For those that do not know, it is the tale of Winston Smith, a man who spends his days changing past records, so that they match that day's version of the truth as declared by the Party (headed by the elusive Big Brother) that rules the totalitarian super-state with fear and obedience. Whilst outwardly, Winston tries to act like a good Party member, inside his mind he is tormented by the state of the world in which he finds himself.
Almost everyone in Orwell's novel is either complicit in the state of affairs, or apathetic to what is happening around them (as is the case for the proles). What is 1984 about then? In some ways I was reminded of a cross between a H.G. Wells story and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. But the world of 1984 is not so much a science fiction (the Party hope to eradicate science one day) but more a meme-fiction: an imagining of a time when humans are subservient to memes, which exist not for the human being, but to propagate themselves and dominate alternative memes. Sex and family (things which tie biological beings together) are distrusted in Orwell's imagined future. Genetic inheritance is of little importance (and it is said that if the ruling Party could get rid of sex altogether they would).
All through the book I was considering which bit to quote and although a difficult decision, I chose a section from the appendix:
Pre-revolutionary literature could only be subjected to ideological translation - that is, alteration in sense as well as language. Take for example the well known passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with some unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
It would have been quite impossible to render this into Newspeak while keeping the sense of the original. The nearest one could come to doing so would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.
So this then is a kind of memetic natural selection. A way of destroying alternative memes and preventing people from even understanding that such alternative memes exist. If the true meaning of freedom is lost, then is it not a meme that has gone extinct? And what happens at the end of the book? Our protagonist, who has declared himself a freethinker of sorts, gives into his primal fear of rats and succumbs to the belief that 2+2=5.
It is a novel filled with warnings. But Orwell seems to have decided that memes will win the battle between memes and genes. There is no happy ending in the story. The same is true of life. In the end, Winston receives that thing he begged for at the height of his 'interrogation' and a bullet in the head is seemingly a blessing in disguise. But, biology does not wish death to come early. It is a mixed up world where life is cheap but living expensive. And for all of Winston's fears, the rats seem so much less imposing than the annihilation of himself and the other people he loves or has loved.
The facts are these. There are no unalienable rights in the universe. We are born, because our parents had sex. And their parents before them. And their parents before them. Orwell is right that a totalitarian future, like the one he describes is no doubt possible. But death is permanent and final for every human. There is no god and everything is pointless. With those scientific truths, perhaps we can inoculate people against giving up their one life for the pursuit of pain, over the pursuit of happiness?Go Top