Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Appropriately enough perhaps, I made the first of two trips to the Soviet Union in 1984, experienced and recalled as a daze of vodka and overstuffed art galleries. The subsequent visit exactly a year later was undertaken in part to lay down some more precise and considered memories, but over time it has been the original experience that has re-asserted itself. Who for instance was our Intourist guide in 1985?

No trouble remembering the previous year's appointee - Galina. Conspicuous amidst the dystopic textures of Moscow, Galina was a magnificent specimen, something the regime could be trully proud of! Her tour-leading attire was the epitome of 80s spook-chic: beige leather knee-high boots, a fur-rimmed light brown coat and a fox fur hat. She was in her mid-thirties, a party member and married to a translator of BBC Radio shows.

During one of the more uninhibited parties we threw in our Leningrad hotel Galina suddenly appeared in our midst and announced that "the mileeeesha men are coming". She then helped herself to a glass of vodka and downed it in one quick movement, and when her face was back in the upright position it sported a mischievous smile.

I often wonder what has become of Galina. I would have thought she would have adapted to Glasnost fairly effortlessly, but then what?

I'm glad I saw experienced the brittle furniture and other accoutrements of the 'evil empire' before the USSR passed into history. You might say that the difference between it and say Orwell's Landing Strip One, is one of degree. (Roger Ebert's review of Goodbye Lenin! for instance seems not to grasp this scale: "What 'Goodbye, Lenin' never quite deals with is the wrong-headedness of its heroine. Imagine a film named 'Goodbye, Hitler!' in which a loving son tries to protect his cherished mother from news of the fall of the Third Reich.")

Wrong-headed the Soviet Union of the 1980s certainly was, but it's an adjective that could only really be used euphemistically to describe the Third Reich! We all felt we were visiting a place of fascinating otherness, one where individual freedom was being corked up systematically, but it didn't feel absolutely, irredeemably bad.

Naturally enough though we looked for signs of Orwellian nightmares everywhere, convincing ourselves that the man with headphones in the last compartment of our carriage on the train to Novgorod was charged with pinpointing the thought crimes latent in our boisterous adolescent conversations. There was one American in our party that seemed unwilling to have any indoor conversation without first turning on the shower and flushing the toilet.

Anyway, even by the time Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four the worst excesses of the Stalinist era were in the past and had been more than adequately captured in fiction by Arthur Koestler and Eugene Zamiatin. These writers saw Stalinism as a terrifying splicing of personal and collective dictatorship. Yet it seems to me that Orwell's worst fears lay in a subtly different direction.

An instinctive libertarian with a pronounced social conscience, this old-Etonian must have surely have wondered how it would be possible to surrender power to the proles without establishing a dictatorship of the vulgar. His experiences during the Spanish Civil War would also have strongly suggested to him that all political ideologies carry an embryonic tyranny in their bellies.

"We live in an age which the autonomous individual is ceasing to exist — or perhaps one ought to say, in which the individual is ceasing to have the illusion of being autonomous", he wrote, expressing a vital apprehension that the age-old battle between the Yin of the individual and the Yang of the collective was about to be won definitively by the latter.

Before leading him to Room 101 O'Brien informs Winston Smith that "the weakness of the cell is the vigour of the organism". However, neither biology nor Taoist philosophy support this view! I recently postulated in this blog how the tensions between cell and organism might ultimately be unresolvable because they drive one of the key mechanims of our macroscopic reality.

Yet Orwell articulates the view in his novel that man has reached a historical watershed, a point where, thanks to technology, inequality will no longer have to be the inevitable cost of civilisation. Unfortunately however, he reckoned this was precisely the point when pure power was in a position to make use of that same technology to stage a coup, thereby instigating a cruel, inequitable and ex-historical society based on a sort of collective solipsism.

Nineteen Eighty Four has been described as a satire, a portent, and as an extension of visible trends in post-war socialist Britain, yet none of these descriptions quite encapsulates the intent I detect in its narrative: having convinced himself that a true social-democratic utopia was now suddenly possible, the dying Orwell used his final creative burst to explore the terrifying, and for him immanent flipside, the perfect dystopia. (You might say that Orwell wasn't wrong about the future so much as misguided about the state of his own present situation. )

Thanks to Lord Acton and the various Latin American literary treatments of tyrrany, we know what tends to happen to those endowed with absolute power. But as a spokesperson for his regime O'Brien isn't exactly corrupt - he's more like an emotionally sterilised agent of pure collective despotism. Orwell tried very hard to make O'Brien's psychology credible, but although the resulting portrait is indeed very frightening, it's just not believable in its own terms.

However, it's undoubtedly interesting that it's easier for us to imagine the incarnation of pure evil than pure good on this Earth. Indeed, here in the West we generally expect our evil to be unsullied - hence the widespread consternation at the pitiable, dog-loving Hitler of Downfall.

Personally, I don't believe we can close all the loopholes for good, or for evil. And perhaps neither did Orwell as the perspective adopted by the appendix provides some indirect grounds for hope.

Watching the crowds queueing to buy the new Harry Potter novel the weekend before last reminded me of one of Winston Smith's consoling catchphrases: "sanity is not statistical".

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