On this day in 1984, as the clocks struck thirteen, George Orwell’s Winston Smith gulped down a teacup of VICTORY GIN, lit one of his VICTORY CIGARETTES, found a corner not in view of his telescreen, and turned to the first blank page of his diary:
This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced labour camp. Winston fitted a nib into the penholder and sucked it to get the grease off. The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink-pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite which was of course impossible for his present purpose. He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act. In small clumsy letters he wrote: April 4th, 1984.
Winston Smith’s defiance is sometimes compared to Orwell’s own. In Why Orwell Matters (2002), Christopher Hitchens ponders the relevance today of a novel “bashed out on an old typewriter, against the clock, by a dying English radical half a century before.” One of the answers Hitchens offers comes from Orwell’s 1947 essay “Why I Write,” in which Orwell notes that he seemed to have always had “a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” Those unpleasant facts, says Hitchens, remain facts today:
With a part of themselves, humans relish cruelty and war and absolute capricious authority, are bored by civilized and humane pursuits and understand only too well the latent connection between sexual repression and orgiastic vicarious collectivized release. Some regimes have been popular not in spite of their irrationality and cruelty, but because of it. There will always be Trotskys and Goldsteins and even Winston Smiths, but it must be clearly understood that the odds are overwhelmingly against them, and that as with Camus’s rebel, the crowd will yell with joy to see them dragged to the scaffold.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.