A crusader for clarity in the English language, Orwell repeatedly warned of words having their meanings blurred by misuse, which could produce disastrous social results.
I wonder then what he’d think of the way we use the terms most closely associated with his work. Orwellian. Big Brother. Thought Police.
Why, one of these phrases titles a once-popular reality TV show that features stir-crazy narcissists making out and fighting over cleaning habits. I think the Orwell reference would have been justified if instead of being “evicted”, the losers were beaten with truncheons and dragged out of the house and into a spin-off show I would call “Room 101”.
I think Orwell would take comfort in the fact that, as far as the post-Communist Western World is concerned, his nightmare is no longer reality (in fact, Brave New World bears much more resemblance to our modern society, and it wasn’t supposed to happen for centuries). But I also think he would be annoyed by how some people act as if it is.
During the Bush administration’s militaristic upswing and the privacy invasions introduced by the Patriot Act, people began flipping back through 1984 and pointing to its renewed relevance. Atlas Shrugged is enjoying a similar comeback as conservatives fear an American slide into socialism under Obama’s socioeconomic policies. Dystopian literature gets the spotlight back when people pull the book out during political debates to say “See? See?” Or merely to evoke it with referential terms.
Now, one of the reasons to read dystopian novels is for their relevance to the present (and future); it’s why I’ve bothered to talk about them lately. But I realize that it’s easy to abuse these books in two big ways:
- Using them in political debates implies one hell of an exaggeration of our current issues. This is tough to avoid because dystopian literature is basically a slippery slope argument in novel form. Realistically, to call something “Orwellian” is just to say that something approaches Orwellianism. Unless of course we’re talking about actual modern totalitarian governments, which we rarely are anyway.
- By citing such novels as indictments against conservatism/liberalism, modern American readers are pigeonholing authors like Orwell into political slots that don’t contain them. They pissed off too many people on both sides to be claimed as a prophet for either.
So while part of appreciating a book like 1984 is in recognizing how your society could/could not become the author’s nightmare, you can only take that recognition so far.
1984 is such a stunning reread (aside from its literary merits) partly, I think, because our culture has somewhat diminished the power of the words Big Brother, Orwellian, Thought Police, etc. through misapplication. Returning to the book itself jars you back into the terror they truly evoke.
“Stalinism’s out of style? Well done there,” says George. “But there’s something to be said about your shitty television programming that bears my association, among other things.”
How We Would Cheer George Up
To calm his irritation with our treatment of his legacy, I’d have him screen the movie adaptation of the book that was done in the year 1984 with John Hurt and Richard Burton (also bear in mind that it was produced during an especially tense stretch in the Cold War, and you can feel the extra conviction).
If you want to know how faithful a film can be to a piece of literature, and still be good, consider this one a great study. I was deathly afraid that the filmmakers would have turned out some vision of Oceania with proles in acid-washed jeans and Party members in Members Only jackets all goosestepping to “Beat It.” Thankfully, it was the future only as Orwell illustrated it, down to the blue jumpsuits and that sinus-blazing Victory gin.
“I don’t care for that odd music during the tense parts,” Mr. Orwell would say, “but it’s terribly ambient on the whole.”
Now one question remains.
Do we show him that Apple commercial?