Whenever I come across a news report about some new political scam or scandal which is pretty regular these days, I wonder if it is the ignorance of the masses that is allowing the political elite to indulge in such rampant corruption and malfeasance. Is India or even the world at large moving towards the dystopian society envisioned by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four?
In this novel, Orwell had described an Oligarchic dictatorship which borrows its stability from three basic tenets; one of these being - 'Ignorance is Strength'. Through pervasive government surveillance and incessant public mind control, the ruling ‘Party’ is able to subjugate the individual and manipulate humanity, hence strengthening its own domain.
It will be far-fetched to compare the present society with the society projected by Orwell; however the way things are going, the Orwellian conception remains still relevant and is a prism to the ill-fated consequences of a society that lacks democracy and free will.
Born in India as Eric Arthur Blair to a civil servant father in 1903, Orwell found the inspiration for his writings from his own life experiences. These included an early childhood in London, education in a missionary school, policing in Burma, his bohemian lifestyle in Paris, seeing the hardships of economically depressed North England, the participation in the Spanish Civil War and many other experiences which gradually developed in him a “natural hatred towards authority”.
He mentions in his essay Why I Write that “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it,” evidently triggered by the Spanish Civil War and the increasing influence of Nazism and Fascism.
However, even his debut novel, The Burmese Days which got published in 1934, talks of the travails of a British subject in Burma disillusioned by imperialism and white domination.
It was his political satire, Animal Farm published in 1945 that brought him into limelight and for the first time prosperity in a life, otherwise filled with hardships. In a compact piece of fiction, he targeted the Stalin brand of Communism and was well appreciated in the West. The story revolves around a farm where animals take over control under the leadership of pigs but the leader gradually corrupts the socialist ideals on which their revolution was based.
However, Orwell’s concept of free will was not in consonance with the philosophy of another contemporary author hailed by the West, Ayn Rand. Both are known for their belief in individualism; however, while Rand stands for libertarianism, essentially a capitalist model, Orwell stuck to democratic socialism, a model of the welfare state which can be compared to Gandhian and Nehruvian socialism.
Despite this, several critics, particularly from the Left, accused Orwell of exploiting the street-folk, calling him a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing upper class intellectual posing as a revolutionary. However, Orwell withstood these criticisms and remained true to his convictions till the end of his life.
In his seminal work, Nineteen Eighty Four, published just before his untimely demise in 1950 due to an artery burst in the lungs, he once again brought to the fore the struggle between totalitarianism and an individual’s yearning to break the shackles imposed by it. Like most of his other novels, it had an unhappy ending where the individual finally succumbs to the system.
For this reason, Nineteen Eighty Four is usually categorized as a novel portraying political pessimism. However, it will be wrong to term his writings as pessimistic because Orwell preferred to stick to his conceived dystopian structures in order to make his argument against them stronger. Moreover, to consider it Orwell’s forecast of the probable future will be naïve as the author clarified it in a post-publication statement.
Just like the instability portrayed in his writings, Orwell had a rather unstable life. Growing up in the absence of his father, lack of resources in the family, a bitter school life, initial struggle to get his due as a writer, contracting tuberculosis and the subsequent deteriorating health and an unhappy married life, marked the forty seven years of his life.
However, his life did a great service to the literary tradition of that era and continues to inspire even today. According to Orwell, there are four great motives for writing; sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. He was honest enough to mention the first motive though his way of writing and prose was by no means elitist. However, the other dimension of egoism is to be remembered for our work. Orwell’s legacy can be gauged from the simple fact that ‘Orwellian’ is now a byword for any oppressive or manipulative social phenomenon opposed to a free society.
As far as the last two motives go, his later works that in addition to his novels include a number of essays, literary reviews, linguistic articles, anti-war propaganda and other journalistic endeavours in BBC, the Tribune, the Observer and other journals ensured that they served the political purpose and facilitated the historical impulse.
In fact, many of his observations hold a lot of historical significance as they portray how some of the societal structures haven’t changed much in all these years. For example, in his autobiographical essay, "Such, Such Were the Joys" published after his death in 1952, Orwell describes the education he received as "a preparation for a sort of confidence trick," geared entirely towards maximizing his future performance in the admissions exams to leading English public schools such as Eton and Harrow, without any concern for actual knowledge or understanding. The education reforms in India today are also addressing similar problems in our system of education.
As for the final remaining motive, only the man of his genius could make a twelve line poem Romance written during his stay in Burma and based on the negotiations of a foreigner with a local prostitute, seem so aesthetic. Sample it for yourself.
When I was young and had no sense
In far-off Mandalay
I lost my heart to a Burmese girl
As lovely as the day.
Her skin was gold, her hair was jet,
Her teeth were ivory;
I said ‘For twenty silver pieces,
Maiden, sleep with me.’
She looked at me, so pure, so sad,
The loveliest thing alive,
And in her lisping, virgin voice,
Stood out for twenty-five.