Lessons from George Orwell

Note: Started this draft last year, but the post still holds true.

George Orwell (1903-1950) wrote classics that people still read. And in no other year than this one (except for the one that makes up its title) might Nineteen Eighty-Four be considered more relevant reading. Since Orwell witnessed imperialism in then-Burma as part of the Indian Imperial Police and fought Fascism in Spain, he was particularly clear-eyed in his assessment of what a dystopian future would look like under an authoritarian regime.

His was not the first book to tackle this issue. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, which was banned in 1921 in the former USSR but was subsequently published abroad, dealt with a similar subject, though Orwell’s world was not, as Zamyatin’s book was, as insider’s account of the Soviet Union with a nod toward the future, but rather a model that built itself upon all the totalitarian movements of the 20th century. Brave New World came out in 1932, and so also precedes Nineteen Eighty-Four, though its focus is more on sociological forces than political ones.

What Orwell showed more clearly than the other two novels is how a totalitarian regime could keep power forever. In essence, it boils down to control.

1.) Control the past

If the past is constantly altered so that its original form only exists in memory, and memories can be questioned, then the past never existed, or only existed as those in power wish it to exist. It also means that any time outside of the present reality never existed.

2.) Control facts

If you can make people believe that “two and two is five”, then facts no longer exist, and people will believe whatever you say. Winston, the protagonist of the novel, states, “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” Except that holding onto truth makes you mad in the eyes of the state.

3.) Control emotions

People in this book are admonished if they show emotion, unless it’s anger or rage.

4.) Control relationships

Children are encouraged to spy on their parents. Men and women are only to have sex in order to procreate, and cannot enjoy it. Married couples are placed together based on incompatibility.

5.) Control society

People are put into Upper and Lower Parties. Beneath them are the proles. Each group is controlled in different ways:

The proles: “To keep them in control was not difficult. A few agents of the Thought Police moved always among them, spreading false rumors and marking down and eliminating the few individuals who were judged capable of becoming dangerous, but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the party. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations.” (p. 62)

The Lower Party is controlled with telescreens, Hate Week, and the Thought Police.

The Upper Party is controlled by their anger against the other, stoked by a continuous state of war with the other world powers.

This is the point when my rough draft ends. It lacks an ending, but what kind of ending can I provide? Orwell isn’t very hopeful when it comes to overthrowing such a regime, and the only thing that can give us hope is that no authoritarian regime in history has lasted forever. The tragedy is that they last at all.


Inauguration Day Poem

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
 — Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias


Drawing as a Pastime

When I had been in Seattle a year, I wrote a post lamenting my then-unemployed state.  It remains one of my most commented-on blog posts, but the comment that surprised me the most was the following:

Take a drawing class. Everyone can draw. Everyone. Then as you walk about the city, you can sketch. Sketch over a cup of something in a coffee shop, or on a park bench. This will imprint moments on your mind forever.

Also, when people see someone sketching it is almost impossible for them to resist sneaking a peek. If you like the looks of someone you see peeking, play the role of generous person who doesn’t mind being bothered even in the midst of such serious art. Now you have made the first approach and the other person doesn’t realize it.

The comment itself isn’t what’s surprising.  What’s surprising is that it was sent by Roger Ebert (and as if to prove the validity of the author,  Ebert posted this entry on his blog four months later).

When I met with him for the first (and only) time in April 2011, I wish I’d shown him two things: pictures of my nieces and the two drawings I had sketched since receiving his advice.  I’ve finished several other drawings since that time, and while I didn’t meet anyone during those drawing sessions, I still find it an enjoyable pursuit when the weather gets nice.

I sketched my first drawing when it was still raw outside, which is why I drew it in a rush. I like to think that the wind is captured in the pencil strokes.

Windy Day, 3-6-2011
Windy Day, Greenlake, 3-6-2011

I waited until it was warmer for my next drawing, which was of cherry blossom trees. As I’m no good at realism (or perspective), and grew impatient with drawing how the bark and the branches actually looked, my drawing took this form, instead.

Cherry tree in the quad, UW, 3-19-2011
Cherry tree in the quad, UW, 3-19-2011

After Ebertfest, I sketched five more drawings. I finished one in the summer of 2011, two the following year, and then one each in 2013 and 2014. The 2011 drawing is my favorite of the bunch, mainly for the girl sitting on the rocks, her back to the viewer, which adds poignancy to this drawing in a way I can’t describe in words.

Watching the boats go by , Puget Sound, 7-23-2011
Watching the boats go by , Puget Sound, 7-23-2011

The next two sketches were drawn, as was the first one, at Greenlake. This time, however, I waited until spring and summer, respectively, before I stood outside with my sketchpad.

Tree at Greenlake, 4-13-2012
Tree at Greenlake, 4-13-2012
Swimming at Greenlake, 9-8-2012
Swimming at Greenlake, 9-8-2012

My drawing from the summer of 2013 is of the most iconic landmark in Seattle. While I made the Space Needle too fat and the International Fountain too unrecognizable, I’m proud of the plane flying by and the couple on the blanket.

The Space Needle, 8-21-2013
The Space Needle, 8-21-2013

My final sketch led me to Kubota Gardens, which I believe to be the best Japanese gardens in Seattle. It’s also a great place for taking photos, particularly if you wish to try out a roll of black-and-white film.

Relaxing in the Tom Kubota Stroll Garden, 8-23-2014
Relaxing in the Tom Kubota Stroll Garden, 8-23-2014

In looking again at Ebert’s advice, I realize I didn’t take all of it. I didn’t take a drawing class. But that’s okay. The task itself, not the execution, is what’s important to me. And he’s right. Drawing imprinted these moments on my mind. Decades from now, I’ll probably remember the circumstances surrounding these drawings better than I will those surrounding my photos.