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.
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 God’s 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.