George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Whose Orwell?

December 9, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Why is Orwell a figure subject to so many different interpretations and appropriations? What are these different images/faces of him? Why does it even matter that both contrary and complementary groups determine to claim Orwell as their own?

In his comprehensive study, The Politics of Literary Reputation, John Rodden grapples with the process of making and claiming George Orwell. He first sets a foundation by laying out key terms for readers, such as reputation and reputation-history. Reputation is “the estimation in which a person or thing is commonly held,” it is “an act of cognition on the part of the Other. It is gained variously through perception of one’s power, wealth, achievement, or character” (Rodden 54). Reputation-history is the bridge between cultural history, literary biography, and literary and historical sociology (Rodden 7). The significance of a man’s literary reputation has as much to do with one’s own biography and personality tendencies as with the society and historical circumstances. Rodden introduces his exploration of four different portraits of Orwell: The Rebel, The Common Man, The Prophet, and the Saint. He also notes that no image of Orwell captures all of him (Rodden 5) and that still many other images pervade the literary dialogue.

The term “Orwellian”
To truly understand the conflict over Orwell and his philosophy, it is necessary to first look at uses of the term Orwellian. As Rodden points out, using the term “Orwellian” is one of the most prevalent ways in which intellectual groups attempt to take ownership of Orwell’s ideas. Significantly, the term Orwellian itself has been debased in a way that Orwell would certainly have criticized. In certain contexts, Orwellian refers to writing that is characteristic of Orwell’s clear prose. Alternatively, many writers use Orwellian to refer to the types of linguistic perversions that Orwell criticized in Nineteen Eighty Four. At some points, writers have even referred to Orwell as a big brother figure. Rodden says:

“Orwell” has become classic blackwhite, possessed of two mutually contradictory meanings. Not only does it signify a virtuous white in which socialists and neoconservatives alike so ardently seek to drape themselves; it also evokes the evil black of “1984,” in which adversaries so resourcefully attempt to envelop one another. (32-33)

The fact that Orwell’s name itself has been the object of such distortion complicates any attempt to understand Orwell’s reputation, because his name has all but lost its referent.

As Rodden puts it, “We construct the Orwells we need” (355). This has largely proven true for conflicting political philosophies over the years. To help understand Orwell’s reputation, Rodden has separated views of Orwell into four “images.” An analysis of each image is below:

Orwell the Rebel
The image of Orwell as a Rebel was the first face to emerge, in the early 1950s, after The Road to Wigan Pier was published in 1937. As Eric Blair transformed into George Orwell, many noted that his first inclination was to react against. Arthur Koestler said in 1960, “George was a  rebel..a rebel is a rebel, he is against; and he was against everything that stank in society, everything which was tripe and cabbage and decay and putrefaction, in himself and in society, and there was no compromise…for George, social injustice was physical pain, it smelt” (Rodden 103). Orwell’s social consciousness against the injustices of the current society marks him as a rebel. Pritchett, the New Statesman’s editor, also called George a rebel (in his obituary) and further linked him to John the Baptist. The image of John the Baptist returning from the wilderness (eating wild honey and grasshoppers) and rebelling against all that is material, prideful, sexually immoral, and sinful parallels the image of Orwell returning from Mandalay, Burma and Spain and rebelling against imperialism, the pukka sahib culture, and imperialism. Both John the Baptist and Orwell can be seen as “saintly rebels” who stand against falsehood, privilege and hypocrisy (Rodden 111).

Within the Rebel image, the group splits into two sides: Orwell as a strong, manly, successful, true rebel versus Orwell the weak, neurotic failure, victim, false rebel. Those who paint Orwell as the false rebel point to the many instances in Orwell’s novels where his main characters, Flory, Comstock, Bowling, and Smith become “losers” to society. They succumb to the very society that they all criticize. On the other hand, those fighting to hold on to Orwell as a true rebel because of the fact that he was able to think for himself and reject what he disagreed on–i.e. the empire, commoditized success and fame as a writer (Rodden 114). Many of these competing terms demonstrate the complexity behind Orwell’s reputation, even coming from within the same umbrella of “rebellion.” One interesting thing is that Rodden opined, “to admire another’s rebellion is to participate in it in some way, to be something of a rebel oneself” (120). Those who identify Orwell as an independent individualist are able to live vicariously through Orwell’s stands against whatever issue is at hand.

Rodden then explores four different case studies that contribute to the making of the Rebel image. The first is Orwell as Don Quixote. The parallels are drawn not only between physical similarities but also character traits. Don Quixote is a mythical knight who is chivalrous and persevering, embarking on a quest, a “rebel’s progress” (Rodden 124). Similarly, Orwell embarks on a mission to face unpleasant facts, to expose the nasty truths of the world. Furthermore, to Bernard Crick, Don Quixote corresponds to Orwell the writer and Sancho Panza (the fat little squire) as Orwell the man; thus ensues a battle between the soul (desires to be a saint and hero) and body (desires for comfort, safety, privilege). In this case study, Orwell is also presented as both a Man of Action and a Fated Victim, man of action relating Quixote’s battles and Orwell’s “duel against lies” using the “English language as his weapon” (Rodden 129) versus Quixote’s defeats to the giants and windmills and Orwell’s premature death and presentation of Winston Smith as a last human being who ultimately submits (thus fated to fail) to the love of Big Brother.

The second case study explores more of Orwell’s personal habits, as he is coined a “permanent outsider” to every group (Rodden 134). Nobody, not even his closest friends, knew the range or variety of his friends until Orwell passed away. Julian Symons, a close friend of Orwell’s since 1944, didn’t even know the name of Orwell’s first wife’s name (Eileen) until she died. The segmentation of Orwell’s friendly relations and his subsequent distance was attributed to three reasons: protection, temperament, and native anthropology. Orwell’s privacy and isolation allowed him to separate his upper-middle-class world with his lower class one (as detailed in Wigan Pier on page 127) and also play different roles as he went in and out among different groups/classes of people. This aspect helped put Orwell in a position of rebellion–never giving himself wholly up to any single person.

The third case study delves into the process and history of the Orwell biography. Orwell is noted as a rebel who resists his “would be biographers” (Rodden 142).  In his will, Orwell said he didn’t want a biography. In this command alone Orwell was able to evade public understanding and resist the consequence of self-invasion by potential biographers. Rodden notes that “biography may be seen as the literary invasion of the self, the peeling away of layer upon layer of a (sometimes) carefully constructed identity–an identity which an autobiographical writer has labored hard to build” (145). The mere decision to not write his own biography and to refuse others the right to do see is the ultimate silence, the ultimate rebellion.

The final case study is George Woodcock’s Orwell Always Fighting Against Something and the Anarchists’ Orwell. Woodcock describes in 1933 Orwell as “always the odd man out–the maverick writer defying fashion in the name of plain speaking, the radical rebel who never fitted in with any left-wing movement” (Rodden 155). Thus the anarchists’ claim Orwell because of his courage to criticize communism, for his respect of freedom and human dignity as a natural born right, his belief that a centralized state is evil, and the corruptive capabilities of power (Rodden 157). Importantly, Rodden states that Woodcock’s Orwell may be still different from the anarchist’s Orwell…the significance is that even among people with the same roots, a person still possesses different comprehensions and reputations from the person next to them.

Orwell the Common Man

Upon his death, there was a movement in England to classify Orwell as a common man who wrote from that perspective in an effort to uphold those ideals. In many of his works from Wigan Pier to 1984, Orwell clearly focuses on the common man, so the association does seem natural, though not necessarily correct. In many ways, I would contend Orwell did not fit well in any one group, and he is most vividly defined by what he is not, which in turn did contribute to this “common man” argument.

Orwell himself defines the common man as someone who was not part of the intelligentsia. While Orwell could clearly hold his ground to just about any individual intellectually, he is clearly not a member of this group, especially given differences in political views that were exemplified in the tumultuous 1960’s and 1970’s. Orwell was not at home with the intelligentsia, and based on his definitions, by not being part of the intelligentsia, he is left to be a common man. However, I do think this term has been twisted to a much different meaning today. In Orwell’s mind, a common man was not necessarily a factory worker; rather, a factory worker was a sort of common man. Common manhood is a broad swathe of individuals that can include workers, miners, and even some thinkers.

Still while not at home with the intelligentsia, Orwell does not fit particularly well with most common men either, something that is clear as he visits miners in the North in The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell is not Raymond Williams, but he is also not the typical middle class Englishmen. He is best defined by what he is not.

This is especially true when looking at his political views. He seems to hold some views that are nationalist yet others that are anti-imperialist. He opposes activism yet at times endorses war. It often feels as if the individual best equipped to debate Orwell is Orwell himself. However, we can again define him politically, to a degree at least, but what he is not. Orwell is certainly no communist. The Soviet Union, under Joseph Stalin, underwent a smear propaganda campaign against him over works they deemed negative, classifying his work as “garbage.” He also forgoed licensing revenue to help spread his anti-communist message to those oppressed peoples. Internally, he even turned over a list of 35 individuals he suspected of being communist to the British government, though at times the list seemed to focus on personal conflict more than political persuasion. Orwell politically is best defined as being anti-communist.

Is Orwell a common man? I would argue not in the way the term common man is applied today. To be frank, I think Orwell would despise the term because there is significant implied condescension. There is a suggestion that the intelligentsia is superior to others as those people are merely common. If anything, I think Orwell would argue the opposite. The British coal miner who goes to work day after day without complaining is the hero not the Leftist Intellectual, writing manuscripts to topple the government.

Orwell the “Prophet”

Unlike his other faces, I think it is safe to say that this feature of his multifaceted character is closely affiliated solely to his last and most famous novel, 1984. The idea of George Orwell being a prophet did not pop up until the publication of the novel in 1949, evidence that this theory is influenced quite heavily by its appearance.

Did he intend to be somewhat of a prophet himself? That’s a difficult question. We cannot tell for sure, for he dies promptly after the book was published. However it is noted that in his press release for the novel, he writes “the moral is, don’t let it happen, it depends on you”, which to some extent shows a self-consciousness as a writer who wrote somewhat of a prophetic piece of literature.

As we discussed in class, when many people read 1994, we tend not to look at it as a craft of pure literature, like how we would devour and indulge our minds when reading The Old Man and the Sea, or Beloved, but more of a “literal prediction”. A caution sign even. John Rodden dubs the world of the novel a “satirical dystopia”.
So we get that people think Orwell was a prophet. But exactly what kind of prophet was he? Rodden identifies that there are four different images within the prophet. They are 1. The cautionary prophet, 2. The false prophet, 3. The fallible prophet, and 4. The doomsday prophet. These images all have different viewpoints and thus have different conclusions.
–    The Cautionary Prophet
The notion of Orwell as the cautionary prophet was coined by Anglo-American critics reviewing 1984. Most critics agreed that it was indeed a satirical warning to the present. Both the righties and the lefties were for the idea that he was anti-totalitarianism, but of course they were completely torn as to which school Orwell belonged to. Claims ranged from disappointed ex-socialist, cautionary socialist, naïve anti-communist. The book itself was interpreted in ways convenient to suit each perspective.
–    The Failed Prophet
Now, this one is interesting. Advocated by psychoanalytic and Marxist critics, what they basically say is that Orwell is a psychopath and the whole book is a fantasy of his sorry mind. To them, the world depicted in 1984 was no prediction. It was a  projection of his psychopathic inner world. An author that lost faith in socialism, a world projecting his own psychological state. This image was most likely developed because he died soon after the book was published. The fact that he said the book “wouldn’t be so gloomy if I hadn’t been so ill” didn’t exactly help him escape these allegations.
These first two dimensions were conceived by a literary audience, a group of people who knew who he was, what kind of a writer he is, and has probably read his other book. The latter two come from a more ill-educated, less informed audience.

–    The Fallible Prophet

The fallible prophet, which sounds very similar to the failed prophet, was coined by Apocalypticans and religious millennialists. Yes, the cult people. And scientists I guess. Situated far from the literary sphere, the public treated Orwell solely as the author of 1984, as most Americans probably still do today. They treated 1984 as a forecast, focusing on futuristic inventions and sociopolitical images. Basically, they were like “this didn’t come true, nor did this, and oh, what a failure!” these claims were seldom connected with postwar England or Orwell’s political history. It was all about 1984 and how it predicted the future. Although, if you take a step away and think about it, I wouldn’t exactly consider him as a fallible predictor. The TV, security cameras everywhere, three major economic spheres in the world; give or take a few decades, and I think he was pretty accurate in predicting the future.

–    The Doomsday Prophet

As the world inched towards 1984, there was an increasing buzz about the book as the countdown proceeded. 1984 sold in the millions. The doomsday prophet. Much like how there’s probably going to be a lot of discovery channel episodes on how the Mayans say that the world is going to end in 2012, the idea of Orwell being the doomsday prophet accelerated as 1984 inched nearer. And, consequently, the idea quickly lost its momentum when people realized that 1984, wasn’t going to be like 1984.

The last two interpretations of Orwell may not have much critical significance, but it does lead us to a curious point. Orwell as the Media prophet. Or as critics like to put it, “Profit” Orwell.

The screen adaptations made by NBC and BBC and countless other productions were a sensation. Needless to say, the audience of these shows most likely did not know of Orwell, nor were they likely to have ever read the book. For many people, for the mass public, the image of Orwell was constituted solely of the screen adaptations of his one novel. As his book became more and more famous, the image of Orwell = 1984, was amplified to maximum volume.

St. George Orwell

The last image that Rodden presents of Orwell is that of St. George Orwell. Notably, Orwell himself would have been very opposed to this characterization. In addition to the fact that he was a staunch atheist, Orwell objected to the idea of sainthood. Writing about Ghandi, Orwell said, “the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection….[S]ainthood is a thing which human beings must avoid” (327).

Despite these hypothetical objections, Orwell’s ‘canonization’ began soon after his death. In an obituary in the New Statesman, V.S. Pritchett repeatedly referred to Orwell as a saint who had been martyred by his trials among the poor. Pritchett’s description was mirrored by many of his contemporaries – Orwell was almost universally memorialized for his piety to socialist causes. Orwell’s writing in books like Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia was put forth as evidence of his authenticity and devotion to socialist causes. Taking into account Orwell’s atheism, Rodden refers to this image as Orwell the “secular saint” (337).

The other important characterization of Orwell the saint that Rodden discusses is one based on St. George of England. Conservative commentators, including Norman Podhoretz embraced this image of Orwell. Podhoretz and his ilk focused on Orwell’s nationalism as well as his pro-violence approach. Neoconservatives cast Orwell as the patron saint of England, slaying the dragons of communism.  St. George was also an image that was applied to Orwell by his detractors. Several Orwell critics, including D.A.N. Jones and Tom Nairn, referred to St. George the ultra-nationalist derisively.

These conflicting images of St. Orwell provided the basis of competition between the left and the right to claim Orwell. Each movement tried to cast Orwell as their patron saint. As a class, we seemed to come to an agreement that this competition in itself undermines Orwell’s true philosophy. Although Orwell was ostensibly a leftist, his writings rail against abuses of power no matter the political philosophy that justified those abuses. Orwell would not have wanted any political ideology to co-opt his writing (and his name) as a political shorthand.


Rodden, John. The Politics of Literary Reputation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.




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Richard Rorty, “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity”

December 6, 2011 · Leave a Comment

One function of the Party in 1984 is to tell citizens of Oceania to reject obvious truths and realities, and the way Winston responds to this is by reaffirming that 2+2=4. According to Rorty, this affirmation results in a popular interpretation that Orwell defends common sense against intellectuals who insist that there isn’t any truth “out there.” In effect, Orwell is setting up an opposition between contrived appearance and true reality, and that true reality is obscured by propaganda and sloppy language. Rorty does not find this a useful reading because he argues that there are no objective moral facts or truths, so for him, 1984 is not really a matter of stripping away lies and revealing truth. Instead, Rorty argues that Orwell’s work is better thought of as a redescription of the post WWII political situation, which you can only compare with other redescriptions and not with any kind of “truth” or “objective reality.”

Rorty says that Orwell does not tell us how to answer political questions, but rather how not to answer them. He shows us how our old political vocabulary is deceptive, but does not suggest an alternative. In a way, Orwell has done a useful job of sending us back to the drawing board, and Rorty argues that we are still at the drawing board because no one has come up with a framework for relating vague hopes for human equality and freedom to the actual distribution of power in the world. Given this argument, it is tempting to say Rorty thinks Orwell only does negative, deconstructive work. However, Rorty believes Orwell achieved more than this in the last 1/3 of 1984, in which he used the character of O’Brien to sketch an alternative scenario of a terrifying future.

Rorty says the first 2/3 of 1984 are redescriptive, but the last 1/3 is prospective and outlines a potential direction our future could take. Rorty thinks that Orwell’s belief that there is no such thing as a free, autonomous individual entails that there is no common human nature deep inside of us, nothing to people except the way they’ve been socialized. Orwell is not making claims about human nature or taking a philosophical position, but rather trying to answer how intellectuals’ talents might be employed in the future. By presenting the possibility that all intellectual gifts may some day find a home in the Ministry of Truth, Orwell suggests that the people we’re counting on to guide us in the right direction and save us from a 1984-like future (the artists and intellectuals) might one day be the same people who impose it. Orwell had no answer to O’Brien, but was perceptive enough to warn us that he might one day exist.

So now we come to relate O’Brien to cruelty, which is the focus of Rorty’s piece. O’Brien believes that humans can be given a special kind of pain, in which they can be torn down and reconstituted into whatever shape the dominant power wants them to be in. People can be humiliated by the destruction of whatever they have been socialized to be. Torture is about humiliation, not just pain. Part of this humiliation is making a person realize that the story he’s been telling himself about himself no longer makes sense. An example of this would be, “Now that I have believed x, I can never be what I hoped or wanted to be, or thought I was”. We see this when Winston betrays Julia by wishing she got eaten by rats instead of him; being cornered into this disloyalty is his ultimate torture. So from this we see that believing 2+2=5 is about being broken, not about what’s true or not true. O’Brien points out that when you’re designing a gun or an airplane, 2+2 have to equal 4. O’Brien knows 2+2=4, and so does Winston once he is released. The only point of making Winston believe 2+2=5 is to break him. If believing in a truth would break Winston, then making Winston belief that truth would be just as good for O’Brien’s purposes. For example, if Julia had been a secret agent working for O’Brien, then revealing that truth to Winston would reveal their mutual love was a sham and would have the same effect on Winston’s psyche. Rorty also points out that the phrase “torture is torture” evokes thoughts of “art for art’s sake”, “truth for it’s own sake” because in 1984 torture is the only art form available to intellectuals.

Rorty argues that liberals cannot really imagine a good way to get from where we are now to a future in which people are equal and free, and that this is basically just the way things have turned out. Rorty suggests we all know deep inside that philosophical debates about whether human nature is good or evil are pretty harmless and unimportant, a claim I was skeptical of until I realized the truthfulness of his example how, in the Roman era, the idea that it might be immoral to be amused by watching people get eaten by animals in the Coliseum was just as much an implausible historical contingency as O’Brien’s political doctrine. So human nature being meaningless emphasizes that history is contingent, and that it may just happen that the world will wind up being ruled by people with O’Brien’s ideas. O’Brien ends up making an empirical predictions that because there is no human nature, 1984 represents a real possibility of what the future might look like, which Rorty thinks is much more frightening than any broad or general claims about human nature.

Works Cited:

Orwell, George. 1984. New Delhi: Lexicon, 2010. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four as a Novel

December 2, 2011 · Leave a Comment

In Part Three of the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt struggled to understand the event of totalitarianism, which to her was almost incomprehensible. In this work, Arendt, a Jewish woman born in 1906 who escaped from Nazi occupied Europe in 1941, examined the tyrannical governments of Hitler and Stalin. Comparing Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia, Arendt emphasized the mechanisms by which these governments systematically dehumanized their subjects in order to fulfill “their double claim to total domination and global rule” (Arendt 87).

Around the same time as Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism, George Orwell wrote and published Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a person who lives under the rule of the principles of Ingsoc in Oceania. Like Arendt’s work, this novel is often read as a commentary on totalitarian rule; however, the fact that it is a novel differentiates it from works like that of Arendt.

In his essay The Interposed Body: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Claude Lefort addresses the way in which reading Nineteen Eighty-Four as a political commentary rather than as a novel incapacitates the reader in a certain way. Lefort states, “So far as I know, the story hardly seems to have attracted the critic’s attention. One would think that it is a simple setup conceived merely to facilitate the exercise of the proof”—with the proof being a comment on totalitarian rule (Lefort 3). Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four only as a picture of totalitarianism rather than as a novel causes the reader to miss certain subtleties that Orwell uses to construct a totalitarian universe.

Lefort argues that Nineteen Eighty-Four, read as a novel, functions in a certain way that it cannot function as simply a political commentary. Pointing out the way in which Orwell uses literary tools to construct a multidimensional totalitarian world and to create dynamic and complex characters, Lefort notes a certain artistry that is often overlooked. While many intellectuals simplify the story in Nineteen Eighty-Four and mold it to illustrate a political commentary, Lefort explains that “…in order to say what he was endeavoring to say, in order to put into words and to share his experience of the totalitarian inverse, it really was a novel that Orwell wanted to compose, a literary investigation that he undertook” (Lefort 2).

The literary investigation Orwell launches in Nineteen Eighty- Four is complex and intricately executed. A close look at Winston, the protagonist of the novel, illustrates the nuanced construction of Orwell’s totalitarian world. From the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Winston hates Ingsoc. For example, within the first few pages of the book, when he sits down to write in his diary “he discovered that while he sat helplessly mussing he had also been writing, as though by automatic action. And it was no longer the same cramped awkward handwriting as before. His pen had slid voluptuously over the smooth paper printing in large neat capitals—DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER…” (Orwell 18). Looking at this passage, it is interesting to note that Orwell has Winston write these thoughts “as though by automatic action.” As Lefort points out “Orwell does not grant Winston consciousness of what he knows; he keeps him in a state of half-ignorance…” (Lefort 7).

Pointing out additional instances in the novel when Winston is portrayed as half-conscious, Lefort examines how Orwell uses the recurring dreams and themes in the diary entries to place Winston relative to the totalitarian society in which he lives. For example, in a passage in which Winston recounts a dream, phrases such as “he could not remember what happened but he knew in his dream…” and “he was never fully certain…” (Orwell 30) are used to establish a feeling of half-knowing and half-blindness. Lefort explains that Orwell “concocts a plot whose meaning is given bit by bit… in such a way that his reader feels at the same time as his character the strange familiarity of events that mark out his life since he [Winston] began his diary” (Lefort 10). Thus, the way Orwell constructs the novel puts the reader in a half- conscious state as well.

This state of half-knowing makes Winston an enemy of the state. In his state of half-awareness, Winston seeks to understand the past and, as Lefort notes, “pursues self-knowledge and knowledge of the regime” (Lefort 17). Unlike Julia who does not seem to care about the past and who does not seek the why of totalitarian rule, Winston wants to understand this why.  As he writes in his diary, “I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY” (Orwell 80). Winston understands the mechanisms of Ingsoc— how the past is falsified, how law works, how people are kept in order—but he wants to know why.

However, Winston’s role as the anti-totalitarian is not as simple as it may at first appear. For example, as it says in the novel:

Winston’s greatest pleasure in life was in his work. Most of it was a tedious routine, but included in it there were also jobs so difficult and intricate that you could lose yourself in the depths of the mathematical problem—delicate pieces of forgery in which you had nothing to guide you except your knowledge of the principles of Ingsoc and your estimate of what the Party wanted you to say. Winston was good at this kind of thing…(Orwell 45)

What does it mean that Winston is enjoying this act of deception that he supposedly hates? How can the reader understand this? How can we understand Orwell’s construction of a totalitarian universe in terms of a character like Winston? Arguably, Winston cannot only be understood in light of his anti-government attitudes. There are so many parts to his character—his preoccupation with the past, his sexual desires in the present, and his fear for the future – that are delicately woven into the novel and that should not be overlooked in critiques of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Lefort points out that Winston’s ultimate destruction—his final submission to Ingsoc—is when he interposes Julia’s body between himself and the rats he faces in Room 101. By throwing Julia to the rats, Winston has replaced Julia and, as a consequence, he has replaced his humanity with Big Brother. Lefort explains that Winston’s humanity—his ability to love, feel pleasure, dream—is inextricably bound to Julia and, therefore, is destroyed when he interposes her body. In the final line of the book Orwell writes, “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved big brother” (Orwell 297). By interposing Julia, he looses his self-consciousness and becomes a blind subject of Big Brother.

Looking at Nineteen Eighty-Four as a novel rather than a political commentary raises a lot of really interesting and complicated questions. Because there is memory, loss, and sexual desire in Orwell’s work it is different than a commentary on totalitarianism such as the one that Arendt gives. However, although Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the world of radical evil that Arendt struggles to understand, there are certain undeniable similarities between the world Arendt describes and the government of Oceania. For example, compare the following quotes from Arendt’s work and Orwell’s work respectively:

  • “The concentration camps, by making death itself anonymous (making it impossible to find out whether a prisoner is dead or alive) robbed death of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life. In a sense they took away the individual’s own death, proving that henceforth nothing belonged to him and he belonged to no one. His death merely set a seal on the fact that he had never really existed” (Arendt 150)
  • “…unperson. He did not exist; he had never existed” (Orwell 46)
  • “Through the creation of conditions under which conscience ceases to be adequate and to do good becomes utterly impossible, the consciously organized complicity of all men in the crimes of totalitarian regimes is extended to the victims and thus made really total…[contorts] them with the hopeless dilemma whether to send their friends to their death…” (Arendt 150)
  • “…He had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment—one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically over and over: ‘Do it to Julia!…Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones, Not me! Julia! Not me!” (Orwell 286)
  • “Once the moral person has been killed, the one thing that still prevents men from being made into living corpses is the differentiation of the individual, his unique identity” (Arendt 151)
  • “They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable” (Orwell 167)

Both Arendt and Orwell seem to address the idea that the ultimate control a totalitarian government can exercise on its subjects is to eradicate the individual, i.e. to dehumanize the subject.

Arendt explores how the Nazis dehumanized people using concentration camps. She holds that the idea of human rights comes from the French Revolution and that these rights are bound to nationality. The notion of human rights comes from the idea of one being a citizen; thus, the moment a person is denationalized they lose any human rights. When the Nazis put people in concentration camps it showed that they no longer had rights and, therefore, were no longer human. The “categories” in the concentration camps became stateless figures with no rights and were consequently turned into figures of bare life. For Arendt, the only place that this bare life can exist is within the camp and, as such, the paradigm of totalitarianism becomes the concentration camp.

As illustrated above, the people of Oceania are also dehumanized by the Party. However, unlike in Nazi Germany where the point of dehumanization was to exterminate an entire population, in Nineteen Eighty-Four the purpose of dehumanizing the subject is to attain eternal power. It is interesting to note that at one point in the novel O’Brien explains to Winston that “the German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives…We are not like that. We know that noone ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means it is an end…The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power” (Orwell 263). So it seems that in the novel, Ingsoc is described as an even more perfect, powerful, and authoritarian government than Nazi Germany. Ingsoc has found a way to dehumanize its subjects in order to maintain power eternally; the dehumanization in the novel is seemingly conducive to eternal power.  There are no concentration camps in the novel, but arguably, the Party has transformed all of society into a concentration camp of sorts.


Some questions to consider:

  1. How do we understand Nineteen Eighty-Four as both a novel and a political commentary?
  2. How does this work function?
  3. How can the story be told? Can we trust the narrator?
  4. How does the novel work culturally?
  5. How does the novel reflect Orwell’s anxieties about the future?


Works Cited:

Arendt, Hannah. Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1968.

Lefort, Claude. “The Interposed Body.” Writing, the Political Test. Durham, NC: Duke             University Press, 2000.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eight-Four. New York: A Signet Classic, 1949.


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Žižek, Ideology, the Party

December 1, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Slavoj Žižek, in his 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology beings his investigation of ideology with the well-known Marxist definition “They do not know it, but they are doing it”. A Marxist approach identifies ideology as that which masks reality, and if we become aware of the ideology’s presence and are able to look past it, we can the see Reality as it really is. This implies there is a basic naiveté: being unaware of the consequential conditions ideology produces, a distance between so-called ‘social reality’ and the distorted representation the ideology produces. In order to begin a critique of ideology, it must first lead this naïve consciousness to the point where it can recognize itself, its consequential conditions, the social reality it is distorting, and through this recognition, the naïve consciousness will dissolve itself. However, Žižek contends that not only must one look past the distorted representation of reality that ideology creates, but that “the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot produce itself without this so-called ideological mystification. The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence” (25).

Žižek asks whether the classic Marxist definition of ideology is still relevant today, whether it is still operating. Here he introduces the concept of cynical reason of ideology put forth by German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, the thesis being that ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical and makes the Marxist critique of ideology obsolete. Again this critique is summed up by the quote, “they do not know it, but they are doing it” by now today ideology is cynical in the sense that “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it” (25). Cynical reason allows one to identify ideology, but still one does not renounce it, and continues to accept the ideology and function in accordance with it. The conclusion which cynical reason comes to is that it prevents a critique of ideology, since it says that all we can do is identify the hidden ideologies. It concludes we live in a post-ideological world, because this critique can identify ideology and see social reality without the supposed ideological distortion, and thus nullify the ideology. Žižek disagrees. He says, “Cynical reason, with all its ironic detachment, leaves untouched the fundamental level of ideological fantasy, the level on which ideology structures the social reality itself” (27).

He considers the notion of belief: “Belief, far from being an ‘intimate’, purely mental state, is always materialized in our effective social activity: belief supports the fantasy which regulates social reality” (33). Without belief, the very texture of the social field disintegrates. Believing in Law, for instance, means to obey the Law because, simply, the Law is the Law, not because it could be good or beneficial. We find reasons to justify our beliefs because we already believe in them, not because we have found sufficient reasons to believe them. If I ask you if you will most likely uphold the law on any given day, you will probably say yes, simply because it is the law and you don’t want to break it. Once you decide to obey the law because it is the law, you then find the reasons that would justify your decision to obey. It is not as if you would say you would only obey the law if you found good enough reasons to obey it. What follows from this is the fact that “what is ‘repressed’ then, is not some obscure origin of the Law but the very fact that the Law is not to be accepted as true, only as necessary – the fact that its authority is without truth. So you may not necessarily agree with the law, but still you obey it. “The necessary structural illusion which drives people to believe that truth can be found in laws describes perfectly the mechanism of transference: transference is this supposition of a Truth, of a Meaning behind the stupid, traumatic, inconsistent fact of the Law. In other words, transference names the vicious circle of belief: the reasons why we should believe are persuasive only to those who already believe” (37). This functions with the Party in 1984. The Value of the Party is first articulated and determined by the Party itself (for instance, the Party expresses that it only serves the objective interests of the working class). Since the members already accept and embrace the Party as well as their own constructed identities as Party members, they believe in the Party, and all the sufficient reasons that one would need beforehand to decide if the Party was good or not, only reaffirm their beliefs after the fact. It’s not that they have to be convinced by the Party that the Party is good, or holds value. That wouldn’t be true obedience on the part of the members. True obedience is to blindly accept the Party and then justify that acceptance with the reasons afterwards. The Party exerts its power and influence by not letting the individuals decide for themselves through their subjectivity. They already think its obvious that one should obey the Party because ‘look at all the great things it has achieved’, ‘where would we be without it’, etc. The next step is that this belief is translated through their activity: The members of the Party don’t just live their lives believing in Party, they actively participate in their beliefs; everything they do is in the name of the Party. Social reality itself operates on the level of fantasy, i.e. the Party ideology, which only functions in this manner because the people not only believe, but actively carry out their beliefs. This is why the Party is able to sustain power indefinitely. For instance, Winston’s social activity affirms everything the Party posits. He must live in accordance to everything the Party expects of its members. His greatest pleasure in life is in his work. He can lose himself in it. This is the height of ideology. It helps him accept the cruel reality: the Party exploits labor, lies, controls its peoples, alters the past, engages in a fictitious, continuous war, etc. By working for the Party, he can accept the ideology and temporarily forget about the actual horrors around him. His belief is in his doing, his job, and this constructs his social reality. Once belief is lost, then everything the Party says, all the statistics from the telescreens, for example, would become invalid. This happens to Winston: “Life, if you looked about you, bore no resemblance not only to the life that streamed out of the telesecreens, but even to the ideals that the Party was trying to achieve. How could you tell how much of it was lies?” (Orwell 65). The belief continues because the past is erased or altered, there is no standard with which to compare. The belief also increasingly becomes narrow, completely simplified to its most basic forms. With the emergence of newspeak it “narrows the range of thought”, “the range of consciousness always a little smaller” (Orwell 46). With Newspeak, you won’t even have to reflect upon your beliefs, or control them, because there would be no ways to express anything outside that belief. It will come to a point where belief will not even have to depend on the individual to uphold it, but it will automatically be embedded. “Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness” (Orwell 47) and the height of true obedience to the Party and Big Brother. When Winston is being converted at the end, O’Brien tells him “You must love Big Brother. It is not enough to obey him; you must love him” (Orwell 252). “When you finally surrender to us, it must be of your own free will” (Orwell 227).

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