Saturday, July 26, 2008


A bit of my minimal reading background is in order here. It has been many years now since I put down a finished novel with a sense of satisfaction that comes with having done something worthwhile. It is partly this sense of not doing something useful that has kept we away from fiction for along time. I do not get very excited about the plots, development , twists or even the denouement in the novel. My response is less positive after I have labored through several hundred pages. Compound this to the fact that I am a really slow reader and my lack of any enthusiasm for novels can be immediately understood. However, it is also possible that the few books that I did read recently were probably not the the best suited to my current tastes. In any case, since the total number of fiction works that I have completed reading in the last 10 years or so is less than 15, it is pretty clear that I could not have explored all the different genres that could potentially be of interest to me. Anyway, one thing is certain - thrillers, action novels, and whodunit plots are some of the styles that don't appeal to me any longer. And since the last adventure that I finished was Da Vinci Code, I pretty much gave up on the idea of reading long novels for entertainment.

But after watching the incredible Brazil , I discovered that a lot of people were comparing it to George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty -Four. On learning further about the basic themes explored in the book, I was convinced that I needed to give this a try. I ordered it from Amazon but didn't bring myself to begin reading it for a long time. When I did finally start, I read intermittently not being all that impressed with the world that was depicted. I found it far removed from reality to draw my admiration. However, when I went beyond the first 80 pages or so, it became increasingly clear that I could not have made a better choice for rekindling my interest in books. This was exactly what I wanted to read, learn from, ponder over and relish. It must certainly be one of the most terrifying and yet real visions of the future. Its universe is horribly bleak, one where escape is virtually impossible and seeking change is dangerous even if only contemplating it . The conditions that people are forced to live in is truly disturbing, the mechanism by which the Government exerts complete control is revolting as is the very meaning of life and happiness that people are made to believe. Most importantly though, the reason it evokes such a strong reaction where many other darker pictures may not, is because the author builds a convincing case for such a situation that it is hard to deny the possibility of such a dystopian future in the real world.

The outline of the novel can be summed up shortly : Oceania (basically Britain and North America) , one of the three super-states in existence sometime around 1984 (the book was written in 1948), is ruled by an omnipotent oligarchy (The Party) that imposes absolute control over its citizens. It takes the totalitarianism and despotism we know from dictatorships, ruthless Communist regimes, and Fascists to the next level. Freedom is non-existent in a very literal sense. That includes the freedom to write a diary, speak to oneself , display eccentricities or even show inadvertently a mild deviance from expected behavior, or to even think a forbidden thought . In fact, the English language is being continually updated to eliminate such words that could be associated with notions of liberty, independence, objective reality and freedom. How well can you develop opinions on such concepts when you have no way to frame them in language? The members of the Party, even the most loyal and dedicated ones, are under perpetual surveillance, achieved through various means not the least of which is the presence of giant telescreens at all places. Telescreens that can watch you all the time and can catch you red-handed while committing unofficial infringements like sulking. The idea of absolute control is combined with the the need to create a situation where everyone loves and admires Big-Brother ( the symbolic figurehead of the Party in whose name all actions are sworn by ) on their own accord. It is a system where the Party manages to convince the vast majority of its members to fall in line on their own will, and those who don't , disappear, uh..em ,don't exist anymore. Which brings us to the most frightening aspect of this creation, that the past is alterable. How? Simply because the past is what exists in records -newspapers, pamphlets, photographs, sound clips, video , testimonies, painting, or any other documentation, and when these records are systematically destroyed or altered what concrete evidence is there is to support the claim that a particular event had taken place? The memory retains the event of course, but it is highly unreliable and subjective. Besides, when all hard evidence has disappeared, it is not impossible to imagine that memories also become distorted and inconclusive.
Here in such a world, inhabits one Winston Smith, a member of the Records department in the Ministry of Truth who is involved in the process of record-falsification. While he does not openly rebel against the Party (he would end up dead even before he begins) there is a growing awareness in him about how the Party manages to stay in absolute control by spreading lies, destroying records, brainwashing people, restricting freedom of thought, enforcing a blind collectivist mindset and even altering the nature of human relationships. He teams up with one of his co-workers, Julia, with whom he has a secret affair (sex is strictly forbidden amongst party members except in the context of procreation, where it is practised in a dehumanized ritual-like manner) . She too hates the Party and resents lack of freedom, but her rebellion is limited to issues that are concerned with her life directly. However, while they enjoy their brief time together and toy with the immature idea of subverting the Party's control, they are eventually captured before they can even bring out the tiniest of change. The most horrifying part is not that they fail miserably, or that they have to undergo barbaric torture but what ultimately happens to Winston. That is the story in a nutshell.

While it may be argued that such a future, as perfectly regimented as this one could rarely exist, most of the ideological basis for implementing the schemes and methods by which the Party maintains power and unites its members in its support are incredibly accurate.
For instance, not only is there no freedom but that people are made to believe that such a state of existence is better for their lives and moreover, the ultimate aim of the Party is to create an environment where such a vision as freedom does not exist at all. This is first done by convincing the people that Party is always right and beyond reproach. Then it generates an elaborate propaganda to create an impression that it is providing the best for the people and it has never fallen short of achieving the goals it has set for itself. Then it sets out, using all the power and resources it has at its disposal, to annihilate every shred of information that might imply the contrary. It makes the people feel strong and triumphant and even invincible when they align with the Party and its doctrines. Alone, they are powerless and defeated. When they give up their identity and merge with the Party, they stand together as a single force to be reckoned with. As the book explains, the Party slogan "Freedom is Slavery " is far from some contradiction or wordplay. It is a terrifying truth about life. Furthermore, with each new update of the NEWSPAEAK (the official language of the Party), the words that express free spritedness, deep feelings and independent thought cease to exist. The language is progressively deformed to a structure which can either express approval of the Party doctrines or its exact opposite. In that way, everyone's postiton with respect to the party becomes clear: either they stand by it or oppose it in which case they get easily spotted. That leaves no room for some complex criticism or any ambiguous thought which may be detrimental to the Party.

Much like this, we learn a lot about political power and how it should be obtained and then maintained. Society, says Goldstein, the supposed leader of the rebel organization, has always been divided into three groups: the ruling elite who always want to retain power, the middle class who have want to wrest the power from the ruling class but preach liberty and equality to gather the support of the proletarians, who are last in this hierarchy. The proles have no way of partaking this power and their conditions barely depend on who is ruling them . However, for this to happen, the proles have to be deliberately stupefied by drudgery and impoverishment. They should be made to endure hardships all the time so that they don't get any leisure or security which would allow them to grow awareness and become intelligent, something that is dangerous to those who are in power. The proles should always remain occupied with their daily lives to even consider such a heretic thought as displacing those in power. In order to do just that, there are wars which creates a necessity for increased production. The war is intended for the sole purpose of keeping proles in all super-states busy . It did little to affect the structure of the society and there was no other advantage for any of the countries involved to be fighting the war other than keeping the proles out of political process.

What is the point of all this? The answer is simple - power is not a means to an end but the end itself. Power for power's sake, power to torture and humiliate, and power to maintain status quo. This is the point in the novel that is utterly devastating. It is the sort of nihilistic, meaningless world which cannot be comprehended in a standard rational sense. For me though, I believe there is tremendous truth in this seemingly absurd objective. Power is something that is desirable for its own good. To many this is unsatisfactory because of the feeling that there has to be a grand rationale behind all this even if it is an evil one. Not me. I do not reason beyond this point and so the book to me is philosophically sound and consistent.

Finally, I have to add how much I appreciated the writing style. The author uses a simple, direct and extremely clear language to express everything. This is a very easy and natural narration that always makes one focus on the grimness, isolation and irredeemable nature of the world.

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