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1984 + 30 Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 21 July 2014

We’re celebrating anniversaries: 100 years since the start of World War I, 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism. Some commentators after 1989 portrayed these two events as the bookends of a “short” twentieth century (1914-89), as if something had come to a definitive end. As we’re seeing in Ukraine, the Middle East, and elsewhere, that history didn’t end a quarter century ago. It didn’t even take much of a breather.

But since some of the same players are back reinterpreting their misinterpretations,  it’s worth recalling another anniversary: 1984. That’s the title of George Orwell’s famous novel, in which totalitarianism was triumphant in a kind of 1000-year Tech Reich. Orwell memorably described it as, “a boot stamping on a human face, forever.”

In the real 1984, I had just come to Washington, Reagan was president, JPII was pope, evangelicals had entered politics, and religion got an occasional nod even in The New York Times. In terms of sheer prediction about date and destiny, Orwell was way off.

And 1984 is not the best of modern dystopian novels; it focuses too narrowly on politics and doesn’t fully appreciate the trends in technology and culture about to engulf the world. That honor belongs to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which actually invokes John Henry Newman (of which more below). Even Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1951), which Anthony Esolen rightly recommended here, is stronger, but often more a tract than a novel.  

Still, 1984 (written in 1948 to warn about the future in Britain no less than “totalitarian countries”) remains enlightening. In fact, all the main dystopian novels (which I find myself re-reading, perhaps as consolation for the news these days) have strengths that recent films on similar themes do not.

In the usual futuristic film, the good guys – a Sylvester Stallone or Tom Cruise – kill a lot of bad guys and destroy a lot of oppressive technology in search of an old-fashioned American happy ending. The machine/party/system may not be entirely gone, but some small crack of liberty has opened up. Pursued vigorously, in the good old American way, we have a chance to be free again.

1984 isn’t “American.” The “Ministry of Love” not only wages war, but runs the secret police who keep the Party and Big Brother in power. At the end of an elaborate plot, Winston Smith, the main character, betrays love – his unauthorized love for a real person, Julia – and surrenders his very being:

O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
The truly chilling touch, the touch of genius, is to turn a phrase rich with philosophical and religious roots, “the victory over himself,” into submission to the Party.

Orwell’s insider’s knowledge of revolutionary movements shows here. Nazis, Fascists, and Communists – so different ideologically – are as one in fanatical belief, a perversion of a true religious impulse. God alone in the wide universe has a limitless claim on us larger than our selves. The genius of twentieth-century totalitarianisms – and postmodern offshoots – was/is to present the need for sacrifice as something to be satisfied in service to political lies.

The various humanistic remedies – Orwell’s decency among them – can only do so much against such a faith. The sole remedy lies in truer beliefs.

That, among other reasons, is why Brave New World is a larger vision than 1984. Huxley anticipated that modern life was not moving towards 1984’s gray, sexless, Soviet-style regime. Instead, cloning and “Malthusian drills” would transmute love into trivial lust and technologies would provide perpetual diversions. Memory would disappear, as in 1984, but not because the Party rewrote the past. People would simply no longer care.

A “Controller” explains this to a “Savage” in Brave New World. You can’t allow meaning in art or society: it leads to “instability.” He quotes Cardinal Newman: 

We did not make ourselves, we cannot be supreme over ourselves. . . .We are Gods property. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness or any comfort, to consider that we are our own? It may be thought so by the young and prosperous. . . . They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud. . . .for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.

But that cannot be permitted. It’s unpredictable, and might lead to nobility and heroism, also unpredictable:

Controller: “industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.”

Savage: “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Those alternatives stand before us: will we be our own, in a comfortable, predictable, shallow independence, contrived so that no challenge, instability, great thought or deep love ever reaches us? Or are we better off challenged – by God, nature, history, each other, our own selves?

While we’re reinterpreting world-historical changes, we might also reflect: which answer we give to such questions will show what kind of civilization we are – and will become.

 
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (17)Add Comment
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written by DeGaulle, July 21, 2014
"Lord Of The World" by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson seems also very prescient.
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written by Jack,CT, July 21, 2014
Pleasant Robert and to think you were there for
each of these events...........hehehe, nah nice
stuff here and thanks
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written by Robert Royal, July 21, 2014
Benson is very good, though a bit distant from us now, and a favorite of Pope Francis, of course. Michael O'Brien's "Father Elijah" is big and bold, and covers some of the same spiritual territory from a more contemporary perspective. It's so good, I've read it twice, even though it's long.
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written by Myshkin, July 21, 2014
@Dr. Royal

But let's be honest, which work has penetrated deeper into our perceptions of the world around us? We commonly mark examples from our own Democrat pols of goodthink, blackwhite, doublethink, two-minutes hate, and many others. In contrast, Huxley's notions are mentioned pretty much only when his novel is discussed. Perhaps, as you mention, that's because his work is not as overtly political as Orwell's. Perhaps it's more subtle and literary, requiring an elite knowledge of science, art and religion. Or perhaps it's because his work is less "applicable" in Tolkien's sense of the word?

In any case, I also cast a vote for Benson's "Lord of the World." And can anyone think of a less applicable, and even laughable, utopian novel than Skinner's "Walden Two" ( a book I was required to read as an undergrad majoring in the sciences at a major state university)?
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written by GKC, July 21, 2014
I have to agree with the O'Brien book. Excellent read, and hits the nail on the head with our present era quite well. A gripping read, with the final pages very moving. His prequel to Elijah is equally a good read about self-sacrifice.
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written by grump, July 21, 2014
Timely column, Robert. Neil Postman, in his book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," pretty well summed up the difference between Orwell and Huxley, writing: "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture..."
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written by Sue, July 21, 2014
Lord of the World, the pope's pick, despite it's being the earlier work, catches the very latest totalitarian evil by the toes - euthanasia. Priceless mockery of the vitiphobes exemplified in, say, the rollout the euthano-techs in the wake of an airplane (! written in 1908!) crash to deliver "last rites" to the victims.
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written by Rich in MN, July 21, 2014
Lately I have read several interesting books including Robert Reilly's "Making Gay Okay," Sheila Liaugminas' "Non-Negotiable," and J Budziszewski's "What We Can't Not Know," and I am currently working through Edward Feser's "The Last Superstition" (which I find to be a bit of a 'sinful pleasure' with its funny ad hominem attacks). Over the last few weeks, I have also had occasion to catch pieces of Bill Moyer's weekly show on "public" television. Listening to Moyer's guests over the last two weeks -- a woman who works for Planned Parenthood talking about the strength of the "pro-choice" movement and, the previous week, two women criticizing the Hobby Lobby decision -- I was struck by incredibly disparate the worldviews were between the books and Moyers's guests. The problem with approaching topics from completely different planetary orbits, or different galaxies, for that matter, is that there seems to be no ability to translate between one and the other that is in any sense meaningful. Whatever is said strikes the other party as cavalier or insensitive or naive. And the loss of an honest sense of history is the icing on a toxic cake.

Mother Mary, we need a miracle!
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written by Schm0e, July 21, 2014
Tech Reich - gawd I wish is thought of that.

I guess Brave New was over my head. I have no use for Huxley. And I detest that word "dystopia" because a) too many people use it; it's "cool"; b) ive never checked but sounds like one of those compound ideas that have no real logical connection to their accepted meaning, like "homophobic". Queer, isn't it, that manufactured words would be used when discussing "1984". Is that irony or blindness?

But I commend to you "Brazil" as the modern Summa Dystopia. No. I'm serious.

And of course, as mentioned yesterday, "Understanding Media," which isn't a novel but unwittingly explains what, exactly, makes a "Tech Reich" tick.

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written by John Gueguen, July 21, 2014
We've had all the miracles we need; we just need to accept them.
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written by Rich in MN, July 21, 2014
Let me just clarify one part of my initial remark above, regarding Ed Feser's book: it is a very good book -- at least up to page 97, which is as far as I have gotten thus far. He is an excellent teacher, sensing intuitively when I am mentally asking for an example to demonstrate something he has said regarding Plato or Aristotle or Aquinas or whomever. And his examples are clear and entertaining. So, for those of you like myself who need a good teacher in order to grasp philosophy, I strongly recommend Feser's book. However, as you are reading it and you approach a parenthetical remark, you might find yourself saying under your breath, "I know I shouldn't laugh at this. Whatever Feser is going to say about Dawkins or whomever, I know I shouldn't laugh at this. However funny or clever or apropos it is, I shouldn't laugh at this...." But, if you are like me, it won't help. Ed Feser is just too funny.
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written by Beth, July 21, 2014
I am finishing up Lord of the World. Father Elijah is fantastic and I am so glad to hear your recommendation, Mr. Royal. I am sad to say that other than my husband, I have no other acquaintance who has read Michael O'Brien. Thank you for this article and this site. My education continues...
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written by Aaron, July 21, 2014
Dr. Royal, I would argue that, at their core, Fascism, National Socialism, and Soviet-style Communism are not very different from each other. All are statist ideologies. Fascism and National Socialism made the state the "greater good", as did Soviet-style Communism. Both used the human person as a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself. Fascism and National Socialism are only "right wing" in that in the 1930s, nationalism was considered a "right-wing" idea. Both Mussolini and Hitler created state-controlled economies, much akin to Soviet-style Communism...
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written by DeGaulle, July 21, 2014
Rich, if I may? The difference between the books to which you refer and the guests of this Mr Moyer, may greatly exceed the difference between "different planetary orbits" and "different galaxies", to the degree that there is no chasm so great as that between Heaven and Hell.
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written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., July 21, 2014
If we have any doubts about the relevance of 1984 today and the reality of the world that he predicted it is becuase we have forgotten that even now there are mmillions of people living under the totaliarianism of Stalnism. (I agree that the other Satanic, totalitarian ideololgies of the last century have much in comon, but only Marxist-inspired regimes survive.) The Stalin-created North Koreans regime did not understand 1984 to be a condemnation of tyranny but rather a blue print. They even use "Victory" as a brand name of liquor and cigarettes. In the supposedly free world toady we have the phenomenon of Political Correctness, which we refer to without realzing that its Orwellian double talk, including "marriage equality" and "reproductive rights" has the same pedigree as North Kore'a "peaceful unification." The totalitarain impulse has not died at all. Over a billion people live under its rule in China alone while some Catholics are deluded into thinking that China is opening up to Christianity. Yes, many of same Catholics insist that Islam is guided by the Holy Spirit and seeks peace nad tolerance. The West's intellectuals, including Catholic educators, parrot these lies just like the poor North Korean workers in a politcal indoctraion session. 1984 was and is accurate.
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written by Sue, July 21, 2014
Both 1984 and Brave New World have their own value, however flawed their authors were. 1984 exposed the power that information has over the populace and can be seen in action today most overtly in the fusion tables created by the NSA for use by the various government departments most notably now by the IRS, but Obamacare is setup to dance with NSA as well.

Brave New World shows what happens when government owns the means of reproduction and can shape the populace from the test tube forward, with no pesky parents asserting protection over their progeny. We are poised for this parental eradication as we speak, with the plethora of single parents (whether through fornication or divorce) and most especially with the coming out party of the homosexual "marriage" - who will be cravenly indebted to the State for any parental privilege the State will bestow and therefore unlikely to assert the rights that a natural parent would.

Orwell foresaw the Internet and its power to destroy the individual, and Huxley foresaw In Vitro Fertilization and its power to destroy the natural family. The Church is the only institution who has consistently attacked the evil of test tube conception, but is fighting a battle even harder than against abortion because the cute baby pictures favor the other side with IVF. The only way to effectively fight IVF is with one's Church-informed intellect and unfortunately, the IQ of the populace seems to be shrinking by the minute because of the thrall of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
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written by Matt, July 21, 2014
Perhaps it may be more accurate to state the both Huxley and Orwell were correct with the distinction that they described different stages. Huxley's stage of societal apathy and self-absorption occurs first in order to for Orwell's stage of total state control to encircle the distracted prey. Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson's book touches on each phase and provides the final stage - the advent of the anti-Christ. Where we are in those stages is increasingly less debatable; we are leaving Huxley's stage and are entering Orwell's.

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