Review: 1984

1984 is a book that can haunt you.  It is certainly relentlessly grim in content, which is enough to wedge it firmly in your memory.  It is also extremely thought provoking – both daring you to disagree with its bleak view of mankind and relentlessly defending its position.  Finally, it has so permeated popular culture that one cannot go more than a day or two without seeing or hearing a callback to it somewhere.

Most people seem to remember 1984 as a blueprint for a repressive state, and it is that, but what I found even bleaker was his ideas of how such a state appears.  The idea of a state built on power as cruelty seems more depressing than one that grows oppressive from venality or ignorance.  A nation of sadists seems more discouraging than a nation of sociopaths, somehow.  Yet, I find my internal arguments in favor of the sociopaths less compelling than I would like.  A book that leads one to argue unconvincingly that sociopaths are a better and more likely set of rulers than a null hypothesis of sadists is already an  impressive thing.

While I may argue myself into knots trying to escape the biggest and worst conclusions, I do notice some problems in the details.  Women are not portrayed well at all.  Even the romantic female lead is represented as primarily an object of desire possessed less of intelligence than a low animal cunning.  She is there to be betrayed.  Other females do not do any better.

I also believe that there are some aspects of human behavior that are so fundamental to our animal nature that no amount of conditioning could drive them out.  A world where men build governments to satisfy their lust for power, but in which the masses have their drive for sex and competition conditioned away seems unlikely. Still, that’s a quibble about the portrayal of a detail, not a fundamental flaw of the ideas.

And, of course, Orwell can be didactic to the point of lecturing.  Large hunks of the text are Orwell speaking directly to the reader through one mouthpiece character or another about how the world works or why the world of 1984 is a logical progression from the world today.  While these icebergs of exposition have the disadvantage of being bone dry, they have the significant advantages of being well thought out and clear.  If you are of a mind to listen to such things, they are filled with interesting ideas to oppose or jump off from.  While I am of that mind, I can only imagine the obstacle they present to a reader of a different mindset.

Those paragraphs make it sound like I am a 1984 detractor.  I am the opposite.  I came away from this reading convinced that this is one of the most interesting and important books of the 20th century, and that it is easily as important the people in the 21st.  It is not terribly entertaining, but it is brimming with interesting ideas and difficult challenges.

A must.

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