1984 - Orwell's and ours

Here it is, barely 1983, and already 1984 - as in George Orwell's novel of the same name - has become a minor industry. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich just announced a 15-volume limited edition of the complete works of Orwell, priced at ago, famously forecast the bureaucratic state to end all bureaucratic states.

Meanwhile, the reevaluation of Orwell's bleak fable about the world of Big Brother promises to turn into one of the debates of the year. ''Was Orwell Right?'' asks the cover of a recent New Republic. Throwing away the question mark, the cover of the January Harper's recklessly speculates, ''If Orwell Were Alive Today.''

A bystander might think that Irving Howe (New Republic) and Norman Podhoretz (Harper's) were talking about two different books. Both agree that ''1984'' - having sold about 9.4 million paperback copies - is a minor classic. Both agree that Orwell was not wholly unjustified in his fears. But there the consensus ends.

Mr. Podhoretz, a spokesman of neoconservatism, recruits Orwell retroactively: ''I believe he would have been a neoconservative if he were alive today.''

Mr. Howe, a bit less dogmatically, assumes that ''if Orwell were still alive, '' he would, like Mr. Howe, remain cautiously attached to the philosophy at least of ''democratic socialism.''

By selective quotation, one can look in the mirror and find the Orwell of one's choice, and in the months ahead we may anticipate a libertarian Orwell, an anarchist Orwell, and personages even more specific, like the nuclear-freeze Orwell. (Mr. Podhoretz has already discovered the anti-nuclear-freeze Orwell.)

Splitting up Orwell - right and left and every which way - can make for lively sport. But the game of Orwell's-on-my-side-no-he's-on-my -side didn't work too well even when Orwell was alive. There was something about him that simply went beyond politics. Despite his pragmatic style, Orwell had a touch of the tortured mystic. Mr. Howe comes close to acknowledging this as the root of Orwell's despair when he quotes a brooding passage written nine years before '' 1984'': ''There is little question of avoiding collectivism.''

Orwell hoped for a good, a ''cooperative'' collectivism rather than a bad, ''machine gun'' collectivism. But to this rather solitary man whose pride lay in his independence, any form of collectivism was bound to be a ''negative Utopia, '' in the phrase of Erich Fromm.

Those who presume this year to label Orwell with their own favorite ideology may end up convincing the rest of us that Orwell was uncomfortable with all ideologies - skeptical that any theory could survive in its original shape when submitted to the burdens of power.

If one had to reduce ''1984'' to an aphorism, Lord Acton's well-worn words might do best: All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

To contest for possession of Orwell only in the arena of politics is to misunderstand his thrust. His hope - almost a romantic hope - depended upon the existence of stubborn individuals like himself who would distrust power. This is why language became so important to Orwell. Language was the individual's passionate attempt to pronounce truth - to enunciate reality. Language was what made men and women human, bearing solitary witness to themselves, reaching out to others.

And language was what got manipulated by institutions into ''newspeak'' and ''doublethink'' - those lies that rationalize bureaucracy, deployed by people who are no longer fully human, with the intent of dehumanizing others.

Orwell exaggerated his warning for effect, and his interpreters today are all too eager to go along with his exaggeration in order to build the most melodramatic case against those enemies they choose to cast as Big Brother. In sober fact, 1984 is nowhere near as bad as ''1984.''

But, as we approach the historical 1984, Orwell's fantasy seems valuable less as a political prediction than as a moral statement. Perhaps what he was writing , at heart, was a post-technological fable of the Tower of Babel. If so, to appropriate ''1984'' narrowly for today's partisan concerns would make us guilty of our own ''doublethink.''

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