4 December 2012

Twelve Notes about George Orwell

Excerpts


(II.)


Is it the reader who makes the book? What struck me as incredible while reading
1984 was not the world view of the novel, but the fact that this world view came from an English author. To me, a stranger to England but familiar with what the writer was fighting against, “oligarchical collectivism” felt like a fully-fledged re-encounter with an organisation I had seen before at an embryonic stage. From my perspective based on past experience even the “two plus two makes five” scene appeared far from paradoxical, calling to mind a debate that took place ten years ago.

It happened in Budapest in 1946. In those days Hungary was still governed by four democratic parties, most of the portfolios were held by the majority Smallholders Party and the key ministries were in the hands of the Communists. I was a member of the Peasants’ Party which was ranked number four behind the Social Democrats, and was also, among other things, chief editor of a monthly periodical called Valóság.1 Since the aim of the paper was to give a voice to young intellectuals, the board of editors included a number of leftist university students, and members of the Eötvös Collegium2 and the People’s Colleges.3
 

At the end of the year, on my return from a trip to Paris, I found a collection of manuscripts piled up on my desk, waiting to be edited for the next issue of the paper. Among them was a lengthy and lucid study by István Bibó. The study provided an analysis of the four-party coalition, pointing out that the relatively right-wing Smallholders’ Party and the left-wing Communists were polarising each other, and this process was leading to the break-up of the coalition; whereas a lasting political balance would have required that the polarisation process should work in favour of the two centre parties, i.e. the Social Democrats and the Peasants Party. I sent this article, the first objective political analysis of the situation after 1945, to press. A week or so after this, two Communist members of the editorial board called at my office. They declared, with the quiet determination typical of Communists acting upon orders, that Bibó’s study was antidemocratic. They asked me to desist from its publication. I refused, and the two young people left my office some time before lunch.

After lunch my phone rang. At the other end of the line was József Révai, then chief theoretician of the Communist Party and chief editor of the party’s daily Szabad Nép, as well as head of intellectual and cultural affairs within the party. He asked me to come and see him about the Valóság article that afternoon; he was sending his car to pick me up at three… I was looking forward to this meeting. A red- haired, short-tempered man then approaching fifty, Révai was the kind of person with whom intellectual encounters were never smooth and never uninteresting. He combined party line dialectical thinking with an unrestrained, almost rude contempt of ineptitude: he treated ambitious and untalented Communist writers with an appealingly open dislike.


1 Journal of literature and criticism between 1945 and 1948. (Translator’s note.)

2 College founded in 1895, modelled on the Paris École Normale Supérieure, with the original aim of promoting academic excellence in teacher education. Many of its members became leading intellectuals. (Translator’s note.)

3 Colleges founded in 1945–46 by young intellectuals mainly of peasant ancestry. This short-lived youth movement was at first supported by the Communist Party, but then fell victim to the political purges. (Translator’s note.)


(II.)


Is it the reader who makes the book? What struck me as incredible while reading
1984 was not the world view of the novel, but the fact that this world view came from an English author. To me, a stranger to England but familiar with what the writer was fighting against, “oligarchical collectivism” felt like a fully-fledged re-encounter with an organisation I had seen before at an embryonic stage. From my perspective based on past experience even the “two plus two makes five” scene appeared far from paradoxical, calling to mind a debate that took place ten years ago.

It happened in Budapest in 1946. In those days Hungary was still governed by four democratic parties, most of the portfolios were held by the majority Smallholders Party and the key ministries were in the hands of the Communists. I was a member of the Peasants’ Party which was ranked number four behind the Social Democrats, and was also, among other things, chief editor of a monthly periodical called Valóság.1 Since the aim of the paper was to give a voice to young intellectuals, the board of editors included a number of leftist university students, and members of the Eötvös Collegium2 and the People’s Colleges.3
 

At the end of the year, on my return from a trip to Paris, I found a collection of manuscripts piled up on my desk, waiting to be edited for the next issue of the paper. Among them was a lengthy and lucid study by István Bibó. The study provided an analysis of the four-party coalition, pointing out that the relatively right-wing Smallholders’ Party and the left-wing Communists were polarising each other, and this process was leading to the break-up of the coalition; whereas a lasting political balance would have required that the polarisation process should work in favour of the two centre parties, i.e. the Social Democrats and the Peasants Party. I sent this article, the first objective political analysis of the situation after 1945, to press. A week or so after this, two Communist members of the editorial board called at my office. They declared, with the quiet determination typical of Communists acting upon orders, that Bibó’s study was antidemocratic. They asked me to desist from its publication. I refused, and the two young people left my office some time before lunch.

After lunch my phone rang. At the other end of the line was József Révai, then chief theoretician of the Communist Party and chief editor of the party’s daily Szabad Nép, as well as head of intellectual and cultural affairs within the party. He asked me to come and see him about the Valóság article that afternoon; he was sending his car to pick me up at three… I was looking forward to this meeting. A red- haired, short-tempered man then approaching fifty, Révai was the kind of person with whom intellectual encounters were never smooth and never uninteresting. He combined party line dialectical thinking with an unrestrained, almost rude contempt of ineptitude: he treated ambitious and untalented Communist writers with an appealingly open dislike.

On arriving I was met by the two young men from the editorial board. Révai handled the youngsters with a contempt unhindered by any courtesy. Later on György Lukács, the Communist Party’s aged authority on aesthetics was also invited to join us. He inhabited the neighbouring flat in this overheated villa, a property that had been confiscated for the use of the Communist elite. The discussion, which often became heated, lasted for about three hours.

Révai argued with the proofs of the Bibó article in his hand. He was trying to prove, with increasing vehemence, that the essay constituted a threat to Hungarian democracy... What surprised me most about the whole issue was that the leader of a popular party should waste so much attention and dialectic on an article in a paper with a circulation of barely 500 copies. After extensive quoting and commenting, Révai asked me – in the name of his party – to desist from publishing the article. After I refused, he threatened to have the printed copies confiscated by the police. To this I naturally responded that if the police were to take charge of distributing a paper of which I was the editor, they might as well take over editorial duties too; this would make their job more economical, and I could resign straight away from my position at the paper as well as from all the other posts I held. At this point György Lukács intervened, explaining that publishing an article which was antidemocratic would be the lesser evil: it would be even worse if, as a result of not publishing it, the author of the article, the chief editor of the paper and some of his colleagues were to become antidemocratic once and for all… This argument had its effect on Révai, and we finally agreed that the study would be published, followed by a debate in the paper in which Révai would attack the article, the author would defend his standpoint and I would chair the discussion.
 

Yet Révai would still not give in to the fact that I was unable to assess the article in the proper way. He applied much patience and dialectical skill in trying to convince me that my way of thinking about democracy was formal, I attached too much importance to the rules of the game, and did not recognise if a view was counter- revolutionary or right-wing. I appreciated his logic, but was not able to adopt hispoint of view. I remarked that Bibó’s standpoint could, if at all, only be considered rightist from within the Communist Party, of which he was not a member, whereas within the coalition, of which he was a member, it definitely represented a leftist view, since the kind of development it called for involved a shift away from the right wing of the coalition, towards the left. “All right”, Révai said, “I concede that the article is not rightist, only reactionary”. At this, I found it impossible to suppress a smile. The word “reactionary” was in frequent use in those days, applied to various kinds of people. “I would really like to hear”, I told him, “an authentic definition of who a reactionary is”. Révai thought for a while, and then replied: “Are actionary is someone whose views are shaped by their own experience and not by the interests of the community!” – in other words, a person whose thinking about the present is not based on the common future, but on their personal past. I could not help acknowledging this definition with an appreciative smile: it was an honest explanation implying, among other things, that anyone in whose mind Russians were not associated with the historic role of liberator, but with their own miserable experience, was a reactionary. “Does this mean”, I asked jokingly, “that a reactionary is someone who believes what he has seen with his own eyes?” The party ideologist answered patiently, “In a certain sense, yes, it does”.
 

After such preliminaries, the words of the following Orwellian dialogue appeared quite apt and realistic to me: “‘You are a slow learner, Winston’, said O’Brien gently. ‘How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’ ‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’” (1984) By applying the Orwellian term newspeak to the event I described above, Bibó’s study was clearly considered as a product of thoughtcrime with an ungood effect on others as it might lead them to commit further acts of thoughtcrime, therefore its publication was to be prevented... The terminology of newspeak brought to life concepts quite familiar to readers like myself: “The B vocabulary”, which, according to Orwell “consisted of words which had been constructed for political purposes” reminded me of people who made claims for “Jewish flats” and “Jewish furniture” during the German occupation and who, by using such wording, expressed not only their claims but also their political views. Students living in college dormitories around 1947 thought about issues relating to private life with the pejorative emphasis of ownlife, and to me the telescreen system conveyed, in the form of a future innovation, a state of mind familiar from the past. Even though there were no actual telescreens, the telescreen feeling, i.e. the general feeling of being observed was present in Eastern Europe, at least throughout the periods of political vigilance and purges, and the young Communists’ bon mot about mass demonstrations: “we’ll organise spontaneity” was doubtlessly an early phenomenon of doublethink. Against this background, the world view projected by 1984 made an impression on me that could be best described by words generated in the grammar of newspeak, such as doublegoodreal or unimpossible. While reading 1984 at the time of its first publication, I could hardly imagine that there were going to be readers trying to explain this view based on their experiences in England.

 

(III.)

 

Nevertheless, I was soon to discover that the number of such readers is quite significant. Procaptulectoris: The way some middle-class English acquaintances of mine thought about the book revealed to me that they found it anti-Labour, since their understanding of it was guided by wishful thinking, within insular limits. Such readers sought to interpret the novel in the light of ideas and realities particular to England, and life circumstances during the Blitz. Overlooking features that I found essential (INGSOC, Newspeak, Doublethink), what grabbed such readers’ attention was the torture scene and Winston and Julia’s love affair, and what scandalised them about this relationship, as it seemed to me, was not its character of political rebellion, but its extramarital nature. In this way such readers would classify the book either as Grand Guignol, due to the torture chapter, or as a futuristic story because of the telescreen. There must certainly be bookshops where 1984 is classified under the heading of science fiction. Run-of- the-mill reviews of the novel suggested that the work was the product of Orwell’s sickness rather than his talent, and the tendency of not wanting to hear what is not pleasant to hear was expressed in a large number of protest letters following the televised version. After all this, it was no surprise that in a recent motion picture adaptation the political content was truncated and the message falsified. The directors of this movie version had a predecessor. Roger Manwell’s book about the earlier animated cartoon based on Animal Farm (The Animated Film, 1954) reveals that while producing their version of Orwell’s satire, the makers of the cartoon completely ignored the existence of the Soviet Union and the history of the Bolshevik Party, and for example Boxer, the carthorse, “a Stakhanovite who carried the whole work load in order to prove that he was not a servile soul” (Atkins) was described in the instructions for the cartoon animators in the following way: “Boxer, character: hard-working. An honest, loyal labourer.” As a consequence, this adaptation of Orwell’s tale caused the film critic of The Spectator to comment that Animal Farm was... “a ruthless satire of the welfare state”. Yet, the depoliticisation of Orwell has recently reached even greater dimensions in the United States. On the occasion of the American publication of Orwell’s early novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Anthony West of The New Yorker called for “an urgently needed revaluation” of Orwell’s works. He came to the surprising conclusion that 1984 paints such a sombre picture of the world because of the author’s miserable experiences at boarding-school. Besides, according to West, with this book Orwell was also compensating for his disappointment that the Second World War did not bring the kind of Armageddon and universal ruin that he had expected. He points out that Orwell’s thinking is “paranoid”, his obsessions come across with “manic violence and a generalised sadismthatisc learly beyond control”. In tracing the origins of 1984, West makes no mention of totalitarianism in general, or of Hitlerism or Stalinism in particular. Oblivious of Stalin and Hitler in this way, West finds that Orwell created the figure of the Dictator based on his experiences as a schoolboy. “Big Brother, the feared dictator” West explains, “who everyone pretends to love is really Bingo, the headmaster’s wife”. And “whether Orwell knew it or not”, West goes on, “what he did in 1984 was to send everybody in England to an enormous Crossgates, a boys’ boarding school, to be as miserable as he had been”. West implies that “oligarchical collectivism” in Orwell’s novel is nothing else but a projection of school experience onto adult life, in a soul that was unable to outgrow its hidden childhood grievances…
 

This brings us right to the point. Liberated from the political horrors of the time, we have now reached the depths of psychology. The method is alluring. Let us suppose that these days a writer is working on a novel depicting the kind of society that would develop under the mushroom cloud of nuclear bombs. This author should be prepared for critics who will explain that his alarming perspective is not to be attributed to Nagasaki and Hiroshima at all. Far from it. It is a result of the fact that as a child the author lived near a forest, and would often go mushroom picking after rain, and once he brought home a toadstool in his bag and was beaten up by his parents, therefore he has had a horror of mushroom shapes ever since. If they come in the form of clouds after a nuclear explosion.
 

(IV.)

 

It is the dual effect of Orwell’s work that is most remarkable. Europeans, emigrants and people disappointed in various political movements are impressed by the timeliness of motifs and the political awareness expressed in the book: it outlines the basic structure of a regime they have had a taste of. Among Orwell’s compatriots it is mostly “experts of Eastern European affairs” or “students of Bolshevism” who respond in this way, apart from visitors to the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or China who, on their return, refer to their observations as “an Orwellian picture”, “I have seen 1984 in Poland” or “thought control in China”. For them, the Orwellian pattern of totalitarianism provides the skeleton that holds the body of their travel experiences together; they describe phenomena foreign to their English minds by using Orwell’s terminology. 1984 is increasingly being used as a dictionary for describing Eurasian symptoms, and the word “Orwellian” has become a synonym of “totalitarian”, but tends to carry a more substantial meaning. It has, after all, an English book to support it, not just some distant reality. Orwell has succeeded in making some people think about the state of affairs in one fifth of the world in the terms of his three hundred and twelve-page book.

Others, in contrast, tend to think about the three hundred and twelve pages of 1984 and about the ninety-two pages of Animal Farm in a way that is oblivious of one- fifth of the world. Sweet oblivion! Orwell himself was aware of this tendency in his own day. He concludes his diary of the Spanish Civil War with these words: “It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. ... the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.” The pint of beer tastes better and dreams are sweeter in our days too, if we think of 1984 as “a tale produced in a mind that was deranged, horror-stricken and confused” and of the author of Animal Farm as a descendant of La Fontaine.

Therefore it is highly likely that critics, film-makers and the petite bourgeoisie will go on dismissing the Orwellian world view and will search for its origins in the author’s personal subconscious rather than in his politically conscious mind. It is also likely that many will try to see this view, or as much of it as possible, as an outcome of some instinctive and appealing personal traits of Orwell, the Englishman, rather than as a conscious endeavour.
 

The question is this: was Orwell the type of writer personality as Rilke was a poet, determined by events that befell him as a child, and if so, in what way did the experience of his early youth make itself felt in his later work? Furthermore: what made him, of all people, capable of creating in his writing the prototype of a world in which superior intelligence is used in the service of fulfilling one overwhelming obsession: the passion for power?

 

(VIII.)

 

As Atkins (George Orwell, London, 1954) remarks: “All of his early works are actually preparation for 1984.” In his essays written between 1932 and 1950 we can find the motives prompting the two major satires as well as sketches of some of their scenes. Do Orwell’s literary and political essays show where he was trying to find his calling at the time? “One development of the last ten years has been”, Orwell writes, “the appearance of the ‘political book’, a sort of enlarged pamphlet combining history with political criticism, as an important literary form. But the best writers in this line... have none of them been Englishmen, and nearly all of them have been renegades from one or other extremist party, who have seen totalitarianism at close quarters and known the meaning of exile and persecution”. These sentences taken on their own, but also within the wider context of his critique of Wells, imply what might seem serious criticism on Orwell’s part of the intelligentsia in England who, apparently, did not pay sufficient attention to the fearful developments in contemporary Europe. He discusses this issue at more length and in more detail in 1944: “The special world created by secret-police forces, censorship of opinion, torture and frame-up trials is, of course, known about and to some extent disapproved of, but it has made very little emotional impact.” In this essay about Arthur Koestler, Orwell also points out that the political battles in Europe had given birth to a new literary genre. “Some out of the outstanding figures in this school of writers”, says Orwell again to underscore his argument, “are all alike in being continental Europeans”. And he adds: “English writers, over the past dozen years, have poured forth an enormous spate of political literature, but they have produced almost nothing of aesthetic value, and very little of historical value either.” Orwell mentions this “shortcoming” of intellectual life in England as if he were trying to outline an agenda for himself. In the study about Koestler written in 1944, i.e. before the publication of Animal Farm and 1984, he not only provides a thorough analysis and evaluation of Koestler’s work, but also appears to be clarifying his own objectives, especially in terms of how they should differ from those of his contemporaries. What most of the writers mentioned in the study: Malraux, Victor Serge, Borkenau, Silone and Koestler himself had in common was that they all had first-hand experience of the revolution, of the party and of the movement. Orwell’s first-hand experience, on the other hand, had been that of poverty! Due to this lack of personal involvement with the party, it is not so much disappointment in the movement as human sympathy and the force of logic that motivate his two satires. The stories in which these motives unfold are not set in Moscow or in the past, they rather take place in the animal world, in the future and in England. It is this lack of ties to the movement that enables him to avoid the error made by most leftists who, after 1939, “wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian”. The enemy in Orwell’s novels is not just Hitlerism or Stalinism, but totalitarianism, which the above regimes embody with more or less perfection. For this purpose, he rephrases the old definition of a genius: “talent” he says, “is probably another name for conviction”, and he builds up the frightening mental picture of a totalitarian world step by step during the years of the war.
 

(IX.)

 

In Strasbourg, adjacent to the Cathedral, there is an 11th century building, now functioning as a museum. In the times when the Cathedral was being built, this present museum, called La Maison de l’Œuvre de Notre-Dame, used to be the workshop of the builders and sculptors. The building now contains designs, column heads, half-completed or discarded sculptures which were never displayed in the cathedral, or were later removed and stored here. Orwell’s collection of essays performs a very similar function, vis-à-vis 1984, to that of the workshop museum next to the Cathedral in Strasbourg. These essays show that it was not the memories of school, but hard work in the library that provided the raw material for 1984, and what we might call obsessions did not originate in the hidden grievances of a child, but in the conscious studies of a grown man.
 

The shaping of facts, the moulding of the past to fit the present had been on Orwell’s mind since the Spanish civil war. He first encountered this phenomenon, this extremely malleable nature of reality in Barcelona. “I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler”, he remarks in one of his essays, “‘History stopped in 1936’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.” (Looking Back on the Spanish War, 1943) This worrying perspective is explored in more detail in his study entitled Notes on Nationalism (1945), where he says: “Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should – in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 – and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.” In this intolerance towards the past Orwell discovers a fundamental feature of dictatorships: the man of power is jealous of anything that is absolute, that is a fact, or reality. As long as such things are untouched and unchanged, power is not unlimited. “The implied objective of this line of thought”, Orwell writes, “is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past”. This symptom of the times is distilled into the following slogan in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”. And falsifying history becomes the protagonist’s occupation in the novel, as well as one of the causes of his rebellion.

The same kind of diagnostic discovery indicates in the essays the position that Julia, the novel’s other protagonist occupies in the society of 1984. She works in the Novel Department of the Ministry of Justice, operating the machines that mass-produce novels and short stories in line with party ideology. The idea of the mass-production of novels is already explicitly present in one of Orwell’s critiques in 1941, where he writes: “It would probably not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery. But a sort of mechanising process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism. The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. Radio features are commonly written by tired hacks to whom the subject and the manner of treatment are dictated beforehand: even so, what they write is merely a kind of raw material to be chopped into shape by producers and censors. So also with the innumerable books and pamphlets commissioned by government departments. Even more machine-like is the production of short stories, serials, and poems for the very cheap magazines.” (The Prevention of Literature) With Julia’s job within the political system of 1984, Orwell brings his former idea back to life.

All of the above show that the basic elements of Orwell’s novel took shape through an abstract, almost mathematical process in the author’s mind. This process involved comparing the exigencies of the kind of totalitarian power that the “revolt of the masses” was turning into in the East with the possibilities opening in the wake of the technological revolution in the West. The outcome of this process, institutionalised, mechanised and enriched with new inventions, is described in 1984. The crucial scene of torture and conversion in the Ministry of Love, both in its main argument and in its fine-tuning, goes back to Orwell’s experiences in Spain. “In the great courtyard”, he writes in Homage to Catalonia, “where the cooks ladled out the rations the litter of rusty tins, mud, mule dung, and decaying food was revolting. It gave point to the old army song: ‘There are rats, rats,/ Rats as big as cats,/ In the quartermaster’s store!’ The ones at La Granja itself really were as big as cats, or nearly; great bloated brutes that waddled over the beds of muck, too impudent even to run away unless you shot at them”. That is to say, the rat motif of Room 101, the great satire scene, dates back to an experience of horror encountered in Spain, and the same is true about the interrogation. In the essay Looking back on the Spanish War I read the following: “If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs – and after our experiences of the last few years (a reference to the years preceding 1943) that is not a frivolous statement.” These ideas recorded in 1943 are fleshed out in the striking concept of “re-education” in the novel.

All this indicates that the Barcelona experience represented an even sharper turningpoint than the retreat in Burma: for Orwell, too, it was the Spanish war, the Moscow trials and the gaining ground of Hitlerism that provided the final impetus. This put all his previous personal experiences and everything that had happened before in the background. In Why I Write his school years do not receive too much emphasis: the distress he suffered as a student is fully discussed and buried in Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Such, Such Were the Joys. “As it is”, he writes, “I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure.” The years spent in Burma, he says, only increased his hatred of authority, and the following years only strengthened his relationship with the working classes. “But these experiences”, he says, “were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation”. It was not his personal experiences, but his political awareness that provided this orientation: Orwell was in noway are actionary, note venin Révai’s broad definition cite dear lier; thislonely partisan keeps writing because “there is some lie that he wants to expose, some fact to which he wants to draw attention”. The “greater lie”, totalitarianism, mitigates Orwell’s judgement on issues concerning England and the Empire, especially in view of the fact that England stood its ground so faultlessly during the war. Still, he sets his attack against the external enemy in an English environment, partly because this is the milieu he is most familiar with, but probably also in order to fend off, in advance, critiques claiming that “this is impossible in our country”. All this is so obvious from Orwell’s writings that it would hardly need mentioning were it not for the film adaptations of his novels and revaluations of his oeuvre that choose to overlook, or rather intentionally disregard the very motives and the essential character of these works.

 

(XI.)

 

Both in Animal Farm and in 1984 political substance is primary while the human aspect is secondary. “The more one is conscious of one’s political bias”, Orwell writes, “the more chance one has of acting politically...” “It is invariably where I lacked a political purpose”, he also says, “that I wrote lifeless books…” “Animal Farm was the first book”, he comments, “in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”. Animal Farm is a short history of the Russian Communist (Bolshevik) party, in the form of an animal tale. Farmer Jones is an irresponsible drunkard, whose animals are starving. The boar called “Old Major” envisages a glorious future, and after his death the animals achieve victory in their rebellion against humans. Snowball, the hero, plans electrification, while the other leader, Napoleon, – also a pig – raises the puppies of Farmer Jones’ dog to set up an organised revolutionary police force with which he chases Snowball away, then he claims credit for Snowball’s plans, and abolishes equality among the animals. Apart from Napoleon-Stalinand Snowball-Trotsky, the animal farm displays the basic types of Stalinist society: Squealer, the agitator acting as the Leader’s spokesman; the Stakhanovite horse, and the champion layer hens. There is even a defector, the flirtatious young mare, who emigrates in order to get ribbons for her mane. The animal farm fails in the revolution, but is a success in production. It collaborates with neighbouring farms with the result that pigs, the party caste, degrade themselves into humans, while the other members of the four-legged revolutionist community sink back into domestic animal status.

In the first place, the book is a leftist attack on the party aristocracy that established itself as a result of the revolution. However, it overshoots Orwell’s probable purpose in that the moral of the story, for readers unversed in Russian history, is what Victor Hugo formulated in 1848 in the following way: “La misère amène le peuple aux révolutions et les révolutions ramènent le peuple à la misère. ” This being a possible interpretation of the “fairytale”, the book did not upset the gentle readers’ peace of mind, thus there were no cries of protest and no consternation following its publication. From the unity of political and artistic purpose it is the artistic aspect that prevails in this short masterpiece, whereas 1984 foregrounds the political purpose.
 

I have not written a novel for seven years”, says Orwell in Why I Write, indicating 1984, “but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write”. This consciousness is the most stupefying feature of the novel. It does not only bring to life, as a result of the author’s long-term engagement with them, a whole range of totalitarian phenomena, but the plot itself, too, evolves from the very nature of power in the totalitarian state. The active protagonist of this novel is, in fact, Power, an intrinsically impersonal agent while Winston, the main character is no more than a victim, and the story itself is one of crime and punishment in a society where people are so lely defined by the degree of their alignment with power. Winston takes the first step on the route to crime on that cold day in April, after the clock shave struck thirteen, as soon as he buys and begins to write a diary. With this act he has already started to detach himself inwardly from a community where thoughts and memories are under state control. In the peculiar value system of “INGSOC” there is no stopping for those who embark on the slippery road of sin; whoever withdraws himself from the present, defies the future. Winston records his individual thoughts in his own diary and seeks for the truth in places outside the Ministry of Truth: in prole quarters, in pubs, on street corners and amongst the odds and ends of a junk shop. Instead of applying doublethink he lives a double life: Julia leads him onto the downward path of private happiness, rambling with him through woods and groves where they imagine themselves unseen by the authorities. In this way they depart, in spirit, from the state of grace of collective hate, and start sinking ever deeper into the damnation of private joys; however, the two of them still remain children of 1984 since they yearn for community and search for an anti-Party organisation: the forbidden kiss is sweeter when combined with blasphemy of power. A member of the Inner Party, O’Brien, plays Lucifer, and – given their level of civilisational development – what the couple tears off the Tree of Knowledge instead of an apple is Emmanuel Goldstein’s Book: a work that attacks created order from behind by explaining it. The Book turns the couple’s fatal tryst, a reverse of the blissful two minutes’ hate, into what might be called a black mass. It is to be understood as a black mass since Power is God, and the voice on the telescreen orders the couple out of the paradise of the antique shop into the purgatory of the Ministry of Love. Here, while carrying out Winston’s mental and physical re-education in a way that matches his crimes, O’Brien follows a twofold aim: 1. to convince the sinner that the only way to perceive reality is by acknowledging the changing truth of the Party (two plus two make five); 2. to make him deny Julia, to whom he has sworn faithfulness, and to make him love Big Brother, whom he was about to betray. All this, within the climate and value system of 1984, is as logical as the didactic formula of punishing the bad and rewarding the good in a moral story.

 

(XII.)

 

Yet, to the reader whose mind has never been puzzled by the structure of totalitarian states, who has never come across doublethink in interpreting the party line, who, while reading his daily paper, has never recognised in some translated terms the first stammers of doublespeak, it is only the scenery that looks familiar. And in 1984 one sees Victorian blocks of flats with peeling plaster and staircases that smell of boiled cabbage, just like around Earl’s Court. Among the rows of tumble-down houses in the prole quarters the silence of a society living in war economy is only broken now and then by an exploding bomb, such as the V1 raids in 1944. The food and service in the canteen is that of the Corner Houses, and the pubs in the prole quarters are like wartime pubs except for the fact that beer is only served between 18 and 22 hours and by the litre, not by the pint. Those who judge Orwell’s novel based on these outward appearances will easily come to label it as a morbid prophecy instead of an astounding premonition. Without being aware of it, such readers are victims of the kind of political neurosis that Koestler calls “escape from reality”, and they protect themselves against Orwell’s imaginary system of dictatorship in the same way as against genuine dictatorships: they do not believe in their possibility.

I expect that in the near future an increasing number of writers will point out in more and more triumphant tones: “Look, the years are going by, yet 1984 has not come any closer”, without noticing that Orwell’s work helps to avert what it describes. The major achievement of Orwell’s novel, besides its literary value, is that it transilluminates the totalitarian system: a process as vital to the cause of freedom as the X-ray to medicine. The person that a reader like myself sees emerging behind these books is someone predestined by his very nature to strive for holiness, a Protestant in politics, acting in an environment that has no hope in Providence and no trust in a compensating other world.

Translation by Zsuzsanna Walkó



NOTES:


1 Journal of literature and criticism between 1945 and 1948. (Translator’s note.)

2 College founded in 1895, modelled on the Paris École Normale Supérieure, with the original aim of promoting academic excellence in teacher education. Many of its members became leading intellectuals. (Translator’s note.)

3 Colleges founded in 1945–46 by young intellectuals mainly of peasant ancestry. This short-lived youth movement was at first supported by the Communist Party, but then fell victim to the political purges. (Translator’s note.)




You have to log in or registrate for writing comments.



HUNGARIAN REVIEW is published by BL Nonprofit Kft.
It is an affiliate of the bi-monthly journal Magyar Szemle, published since 1991
Publisher: Gyula Kodolányi
Editor-in-Chief: Gyula Kodolányi
Editorial Manager: Ildikó Geiger
Editorial office: Budapest, 1067, Eötvös u. 24., HUNGARY
E-mail: hungarianreview@hungarianreview.com
Online edition: www.hungarianreview.com

Genereal terms and conditions