Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Magnificent Genius

GAWWWWD but Orwell was a genius!

Sometimes I forget.

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”

I remember when I first read 1984. I was fifteen and had asked my father (perhaps one of the last complete conversations I ever had with my gamete donor, now that I think of it) if it was good. He said, "It's painful, but good for you. A bit like going to the dentist".

"His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved using doublethink.

I read it, and, having been raised on cheap trashy sci-fi and fantasy kid-lit, my fifteen year-old brain was only interested in plot and story, which I found highly unsatisfactory. But despite the total lack of romance, even the anti-romance of it, even on this simplistic, comic booky, soap opera level it was riveting, with characters you liked in spite of not wanting to. I recall perfectly that when I had stayed up to two am reading the last bit, when I got to the end, where Winston loves Big Brother, I was so mad, I flung the book across my room and wrote an outraged diary entry about it.

It was not for years afterward that I began to understand the incredible prescience of Orwell's ideas about where Things were going. A friend put me on to his essays, particularly Politics and the English Language. I moved on to Burmese Days, which made me loathe not the English Raj (which I suppose was the purpose) but their corrupt and amoral Asiatic subjects (just a born reactionary I guess).

Being, ultimately, just a girl, I cried when the elephant was shot. The mental picture of the huge placid beast yanking up tufts of grass, banging them on its knees to get the soil off, then stuffing them in its mouth, somehow arouses an almost maternal response.

How a man of this kind of intelligence could have remained a socialist, even after having fought with them in the Spanish Civil War, remains a mystery to me. Perhaps it is one of those cases of the darkening of the intellect brought on by Original Sin.

Here's a low-key quiz for a warm sunny Saturday:

1) How many Orwell books have you read?

2) Which ones do you remember best?

3) Which ones haven't you read, but have either actively lied about reading, or passively allowed people to assume you've read?

4) Which ones made you think differently about the world?


Anonymous said...

1. Only four or five completely (and that's terrible, considering I'm an English teacher); bits of most of them, for the same reason.

2. 'Animal Farm', but that's because I taught it two years running for GCSE (2006 and 7).

3. I don't think I've done either. I hope.

4. 'Animal Farm', definitely: the anti-Soviet message was like a cold bath for a girl brought up in a Communist, pro-Russian home, where the works of Lenin (in translation) sat next to Marx and Engels.

BTW, as far as I know, Orwell didn't remain a convinced Socialist. At least, he rejected much of what he'd previously believed.

Anonymous said...

1. 1984, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, Burmese Days, A Clergyman's Daughter, The Road to Wickham Pier; many essays - sitting here I remember the one about Gandhi particularly well and of course the one about language.

2. I remember best The Road to Wickham Pier and I reread it frequently.

3. People do this? If I want to read something I read it. Why would I care what people think I've read?

4. All of them. I read 1984 as such a young child though I suppose it's more accurate to say that it formed how I view the world. Orwell must be a saint because that book made me a Christian by revealing the horror of the human world without Christ. Keep the Aspidistra Flying made me stop being such a useless layabout.

I feel such awe towards him, his writing and his life. He gained mastery and authority through his search for the truth and his suffering. He gave us a language with which to communicate about the absurd and darkening world we were born into - a world he could not begin to entirely imagine. He could not even have imagined the existence of people like us. Yet he is greater than us and much of what is good about us is directly due to him. He must be in glory now and he must continue to protect us. I am sure he came to the Truth at his death. How can someone who searched so long and so faithfully have been denied? - Karen

Ttony said...

1) How many Orwell books have you read?

I think all of them.

2) Which ones do you remember best?

{Cheating} The "As I Please" essays from the collected jornalism.

3) Which ones haven't you read, but have either actively lied about reading, or passively allowed people to assume you've read?


4) Which ones made you think differently about the world?

All of them at different times. "Down and Out" or "Wigan Pier" were a massive deal when I was in my late teens: they probably strike me more today as the work of an Old Etonian reverse snob.

But the quality of the English is so good in almost everything that he is forgiven!

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

OK my turn, I guess:

1) 1984, Down and Out, Burmese Days.

2) 1984

3) Homage to Catalonia (for some reason, never wanted to read Animal Farm)

4) Politics and the English Language and other essays.

Actually, I have probably read a lot more of his essays than his books. I went through a big essay reading phase in my early thirties, and thought then that the Essay, as done by the great English writers, is the highest literary form we have in this language.

I've just got no patience for novels.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Keep the Aspidistra Flying made me stop being such a useless layabout.

I will have to try this. I've found nothing so far that will cure this condition.

Anonymous said...

My first post - hello all.

As a postscript to these comments, I was mildly surprised to see no mention of Orwell's 'long essay' 'The Lion & the Unicorn - Socialism and the English Genius' (1941). If any Owellian picnickers haven't yet had the pleasure of encountering it I thoroughly recommend the booklet as probably the first (and possibly best yet) advocacy of Englishness-in-modernity. There's also some killer quotes to bandy about. Don't be put off by the subtitle...

Also recommended is the second half of 'The Road to Wigan Pier' - a bracingly rude tirade against 'socialists' that more than compensates for the preceding 'it's grim up north' miserabilism...

Anonymous said...

I read 1984 and Animal Farm. I remember no details, however, I was quite the rebel without a clue at the time and I came out of the period with a disgust for communism and a distrust of intrusive government and yes, even a bit of a hangover of socialism. I think reading The Killing Fields about the same time is what caused me to actually hate communists.

A man can be celebrated, never mind forgiven, for going to Spain to fight the Fascists. The same evil our Grandfathers fought in 1939, seen sooner by bolder men. Don't forget, the 1930's was the golden age of socialism, when it still seemed like it could work.