1984 (1949) and
Animal Farm (1945)
by George Orwell (1903-1950)
George Orwell gave us an unfailing guide
as to how pigs operate. We have only to look around.[i]
— Ed Baierlein
Some might say that the post-Armageddon world portrayed in 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, hasn’t happened yet and that he was too pessimistic and understandably influenced by the dark times through which he had just passed (WWI, WWII and the emerging Cold War). Are we still waiting for Big Brother? Not hardly!
Some of us might have the sneaking suspicion that Big Brother has always been with us because we each embody totalitarianism in the worst way. We are creating our version of Oceania, Winston Smith’s (Orwell’s protagonist) dark and terrifying world, each and every day in our own minds. Our dominant behavior is one of almost continuous reaction. With our craving and aversion and our false-self behavior, we needn’t fear the “thought police;” the thought police operate just below the level of our “conscious” self in the guise of our false-self identity.
Our 21st century media is certainly not a source for truth or helpful in understanding reality; and our politicians are concerned with a lot of things but not the welfare of the people because they don’t even know what that is. So we wait, filled with angst for the approaching Apocalypse as did Orwell who thought it had started during his lifetime. “Orwell feared that even human nature would wither from an onslaught of mass suggestion.”[ii] He had undoubtedly witnessed how Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, the German Nazi propaganda minister, had manipulated German public opinion leading up to and during WWII.
The narrative (P-B) that dominates the mind of the people of the global village today is the true “mass suggestion.” We are understandably reluctant to admit this reality, however. Notice how the critic Frank Magill in Masterpieces of World Literature tries to rationalize why 1984 has not happened and how his intellect aids and abets the all too common “head in the sand” human behavior. “Orwell’s monolithic, totalitarian state has never come into existence. Too many variables have rendered his view of the future improbable for the West. [As if the West were somehow different from the East.] The renaissance of Europe, the lack of a nuclear holocaust, and the growth of individual freedom have combined to block his dismal portrait of the future. Even in the dictatorships, there has not been the development of monolithic, totalitarian states.”[iii]
In fairness to Mr. Magill, he has not completely closed his eyes to the possibility that human nature is capable of unsustainable behavior. “The kind of absolute control envisioned by Orwell has never existed; this does not mean, however, that it will never exist. New inventions have made possible alternative methods of control: Computers, two-way television, and other technical intrusions could assist a Big Brother of the future.”[iv] Alas, the truth is that Big Brother lives among us and always has, hidden by our own fear-driven inability to admit that he is our own, self-created “thought-control” nemesis.
1984, published in 1949, was George Orwell’s magnum opus which described a world devastated by nuclear war leaving three superpowers each controlling their populations with thought control and secret police. Nationalism became the rationalization for this high degree of government control over the population. Fear provided the energy that the government used to manipulate human behavior and this dynamic should be familiar to all of us today. We have our own interior version of mind-controlling “newspeak,” our own “Ministry of Truth.” But the enemy is not the government, it never was in the past, and it is not today. The enemy lives within each one of us in our self-terrifying story.
Orwell’s anxiety about the future of humanity had undoubtedly been influenced by writers such as Oswald Spengler and his The Decline of the West (1918-1922). Orwell seemed prescient in exposing the social and some of the psychological problems of the age, but his diagnosis was too shallow to lead to an insightful understanding of the self-destructive behavior as something deeper than his own post-war and post-colonial angst.
He did have an important insight about the ubiquity of the human false self. “As a participant in the conflict [the Spanish Civil War], he had witnessed at first hand the ruthless extermination of individual liberties by the Fascists and the Communists alike.”[v]
As previously mentioned, Orwell feared that control of the media by the government would mean “mind control” of the people by lies that he called “newspeak” in 1984. With a tyrannical police force controlling the body and Ministry of Truth controlling the mind Orwell thought he saw the future of humanity. “Orwell feared the inevitable result of such controls would be absolute control by the state over the masses. He inveighed against this brainwashing and thought/body control in his short novel Animal Farm (1945).”[vi]
All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
— George Orwell
As director of Germinal Stage Denver, Ed Baierlein indicated in our opening quote that the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm represent universal human behavior. Of course, in the context of Simple Reality when we say universal we mean that literally no one escapes expressing our false self. We are all pigs. Orwell’s barnyard was more inclusive than he knew; whether we are the elitist 1% or the common 99%, P-B has all of us to one degree or another rooting around in the muck for plenty, pleasure and power.
In a postscript to this essay, we offer some insights by novelist Chang-rae Lee (b. 1965), the author of the dystopian novel On Such a Full Sea (2014). In his writing we enrich our understanding of how literature shines the light of awareness on human nature. “Like most people I’m fascinated by characters who are completely flawed personalities, riven by anguish and doubt, and are psychologically suspect. Wait a minute—basically that’s everybody, isn’t it, in life and on the page? As a writer, I’m drawn to characters who, for one reason or another, seem to find themselves desperately out of joint, alienated but not wanting to be, and ever yearning to understand the rules of the game.”[vii]
Life is suffering is clearly the theme of Lee’s outlook as a novelist, but he also understands the influence of the story on the characters. Speaking of the dystopian narratives of writers like Orwell, Huxley, McCarthy and Atwood he observes: “The altered context of these realms should surely be diverting, but it’s how the context forms and deforms the characters that compels me as a reader.”[viii] Lee sees that the story determines the character (identity) of the protagonists and thereby the events of that person’s life, their fate if you will; but we knew that already didn’t we?
[i] Bows, Bob. https://coloradodrama.com/animal_farm.html
[ii] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 584.
[vii] Lee, Chang-rae. “By the Book.” The New York Times Book Review. January 26, 2014, page 8.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.