BOOKS AND THE CULTURE \(Author’s note: Before the year and the excuse runs out, it seems worthwhile to lend Orwell’s memory one more homage. It is a sardonic confirmation of Orwell’s judgment of modern literary culture that we would not be having these reconsiderations at all had he settled on his alternative title: “The Last Man in Europe” not a bad choice, considering this essay appears under the reign of the Great Communicator, who is capable of hilarious banter about Armageddon but does not know the difference between a live microphone Austin WHEN I FIRST read 1984, in high school in the mid ’60s, it was as a blistering indict ment of Russian communism and its counterpart, creeping socialism in Europe. It was not that my teachers taught the book in that way indeed, 1984 was still both too “modern” and too controversial to appear on the acceptable high-school reading lists, even in those pre-Gabler years but that \(in an irony that would not have been lost on Orwell, knew no other way of reading such a book. Eternal vigilance against the Soviets and their allies was the price of my glorious freedom, and Orwell’s allegory of modern tyranny joined a long line of such cautionary tales, in my Catholic, midwestern education, all devoted political dogma that tyranny came from abroad, its distinguishing markings were red, and that I myself lived where all was for the best in the best of all possible democracies. The notion that Orwell’s totalitarian society, “Oceania,” might Michael King teaches at the University of Texas. An earlier version of this article was given at a 1984 symposium sponsored by the Texas Union in March, 1984. have anything at all to do with my own that notion I considered absurd, unthinkable most of my teachers. Indeed, it was not a thought considered, measured, speculated upon, to be accepted or rejected; it was not an admissible thought at all. Orwell’s book is also an attack on the willing acceptance of totalitarian ideas. The further idea that there might be something called “democratic socialism” a social vision which Orwell himself fought for until his dying breath that too was a contradiction in terms, a metaphysical absurdity or, in the parlance of “Newspeak”: “crimethink.” So I came to 1984, in 1984, seeking to make amends, both to its author and to my former benighted self. How are we to read this book now, in the year of its dire title? In the first place, 1984 is indeed a dramatic and effective attack on modern totalitarianism, particularly as embodied in Nazism and Soviet Communism. The book could not have been written without Orwell’s intimate and acute knowledge of the vicious perversions to which the term “socialism” had been regularly applied. But it is also Orwell was very explicit on this point in his own statements about the book an attack on the willing acceptance of totalitarian ideas, particularly among intellectuals, in the socalled “free world.” At least one contemporary reviewer, amidst the many who were arguing over the probability of Orwell’s predictions, saw that, in fact, the book hit much closer to home: “Probability is not a necessary condition of satire which, when it pretends to draw the future, is, in fact, scourging the present. . . . The duty of the satirist is to go one worse than reality; and it might be objected that Mr. Orwell is too literal, that he is too oppressed by what he sees to exceed it.” thought if anything, Orwell’s vision of modern reality may be too literal to qualify as satire. And the central ground of Orwell’s attack is not eastern Europe. “Oceania” is centered in the Americas, and “Airstrip One” is England. More significantly, the political, social, cultural, indeed universal atrocities he describes in such detail are neither foreign nor futuristic. They are only extreme and systematic versions of situations already common in 1948 and much more common, if not universal, in our own era of continuous warfare continual expansion of state power. To which atrocities do I refer? “Goldstein’s Book” within 1984 gives the catalogue, whose terms apply equally well to our own day: permanent but indecisive warfare between the great powers and their client nations as the steady-state of international relations; the consequent endless production and stockpiling of armaments \(with the mainstream political debate only over progressive militarization of the economy at the explicit expense of domestic social reform; technology and scientific research in indentured servitude to mass destruction and police surveillance; the national and international growth of police-state organizations, whose functions run the gamut from technically “legal” surveillance to “counter-intelligence” criminal recruitment to outright terrorism and assassinations; the active promulgation of racism and sexism as means of political coercion; the permanent use of privation and impoverishment \(e.g. “unemploythe economy and social ferment \(e.g. of the educational system to both governmental and corporate power; the use of the press and popular media as court stenographers to state propaganda; the co-opting of intellectual workers and researchers into the permanent service of the state; the growing acceptance of class rule and class society as the only conceivable ways of organizing communities \(i.e. the “life is unfair” or “I got and certainly not least, the relentless debasement of language, so that 1984: Curiouser and Curiouser By Michael King THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17
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