July 9, 2009

Shelf Aware: Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Though many viewers of the purportedly unscripted television show Big Brother may be aware of its title's origin in George Orwell's last novel, to a vast majority it simply seems to denote the omnipresent arbiter of the show. Its quite malignant connotation appears to have evaporated from the public consciousness in the six decades since Nineteen Eighty-Four was published - perhaps in the wake of ordinary people's surprising eagerness to exhibit themselves, warts and all, on television. Despite lasting linguistic contributions - neologisms like "thought police" lifted straight from its pages, or the practically universal reference to anything repressive as "Orwellian" - the novel appears relegated to the heap reserved for Cold War relics. Which is a pity, for though its dystopian account of life under a totalitarian heel is far from unique, Orwell's exploration of what motivates such systems - what makes them tick - remains one of the most perceptive, and has aged surprisingly well. While clearly referencing the time and place in which it was written, it reveals how people can be crushed mentally as well as physically by restrictive, authoritarian, and mendacious governments of any stripe. Every libertarian provoked by society's impositions may well reach for it to decry curtailments of personal freedom, but Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn't particularly promote nor vilify any specific ideology. "Ingsoc," Orwell writes, "grew out of the earlier Socialist movement and inherited its phraseology," but only paid lip-service to its ideals. So, despite charges of being "pro-Communist," or assertions of the opposite, it pertains to any regime or self-aggrandising autocrat striving to shove their particular brand of "truth" down people's throats.

It's a much darker and more complex novel than Orwell's more popular Animal Farm, particularly in its fascination with the morality of language. That aspect alone makes Orwell's prescience increasingly impressive in an era of readily available editing tools and alarming impermanence of records. But it mainly retains its currency because totalitarian regimes as well as attempts to corral reality are still common in our world. The blocs and spheres of influence may have shifted, but the oppression continues unabated. In view of the last decade, Nineteen Eighty-Four appears even more prophetic as even nominally democratic governments around the world claim it necessary to record all private communication in the "fight against terror." An archetypal Orwellian concept; a conflict virtually without end against a vague enemy practically anyone could be accused of colluding with. An enemy portrayed every bit as pervasive, shrewd, ruthless, and imperceptible as the poorly defined adversaries in Orwell's novel. Requiring our constant vigilance and, likely, the sacrifice of our essential right to privacy - as mass surveillance is persistently presented as the ultimate remedy for terror. Yet, Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a bold prediction so much as an account of the forces that have always threatened liberty. It seeks to expose how expedient lies enable those in power to exploit the ruled. It remains a vital protest against the authoritarian in each of us, against the passive conformist in each of us, and against the orthodoxies we leave unquestioned.

It was written in the wake of both personal tragedy and public success, in circumstances that very likely contributed to the writer's death. In 1946, despite the international success of his fifth novel Animal Farm, George Orwell was a struggling widower and single parent. His chain-smoking black rolling tobacco exacerbating the decline of his health. Following his wife Eileen's death the previous year during a routine hysterectomy, Orwell supported his infant son Richard and himself as a contributing writer to several publications. He'd been a literature reviewer and correspondent with The Observer weekly since 1942, and its editor David Astor now offered to lend Orwell a remote Scottish farmhouse in which to complete his next novel. In May 1946, shortly after his older sister Marjorie died of kidney disease, Orwell arrived at the abandoned Barnhill house on the island of Jura. Twelve kilometres from the nearest phone, forty kilometres from the nearest pub. Far from the hubbub of literary London, Orwell - whom the locals knew by his real name, Eric Blair - shared four small bedrooms over a spacious kitchen and a large bedroom that doubled as a storeroom with his younger sister Avril, his son Richard, and - for a while - his housekeeper Susan Watson. No electricity, a battery-powered radio the only link to the world at large. The spare surroundings may have influenced those of Nineteen Eight-Four almost as much as the atmosphere of constant conflict and random terror in wartime London must have done. The winter of 1946-1947, which Orwell spent in London, likely contributed as well. One of the century's harshest, the national fuel shortage left the writer no choice but to burn his furniture and his child's toys to stay warm. Having visited Jura in the New Year, Orwell left London for good in April 1947.

The idea for his new novel had germinated sometime in 1943-1944, with the working title The Last Man in Europe. Orwell later claimed the meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt with Stalin - one of the aggressors of the Second World War - at the Tehran Conference served as inspiration. Orwell was convinced the recently allied leaders consciously "divided the world up" among themselves. But he only began working on the novel in earnest in 1946, eight months after reviewing a French translation of Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1924 novel We, from which he borrowed several elements. In May 1947 Orwell had completed a third of the draft, and informed his publisher that he expected to have it finished by October. However, Orwell, Avril, and Richard nearly drowned in the Jura sound's Corryvreckan whirlpool - the third largest in the world, practically within earshot of Barnhill house - upon returning from a boat trip along the coast in August. The incident did Orwell's frail health no good, and in November the writer collapsed with pneumonia. The draft of the novel was a mess, two-thirds of which in Orwell's own estimate needed rewriting. Just before Christmas 1947 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. There was no cure for TB in 1947, but to Orwell's - and many future reader's - benefit his mentors managed to procure a small amount of an untested drug, streptomycin, imported to the UK from the US for experimental purposes.

It's possible that Orwell received excessive doses of the recently discovered antibiotic, as the side effects he experienced were quite horrific. One can easily imagine how the throat ulcers, the blisters in his mouth, the loss of hair, peeling skin, disintegration of toe and fingernails inspired the physical degradation that Orwell's protagonist comes to experience in the novel. Yet after three months of treatment Orwell's TB symptoms vanished, and the writer returned to his draft - with added pressure from his publisher to finish by the end of 1948, earlier if possible. Again it would be easy to imagine a further autobiographical tinge, as Orwell might have felt as much a shell of his former self as his protagonist becomes towards the end of the novel. He finished the draft by October 1948, though had still not decided whether to stick with the original title, The Last Man in Europe, or Nineteen Eighty-Four - a date derived from the fact that (in the draft) the narrative occurs successively in the years 1980, 1982, and, finally, 1984. Ultimately, Orwell's publisher Fred Warburg suggested that the latter was a more marketable title, and the many popular explanations of the title's "mysterious" origin are little more than publishers' hype. A perennial favourite among the many myths is one originated by the novel's American publisher, later furthered by the conservative Anthony Burgess in his reactionary rebuttal 1985, claiming that Orwell simply reversed the last two digits of 1948. As if the terror he sought to describe didn't exist regardless of time. With this novel Orwell made clear it can occur anywhere, whenever we become negligent of the challenges to liberty. In fact, the reason why Orwell chose to set his story in (what was then) the future could be to convincingly describe a totalitarian state at its fullest extent.

By November 1948 the now bedridden writer had typed up the draft himself, and had it delivered to London - as promised - in December. In January 1949 Orwell left Jura for a TB sanatorium in the Gloucestershire village of Cranham. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in June, and during that summer the Orwell's fortunes appeared to be looking up. But though the writer's finances improved his health continued to decline. In September he was transferred to the London University College Hospital, and though he was "rediscovered" by many old acquaintances, Orwell appears to have been increasingly lonely. In October he married Sonia Brownell, whom he'd unsuccessfully courted nearly four years earlier. But despite plans for the future and a steady stream of visitors, on January 21, 1950, Orwell suffered a massive haemorrhage in his lungs and died alone. His sister Avril and son Richard, who were still living on Jura, first heard of his death on their battery-powered radio.

"My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions ... which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism. ... The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere."

George Orwell, June 16, 1949.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Blog Widget by LinkWithin