I stopped by the bookstore tonight to pick up Quicksilver and while I was there, I happened upon the new edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This new edition contains a foreward by none other than Thomas Pynchon, vaunted author and recluse whose similarly prophetic novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, has been giving me headaches for the past year or so… Pynchon was a good choice; he’s able to place Orwell’s novel, including its conception and composition, in its proper cultural and historical context while at the same time applying the humanistic themes of the novel to current times (without, I might add, succumbing to the tempation to list out what Orwell did or didn’t “get right” – indeed, Pynchon even takes a humorous swipe at the tendency to do so – “Orwellian, dude!”). And to top that off, I’m a sucker for his style – whatever one he might be employing at the time (this time around it’s his nonfiction style, with an alternating elegance and brazenness that works so well).
It’s interesting reading, though I don’t agree with everything he says. Towards the beginning of the forward, he mentions this bit:
Now, those of fascistic disposition – or merely those among us who remain all too ready to justify any government action, whether right or wrong – will immediately point out that this is prewar thinking, and that the moment enemy bombs begin to fall on one’s homeland, altering the landscape and producing casualties among friends and neighbours, all this sort of thing, really, becomes irrelevant, if not indeed subversive. With the homeland in danger, strong leadership and effective measures become of the essence, and if you want to call that fascism, very well, call it whatever you please, no one is likely to be listening, unless it’s for the air raids to be over and the all clear to sound. But the unseemliness of an argument – let alone a prophecy – in the heat of some later emergency, does not necessarily make it wrong. One could certainly argue that Churchill’s war cabinet had behaved on occasion no differently from a fascist regime, censoring news, controlling wages and prices, restricting travel, subordinating civil liberties to self-defined wartime necessity.
Though he doesn’t clearly come out and say it and he is careful even with his historical example, Pynchon clearly fears for America’s future in the wake of the “war on terror” and sees Orwell’s work not only as a commentary on the perils of communism, but as a warning to democracy. As a general point, I can see that, but you could read Pynchon as believing that Orwell’s point equally applies to the policies of, say, the current administration, which I think is a bit of a stretch. For one thing, our system of limited governance already has mechanisms for self-examination and public debate, not to mention checks and balances between certain key elements of the government. For another, our primary enemies now are no longer the forces of progress.
As Pynchon himself notes, Orwell failed to see religious fundamentalism as a threat, and today this is the main enemy we face. It isn’t the progress of science and technology that threatens us (at least not in the way expected), but rather a reversion to fundamentalist religion, and Pynchon is hesitant to see that. He tends to be obsessed with the mechanics of paranoia and conspiracy when it comes to technology. This is exemplified by his attitude towards the internet:
…the internet, a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about.
As erich notes, perhaps someone should introduce Pynchon to the hacker subculture, where anarchists deface government and corporate websites, bored kids bring corporate websites to their knees with viruses or DDOS attacks, and bloggers aggregate and debate. Or perhaps our problem will be that with an increase in informational transparency, “Orwellian” scrutiny will to some extent become democratized; abuse of privacy will no longer limited to corporations and states. As William Gibson notes:
“1984” remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of 1948. If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed. But don’t mistake those mirrors for road maps to the future, or even to the present.
We’ve missed the train to Oceania, and live today with stranger problems.
Stranger problems indeed. But Pynchon isn’t all frowns, he actually ends on a note of hope regarding the appendix, which provides an explanation of Newspeak:
why end a novel as passionate, violent and dark as this one with what appears to be a scholarly appendix?
The answer may lie in simple grammar. From its first sentence, “The Principles of Newspeak” is written consistently in the past tense, as if to suggest some later piece of history, post- 1984 , in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past – as if in some way the anonymous author of this piece is by now free to discuss, critically and objectively, the political system of which Newspeak was, in its time, the essence. Moreover, it is our own pre-Newspeak English language that is being used to write the essay. Newspeak was supposed to have become general by 2050, and yet it appears that it did not last that long, let alone triumph, that the ancient humanistic ways of thinking inherent in standard English have persisted, survived, and ultimately prevailed, and that perhaps the social and moral order it speaks for has even, somehow, been restored.
… In its hints of restoration and redemption, perhaps “The Principles of Newspeak” serves as a way to brighten an otherwise bleakly pessimistic ending – sending us back out into the streets of our own dystopia whistling a slightly happier tune than the end of the story by itself would have warranted.
Overall, Pynchon’s essay is excellent and thought-provoking, if a little paranoid. He tackles more than I have commented on, and he does so in affable style. A commentor at erich’s site concludes:
Orwell, to his everlasting credit, saw clearly the threat posed by communism, and spoke out forcefully against it. Unfortunately, as Pynchon’s new introduction reminds us, the same cannot be said for far too many on the Left, who remain incapable of making rational distinctions between our constitutional republic and the slavery over which we won a great triumph in the last century.
Update – Most of the text of Pynchon’s essay can be found here.
Another Update – Rodney Welch notices a that Pynchon’s theory regarding the appendix appears to have been lifted by Guardian columnist, Margaret Atwood. Dave Kipen comments that it’s possible that both are paraphrasing an old idea, but he doubts it. Any Orwellians care to shed some light on the originality of the “happy ending” theory?
Another Update: More here.