Wednesday, 18 September 2013

1984 by George Orwell

Lowdown: A personal story from inside the ultimate totalitarian society.
Review:
As I mentioned at my recent review of the film Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have read the original 1984 book by George Orwell on several occasions. However, thus far all my readings were of the Hebrew translations and all of them took place during my teen years. At the time I appreciated the book as the good science fiction take on the communism and fascism plaguing Orwell's world back in 1947; I think it is safe to say I failed to comprehend the nuances that turn 1984 into the warning sign it is. Something must have ingrained itself in my head, though, because when I recently read Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning’s apology before the USA military court I could not avoid reflecting on the similarities between that apology and the submission of Winston Smith before Big Brother with which 1984 ends.
So I went and did the only thing I could do: I reread 1984. This time I read the original English text; this time I was also able to download it for free off the web, and legally so since the book is no longer protected by copyright in Australia.
There is not much I can tell you about 1984 you probably do not know already. The plot follows Winston Smith, a Londoner in his late thirties, who works for the Party – the only party. A party that represents the most totalitarian regime ever conceived, where citizens are constantly watched, are constantly brainwashed, where the truth is constantly modified to conform with the latest party views, and where the worst crime imaginable is the thought crime. We follow Smith’s daily routine of implementing some subversive thoughts, including the establishment of a relationship with a woman (Julia) and contacting an inner Party member (O’Brien) whom he regards as likeminded. The end is pretty much a foregone conclusion; it’s the journey that counts, and the journey that Orwell takes us through is like no other.
Through careful, detailed descriptions of Winston’s world and inner thoughts, Orwell depicts a horrific world of a total totalitarian society. Explaining its whole philosophy and analysing its odds and ends, Orwell provides us a wonderful political document of a type that often reminded me of Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; only that Orwell’s is much more thorough, much more detailed, much more focused, and much scarier.
There is no point in me analysing this book as a piece of literature here; others have done a much better job than I could ever do. I will say, though, that as a piece of literature Orwell’s is clearly the best thing I have ever reviewed in this blog. I am making this claim on the basis of the richness of the book’s [bleak] vision and on the richness of its language, with which only Christopher Hitchens can compete. But most of all, I am making this claim on the basis of 1984’s relevancy: the book might have been written in light of regimes that are now removed, but oh how many warning signs it lights up with regards to today’s society!
By far the most touching was the image Smith is exposed to early on through a war propaganda film depicting a refugee boat being shredded to pieces by a “friendly” helicopter’s machine gun. A mother's (a “Jewess”) effort to protect her child is fruitless; the severed hand of one of the refugees flies up in the air, tracked by a camera celebrating the glorious victory. Me, I could not avoid thinking of Australia enlisting its military to “stop the [refugee] boats” as of today, one of PM Tony Abbott’s first moves since coming into office. Today. Neither was I able to stop thinking of the American gunship pilots, eager to find reasons to shoot at innocent Iraqi bystanders many of whom they just killed and injured, as seen and heard in that video made famous by Chelsea Manning. In other words, we are no different to them, the people living in Orwell’s 1984.
66 years might have passed since Orwell put his vision down and we are still to learn from it. At Smith’s real life London cameras track you wherever you are; recently even garbage cans. Spin is taken for granted. Politicians take us on wars of folly across the globe. The threat of terror is constantly being used to rob us of more and more of our hard fought liberties. In effort to exercise their power over us, the ruling classes are trampling over us financially while taking billions of taxpayers’ moneys home. And just recently we’ve learned that all non face to face transaction we perform, including online and over the phone, are being monitored by our governments.
1984 reminds us we live in a sad world. In some respects even sadder than Winston Smith’s: Orwell could not have imagined us all wilfully carrying tracking devices on our bodies and us going out of our way to give our personal stuff away to cynical commercial enterprises like Google and Facebook. By far, that is 1984’s most depressing aspect.
Overall: A visionary warning that society has thus far ignored. A 5 out of 5 stars piece of literature we owe it to ourselves to study and learn from.

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