Throughout my reading of 1984 I couldn’t help but remember what the real 1984 had been like. It was so completely, diametrically opposed to Orwell’s terrifying vision. In 1984 the novel, the populace is maintained on the brink of poverty and want, their lives dedicated whether they want it or not, to upholding the ideology of a totalitarian state that has systematically removed all trace of truth, love and beauty from its culture. In 1984 the reality, the western world was gearing up to a new generation of greed, of delicious excessive consumption and ostentatious wealth. It was all about fun and freedom and shopping and entertainment. Every time Winston Smith cast a fearful glance at his telescreen, I couldn’t help but overlay its stream of propaganda with a series of hits by Prince and Madonna. The ugly utilitarian overalls that the characters in the book wear, tied at the waist by a piece of string, were replaced in my imagination by the power dressing suits of Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci. In 1984 everyone, apart from the ruling few, is imprisoned in their own life, refused all possibility of personal choice. In 1984, the religion of personal entitlement was just beginning to take off.
Only one part of the novel’s vision came true: the ability for technology to be used as a form of constant vigilance over individual lives (although that wasn’t quite in place until the 90s). The internet, mobile phones, credit cards, satellite navigation, all these are ways in which we are open to continuous monitoring, without our really thinking too much about it. Technology had the genius insight of coupling up with consumerism and our desire to be cool, in communication and distracted from the tedious business of living. Given that Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949, when he was dying of consumption and Britain (at least) was crumbling under the debts of a war it was supposed to have won, it’s probably not surprising that he didn’t take account of how important it would be to people to have fun and to base their self-esteem in what they possessed. Instead Orwell was seriously concerned that Communism would become the dominant political ideology and that it would have fearful consequences. Orwell himself favoured democratic socialism, but having fought in the Spanish Civil War, he disliked what happened to potentially decent principles when they were in the hands of totalitarian thinkers.
And so the novel 1984 was born. It follows the fortunes of Winston Smith, malnourished, discontent and silently, fearfully rebellious. He lives in a society that aims at no less than complete possession of his thoughts and emotions, demanding full and submissive loyalty to the party run by Big Brother, a cipher for total governmental control. The world has been split up into three large countries – Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, all of whom remain in constant, steady warfare, partly as a way of consuming all the goods that the countries over-produce (over-consumption being something Orwell could not envisage) and partly as a way of keeping the citizens in that state of instinctual patriotism that hatred of an external enemy produces. Hatred is in fact the key to this fearsome society as the only emotion actively encouraged. Every day sees the three-minute hate, in which the telescreens show images of Goldstein, the purported leader of the revolutionaries and people are encouraged to scream abuse and throw things. Individuals are set against each other by a culture of tale telling; children are taught to inform on their parents, marriage is an arranged affair that holds husband and wife in an uneasy trustless bond, and the workplace is rife with difficulty. The government pursues a policy of historical revisionism, altering all documents belonging to the past that do not correlate to the present, and is attempting to bring in a language, Newspeak, that will be so reduced as to foreclose the possibility of thinking otherwise to party dogma. There is no privacy at all, as even the countryside is bugged; life plays out against a backdrop of constant monitoring, so that Winston knows he dare not risk even a change in expression that might indicate to Big Brother the rebellious desires that swill around inside him and leave him continually menaced by the possibility of a visit from the dreaded Thought Police.
But of course, Winston cannot help but give in to his hopes for an undercover uprising, and when he meets Julia, a young woman yearning for the experience of sensuality and pleasure, he begins an affair with her that will lead him into disaster. So you may have gathered that this is not a cheery read. In fact, it’s like everything terrible you could possibly imagine, squished up together and injected with lethal negativity. And then again it is a powerful, disturbing and important book. One that shows us in no uncertain terms how dangerous it is for thought to become inflexible and domineering, how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. At the same time, it pays tribute to the strength within the individual mind for independent thought, and how hard it is to break human beings of their autonomy, their free spirit, their capacity for love and kindness. And it suggests that we are also capable of the ruthlessness required to preclude these essential things to other people, that the very desire for control is fraught with inhumane and dangerous impulses.
It was very intriguing to read this book, and then read Franzen’s Freedom directly afterwards. 1984 struck me as being all about the monstrous overdevelopment of the superego. Let me explain: Freud suggested the mind is split into three domains – the superego, the voice of internalized authority, the id, repository of our drives and desires, and the ego, the embattled voice of reason trying to negotiate between what we want and what we know we ought to do. In 1984 authority is abusive – this might be best demonstrated by the analogy of an abusive parent, controlling its child’s every move, invading its thoughts and refusing it any privacy, threatening it with terrible annihilating punishments if it doesn’t do what it is told. The Party is a bad parent, attempting to control its citizens by making them control themselves out of terror. When we read about Winston struggling to rebel, we see that he does not live sufficiently in fear of his own superego; he does not control himself the way others (in authority) need him to, and that has to be fixed (horrifically).
In Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the situation is reversed – it is, if you like, the natural conclusion to the era of consumer power and autonomy that the real 1984 ushered in. In Franzen’s world, the id is out of control. People refuse all possibility of restraint, making their individual desires and whims the most important impulses they possess. They all have the right to mess up their lives if they want to, Franzen states on a couple of occasions, regardless of the health of the planet or the happiness of other people, on the grounds that individual desire must not be checked. Personal entitlement has grown out of hand and is exerting the same bullying and destructive force as the abusive authority in 1984. In both books, then, the freedom that seems to matter the most is the ability to say ‘no’ and be heard; to stand up to the bullies, either in the form of dictatorial authority or our own excessive desires, and to find a middle ground that is an honorable battlefield against all forms of mindless compliance.