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  • Hi I'm John Green and welcome to season 4 of CrashCourse literature.

  • Today, we're transporting you to one of my favorite (slash least favorite) dystopias,

  • George Orwell's 1984.

  • I feel like that eye is looking at me.

  • The book starts like this: It was a bright cold day in April and the

  • clocks were striking thirteen.

  • Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped

  • quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent

  • a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

  • (1) Of course it's not just a swirl of gritty

  • dust traveling with Winston; like everyone in 1984, he's never really alone.

  • In Orwell's dystopian future 1984, which was published in 1949, the world is vile and

  • gritty and the clock strikes 13 and citizens are under near constant government surveillance.

  • But you know what?

  • Orwell did not correctly predict the future; our clocks still stop at 12.

  • Also, in the novel 1984, people routinely disappear and evidence of their existence

  • is erased from public records, and that doesn't happen much.

  • Yet.

  • 1984 is an indictment of specific governments.

  • But it's also a warning about the importance of free thought and speech, and in today's

  • episode, we're gonna discuss the historical context in which 1984 was written and also

  • its use of oppressive language.

  • I want to think about whether Orwell suggests, within the logic of this novel, that the written

  • word can significantly alter the society in which it is produced.

  • And I mean that on at least two levels: Can the novel 1984 change the actual world in

  • which we live, and are characters in the novel ultimately controlled by the language they,

  • and their government, use?

  • Spoiler alert: We're all doomed.

  • I'm just kidding.

  • I mean, I hope I'm kidding.

  • The truth is, as usual, it's complicated.

  • INTRO George Orwell's protagonist, the wind-blown

  • Winston Smith, shares a first name with Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United

  • Kingdom from 1940-1945 and again from 1951-1955.

  • And by replacing a lofty, aristocratic surname (that evokes Churches.

  • And Hills) with a common one (a Smith is a metal worker), Orwell puts the fate of England

  • in the hands of a working man, although this one bends words, not metal, since he is a

  • writer.

  • As for whether Orwell's Winston will prevail as Winston Churchill did in World War II ...of

  • course not!

  • Now, some dystopias end with the overthrow of the horrible government, but Orwell's

  • tend to end with the bad guys and/or pigs winning.

  • And 1984 is very much a dystopia -- a dehumanizing society in whichthere seemed to be no

  • color in anythingand posters of a “black-mustachio'd face gazing down from every commanding corner

  • bearing the now-famous caption, “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” (2).

  • In this world, the government endorses something calleddoublethink,” which links contradictory

  • beliefs.

  • So you see slogans like: “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” andIGNORANCE

  • IS STRENGTHare commonplace.

  • The problem isn't that citizens are told the opposite of what is true.

  • The real issue is that their experiences have become so limited that they lack the perspective

  • and the language to differentiate between major concepts.

  • But, let's back up for a second and talk about George Orwell.

  • Here's somedoublespeakfor you: George Orwell is not George Orwell.

  • He was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 to English parents in Bengal, near the border with Nepal.

  • His father worked inquality controlfor opium, which is used to make morphine,

  • codeine, and heroin, and the British held a monopoly on the trade of opium for years

  • and exported it to China, both for financial gain and to subdue Chinese citizens.

  • Although the Chinese government tried to get the British to dismantle the India-China opium

  • trade for 150 years, and there were wars fought about it, they weren't successful until

  • 1910.

  • Basically, this was one of the largest (legal) international drug cartels in history.

  • Ah, Colonialism: The Original Dystopia.

  • I guess the original dystopia was actually hunting and gathering.

  • I mean, at least for those of us who hate the paleo diet.

  • God, I love processed carbohydrates.

  • What were we talking about?

  • Oh, right!

  • Eric Arthur Blair, soon to be George Orwell!

  • So as a kid, Blair moved to England and was eventually sent to Eton, a prestigious boarding

  • school.

  • In 1922, he joined the imperial police in Burma.

  • InWhy I Write,” he explains that he rejected imperialism after spending five years

  • in theunsuitable professionof working in the imperial police force and experienced

  • poverty himself when he returned to England.

  • Sensitized to the evils of colonialism, and nowfully aware of the existence of the

  • working classes,” Blair was on his way to forming what he called a “political orientation.”

  • He changed his name to George Orwell when he published Down and Out in Paris and London

  • in 1933.

  • But he still hadn't identified where hestoodpolitically.

  • Then in 1936, he declared that he wasagainst totalitarianism and for democratic

  • socialism, as I understand it.”

  • Democratic socialism basically uses democratic means to create a political and economic structure

  • that supports socialist goals.

  • You might think of it as being a rejection of unfettered capitalism.

  • Orwell found thereal nature of capitalist societyabhorrent because:

  • “I have seen British imperialism at work in Burma, and I have seen something of the

  • effects of poverty and unemployment in Britain….

  • One has got to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays

  • into the hands of our always-active enemies.”

  • Orwell was against Stalin and totalitarian strains of Communism as well.

  • For instance, in 1936, when he went to Spain to fight the Fascist leader, Francisco Franco,

  • he joined the Marxist group, POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista).

  • He didn't join the main communist party.

  • In Homage to Catalonia, he explains: “the Communists stood not upon the extreme

  • Left, but upon the extreme right.

  • In reality this should come as no surprise, because of the tactics of the Communist parties

  • elsewhere.”

  • These tactics, as seen in the USSR, include the conscious use of propaganda, the repression

  • of individual freedoms, and also state-sponsored murder.

  • But the point I want to make here is that it's not quite accurate for either the contemporary

  • left or right toclaimOrwell--his most famous novels are anti-communist; but they're

  • also anti-capitalist.

  • Mostly, they seek to show the ways that many government structures are prone to totalitarianism,

  • and they chart the slow, almost unnoticeable descent into that totalitarianism.

  • But in 1984 specifically, Orwell explores the difficulty of retaining individual freedom

  • within the confines of an oppressive society.

  • In the book, the earth is divided into three zones--Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia--which

  • are constantly at war with one another.

  • And Winston lives in London, the main city of Airstrip One, which is a province of Oceania.

  • He's legally married to the stiff, brainwashed, and desireless Katherine.

  • Unable to produce children, they live separately and are forbidden from remarrying.

  • Winson's primary pleasures include itching a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, drinking

  • shots of a “sickly, oilyVictory Gin (which providesthe sensation of being

  • hit on the back of the head with a rubber club”) and writing in a “thick, quarto-sized

  • blank book with a red back and a marbled cover” (1, 5, 5).

  • So you know, his pleasures are scant.

  • Any life where one of the chief pleasures is scratching an actual, literal itch, is

  • not, like, a great life.

  • I mean, it's a good life for a dog, but not a great life for a person.

  • Then Winston's pleasures, and anxieties, experience a significant uptick when he begins

  • an affair with the young, vital and beautiful Julia.

  • Despite beingten or fifteen years younger,” Julia boldly declares her love for Winston.

  • Winston is incredulous: “I'm thirty-nine years old.

  • I've got a wife that I can't get rid of.

  • I've got varicose veins.

  • I've got five false teeth.”

  • And the reader may have doubts as well.

  • I mean, when Julia replies, “I couldn't care less,” Orwell seems to acknowledge

  • (but not apologize for) this particular breed of middle-aged male fantasy.

  • (122).

  • But you know, it's also a romance that serves a plot.

  • So, Winston and Julia meet secretly for months.

  • They rent rooms from an antiques dealer named Mr. Charrington in the plebian quarter of

  • London.

  • They confess their affair and anti-party beliefs to O'Brien, a member of the Inner Party

  • who seems to be sympathetic to their cause.

  • And they begin reading a book that is allegedly written by the underground resistance leader,

  • Emmanuel Goldstein.

  • They know that they'll be discovered, tortured, and (very probably) executed.

  • Their victories--and yes they have some--come from small moments of consciousness, human

  • connection, and personal freedom.

  • And these moments are tiny.

  • For Winston, some of these moments include: procuring a pen with a real nibsimply

  • because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on” (7); succumbing

  • to thebalminess of the April airto stroll through thelabyrinth of London

  • (84); Winston also purchases a glass paperweight

  • containing coral, and all of this leads to a cool point:

  • despite the authoritarian nature of Ingsoc (the perversion of socialism that dominates

  • Oceania), moments of personal freedom like these are commonplace.

  • There's even a word for them in Newspeak, the new language that the government is developing:

  • ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity” (84).

  • But of course, the line between experiencing anownlifeand engaging in political

  • subversion is really thin.

  • I mean, when Winston gives in to hisanimal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire

  • to have sex with Julia: “Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory.

  • It was a blow struck against the Party.

  • It was a political act” (128-9).

  • There's no ambiguity there.

  • Making your life yours, making your choices yours, is political.

  • And also, having your own thoughts is political.

  • I mean, The Party doesn't just suppress subversion through surveillance, and arrest,

  • and torture, and execution, those oldies but goodies from Totalitarianism for Dummies.

  • In 1984, the government also suppresses individualism by limiting language.

  • Just four pages into the book, an asterisk appears after the first mention ofNewspeak”:

  • This asterisk interrupts the narrative flow, breaking any bond that the reader may be (or,

  • let's be honest, may not be) forming with Winston.