Culture Gabfest

Reading 1984, the Breakout Novel of 2017

What George Orwell taught the Culture Gabfest about “alternative facts.”

Photo illustration by Slate.

This is a transcript from the March 8, 2017 edition of Slate’s Culture Gabfest. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.

Stephen Metcalf: 1984, the novel by George Orwell, is an undisputed masterpiece of world literature and a staple of high school syllabi. Now, it’s also a No. 1 best-seller on Amazon. Today we’re discussing it as a great English novel, but also its resurrection as a guidebook to the age of alternative facts.

It’s as close to universally read as such a book can be. Even more, it has a universal intellectual currency among even those who haven’t read it, a group that I’m embarrassed to say included me until this past week. Whenever someone tells a cynical and public lie, the name Orwell or any of the many coinages from the book—the most obvious being “Big Brother” or “Newspeak”—is introduced into the conversation.

1984 is also, I was very delighted to discover, a very moving love story, a book that is devoted to the creaturely and human truths that Big Brother and thought-policing are intended to stamp out forever, a book not only against bureaucratic tyranny and brainwashing but also in favor of love, friendship, memory, pleasure, sexual pleasure, and many other things, which is why it’s not only topically relevant long past its own era (it was published in 1949) but also among the greatest novels ever written. That is my judgment. Dana Stevens, do you agree with it?

Julia Turner: —Actually, Dana, before you jump in and respond, let me just quickly give a brief overview of the plot of the book to orient listeners.

Our hero is Winston—not explicitly named for Churchill but that’s what I thought of—who works in the Ministry of Truth, is part of the party that rules this very, very bleak vision of Britain, called Oceania, where individuals have no autonomy or privacy. Your apartment is outfitted with a telescreen where you are observed at all times. You’re not allowed to spend any time on your own; otherwise, you might be treated with suspicion.

Anybody who’s perceived as being disloyal at all to the party is accused of thoughtcrime and then disappeared, essentially. The party engages in all kinds of manipulation of facts and history. In fact, Winston’s job in the Ministry of Truth is to amend all records of the past to make them accord with whatever those in political power currently want to be seen as true.

We meet him as he’s having glimmers of dissatisfaction and confusion about the nature of the world he finds himself in, and follow him as he begins to explore more radical forms of dissent and their consequences.

Dana Stevens: Let me go back to one thing you said at the beginning, Stephen. You’ve never read this? You were never assigned it in high school or freshman year of college or anything? I thought this was one, along with Hamlet, of the most universal high school literature assignments.

Metcalf: Dana, I love you but you’re expressing a very disordered thought pattern. You are assuming that because it was assigned to me in high school, I would have read it. Those things have a very powerful inverse correlation. I was a depressed fuck-up in high school. If it was on the syllabus, I avoided it like herpes.

I hadn’t read it, but now I have and feel profound gratitude. Orwell’s one of my favorite writers, and we can get into how that can be true of somebody who hadn’t read 1984, but I want to hear first about your history with the novel and what rereading it was like this time.

Stevens: Yeah. My history was that I was assigned it in high school. I did read it. I believe it may have actually been in 1984. It’s possible. I was in high school in 1984. I definitely remember seeing the movie, which I believe was released in 1984, possibly assigned by my school, possibly just because I had read the book, the version with John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton as O’Brien.

Having had all these years in between, and maybe because, as you said, 1984 has become part of a general cultural lexicon by which we refer to doublespeak and political lies and so forth, I had expected that while its political force as an instrument of political thought would be untarnished, the characters would seem like these allegorical ideas clad in bodies so that they could represent something.

As you said in your introduction, Steve, so rightly, this book really is just the opposite of that. It’s so full of concrete evocation of sensory and sometimes sensual experience.

The two main characters whose love story is the body of the novel, Winston and Julia, are real characters. They don’t represent ideas in the least, even though there’s a lot of talk about ideas. In fact, there’s a long didactic tract in the middle of the book, which is this book that Winston reads. It’s a book within a book. That’s the place where the ideas of 1984 are laid out in the most direct way but it’s at such a distance from the physical world that the characters inhabit that that didactic insert, I thought, worked perfectly.

It reminded me a little bit, the relationship of that tract to the rest of the fiction, to The Brothers Karamazov and the long section called the Grand Inquisitor (or something) in the middle of it, the “ideas part,” that the rest of the book could be looked at as both a live reenactment of and a kind of deconstruction of. In other words, the ideas fall apart when real life comes in. That happens in this book as well. Is that too long of an answer?

Anyway, I loved it. I absolutely loved it. It blew me away.

Also, we’ll get into this, I’m sure, but the degree to which it is suitable for our times, how its political analysis has currency right now, in the early days of the Trump administration, was amazing to me. I thought the form of big think, big totalitarian thought processes that it was depicting would be dated. It would all feel like it was a critique of Stalinism, and a critique of totalitarianism in the mid-20th century, and that we would have to do some mental work to make that apply now. But there’s some passage that I’ve earmarked that I want to read out later that really feels like somebody could be saying it right now inside of Trump’s inner sanctum. Steve Bannon could be brandishing some of this doublespeak right now as we speak.

Metcalf: Absolutely right. Julia, Dana and I agree that the book isn’t dated at all and that it holds up completely as a work of fiction. What did you think?

Turner: I had also never read it despite being an eager, nose-twitching rabbit in high school who read everything that was assigned to me. Somehow it was never assigned to me in either high school or college throughout my education. I really loved it. I agree with Dana. I was surprised by how specific and human and subtle it was. I was also surprised by how politically pertinent some of its observations seemed.

That tract in the middle is basically unreadable and sort of terrible. It’s interesting and provocative but it’s a big lead pipe in the middle of the book. I think that’s intentional. I think that’s part of what the book is suggesting, that revolution is doomed to fail because rebellion and the impulse towards independence, those are both more passionate and pertinent and more fragile. As he’s reading the tract, the way that we as the recipients of 1984 get this abstract political tract about what’s so fucked up about the world of 1984 is that Winston is reading it to his beloved, Julia, whose rebellion is only motivated by her sexual drive and not her intellectual one, which we can get to in a moment. I would not say this book is perfect in many respects but she falls asleep. The book acknowledges that these ideas are both fascinating and boring at the same time.

Stevens: The idea of having him read the tract in bed with Julia is so brilliant because, as you say, it embeds all this didactic thought in this very concrete experience. It allows you to experience each of their experiences of it. Winston is reading it in this state of breathless excitement because all of these ideas that he’s been murkily trying to put together his whole life, in this world where facts are essentially unavailable to him, are finally beginning to cohere into a worldview. Then, as you say, Julia is just happy to be lying next to her lover in bed snoozing off as he reads these boring words to her.

We can get to whether I don’t think Julia is necessarily a sexist construct but something that I kept thinking of in the Winston–Julia relationship was that he was a Gen X–er and she was a millennial. He has a grumpy, cynical relationship to the state, whereas she regards the state with this just brash disdain. It’s a very different way of rebelling that they each have.

Metcalf: There’s a special irony to knowing this book secondhand via its ideas because the force of the book comes completely from how repudiated those ideas are by the concrete facts of human reality. Orwell was a journalist and that’s the Orwell that I know and venerate. The one who wrote Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier. Those books are about confronting the facts of life as they are without wincing and with a famously windowpane clarity to one’s prose.

He transferred to his novel writing that same appreciation for the pungency and brute concreteness of lived experience, and then embedded that within a society trying to conform to a single commanding idea. The book then comes out in favor principally of his love for Julia and her love for him, which is incredibly moving and tragic.

I made a list that comes out in favor of all of these things that officialdom and public and official life can’t finally overtake.

Memory, aloneness, is a huge part of the book. The right to be alone is this thing that’s utterly deprived of you in a totalitarian society.

Turner: —Ownlife, they call it. That’s the Newspeak word. Ownlife is forbidden.

Metcalf: And the suspicion that being alone arouses. Because in being alone, people consult their conscious in a way that’s profoundly dangerous to totalitarianism regime.

Obviously, intimacy, which is the love affair with Julia. The empirical disposition, a huge part of the book, is simply—Orwell himself, in everything he wrote, puts it in your head all the time—that you have an almost natural disposition to try to understand and tell the truth. There’s something intrinsic and artificial and horrible about suppressing that. Obviously, two plus two equals five is one of the hurdles to breaking a human being’s spirit, but just that bruteness and concreteness of creaturely comfort, remembering what it was like to be with your mother, historical continuity, the sense that if you put something down on paper—the profoundly moving part of the book early on, that I was unfamiliar with, completely from my secondhand knowledge is just that his attempt to keep a diary is illegal and punishable by death. The sense that he may form even provisional continuity or bridge across time to the future, his sense that he probably won’t but it matters to try even under pain of death.

Then, finally, eccentricity, the kind of ultimate right to be your individual self, regardless of that self’s ability or power to conform to what officialdom wants from you. It’s because those things are so vivid and so real and because he writes as an evocative novelist and fiction writer that the imposition of procrustean and sadistic—and antihuman, really—ideas upon that makes the book enduring.

Even if we didn’t have Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon, the book is just so totally a success, and so totally moving—with the exception that I think Julia about to lodge against it, which I agree with.

Turner: Well, yeah. To point out that this book has a gender perspective appropriate to its moment is not to say this book is worthless or to be memory-holed or to not be deeply revered for all of the things that are remarkable and amazing about it. But it is striking to read it.

What’s striking to me, just a few months after I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale—which in my view, is an equally fascinating dystopian vision, if one that’s been less influential in how we all talk about the world (and which has not yet, to my knowledge, spawned a reality TV show in its image unless you count The Bachelor, I guess)—but women are not deeply respected by this book, in my view. I think Julia is rendered with specificity. She’s not a cardboard cutout. But women in general are treated as grotesque, thoughtless figures throughout the book.

Stevens: There really are only two women who appear in the flesh. Winston’s mother appears in memories and dreams, but the only women that we really see are Julia and the proletarian laundress who is always hanging up laundry and singing outside of their secret hideout.

Turner: And Parsons’ wife, the neighbor down the hall.

Stevens: That’s true.

Metcalf: Yeah. Parsons’ wife.

Turner: There’s a couple women described in crowd scenes as bloated and grasping. There’s Winston’s brief hope that the proletarians might overthrow the regime because of their sheer number. He hears a hue and cry in the street and thinks it’s perhaps finally the uprising he’s been waiting for, but it’s just a bunch of dumb clucking proletarian women fighting over new sauce pans, and then squawking when the sauce pans run out and sauce pan scarcity is once again visited upon them.

Stevens: But I also think— I guess you could also call this an essentialization or something, and critique this as a view of women, too. I had this bookmarked to read, actually. The description that he has of his mother during one of the long, really beautiful segments of him trying to recall his lost childhood, which has been so thoroughly submerged by the principles of Ingsoc, English Socialism, that he’s not even sure these memories are real but there’s a description of his imagining of the interiority of his mother that’s really one of the most human moments of the book.

It’s at a moment that he’s at the hideout with Julia. He has a dream about his mother, wakes up and tells Julia about it. With her typical sensitivity, she goes back to sleep after briefly observing, “I expect you were a beastly little swine in those days. All children were swine.”

Then, here’s Winston’s thoughts afterwards about his mother:

From [Julia’s] breathing, it was evident that she was going off to sleep again. He would have liked to continue talking about his mother. He did not suppose, from what he could remember of her, that she had been an unusual woman, still less an intelligent one; and yet she had possessed a kind of nobility, a kind of purity, simply because the standards that she obeyed were private ones. Her feelings were her own, and could not be altered from outside. It would not have occurred to her that an action which is ineffectual thereby becomes meaningless. If you loved someone, you loved him, and if you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love. When the last of the chocolate was gone, his mother had clasped the child in her arms. It was no use, it changed nothing, it did not produce more chocolate, it did not avert the child’s death or her own; but it seemed natural to her to do it.

It goes on but that was one of the many parts of the book that I was reduced to a pulp and thought, How could this book have been remembered, or be popularly thought of, as some sort of ideas clad in flesh sort of a novel of ideas?

Metcalf: Yeah. I suspect the CliffsNotes are more widely read than the book itself, in some instances at least.

But another thing I’d like to bring up, Julia, is just, in my mind, it’s utter success as a genre novel of all things. His talent for suspense and cliffhanger is equivalent to any genre novelist that I can think of. To my mind, it’s a complete success as a work of craft.

I want to hear you out on this but to my mind, both the two hideous climax/anti-climaxes of the novel, the renunciations that essentially he makes, they’re rendered perfectly. There’s really an extraordinary—the scenes of torment culminating in Room 101. I can’t think of a writer of popular fiction who wouldn’t learn something from and profoundly envy Orwell’s ability to evoke a vivid experience in his reader.

Turner: I agree completely. Also, I was surprised by it. You don’t anticipate being surprised by the book but you encounter many characters and their twists and turns of their actual relationship to the party and doublethink and everything else. They startle you.

Stevens: There are a lot of chapters that end in cliffhanging sentences among the best of them, like you cannot not start the next chapter.

Turner: Yeah. You don’t sense the shape of the book. You don’t know what Winston’s fate will be. You don’t know what the fate of Big Brother will be. The book holds open possibilities throughout it that, despite the bleak, bleak perspective of the world that’s envisaged, Winston is rendered so specifically and so hopefully, that you can’t help but think maybe he’s the guy who’s going to bring it all to a crashing end—at least through a bunch of the book, not all the way to the finish, alas.

Stevens: I was struck, though, by just how much of the language in this book I’ve heard before. You hear doublethink, Big Brother, doublespeak. There’s the big terms that you know are from 1984 that you would have been able to pick off the list.

The one that struck me is one that we use at Slate, and people use on the internet, which is memory hole, which is Winston’s job at the Ministry of Truth, to amend records of the past to keep them up to date with whatever the present’s idea of the past is. When some evidence of the change or of the past emerges, you tuck it in this hole in the wall. Then, it vanishes forever and it’s burnt to cinders.

Memory holing is just, I don’t know, it’s the term we use at Slate for our principle of not deleting or changing anything on the site without noting that we’ve deleted or changed something. Of course, the rise of digital media gives the ability to create a fungible past, or for the past to disappear in certain ways that weren’t even relevant when this book was written. That was fascinating.

Then the other thing is just the relationship of the government to the truth is at the core of this book. It feels so pertinent in a moment when our president is lobbing just insane birther-esque accusations at our previous president for no reason other than to create a diversionary tactic. It takes to a terrifying endpoint what some of the practices and behavior we’re seeing in the White House now could result in.

Turner: If they were more competent? Competent enough to know how to seek a totalitarian state?

Stevens: Yeah. That sounds histrionic and paranoiac—I recognize that that may seem overheated and I agree. I don’t think the White House has headed for this exact future but the danger of the relationship between the powerful and the truth is, to me, the most compelling and fascinating intellectual thread in this book and one that could not be more urgently relevant.

Metcalf: Right. Let me say quickly why I don’t think it’s overheated or hysterical or paranoid.

The entire totalitarian irreality is built upon the reiteration to the point of pseudo-truth that two plus two equals five, a huge part of the book. We don’t have the entire apparatus built around it but we have people standing in front of a camera every day, including the president himself, saying two plus two equals five. The lies are that crude. Them getting away with two plus two equals five means that the tip of the camel’s nose is in the tent. We’re going to end up sleeping with it. They are starting with two plus two equals five.

They don’t expect to get you to believe it precisely. They address some of it to true believers, which is itself terrifying, but almost more terrifying is they’re trying to get people to be so cynical about public life that they don’t care whether officialdom says two plus two equals four or five. That is the beginning of something really horrifying and really genuinely new. It’s not hysteria that has made this book No. 1 on Amazon.

Stevens: This is something that goes on from early in the book. As you observed, Steve, there’s this pivotal moment near the beginning where Winston buys an old blank book and does this extremely illegal thing of hiding from the telescreen that monitors his every moment in his apartment and starting to write in his journal. Of course, that in itself is immensely moving. The idea of sitting down and trying to write your own memories in this totalitarian world is, in itself, a revolutionary act.

Here’s one of the key sentences he writes. “I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY?” He’s trying to figure out what is the purpose of this vast governing technology that controls our every movement.

Then, when he’s reading the text in bed with Julia, that long didactic text, this is the point where he stops reading and Julia wakes up and they begin a conversation. The voice I’m about to start here is not Winston but the group authors of this book that O’Brien has given him.

Here we reach the central secret. As we have seen, the mystique of the Party, and above all of the Inner Party, depends upon DOUBLETHINK But deeper than this lies the original motive, the never-questioned instinct that first led to the seizure of power and brought DOUBLETHINK, the Thought Police, continuous warfare, and all the other necessary paraphernalia into existence afterwards. This motive really consists …

Dot, dot, dot. This is what I mean about the cliffhanger. After that ellipses, Julia wakes up and they have a conversation. He never picks up the book at that place again. We’re left wondering still why. Why is the party doing all this?

It isn’t until much, much later, in the end of the book after Winston and Julia have been caught and separated, he’s in the Ministry of Love, aka the torture palace of the administration. He gets into a conversation with O’Brien who is, in a strange way, created a Stockholm syndrome situation in Winston where he’s his tormentor and his torturer but also seems to be his only confidant and his only friend.

O’Brien finally opens up about the why behind the how:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the other oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. 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. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?

To me, that was one of the most chilling parts of the whole book because it’s something like I feel like I ask every day when I open the newspaper now and see the headlines about the bizarrely cruel. … The latest one is separating mothers and children at the border so that families will stop trying to immigrate over the southern border. Just acts of sheer, wanton cruelty. The question why just seems to come up over and over again. It’s something about the cynicism of that passage that I just read from O’Brien and the idea that there’s not even a driving ideology behind this anymore. It seemed extremely relevant and extremely chilling about our present situation.

Can I ask one last question, Steve, as the Orwell buff among us, which is why write this book in 1949? What was Orwell thinking about or doing that made this the pertinent dystopia to produce then?

Metcalf: It’s the great opus of his life. He’s approaching the end of his life. I’m not sure whether he knew that as he was writing this but he might have strongly suspected it.

His life as an important writer, really spans from the Spanish Civil War to the very beginnings of the Cold War, which is to say that as a relatively young man, he put his own life very much on the line to go fight fascism in its first important incarnation, which was General Franco’s attempt to take over Spain.

While in Spain, he saw not only the face of fascism, and this absolutely formulated his political allegiances going forward, he saw the face of Bolshevism, because he fought with the anarchists but he saw what the Russians were up to in Spain. He saw that they were profoundly evil and that communist tyranny was every bit as bad as fascism. One of the ways in which he saw that is that he saw that the Russians were perfectly happy to have the anarchists lose to Franco rather than have the anarchists win or some form of social justice leftism win that didn’t have an allegiance to Moscow.

He saw that the real aims of Bolshevik Moscow were global and universal tyranny and not justice. He saw it close up. He saw how profoundly undermining they were of the effort against fascism. He said, “These are two faces of the same thing.”

He wrote in favor of socialism. He, himself, said this over and over again as the one possible rational fate of mankind but absolutely against the bureaucratic and globalist tyranny of communism.

Secondly, the war is over. Stalin is still in place. He’s been every bit as murderous as Hitler. The mask is completely off of the nature of Stalinism. Yet, there’s still a large part of the left in the English left that’s very vulnerable to the charms of Soviet power as it might create a kind of universal or global leftism and a counterweight to the Americans. Going forward, he sees that as the principal danger.

There’s a second strain that I’d like to learn more about, which is in general, in the post-war year, the war economy become a permanent economy. That is a large feature of this book, the idea of continuous war as a means of consuming the surplus that an affluent society produces to prevent it from being distributed fairly and then having an educated populous that overthrows the party but also is a way of inspiring allegiance and social purpose in times of what otherwise would be peace.

I think he saw going forward the principle danger is going to be highly specifically Stalin and the Soviets but much more generally and much more insidiously, the tendency for bureaucratic forms of leadership and totalitarian or soft totalitarian modes of cultural explanation and allegiance. He was right. I think that he nailed it in that regard.

Stevens: The last thing I wanted to say and maybe this will come up in our Slate Plus because we’re going to talk about listening versus reading. I happened to have listened to this mainly on audio book this time rather than read it, but the absolutely grimness and incredibly tragic sadness of the ending of the story of Winston and Julia’s story I think is somehow undercut in this subtle way that I don’t quite understand by the afterward by Orwell which is a dictionary of Newspeak which seems, if I understand it right, to have been written in some era when Newspeak is no longer the prevailing language.

There’s a little bit of a sense when you read that afterward in which he breaks down category A, B, and C of the language Newspeak, that there’s a world beyond Newspeak and that there’s a world beyond the world of 1984.

Metcalf: Hmm. All right. The novel is 1984. It’s by George Orwell. I think this is three thumbs up from the panel?

Stevens: Yeah. Those of you who didn’t read it already should go read it.

Turner: People who read it once like me and remembered it wrong should go back and read it again because it has such new relevance and is just such a beautiful book.

Metcalf: Yeah. Emphatically, your not–high school self should read this book. I just think it has to join the list of 10 books no human life is complete not having read. That’s my estimation, so shoot me. Come to Tell us what you think of this book. We’d love to hear it.