What made Orwell’s 1984 a classic? The language of this high-school required reading isn’t particularly memorable, with the obvious exception of phrases like, “war is peace,” and “ignorance is strength.” The plot swings rustily on an ill-fated romance in the first part. The lovers, Winston and Julia, are unlikable, one-dimensional, selfish anybodies. In the second part, Winston’s torturer O’Brien, like Milton’s Satan, steals the literary stage for a bit, but, even so, his evil nature lacks style, compared to, say, Medea or the Judge. Remarkably, however, I will say, that, as tragedies go, 1984 pulls its hero down lower than any Greek drama or Cormac McCarthy novel that I can think of. Winston Smith ends in total dehumanization when he accepts Big Brother into his heart as his savior.
It may be the bleakest book.
What made the book so popular—beyond its utility to American Cold War propagandists targeting Soviets—is that the literary naturalism brought the imagined surveillance state into reality. The gritty dismal future was made concrete and literal. Fully realized fear powerfully attracts readers. This is your future. If the book hadn’t been so realistic, if it had thrown a winking light on it’s own devices, would it have sparked generations of readers to imagine and create a different future?
Thirty-seven years late, 1984 has been moved to the non-fiction section. It seems our oligarchs misread the book within the book,as a handbook. I must acknowledge that the hysteria of the two-minutes hate directed at Goldstein has been fully realized in Trump Derangement Syndrome. Our Alexa and Siri have friendlier voices than Winston Smith’s telescreen announcer, but the destruction of our privacy is perhaps even more complete. Orwell was spot on about the endless wars being used primarily to waste natural resources and human labor, so as to keep the proles down, even in the face of technological progress. Many things have come to pass. There are differences, though. Our idiotic villains—whom so many readers love to hate—Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Fauci, Trump, Biden, Trudeau, Johnson, Schwab and etc. etc. are so much better drawn figures than Orwell’s. You can’t make this stuff up. Our real life 1984 is so ridiculously horrid, it’s almost funny. With the exception of the little Jewish baby blown to smithereens as his mother does what mothers do, to the end, no matter what, and no matter how futile, and Winston’s tender and painful memory of his sister’s death, which he hastened, Orwell doesn’t murder children for his readers, not like the authors of our real life dystopia. You have to kill children on screen to really make people suffer so much that they disconnect from reality.
What I really find missing in Orwell’s 1984 is gallows humor. When you are so past caring what they can do to you that you laugh, then you are a real danger to the Party. Our own Oligarchical Collective is stupidly poised to cross a line and begin experimenting on millions of children with an unnecessary and dangerous shot, and when they do… Well what have I got to lose? I’m already considered a domestic terrorist for letting people know that Ivermectin saves lives. My heart is already broken knowing that some mothers have been pressured into getting their teenaged children injected. My heart is already broken knowing that women of child-bearing age lined up for the warp speed trials. What disturbs me more than the physical harm is the psychological harm that’s being done to those who just want to do the right thing for the sake of others. It is truly perverse of the OC to use our better natures against ourselves.
If only Orwell had written 1984 with the voice of the first-person narrator of his beautifully complex essay “On Marrakech,” in which he betrays his own British classism and fear, “How long before they realize they outnumber us and turn their guns in our direction?” That essay reveals the first inspiration of 1984. Orwell knew the elites fear us ordinary proles. We are many; they are few. Had he continued in that vein, he might have given us an artful comedy, in which the protagonists rise from desperation and bring about a resolution.
If I were to rewrite Orwell’s dystopian classic, I should like to imagine that the proles are not such useless eaters after all. They, we all, are warm, feeling, creatively-intelligent humans whose children are being abused and murdered for the greater good. Any minute now, the better half of proles will have found this out. Orwell was just too much of an elite himself to really understand how the ordinary laundry woman singing in the courtyard could have the wherewithal to save her children, her neighbors’ children and even the civil servant who looked down upon her. Orwell couldn’t shake off his classism. An American, such as myself, has no trouble imagining ill-born masses rising to set things right. I think I may have to write Covid-1984, and I look forward to the musical version of it on Broadway, the actual Broadway that is.