September 17, 2015

Horse 1984 - 1984

I am well aware that I could have written blog posts that relate to the calendar year number for quite some time. Horse 1914 for instance could have been about the series of stupid event which led to the outbreak of World War One but instead I asked "Who Was The Loneliest Person In History?" and decided that it was one of seven people in the Apollo Program. Horse 1978 could have been a narcissistic look at myself because I was born but I looked at the upcoming Canning By-Election.

I could not however let the opportunity to make Horse 1984 about 1984, the book not the year. The connection is pretty tantalising though and Apple Computer made use of that in their launch of the very first Macintosh (in 1984).*
The book "1984" or "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (I've seen it rendered as both) was published by George Orwell in 1949 and has given rise to a whole bunch of terms and concepts as they relate to a totalitarian surveillance state, such as thoughtcrime, Newspeak, the memory hole and doublethink, and even the unseen (and possibly non-existent) Big Brother who watches all and who lent his name to a television show and Room 101 which itself took its name from a meeting room at BBC Broadcasting House where endless meetings took place, and which Orwell though were metaphorical torture.
This post is not about the book, for whilst I think it is a fun book to read, I have my doubts about how well it is written and I don't think that it's as good as Orwell's other work like "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" (1936) or "The Road to Wigan Pier" (1937). What this post is about is the importance of what this book did for me.

If you were to ask me what the most important books that I have ever read are, I'll tell you that they were probably the first 8 chapters in Paul's letter to the Romans and the last 26 chapters in the Book of Isaiah. The bible aside, it would then have to be various editions of "Pears' Cyclopaedia" - A Compendium of curious and useful information about things that everyone ought to know, "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury (1953), "The Road to Serfdom" by Friedrich Hayek (1944), "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (the trilogy of four) by Douglas Adams (1979-1984), and of course "1984".
What "1984" did for me, was open up the works of Orwell and in particular "Why I Write" (1946) and "Politics and the English Language" (1946); both of which I have in Penguin books and they sit next to "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine (1776), "On Liberty" by John Stuart Mill (1859), "Occupy" by Noam Chomsky (2012), and "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" by Charles Mackay (1841).
In both "Why I Write" and "Politics and the English Language", Orwell speaks about the need for clear and precise language, or to be more attentive to how language is being used in ways to limit people's capacity for critical thinking.

As far as Orwell's poltics goes, many who would have only read "1984" with its blunt stick approach against totalitarianism would have made the assumption that he was an anti-communist, but that would have completely ignored something like "The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius" (1941).
I imagine that had Orwell lived long enough to see something like Britain's NHS fully take shape, then he would have been well pleased but he would have been aghast to see the dismantling of the welfare state and the privatisation of everything in the 1980s. "1984" which in all likelihood was a combinatorial jumble of the year that the book was conceived, 1948, was a look into a possible world which very much did resemble the USSR but was just beyond sensible human imagination. Interestingly (and I know this because I am a maths nerd), because 1984-1948 = 36 and 36 is a multiple of 9, then if you add 36 to 2015 you should get 2051 because of the same transposition rules which follow as a result of  multiples of 9. I don't even need to do the arithmetic to tell you that 2015 + 36 = 2051. I just know it is.

I first read 1984 in Year 8, which for most students is in that formative period when children start to shut down. A sparky 10 year old can suddenly become a grumpy and cranky 13 year old and then one day out of the blue from about 15, they start talking again. Perhaps behavioural psychologists and people who stand around writing on whiteboards all day long have a more scientific explanation but I don't. I just know that whilst reading "The Road to Serfdom" by Hayek, I decided that he was a total pratt and that his arguments were utterly stupid. 1984 as a dystopian and anti-totalitarian or anti-authoritarian novel, didn't convince me of very much but it was a jumping point which propelled me to his other work and towards the leftist side of politics.

Four years later "1984" would become my strange sort of hero in the final exams in English. After being totally disillusioned by English in Year 10, I took 2 Unit General English on the basis that I wanted to be rid of that foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. Looking back, I wish that I'd done 3 Unit Related English because at least then I wouldn't have had to put up with the dross of novels that were foisted upon us. 3U got to read Shakespeare - I didn't.
Looking at the final exam paper, the questions all said, "with reference to the texts you have read" and included a list of prescribed texts; upon which was 1984 and I knew that book backwards. The books which I hadn't really read, which included "Looking for Alibrandi" by Melina Marchetta (1992) and "Maestro" by Peter Goldsworthy (1989), were so unknown to me that by the time I walked into the exam room, they may as well have been published in cuneiform by the Sumerians and with many of the tablets smashed upon the ground. Winston Smith's subversive scribble upon a clean white pad with a greasy grey crayon proved to be one of the most useful weapons I had that day.
High School English nearly stole away from me the joy of a good novel, it wasn't until I left that institution and started filling bookshelves with rows of orange and black by Penguin, that I got it back.

"1984" as a novel of fiction did less for me than what it did as a signpost. This is a different road, why not take it? I still think that Huxley's dystopia in "Brave New World" (1932) is more true to life than Orwell's in 1984 because it is easier to catch flies in a honey pot than it is to swat them with a newspaper.
"1984" isn't therefore doubleplusgood but it's still plusgood. I have make good bellyfeel for having read it.


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