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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  June 2003

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE June 2003

Subject:

Orwell and me

From:

Ian Pitchford <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 16 Jun 2003 09:37:38 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (206 lines)

Orwell and me

Margaret Atwood cried her eyes out when she first read Animal Farm at the age
of nine. Later, its author became a major influence on her writing. As the
centenary of George Orwell's birth approaches, she says he would have plenty to
say about the post-9/11 world

Monday June 16, 2003
The Guardian

I grew up with George Orwell. I was born in 1939, and Animal Farm was published
in 1945. Thus, I was able to read it at the age of nine. It was lying around
the house, and I mistook it for a book about talking animals, sort of like Wind
in the Willows. I knew nothing about the kind of politics in the book - the
child's version of politics then, just after the war, consisted of the simple
notion that Hitler was bad but dead. So I gobbled up the adventures of Napoleon
and Snowball, the smart, greedy, upwardly mobile pigs, and Squealer the
spin-doctor, and Boxer the noble but thick-witted horse, and the easily led,
slogan-chanting sheep, without making any connection with historical events.

To say that I was horrified by this book is an understatement. The fate of the
farm animals was so grim, the pigs so mean and mendacious and treacherous, the
sheep so stupid. Children have a keen sense of injustice, and this was the
thing that upset me the most: the pigs were so unjust. I cried my eyes out when
Boxer the horse had an accident and was carted off to be made into dog food,
instead of being given the quiet corner of the pasture he'd been promised.

The whole experience was deeply disturbing to me, but I am forever grateful to
Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I've tried to watch out for
since. In the world of Animal Farm, most speechifying and public palaver is
bullshit and instigated lying, and though many characters are good-hearted and
mean well, they can be frightened into closing their eyes to what's really
going on. The pigs browbeat the others with ideology, then twist that ideology
to suit their own purposes: their language games were evident to me even at
that age. As Orwell taught, it isn't the labels - Christianity, Socialism,
Islam, Democracy, Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good, the works - that are
definitive, but the acts done in their name.

I could see, too, how easily those who have toppled an oppressive power take on
its trappings and habits. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right to warn us that
democracy is the hardest form of government to maintain; Orwell knew that to
the marrow of his bones, because he had seen it in action. How quickly the
precept "All Animals Are Equal" is changed into "All Animals Are Equal, but
Some Are More Equal Than Others". What oily concern the pigs show for the
welfare of the other animals, a concern that disguises their contempt for those
they are manipulating. With what alacrity do they put on the once-despised
uniforms of the tyrannous humans they have overthrown, and learn to use their
whips. How self-righteously they justify their actions, helped by the verbal
web-spinning of Squealer, their nimble-tongued press agent, until all power is
in their trotters, pretence is no longer necessary, and they rule by naked
force. A revolution often means only that: a revolving, a turn of the wheel of
fortune, by which those who were at the bottom mount to the top, and assume the
choice positions, crushing the former power-holders beneath them. We should
beware of all those who plaster the landscape with large portraits of
themselves, like the evil pig, Napoleon.

Animal Farm is one of the most spectacular Emperor-Has-No-Clothes books of the
20th century, and it got George Orwell into trouble. People who run counter to
the current popular wisdom, who point out the uncomfortably obvious, are likely
to be strenuously baa-ed at by herds of angry sheep. I didn't have all that
figured out at the age of nine, of course - not in any conscious way. But we
learn the patterns of stories before we learn their meanings, and Animal Farm
has a very clear pattern.

Then along came Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. Thus, I read
it in paperback a couple of years later, when I was in high school. Then I read
it again, and again: it was right up there among my favourite books, along with
Wuthering Heights. At the same time, I absorbed its two companions, Arthur
Koestler's Darkness At Noon and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I was keen on
all three of them, but I understood Darkness At Noon to be a tragedy about
events that had already happened, and Brave New World to be a satirical comedy,
with events that were unlikely to unfold in exactly that way. (Orgy-Porgy,
indeed.) Nineteen Eighty-Four struck me as more realistic, probably because
Winston Smith was more like me - a skinny person who got tired a lot and was
subjected to physical education under chilly conditions (this was a feature of
my school) - and who was silently at odds with the ideas and the manner of life
proposed for him. (This may be one of the reasons Nineteen-Eighty-Four is best
read when you are an adolescent: most adolescents feel like that.) I
sympathised particularly with Winston's desire to write his forbidden thoughts
down in a deliciously tempting, secret blank book: I had not yet started to
write, but I could see the attractions of it. I could also see the dangers,
because it's this scribbling of his - along with illicit sex, another item with
considerable allure for a teenager of the 50s - that gets Winston into such a
mess.

Animal Farm charts the progress of an idealistic movement of liberation towards
a totalitarian dictatorship headed by a despotic tyrant; Nineteen Eighty-Four
describes what it's like to live entirely within such a system. Its hero,
Winston, has only fragmentary memories of what life was like before the present
dreadful regime set in: he's an orphan, a child of the collectivity. His father
died in the war that has ushered in the repression, and his mother has
disappeared, leaving him with only the reproachful glance she gave him as he
betrayed her over a chocolate bar - a small betrayal that acts both as the key
to Winston's character and as a precursor to the many other betrayals in the
book.

The government of Airstrip One, Winston's "country", is brutal. The constant
surveillance, the impossibility of speaking frankly to anyone, the looming,
ominous figure of Big Brother, the regime's need for enemies and wars -
fictitious though both may be - which are used to terrify the people and unite
them in hatred, the mind-numbing slogans, the distortions of language, the
destruction of what has really happened by stuffing any record of it down the
Memory Hole - these made a deep impression on me. Let me re-state that: they
frightened the stuffing out of me. Orwell was writing a satire about Stalin's
Soviet Union, a place about which I knew very little at the age of 14, but he
did it so well that I could imagine such things happening anywhere.

There is no love interest in Animal Farm, but there is in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Winston finds a soulmate in Julia; outwardly a devoted Party fanatic, secretly
a girl who enjoys sex and makeup and other spots of decadence. But the two
lovers are discovered, and Winston is tortured for thought-crime - inner
disloyalty to the regime. He feels that if he can only remain faithful in his
heart to Julia, his soul will be saved - a romantic concept, though one we are
likely to endorse. But like all absolutist governments and religions, the Party
demands that every personal loyalty be sacrificed to it, and replaced with an
absolute loyalty to Big Brother. Confronted with his worst fear in the dreaded
Room 101, where a nasty device involving a cage-full of starving rats can be
fitted to the eyes, Winston breaks: "Don't do it to me," he pleads, "do it to
Julia." (This sentence has become shorthand in our household for the avoidance
of onerous duties. Poor Julia - how hard we would make her life if she actually
existed. She'd have to be on a lot of panel discussions, for instance.)

After his betrayal of Julia, Winston becomes a handful of malleable goo. He
truly believes that two and two make five, and that he loves Big Brother. Our l
ast glimpse of him is sitting drink-sodden at an outdoor cafe, knowing he's a
dead man walking and having learned that Julia has betrayed him, too, while he
listens to a popular refrain: "Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you
and you sold me ..."

Orwell has been accused of bitterness and pessimism - of leaving us with a
vision of the future in which the individual has no chance, and where the
brutal, totalitarian boot of the all-controlling Party will grind into the
human face, for ever. But this view of Orwell is contradicted by the last
chapter in the book, an essay on Newspeak - the doublethink language concocted
by the regime. By expurgating all words that might be troublesome - "bad" is no
longer permitted, but becomes "double-plus-ungood" - and by making other words
mean the opposite of what they used to mean - the place where people get
tortured is the Ministry of Love, the building where the past is destroyed is
the Ministry of Information - the rulers of Airstrip One wish to make it
literally impossible for people to think straight. However, the essay on
Newspeak is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past
tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen, and that language and
individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the
world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. Thus, it's my view that Orwell had much
more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he's usually been given
credit for.

Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life - in the real 1984,
the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid's
Tale. By that time I was 44, and I had learned enough about real despotisms -
through the reading of history, travel, and my membership of Amnesty
International - so that I didn't need to rely on Orwell alone.

The majority of dystopias - Orwell's included - have been written by men, and
the point of view has been male. When women have appeared in them, they have
been either sexless automatons or rebels who have defied the sex rules of the
regime. They have acted as the temptresses of the male protagonists, however
welcome this temptation may be to the men themselves. Thus Julia; thus the
cami-knicker-wearing, orgy-porgy seducer of the Savage in Brave New World; thus
the subversive femme fatale of Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1924 seminal classic, We. I
wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view - the world according to
Julia, as it were. However, this does not make The Handmaid's Tale a "feminist
dystopia", except insofar as giving a woman a voice and an inner life will
always be considered "feminist" by those who think women ought not to have
these things.

The 20th century could be seen as a race between two versions of man-made
hell - the jackbooted state totalitarianism of Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four,
and the hedonistic ersatz paradise of Brave New World, where absolutely
everything is a consumer good and human beings are engineered to be happy. With
the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed for a time that Brave New World
had won - from henceforth, state control would be minimal, and all we would
have to do was go shopping and smile a lot, and wallow in pleasures, popping a
pill or two when depression set in.

But with 9/11, all that changed. Now it appears we face the prospect of two
contradictory dystopias at once - open markets, closed minds - because state
surveillance is back again with a vengeance. The torturer's dreaded Room 101
has been with us for millennia. The dungeons of Rome, the Inquisition, the Star
Chamber, the Bastille, the proceedings of General Pinochet and of the junta in
Argentina - all have depended on secrecy and on the abuse of power. Lots of
countries have had their versions of it - their ways of silencing troublesome
dissent. Democracies have traditionally defined themselves by, among other
things - openness and the rule of law. But now it seems that we in the west are
tacitly legitimising the methods of the darker human past, upgraded technologic
ally and sanctified to our own uses, of course. For the sake of freedom,
freedom must be renounced. To move us towards the improved world - the utopia
we're promised - dystopia must first hold sway.

It's a concept worthy of doublethink. It's also, in its ordering of events,
strangely Marxist. First the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which lots of
heads must roll; then the pie-in-the-sky classless society, which oddly enough
never materialises. Instead, we just get pigs with whips.

I often ask myself: what would George Orwell have to say about it?

Quite a lot.

 This is an edited extract from Margaret Atwood's contribution to BBC Radio
3's Twenty Minutes: The Orwell Essays series, broadcast tonight at 8.05pm. Roy
Hattersley's and John Carey's essays will be broadcast at the same time on
Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Margaret Atwood's latest novel, Oryx and
Crake, is published by Bloomsbury.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,978156,00.html

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