Tuesday, September 27, 2011

_1984_ in 2011

George Orwell, obviously a serious-minded young man.
I wanted to reread Orwell's 1984 so I downloaded it from Amazon [yeah, yeah, I know]. I happened to open and start reading when I'd just gotten on the subway.  Even the first two pages bowled me over.  Wow, what a book! 

One thing I hadn't remembered at all was the atmosphere of dingy, dirty, broken down surroundings with no comforts or pleasures and with the rationing of chocolate.  There's a smell of cabbage everywhere, and worn carpets, and Winston has a sore on his ankle that won't go away, and one of the first things that happens is that he has to go fix the old gross stopped-up sink in his neighbor's apartment.

Somehow I'd remembered the telescreens, always on, always watching, always listening, but I'd surrounded them in my mind with the look of the dystopian but computerized future:  clean white walls, clean white carpet, you know. 

I think one reason I hadn't remembered the filth and decay is that in the modern world I've come to so powerfully associate the political sheepiness of the populace with the consumer pleasures of the E-Z-Capitalist lifestyle.  

I mean, I've always figured that one reason we can't get it together to get upset about the unjust wars, the constant surveillance, and the dismantling of our legal protections is that, well, as long as we've got a new phone, the internets are working OK, and we can afford whatever A-line skirt/GPS device/whatever is hot for Fall, it's just too much trouble to get all upset.  But if Facebook went down, well, there'd be some uprisings.    

There was actually some evidence for this in The New York Times about a week ago.  There was some story about Netflix charging extra fees or raising their fees or something and I happened to look at the comments (I know! I know! Don't look at the comments!) and there were like 200 really angry and really outraged comments.  People were like, We're Mad As Hell and We're Not Going to Take It Anymore!  These people are fascists! Mister Netflix Guy is going to pay! 

I seriously haven't seen that level of indignation since Paul Krugman suggested that the US had misbehaved in the decade since September 11th.

Anyway, I had been reading quietly and happily for about four stops when suddenly a huge crowd of kids got on.  I think they were about 11 years old, and boy were they making a racket -- shouting, jostling, making faces.  This happens occasionally in a big city, usually as part of a school trip, and usually I'm slightly grouchy when it does.  Like, stop bumping into me and shouting in my ear!  And turn that music down!

But it's a sign of how immediately frightening 1984 is that in the grip of its atmosphere, I felt exactly the opposite.  These kids were completely irrepressible, unfrightened to express their every whim, accustomed to the world being a source of pleasure and happiness, and immersed in a world of gadgetry, fashion, stupid jokes, and internet memes.  In short, they were basically full of the qualities opposite to the qualities of every person in 1984.

My heart, it was filled with joy.  


Anonymous said...

Oh, but there is that equally dystopian counterpoint of Brave New World. The hedonism and immediate gratification from that new phone or new a-line skirt are just our feeli-vision, recreational drugs, and easy sexual pleasure (hell, we have those things, too.) Instead of intimidation and iron-fisted control keeping citizens in line, there are those immediate gratification distractions. I am not sure which I fear more, but I know that I, for one, am much more likely to wind up seduced into that Huxleyan form of control. My new MacBook Pro is pretty sweet and those kittens on YouTube load up faster than any news site. Budget crisis? I dunno... I am still try to see if that ferret can get its head out of that toilet paper tube.

Patricia Marino said...

Absolutely! In fact, I was probably confusing 1984 with BNW when I remembered 1984 as having those elements too. And my joy at the students wasn't "oh don't have to worry about that" but just the momentary feeling of seeing their rambunctiousness under a halo effect.

I'd definitely be more seduced by the Huxleyan form of control for sure .. in fact, even sitting here right now I can find myself thinking, "Soma? Why sure, don't mind if I do!"