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.

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An Unlikely Place for Advice

One would not think that insight would be gained in reading instructions from a 12th century monk to a 12th century nun on how to run her convent, even if the monk is Abelard and the nun is Heloise — tragic lovers and key figures of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance– and yet located within The Letters of Abelard and Heloise is a corrective to people who trump tradition (or custom) over truth.

The version I have is the Penguin Classics paperback translated by Betty Radice.  On page 224, Abelard writes:

The superior must take care that he orders well since it is sufficient for his subjects to obey well and not to follow their own will but, as they professed, that of their superiors.  For we absolutely forbid that custom should ever be set above reason; a practice must never be defended on grounds of custom but only of reason, not because it is usual but because it is good, and it should be more readily accepted the better it is shown to be.

He then quotes St. Augustine, who says:

‘Whoever despises truth and presumes to follow custom is either ill-disposed and hostile toward his fellow-men, to whom truth is revealed, or he is ungrateful to God on whose inspiration his Church is founded.’  Again, ‘In the Gospel the Lord says “I am Truth.” He did not say “I am custom.”  And so as truth was made manifest, custom must yield to truth.’  Again, ‘Since the truth was revealed, error must yield to truth, just as Peter who was previously circumcised, yielded to Paul who preached truth.’

He then goes on to quote other learned men of the church and Biblical passages, but one more passage will suffice, in Abelard’s own words (p. 225):

In taking counsel no one should follow the larger number of men but the better men; it is not a man’s years which should be considered but his wisdom, and regard paid not to friendship but to truth.

In light of ideological arguments against climate change, same-sex marriage, and reproductive rights, one sees a preference for custom.  And yet, here is an argument from a man who is part of that custom, convincingly writing that custom must give way to the truth.  Not that Abelard’s views were always welcome (he was excommunicated by the Pope, though the sentence was later lifted), or that his truths are our truths (for example, he believed that women were less likely to become intoxicated than men due to their moist, porous skin).  Yet today, we would do well to consider the words of the greatest logician of his time, and give over our prejudices and fears to what the better men are telling us.

On Reaching 35

Two days ago, I turned 35. One day ago, I finished reading Mozart: A Life in Letters.  Comparisons to Mozart are bound to end in disappointment, since he accomplished so much in his short life — more in 35 years than most people do in 80, and more brilliantly.  Yet, just as I thought of Jeanne d’Arc when I turned 17 (when she began her crusade against the British), 19 (when she was burned at the stake), and again at 20 (when I reached an age she never reached), I can’t help thinking of Mozart at 35.  Had he lived two months more, I would be thinking of him at 36, but 35 is also when people reach their creative peak.  I don’t know where I read this, and perhaps it’s complete nonsense, but Mozart and creativity go together, since he is the most protean of composers, and perhaps of all artists.  What he did would be akin to a visual artist becoming unsurpassed in painting, sculpture, and architecture; or a writer mastering poetry, novels, short stories, essays, and plays.

I find it interesting to read what I wrote when I turned 30.  Unlike then, I am out of my parents’ house; like then, I am still not published (minus my poetry book).  But I am closer to being published.  Much closer.  I visited my brother and sister-in-law last week and found new resolve in making the publication of my novel my top priority.  Even with SIFF coming up, and all the posts I will be writing about the festival, the novel will be finished this year.  With luck, the search for publishers will also begin in 2014.

Since I already looked back at my accomplishments at 30, I don’t feel I need to at 35.  Instead, I am trying to live more in the moment, while still attempting to peek around the corner and see what my future looks like.  To help with that, I have started meditating once a day.  Only on a few occasions have I not been able to keep up this practice, and whether from this or from signs of spring that are appearing in Seattle — like sun — I am hopeful.  I feel that my thirties will only get better, and that my future struggles will be not be the past struggles of survival, but of thrift.

And, if I live what’s considered a normal lifespan, I have more than half my life to still look forward to — unlike Mozart, who had less than a year.