thousands o children in their Spies uniforms, and a Goebbels-like man is raising the crowd to hysterias of hate about Eurasia, Goldstein and so on 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 at war with Eastasia and allies with Eurasia. Immediately flags and posters are torn down, but the speaker doesn’t even stop. It is a vivid example of doublethink, the technique people 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 hate as Eastasia – which had been its ally only minutes before.

The long hours come in because, with one mind and without any orders being issues, Winston and his colleagues know they have to go straight to the Ministry to undertake a wholesale rewriting of the past in order to swap the words Eurasia and Eastasia. 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 him, almost falls asleep in the bath, and then sleeps for 12 hours.

He makes his way to Mr Cheeseman’s prole 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 and begins reading The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein.

This is a dense exposition of the history leading up to 1984, via the nuclear war in the 1950s and the emergence of totalitarian states around the world. But it also gives a densely argued explanation of why society is as it is: briefly, history has been the succession of various ruling classes until they went soft or became out of kilter with technological developments. Ingsoc has learned from t his 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. Permanent war is a permanent excuse for the shortages of everything, including food, which keep the entire population in a permanent state of servitude. Permanent war also justifies the rule of a strong centralised government. And permanent war also allows a potentially frustrated populus to vent their frustration and hatred on external targets.

This is just the chapter on why there is permanent war. There is a lengthy explanation of the theory behind doublethink and other aspects of Ingsoc ideology. Julia arrives, they make love, and then he continues reading it out loud to her. He is enjoying the sensual fel of being in a safe secure place, reading a book, for the first time in his life. 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 time is numbered but some day all this must surely come out and their repressive society be overthrown.

Meanwhile, he repeats the phrase he and Julia have often used, jokingly, ironically, fatalistically. ‘We are the dead’. She repeats it sleepily and then – to their absolute horror, another voice repeats it. The voice of the telescreen hidden behind an old print on the wall. This is the moment which should make first-time readers of the book leap out of their skin. Within seconds the room is flooded by brutal-looking Thought Police who make them 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.

Cheeseman enters the room, but without the stoop, grey hair and hook nose. He was a member of the Thought Police and they have been well and truly caught.

Part three

All through the novel has been saturated with Winston, and then Winston and Julia’s powerful sense of doom. They know their ‘rebellion’ can change nothing; they know they will be caught, tortured and shot. They even discuss ow they will fare under torture and promise each other that, in their secret souls, they will never stop loving each other.

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. In an obtrusively 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.

But soon Winston is taken to a solitary cell and there begins days, weeks, maybe months of breaking him through common beating, and then torture using electrical shocks and drugs.

His torturer is O’Brien and 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, 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, and for the rest, 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 then some. This isn’t a temporary phase. The Party has become 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 and that alone.

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

But this isn’t a general knowledge. He knows virtually 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 – they almost completely break Winston down into 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. O’Brien knows this as he knows everything and when the time is right – takes Winston to room 101. This it the place of your worst fears. And it is where they get out the cage of rats which they will tied to Winston’s face. The starving rats will gnaw through is face and eyes in seconds. As they bring it closer he irrationally knows he needs to put something, someone 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 he has been released back into society but as a shambling wreck. He spends his days at the Chestnut Tree cafe, 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 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 torturee.

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 nightmareish 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 nightmareish 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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