George Orwell and The Last Man in Europe
As a literary device and as a literary genre, utopian fiction occupies a strange yet undeniably important position in the history of western literature. For in a utopia the author manages to combine fact, fiction, fantasy and science fiction. Indeed, within the confines of a utopia, anything goes. An author presents a clear vision of what sort of society he wishes to see develop in the future. What he changes in that vision is a product of both his experience and the imagination which that experience has helped to produce. In 1979, Frank and Fritzie Manuel published Utopian Thought in the Western World, a massive work which more or less summed up their life's work. In the Preface to that work they have this to say of utopia:
Having established that utopias are, more or less, products of the age in which they appear, we must ask ourselves why utopias are written in the first place. Why would an author write a utopian novel? What conditions must exist for him to even contemplate the idea? In general, utopian novels or better yet, a utopian frame of mind, or method of analysis, only appears as a result of bad times. Think about it. If everything were as one wanted, why would there be a need to produce an account that could improve upon it? Is it possible to perfect, perfection? An experience of bad times produces visions of the future in which the evils of society have been eliminated, replaced or transcended, usually for the benefit of all humanity. So it has been in the past -- so it was with the English statesman, THOMAS MORE (1478-1535). In 1516, More completed his most important work called simply, Utopia. Composed in Latin and subsequently printed in English in 1556, More portrayed both an England he came to distrust, and an island called Utopia where all those social evils More had identified in England had been transcended. More observed an England in which wealth and personal gain had come to mean more than Christian devotion or charity. In Utopia, he writes:
It was Sir Thomas More who thrust the words utopia and utopian into the canon of modern language. The word utopia, in More's hands, is actually a play on words. In Greek, the word topos means "place." But the prefix ou or eu, rendered in modern English as "u" has a double meaning: ou means "no" while eu means "good." In other words, utopia meant a "good place": it embodied a vision of the world with all its social evils removed. But as fiction -- although More's book was based partly on information obtained by Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512) -- utopia has also come to mean "no place" or simply "nowhere."
A little less than 400 years after More penned Utopia, English and American authors were struggling with their own vision of a perfect republic. In 1891, the English socialist and designer, William Morris (1834-1896), produced his best known work of fiction, aptly titled, News From Nowhere. In Morris's mind, the society of the future will have no need for government. The Houses of Parliament are no longer the seat of government but a repository for human excrement. Almost twenty years earlier, the English author and painter, Samuel Butler (1835-1902), wrote Erewhon, a satire in which conventional practices and customs are all reversed. Crime is treated as an illness and illness as a crime. And then there was the American Edward Bellamy (1850-1898), whose novel Looking Backward of 1888, took the now classic utopian format of a man who goes to sleep and wakes up 100 years in the future. And what account of late 19th century utopian literature could fail to mention H. G. Well's (1866-1946) classic, The Time Machine? And if we are looking for yet one more precedent, in 1623, an Italian philosopher by the name of Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), a heretic who was confined for 27 years in Naples, and who later fell victim to the rack for seven years, published his utopian fantasy Civitas Solis (The City of the Sun).
Morris, Campanella, More, Bellamy, and Wells are just a few representatives of the utopian mentality in western thought. But the first utopia was perhaps written by Plato, the student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. Plato's Republic stands forever regarded as the first utopia in history. Although the dialogue is really concerned with the education or culture required to produce the perfect society, there is enough of utopianism within it to allow it to qualify as representative of the utopian frame of mind.
All of these utopias share one thing in common -- they were written at times when society seemed to be crumbling. Plato, for instance, wrote at a time when Greek direct democracy had become all but obsolete. The Classical Age of Greece had come to an end, an age which began with a war and ended with yet another war. Athens was no longer the center of Hellenic civilization, having been defeated by the Spartans. Educated Greeks began to doubt that virtue alone would lead to the good life. For how could one seek virtue in the demos when no one knew what virtue really was? In addition, how could one praise the Athenian city-state and its direct democracy, when it was that direct democracy which had condemned Socrates -- the most virtuous Athenian -- to death? And Sir Thomas More, the victim of psychological tensions in his personal life, and political tensions in his public life, could no longer reconcile the two. Reconciliation was attempted in his book, Utopia, but its ultimate fruition perhaps came with his trial and beheading at the hands and executioner of his good friend, King Henry VIII. Or Campanella, a victimized heretic, confined to a life of physical and psychological torture -- it's no wonder at all that he wrote a utopia full of illumination. After all, he spent 27 years in prison. And Morris, Bellamy and Butler -- all writing their utopian fantasies at a time when crass materialism and the cash nexus seemed to subdue and dominate mankind. For the English writers Morris and Butler, the problems they identified in English society centered on the failure of Victorian culture to combat the materialism which that culture had produced and sustained. A liberal political economy of laissez faire had not delivered on its promise completely. True, the wealth of the nation had substantially increased but a great part of the population, the "great unwashed," as they were referred to, still lived in appalling social conditions. For Bellamy, the situation was a bit different. He discovered that the great dream of the American republic had also not delivered on its promise of slow but steady improvement. More than one hundred years after the founding of the republic, materialism, the cash nexus, deceit and corruption had become the centerpiece of a society supposedly built upon the twin pillars of civic duty and republican virtue.
The experience of all these writers shaped their utopian fantasies and visions. Illusory or not, they held on to the promise of a better world. So they postulated worlds with strong governments, or worlds without governments at all. There were utopias in which wealth was equalized as there were utopias in which wealth was abolished outright. And there were utopian worlds with God as the mediator as much as there were utopias within which there was little room for God or gods of any kind.
The utopian wrote romances -- I think this is the best word to describe them. Their experience shaped their predispositions and their aspirations. It appears that these utopias were produced at a time -- within an experience -- in which society seemed to be losing ground rather than moving ahead toward some higher goal. For Plato, it was an awareness that the virtues which had made the Athenian city state great, could no longer sustain that city state. For Thomas More, it was the fact that because the wealthy were only interested in increasing their wealth, the common lot of mankind were doomed to subservience and suffering. And for William Morris, it was industrial capitalism, the great degrader of mankind, which had stripped away man's dignity. Art, thought and creativity were sacrificed to make way for the middle classes and all they represented.
But in the twentieth century, a new literary device and technique was developed -- a device born not only of apparent advancement, but also the clear experience of disillusionment, bitterness, fear, terror, depression and dejection. The world appeared as a broken watch. Observed from a distance, all looked well. But hold the watch to the ear, and one heard nothing.
In 1932, the English author Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) gave us his vision of the world in his novel Brave New World. Only this time, the vision was not utopian but anti-utopian or, for lack of a better expression, dystopian. Huxley warned his readers of moral anarchy in a scientific age, an age identified by the letters, "A.F," After Ford. This is, of course, deliberate on Huxley's part -- the machine technology of Henry Ford's (1863-1947) perfected assembly line had not only produced the marvels of mechanized production but the mechanized man and woman of the twentieth century. He depicts a gray, repulsive utopia -- a dystopia -- in which Platonic harmony is forcibly introduced by the scientific breeding and conditioning of a society of human robots, for whom happiness is synonymous with subordination. The fate of us moderns is painfully apparent in Huxley's hands -- we are nameless and fearless numbers (176-45-9925). The bureaucratic impulses of the twentieth century have solved the problems of individualized anomie. We are all in this together. But who are we but a number on the tally sheet?
The Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938) provided his own dystopia ten years earlier than Huxley in his enormously popular play, R.U.R., which was first performed in a New York theatre in 1921. R.U.R. was the twentieth century version of Mary Shelley's (1797-1851) early nineteenth century novel, Frankenstein. In Capek's hands, however, the backdrop is not the factory of the early nineteenth century, but the business offices of Rossum's Universal Robots -- and we do not meet factory owners and workers but businessmen and robots. Indeed, it was from Capek's play R.U.R. that the word robot entered the English language for the first time -- a word made even more expressive by the American science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, in his collection of wonderful short stories, I Robot. One character in R.U.R., observed that:
Well there you have it. A Christian-Marxist-socialist-collectivist-communist utopian dream made into reality. Man is freed from Original Sin -- he is freed from irksome labor, and he is given freedom from the realm of necessity to pursue his own goals of creativity and perfection. As a bonus -- all this is to be attained by man, for man, on this earth, not in some Augustinian city of God. Of course, the moral is as clear as the eventual outcome -- when men become gods and control their own destiny, their creations turn to destroy them. This is the fate of those who created Rossum's Universal Robots.
To this now bleak portrait, we can easily add Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin's (1899-1977) film of 1936. In the guise of parody, satire and slap-stick, Chaplin portrays a machine civilization gone literally crazy with speed and efficiency. Subtitled, "A Story of Industry," the film opens with a clock which fills the screen. This image is followed by a herd of rushing cattle. The connection is complete: time and speed are the watchwords of modern times. Although "Modern Times" was the last feature length silent film to be made in the United States, we do hear the spoken word, however, human voices appear hostile to life itself, they are inhuman. Words are commands for greater industrial efficiency at the expense of the worker's mental and physical health. The first words to be heard in the film come from the owner of the "Electro Steel Company" who appears on a video screen and orders a "speed...up" of the assembly line. His second utterance, not unlike the first, simply commands, "Section Five, More Speed, Four, Seven." Later in the film, he orders the man in charge of the assembly line speeds to "Give her the limit!" The tramp, played by Chaplin, now suffering from the advanced stages of Forditis, is overcome by the speed of the line upon which he tightens the nuts of widgets and goes wild.
This much having been said, there is something of a tradition now, of both utopian and dystopian writing. The entire tradition of the dystopia, a tradition pretty much born in the 1920s and 30s -- which hopefully tells you something -- found its most eloquent spokesman in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1903-1950). As a dystopia, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four stands as a monument to both hysteria and calm introspection, that is, if such a thing can be imagined. The novel embodies both myth and reality and I am quite sure that it will remain as standard fare in all 20th century literature courses for a good while.
GEORGE ORWELL was born Eric Arthur Blair, on June 25th, 1903, in an Indian town some twenty-five miles from the border of Nepal. According to his own account in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he was born into the lower-upper-middle class, a fact he recorded quite deliberately. Orwell was a paradox, an ambiguous man who claimed to be a socialist while at the same time he produced one of the most ruthless critiques of contemporary socialists. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell remarks that:
Orwell's own brand of socialism was not Marxist, or Leninist, nor was it philosophical or even economic. Socialism, for Orwell, meant decency and social justice. The class system of social distinctions ought not to be destroyed -- rather, all men and women should become even more aware of their class and their relationships with other classes. "All that is needed," wrote Orwell, "is to hammer two facts home into the public consciousness. One, that the interests of all exploited people are the same and the other, that socialism is compatible with common decency."
Orwell's most important book, at least it is the one at the front of our minds, is Nineteen Eighty-Four, although Orwell's personal favorite was Animal Farm (1945). Published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four has given us the common images and vocabulary of Big Brother, doublethink and Newspeak. It is also now possible to speak of something being Orwellian. Nineteen Eighty-Four also gave us a model of totalitarian society -- a vision of power, control and authority used in the name of social harmony. We must ask ourselves whether Nineteen Eighty-Four is myth or reality? That is, was Orwell describing something which he saw in his own lifetime, or, was he projecting a warning of things to come? In the year 1984, the press ran wild with updates and stories about Orwell. His picture appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as well as academic journals. How much of what Orwell had written about had become a reality? Was Orwell right? It seems that the entire literate world waited thirty-five years for 1984 to roll around just to see. Numerous popular and academic treatments of Orwell were published in the years leading up to 1984.
At the end of 1948, the book publisher Frederic Warburg received a manuscript of George Orwell's last novel. That novel was Nineteen Eighty-Four. Warburg summed up his impressions of the novel with the following words: "This is amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read." This view has been echoed by many critics and students for the past five decades. Orwell's bleak portrayal of a totalitarian regime was a major factor in the novel's now classic status. In 1949, it sold 400,000 copies and by 1984, it had sold over eleven million. Nineteen Eighty-Four is still read to this day by high school and college students alike. In fact, paperback sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four today average about 65,000 copies monthly and the book is in its 70th printing.
Orwell drafted his earliest notes for what became NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR in 1943, under the proposed title of "The Last Man in Europe." What he had in mind was a book in two parts. Already established as early as 1943 was the notion of the "Two Minutes' Hate," and a future society based on organized and systematic lying and deception. Throughout the 1940s, Orwell was haunted by a recurrent fear that history was vulnerable to alteration for political ends. History, in other words, will be rewritten by those who are in power. And so, Winston Smith, the main character of Nineteen Eighty-Four, works in the Ministry of Information where his job is to correct history by rewriting it.
By the Spring of 1944, Orwell had reviewed two books that both defended and attacked laissez-faire capitalism. Those two books were Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and The Mirror of the Past by K. Zilliacus. Of both books, Orwell wrote: "Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship and war." The only way out, according to Orwell, was a depressing compromise in which "a planned economy can be somehow combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics." There is no sign of this compromise in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell depicts a clearly repressive society. "By bringing the whole life under the control of the State," Orwell wrote in 1944, "Socialism necessarily gives power to an inner ring of bureaucrats, who in almost every case will be men who want power for its own sake and will stop at nothing in order to retain it." This inner ring of bureaucrats, of course, became the Inner Party of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell's vision of repression and the even stronger image of Big Brother was clear in Orwell's mind as early as 1944. After all, the great purge trials of the 1930s were now part of history, a history Orwell knew quite well as a journalist. "Out in the street," he wrote, "the loudspeakers bellow, the flags flutter from the rooftops, the police with their tommy-guns prowl to and fro, the face of the Leader, four feet wide, glares from every point." Image all those huge paintings of Stalin and Hitler that seemed to adorn every street corner of Germany and the Soviet Union, and you'll know where Orwell obtained his imagery (on Stalin and Hitler, see Lecture 10).
Orwell's bleak vision of totalitarian society came not only from his awareness of actual regimes in Italy, Spain, Germany and the Soviet Union, but also from his reading of James Burnham's book of 1946, The Managerial Revolution. Burnham presented a future in which technocratic managers and experts would take over from politicians and politics would become nothing more than a struggle for power. The struggle would take place between three continents -- Europe, Asia and America. In 1944, however, Orwell had already envisioned a world of "two or three superstates which are unable to conquer one another, in which two and two could become five if der F�hrer wished it." And in 1947, Orwell wrote an article for the American journal Partisan Review in which he clearly presented his honest fears for the future. In this article, "Toward European Unity," Orwell wrote:
Orwell resumed work on Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1947 with his personal experience of totalitarian regimes and Burnham's book in his mind. But his world view was also shaped by a novel written by the Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937). The novel We (written 1920/21, published in Russian in 1952) was set in the 26th century in an urban, totalitarian society. Orwell read the novel with enthusiasm and pronounced it superior to Huxley's Brave New World. Zamyatin had shown the irrational side of totalitarianism. Human sacrifice and cruelty were ends in themselves and the Leader is given divine attributes. In Zamyatin's hands, the leader is now called The Benefactor.
Orwell's theoretical concerns about the likely shape of the future could be considered a form of political satire. But Nineteen Eighty-Four did not merely prophesize the kind of totalitarian society that Orwell believed would arrive. Instead, Orwell was sending out a warning against something he believed could arrive, "even in Britain, if not fought against." Orwell dated his book in 1984 -- it is a point in the future. He may have been trying to tell his readers strive to avoid this! But what the reader experiences -- both then and now -- is that this society has already arrived. Although Nineteen Eighty-Four is derived from the novels of Huxley and Zamyatin, perhaps even the novels of H. G. Wells and what he knew of actual events in Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia, Orwell also drew his stage settings from what he observed firsthand in post-war England. Much of Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in a gray, gritty, depressing London of shortages, queues, inconveniences, ruined buildings and occasional bombings. Many of the specifics of the novel relate to the years 1941-1943, when Orwell was employed by the BBC. For example, the images of the canteen at the Ministry of Truth, where Winston Smith is employed, are drawn directly from the BBC canteen. The Ministry of Truth itself -- 1000 feet high, is an exaggerated version of the wartime British Ministry of Information. Even the fictional Big Brother may have been drawn from the head of the Ministry of Information, Brendan Bracken, who was known to his employees as B.B.
Much of the bleak quality of Nineteen Eighty-Four has also been attributed to Orwells's poor health. He outlived the publication of the novel by a mere seven months, having died of tuberculosis in 1950. And between 1939 and 1946, Orwell suffered the experience of standing by as several members of his family died. His father died of cancer in 1939. His mother died in 1943, his sister Marjorie in 1946 and his first wife Eileen in 1945. All these circumstances no doubt added to the gloom and despair usually associated with Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The world of Airstrip One -- England -- is a world of poor food, dingy apartments and two way television screens. It is a claustrophobic world and this is made even more apparent because the novel is written from the standpoint of one man, Winston Smith. The reader must experience the world through his eyes, and his eyes alone. The only variation is a short part titled "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism" by Emmanuel Goldstein, the Trotsky-like figure who is daily the object of the two Minutes' Hate. Orwell also included an Appendix to the novel, "The Principles of Newspeak." This section gives a detailed explanation of Winston Smith's work at the Ministry of Truth.
The Inner Party wants to suppress all dissent -- labeled "thought crime" -- by eliminating all words from the language that could express dissent. Think about it -- if you were to suppress dissent by modifying the language, what words might you eliminate? For O'Brien, a member of the Inner Party, "it is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be."
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the proles make up about 85% of the total population. They live in poverty and ignorance and are considered harmless by the Inner Party and the Thought Police. Still, the proles retained the decent human values of friendship and family that the Party had done its best to eliminate in its own members. And Winston Smith confides in his diary, "if there is any hope, it lies with the proles." In Orwell's eyes, the proles constitute not just a force, but a natural force, capable of overwhelming the Party by virtue of their own humanity. Neither proles nor Winston's search for his own past provides an escape since "nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull."
If you ever do manage to read Nineteen Eighty-Four, you will come away from the novel saddened, angry and perhaps even full of doom for the generation that had to live through the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s and 40s. You will have felt the full emotional impact of Orwell's mind as well. Dystopias are powerful weapons, even more so than the vast number of utopian novels that came before them. Utopias hold out for a vision of the future -- a vision of how society ought to be. As a novel about how things are, Nineteen Eighty-Four ought not to be considered a clever bit of prophecy on Orwell's part. Better to leave that to a writer like H. G. Wells. Rather, I think we have to see Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a description of what he saw around him in post-war England. Again, the images of the novel and the two film versions are those of a post-war London. They are constant reminders of what England needed to avoid, and on a broader scale, of what we all need to avoid.
It is clear that Orwell's mind and his dystopia were products not necessarily of his imagination but more importantly of his own experience. For how else should it be? As England emerged from World War Two and as the Labour Party came to power, the State began to intervene more forcibly into the lives of the citizen. And so, following World War Two, England began to build that vast government-subsidized entity known as the Welfare State. No one was immune from paying the costs of that Welfare State. Individualism and collectivism were joined together as the "middle road." Orwell had seen what this union had accomplished in Italy, Germany, Spain and the Soviet Union. Could England be far behind?
| The History Guide | |
copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis