Oh god, so sorry. It really has been a while. I just started studying literature at university, and between one thousand pages a week, obligatory social commitments, and hangovers, I have been busy. I love it though. It’s a strange feeling waking up and being psyched about going to class. I think I’m nauseating my peers.
Anyway, enough with the digressions! This summers I’ve had quite the utopian (or dystopian, whichever way you look at it) focus in my reading. I read 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (these two are generally taken to be the creme de la creme of zukunft-angsty litterature) and to throw something else in the mix Kallocain by Karin Boye.
First of all, I’ll stress greatly that the focus of my comparisons is longevity. I have the distinct luxury of actually living in what, by these three authors, would be considered the future. It’s like a cooking show – I “cheated a little”. So with that in mind, I thought that, since I am in no way a literary expert, I’ll use what I know. Which is my own time.
I’ll start flat-out by saying that the one which is the most popular, 1984, was in fact my least favorite (look at me being avant-gardy). There are several reasons for this. I’ll start off by saying that obviously, this is a remarkable book, mostly in terms of the amount of imagination, compared to when it was written. But it has severe lacks when being read by a contemporary reader. I’ll list some of them here (since starting university I have come to appreciate lists greatly).
- Winston’s tedious personality. I’ll just come right out and say it: that is a man of very few dimensions. Besides being extremely self-absorbed, his reactions to his surroundings never even borders on interesting reflection. He thinks exactly as we readers think: “oh no, everyone is being CCTV’d, that is horrible, HOW can someone live like this!?”
- Sexual suppression. This development of a society suppressing sexual desire and means of self-realisation in order to control people is not something that is used anywhere in the world. One might come up with examples like strict Arabic countries but I must stress that sexual pleasure plays a huge part in Islam – as soon as you are married. Which, although I find it strange, still recognises people’s instinctive need to get down and dirty once in a while. Suppressing this would not control people, it would just make them masturbate a lot.
- Winston’s relationship with Julia. Actually vaguely reminds me of Twilight. I sensed absolutely no chemistry, and the shared emotion was incredibly limited. Is this due to sexual suppression? Of course. Yet their conversations are totally uninteresting. Finding someone who shares your hate of an oppressive government will of course be freeing to Winston. But to us it is just yet another character who has the same basic reaction to totalitarianism as we do. Zzzzzz…..
- Big Brother and the internet. I know I am dancing the conga on the grave of a literary classic. And with the PATRIOT act, I certainly heard someone shout Big Brother all over the news. Which is true, with the development of technology, surveillance has become incredibly easy for governments to employ. The things not anticipated by 1984, though, is that it also made for quite a breakthrough in private use of computers and the internet. Do I blame Orwell for not guessing that the internet would exist? Of course not. But in terms of the novel’s historic longevity, thinking that new technology only falls in the hands of the government is a problem that makes the premise of this being our society difficult to swallow. There are no TV screens in our homes, we have largely resisted (even in Denmark, which in the minds of a lot of Americans is bordering on communism) governmental decrees in physical health etc. The Swedish (yes, we wave our flag loud and proud) development of the third way has largely abolished the idea of socialism in the Orwellian sense.
- Room 101. I’m sorry. But that was so lame. While I applaud the idea of capitalising on a human being’s biggest fear, choosing rats seems almost banal. While I may say that I am terrified of spiders, I am, after all, more terrified of being locked in a room while slowly going mad – which was already happening to Winston.
- Conclusion: (for you lazy ones). Main characters in the book lack personal depth. In the climactic scene in Room 101, which is supposed to unleash the horror of a totalitarian society while simultaneously showing us how you ultimately destroy and dehumanise a human being, Winston is put in a cage full of rats. I mean COME ON. Also, the way in which this society is constructed is described, yet the elaboration on WHY, exactly, no one resisted in the first place, is lacklustre to say the least. Consider the public outcry over CCTV. Consider the Arab Spring. People don’t stand idly by injustice. Unless they are given DRUGS, which leads me to….
Brave New World!
While being more satiric (and often hilarious), BNW’s deification of the materialistic (Henry Ford as a god, as well as multiple other hints throughout the book), is much more akin to how I see our society today. The idea of completely separating the joy of sex from the actual making of a baby is a stroke of genius that pervades through our lives. Sadly, the notion that third world countries is some sort of side show for us to be amazed and struck by is wide spread. Every year, thousands of young people travel to Africa to get themselves a good sense of poverty, before returning to their own life at home – according to themselves – completely transformed. One can only mourn the fact that ‘going home to wealth and X-factor’, is not a possibility for actual Africans.
Now this one I really, really like (the French agree!). You know why? I’ll tell you why:
- Sex, drugs, and Rock’n’Roll! Nietzsche once said that ‘Religion is opium of the masses’. You know what’s better at pacifying us that religion? Actual drugs. I can’t imagine anything more perfect for inducing complete political inertia in youth than letting them have as much sex, as many drugs, and as much freedom as they could possibly want. Actually, it’s happening right now. I find the danger of people completely losing interest in anything but their own lives to be a far more imminent threat than people not reacting to totalitarianism in their own country. We have it so good that we don’t notice anything but ourselves.
- The peripheral characters. Lenina is perfect and interesting. She gives us a fantastic view of how a brain would work in someone who actually likes the dystopian society. Getting a view into a mind like that is, at least to us now, far more interesting than hearing about Winston, who agrees with us. How does a mind adapted to the idea of extreme social determinism work? Is it similar to how a mind, like the mind of your average American republican, can adapt to thinking that social inheritance is ‘fair’? I am baffled by it. Yet, BNW forces us to think about things we take for granted now (people can find our telephone numbers online, a lot of politicians thrive on blatant racism, etc). Are we even much better?
- Bernard Marx is an asshole. Winston, with a personality flat as a pancake, is strongly contrasted by Bernard Marx, who goes through a lot of personal stuff, transforms, and becomes the über-monster of the materialistic society: the person addicted to fame without being addicted to personal accomplishments.
- The Savage. The role of the savage is a brilliant way to create an outsiders view on society without ending up with an angry, bitter person like Winston. The savage, having heard raving tales of a place that is eerily close to our society, is struck by the completely shallow world he enters. Based only on joy and feeble, fleeting desires. The scene in which his mother dies is heartbreaking, and really shows the grittiest side of human suffering, and it forces you to ask yourself: is this book right? Would we be better off never experiencing this, but trading it in for never having true attachment. One wonders.
- The Last Speech by Mustapha Mond: This is what we lacked in 1984. An explanation for how this happened. And why it keeps happening.
I am, in short, far more scared by human desire than by human fear. Far more scared by passivity through lack of will to act, than through lack of ability. The last, after all, can be eradicated, as we have seen this very spring.
Lastly, I’ll give an honorary mention to Kallocain, which really impressed me. Here we have a ‘Reverse-Bernard Marx’, with a person who first relishes the totalitarian society, then realises its destructive effects. This is a strong reversal, and an interesting character development. The plot of the book is genius, and I can strongly recommend it. For anything, to hear a woman’s perspective for 5 consecutive minutes in the history of utopian literature.
So long, brethren, I have work to do!