Orwell's Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsestby Peter Huber
George Orwell's bleak vision of the future, one in which citizens are monitored through telescreens by an insidious Big Brother, has haunted our imagination long after the publication of 1984. Orwell's dystopian image of the telescreen as a repressive instrument of state power has profoundly affected our view of technology, posing a stark confrontational question: Who… See more details below
George Orwell's bleak vision of the future, one in which citizens are monitored through telescreens by an insidious Big Brother, has haunted our imagination long after the publication of 1984. Orwell's dystopian image of the telescreen as a repressive instrument of state power has profoundly affected our view of technology, posing a stark confrontational question: Who will be master, human or machine? Experience has shown, however, that Orwell's vision of the future was profoundly and significantly wrong: The conjunction of the new communications technologies has not produced a master-slave relation between person and computer, but rather exciting possibilities for partnership. Peter Huber reveres Orwell's legacy, but understands his error, seeing this new technological revolution for what it isa force not for political repression, but for freedom and enhanced creativity. And what better way to demonstrate the power and excitement of the emerging supermedium than to turn the computer against Orwell's own text? In an extraordinary demonstration of the emerging supermedium's potential to engender new forms of creativity, Huber's book boldly reimagines 1984 from the computer's point of view. After first scanning all of Orwell's writings into his personal computer, Huber used the machine to rewrite the book completely, for the most part using Orwell's own language. Alternating fiction and non-fiction chapters, Huber advances Orwell's plot to a surprising new conclusion while seamlessly interpolating his own explanations and arguments. The result is a fascinating utopian work which envisions a world at our fingertips of ever-increasing information, equal opportunity, and freedom of choice.
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April 4, 1984 . . . To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone:
From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink—Greetings!
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
The date was wrong; the words were in fact written on April 4, 1948, or thereabouts. They were composed by a lonely iconoclastic genius of English letters, aged forty-four, who was dying of tuberculosis. His book would be published in June 1949, just six months before his death. He chose as a title the year in which the book had been written, with the last two digits interchanged. The writer was George Orwell. The book was 1984.
It was an immediate, huge success. By July 1949, 1984 had received sixty reviews in American publications. As the New York Times reported, 90 percent were “overwhelmingly admiring, with cries of terror rising above the applause.” In the New Yorker, Lionel Trilling described the book as “profound, terrifying, and wholly fascinating.” The Evening Standard of London called it “the most important book published since the war.”
Forty years have passed; 1984 is still the most important book published since the war. Orwell’s grimly technotic vision still casts a dark shadow over every advance in telegraphy, telemetry, telephony, and television—which is to say, every facet of teletechnology, every yard of the information superhighway, that is transforming our lives today. No one who has actually read Orwell can go a week without remembering him in one context or another. At any moment, some scene or neologism, which comes from this one short book, is liable to drop into your mind. Big Brother. The Thought Police. Newspeak. Doublethink. Reality Control. These were all created by Orwell in 1984.1984 is not so much a book, it is a world. Even people who affect to disagree with Orwell quote him unconsciously. Through 1984, Orwell did what very few other writers ever have done: he added not only phrases but his own name to the English language. There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life. 1984 is one of them. Whether you approve of him or not, Orwell is there, like the Washington Monument.
And the only trouble with that is that Orwell was wrong. Not wrong in the details—Orwell was in fact remarkably right about the little things in 1984. But he was wrong in his fundamental logic, wrong in his grand vision, wrong in his whole chain of reasoning. Wrong not because he lacked conviction, or industry, or moral integrity—Orwell brought more of those talents to his craft than any other person of his own time, or ours. Wrong, nonetheless, because Orwell built the essential struts and columns, the entire support structure of his magnificent edifice, on a gadget that he did not understand. The gargoyles in 1984 are magnificent. But the architecture beneath is rotten.
Begin, as Orwell does in 1984, with Victory Gin, the opiate of all Oceania that sinks you into stupor every night and floats your mind out of bed every morning. Winston Smith, the hero of the book, sops up gin like everyone else. It is gin that keeps him calm during the Two Minutes Hate, gin that lets him relax even under the eye of Big Brother, gin that stops his mind from straying into the lethal minefields of thought-crime.
Smith is a miserable little cipher who spends his days falsifying history for the Ministry of Truth. He lives in London, a city filled with posters, propaganda, and all the squalid incidents of Stalinesque Big Brotherhood. The streets are not smashed to pieces, just “a little altered, kind of chipped and dirty-looking, the shop-windows almost empty and so dusty that you can’t see into them,” marked here and there by an occasional bomb crater. There are “the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows,” slogans and “enormous faces” on posters, “secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think.”
Life in 1984 is lived without affection, without loyalty, without any shred of real friendship. “Every word and every thought is censored,” “free speech is unthinkable,” and “in the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease.” “Your whole life is a life of lies, you are a creature of the despotism, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus.” Your every waking moment is filled with the “hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police.”
As 1984 opens, Winston Smith is about to make a gesture of rebellion: he is going to begin keeping a private diary. The passage I quoted at the beginning of this Preface is one of the first coherent things Winston records. He continues with an account of how he visited a toothless old prostitute, who disgusted him horribly
The next day, Winston is back at work at the Ministry. He writes in Newspeak, the stripped-down English that is now the official language of all Oceania. An Appendix to 1984 explains its basic grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. By denuding the language of words and texture, the Party is gradually eliminating all possibility of independent thought and communication. Newspeak, to paraphrase Smith’s diary, ensures that all men will be the same in what they say, and therefore in what they think. Newspeak communicates nothing, and so forces men to live alone.
The second transcendent political reality in 1984 is the “mutability of the past.” There is no such thing as honest history any more; what is done can always be undone. Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth is to rewrite old newspaper articles so that every Party prediction is vindicated. “[I]f all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale,” Winston reflects, “then the lie passed into history and became truth.” The “all” is critical: the Party falsifies not just some records here and there but every record, newspaper, book, and poem everywhere. The past is not merely tampered with; it is rewritten chapter and verse. People thus live in a “shifting phantasmagoric world in which black may be white tomorrow and yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree, a nightmare world in which Big Brother controls not only the future but the past as well. If Big Brother says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well then, it never happened.”
The third key political theme in 1984 is doublethink. Doublethink is a “vast system of mental cheating,” the “power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” To engage in doublethink is to
tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.
Gin makes all of this possible. Silence and Newspeak, forgetfulness and the mutable past, doublethink and the Thought Police: all of life in 1984 is lubricated, all thought dulled, all pain anesthetized, all rebellion dissipated, by Victory Gin. The other fixture of daily life—the other prop that makes the oppression possible, that sharpens the senses rather than dulling them, that creates records rather than destroying them, that enhances memory rather than suppressing it—is, of course, . . .
But I am getting ahead of myself.
In 1984, every emotion is transmuted into hate. Winston desires Julia, the dark-haired girl who works just down the hall, but half the time his desire is an evil fantasy of flogging and rape. Then one day, out of the blue, she slips him a note: “I love you,” it says. Winston is first astounded, then deliriously happy The two find a hiding place in a dilapidated room above a junk shop. For a few brief weeks they lust and love. Within their hermetic private world, they are free. Their affair has an achingly poignant desperation to it. They know they’re bound to be caught by the Thought Police in the end.
There’s one tiny glimmer of hope: Winston has a hunch that O’Brien, a high-ranking member of the Inner Party, is really a secret leader of the underground resistance. So Winston and Julia go to O’Brien and confess all. O’Brien listens sympathetically, then describes a shadowy brotherhood that is plotting to overthrow the Party. He arranges to supply Winston with a copy of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a seditious book written by the arch-traitor Kenneth Blythe. Some weeks later, the delivery is made.
Blythe’s book provides a straight political explanation of the ideology and social structure of Oceania in 1984. Each of the three chapters is titled after one of the three slogans of the Party Winston avidly reads “War Is Peace” and “Ignorance Is Strength.” But he never does get to read the third chapter, “Freedom Is Slavery.” Still, the two he gets through make up quite a long tract in the middle of 1984.
Years ago, Blythe explains, socialism promised men an egalitarian, classless society. The steady advance of technology created abundant new wealth, which could easily have been shared all around. But sharing the wealth threatened power-hungry elites in every nation, and these reactionaries blocked society’s natural progress toward humane socialism. Capitalist societies became fascist; socialist ones became communist. On both sides, small states coalesced into large ones. The drift toward superstate totalitarianism occurred everywhere at the same time. Geopolitical stability was thus maintained even while scientific competence and military strength decayed. Blythe’s book is the least satirical part of 1984; it closely tracks Orwell’s earlier political essays. This book within a book straightforwardly summarizes Orwell’s own views about where the world is headed, and why
By 1984, the world is dominated by three equally balanced superstates, all with much the same political structure. England is part of Oceania, where English Socialism (“Ingsoc”) is the triumphant totalitarian ideology. The other two superstates are Eurasia (which practices “Neo-Bolshevism”) and Eastasia (where the political ideology is called “Obliteration of the Self”). With similar systems established by all, the three superstates are in perfect equipoise, and none faces any real threat of outside conquest. The only remaining threats to the power of the Inner Party in each superstate are internal.
There is, first, the problem of the untutored masses—the “proles.” An all-around increase in wealth would quickly lead to literacy, which would spark a revolution, so the rulers maintain poverty. They can’t simply shut down the machines of industrial production; even the proles would see what was happening and revolt. They can’t wage real war either; atom bombs make that unthinkable. So the rulers engage their nations in ceaseless but essentially fake war in the third world, impoverishing society in a psychologically palatable way Poverty maintains ignorance, which maintains the strength of the ruling oligarchy Thus, we understand the first two of the Party’s three slogans: WAR IS PEACE and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
The one other threat to the ruling elite is rebellion by people like Winston and Julia: members of the Outer Party the educated, restless middle class. As Blythe explains, “The only genuine dangers [to the ruling elite] are the splitting-off of a new group of able, underemployed, power-hungry people, and the growth of liberalism and skepticism in their own ranks. The problem, that is to say, is educational. It is a problem of continuously molding the consciousness.”
Which brings us back to Victory Gin, the opiate and anesthetic of all consciousness in Oceania. And back to the other fixture of daily life in 1984, the thing that extends senses and heightens consciousness, which is, of course, . . .
But I am getting ahead of myself again.
O’Brien, it turns out, was a faithful member of the Inner Party all along. Winston and Julia are arrested and taken off to separate cells in the Ministry of Love.
Winston has been imprisoned, rather than vaporized immediately, because O’Brien has decided to save him. The details of the drugs and the pain machine are unimportant; the possibilities and methods of brainwashing were novel in Orwell’s day but no longer are now. Suffice it to say that Winston’s mind is dismantled, thought by thought. At the very end there remains one last vestige of his identity still to be expunged. O’Brien confronts Winston with his greatest terror: rats. Winston is completely broken, and we are back to gin in the morning, gin at night, and “two gin-scented tears.” He no longer cares about Julia, no longer even likes her. Winston has won the victory over himself. He loves Big Brother.
“I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon,” Orwell declares in an essay published in 1946. “[I] know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write,” he continues. In August he starts work.
Orwell has reason to know what the book will say He has been composing the drafts and notes for 1984, the scenes, the metaphors, and the images, throughout his literary life. Here is just one small example of what I mean, from a 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases . . . one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. . . . The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved.
The rewrite in 1984 reads:
His head was thrown back a little, and because of the angle at which he was sitting, his spectacles caught the light and presented to Winston two blank discs instead of eyes. . . . As he watched the eyeless face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking; it was his larynx.
There is more of this self-plagiarism in 1984—much more. If you look for it—as I have done systematically, with the aid of a powerful computer—you will find it on page after page.
Orwell knew what he was doing, of course. And gloomy though he was in 1948, it must have amused him to write 1984 with so much reliance on scissors and paste. In 1984 itself, the Ministry of Truth churns out books on its “novel-writing machines” in much the same way The pornographic stories that Julia helps produce at the Ministry have only six plots, which are swapped around by machine. Sentimental songs are “composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator . . . without any human intervention whatever.” Orwell surely must have smiled as he wrote those words, with the litter of his own cannibalized essays and books scattered around his desk.
Happily, however, Orwell’s cut-and-pasting worked far better than the book-writing machines mentioned in 1984. Scissors or no scissors, 1984 is a magnificently original creation. Even today, almost half a century after the book’s publication, a decade after the year itself, the mind-numbing, soul-sapping atmosphere of 1984 still seems grippingly real. You can almost feel Big Brother’s electronic eye as it monitors every stroke of the pen in your diary, as it watches every slight twitch of facecrime in your living room, as it pursues thoughtcrime into the deepest recesses of your brain. 1984 makes technoparanoia seem completely rational. It makes telephobia respectable.
But—as I have said—1984 is wrong. Not just wrong as prophecy, but wrong in its architecture, wrong in its mechanics, wrong in its central vision. Exploring why is not just an idle exercise in literary history In working out just how and why Orwell was so fundamentally mistaken, we learn a great deal about our own present, and perhaps our own future too.
I could have worked it out the old-fashioned way, I suppose, but that would hardly have done Orwell justice. Orwell, after all, expected books in our day to be written “by machinery,” with “prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child’s Meccano set.” Our books, he promised, would be passed “through so many hands that when finished they [would] be no more an individual product than a Ford car at the end of the assembly line.” By now, Orwell predicted, “the surviving literature of the past” would have to be “suppressed or at least elaborately rewritten.” Orwell predicted it. I simply delivered.
My crime began with the physical destruction of a book—1984 itself. I tore off the cover and cut the 314 pages from the spine. I then fed them into my optical scanner, 30 or so at a time, and transferred them by wire into my computer. 1984 lives there to this day, 590,463 bytes of ASCII text. For good measure, I scanned in the rest of Orwell’s books, essays, letters, and BBC broadcasts too.1 To locate biographical details of Orwell’s life, I scanned in Michael Shelden’s excellent Orwell: The Authorized Biography. Altogether, these writings now reside in 9,546,486 bytes, which is to say a hundred million slivers of magnetized ferric dust glued to the surface of a spinning platter called a hard drive.
Then I set to work. Real names and faces rose up before me from the digitized mists of Orwell’s writings and life—Orwell himself most of all, in his several incarnations. Orwell the real-life Winston Smith, the man who ended his broadcasting career at the BBC feeling “like a sucked orange,” the man who lived most of his modest life all but unrecognized under his real name, Eric Blair. Orwell again, the man who imagined the hyper-tech Ministry of Love, armed with the technology by which Big Brother is always watching you. And Orwell a third time—Orwell the tinkerer, the lover of gadgets, the man who, by his own account, was “perpetually seeing, as it were, the ghosts of possible machines that might save me the trouble of using my brain or muscles.”
Around Orwell, Orwell, and Orwell, there congregated real people from Orwell’s own lives. Brendan Bracken—“B.B.”—who headed Britain’s Ministry of Information during Orwell’s tenure at the BBC, renamed O’Brien by Orwell in 1984. Duff Cooper—the man Bracken replaced as head of the Ministry of Information. Vaughan Wilkes—the sadistic headmaster who tormented and caned young Orwell during his miserable schooldays at Crossgates. J. D. Bernal—signed up by Orwell to give BBC talks on “the future of science and the position of the scientific worker under Capitalism, Fascism and Socialism.” Cyril Connolly—Orwell’s fellow Etonian and life-long friend. And Guy Burgess—Orwell’s colleague at the BBC, later exposed as a Soviet spy.
As I wrote, I never suffered from writer’s block. Whenever I needed to picture Orwell’s life through Orwell’s eyes, I had his own record instantly at hand. When it suited my purposes, I lifted individual words, images, phrases, entire sentences, occasionally even paragraphs from his own writings. When I felt like it, I rearranged, added, pruned, inverted, reversed, or corrupted. I felt no sense of contrition. I was simply committing the quintessentially Orwellian crime—a crime of plagiarism, forgery, artistic vandalism, and historic revisionism, a crime committed on and by the computer itself. Or was it the other way around? Was the crime really his, and my part simply the punishment?
It hardly matters. When at last I stopped, this book had emerged. Orwell’s story had been rewritten. His black had been turned into white. Best of all, it had been done by his own hand.
Or almost so. I said at the outset that Orwell begins with Victory Gin, but I lied. The Gin comes second. What Orwell begins with is the very opposite of gin. And it is in dealing with The Thing That Is Not Gin, the Thing that sharpens the senses instead of dulling them, that Orwell loses his mind.
That thing is, of course . . .
1 Down and Out in Paris and London (1933; 378,677 bytes); Burmese Days (1934, 557,002 bytes); A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935; 552,502 bytes); Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936; 493,220 bytes); The Road to Wigan Pier (1937; 402,951 bytes); Homage to Catalonia (1938; 514,313 bytes); Coming Up for Air (1939; 465,168 bytes); A Collection of Essays (1936-1937; 669,623 bytes); The Lion and the Unicorn (1941; 190,422 bytes); Animal Farm (1945; 178,574 bytes); selected additional essays from The Orwell Reader (254,657 bytes) and The Penguin Essays of George Orwell (482,987 bytes) and selected pages from the four volumes of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (877,328 bytes).
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