Orwellian outcome way too real
At a lecture last week, La Salle alumnus John Rodden spoke about the role of George Orwell in contemporary politics. He reminded me not only of how much I love Orwell’s novels, but why they appeal to me so strongly. The salient characteristic of his writing, both stylistically and with regard to its subject matter, is its clarity. Orwell had an acute understanding of how writing can be used to obfuscate, and had an equally trenchant grasp of how to properly express his ideas. Those ideas are exceptionally powerful, but they might not be so prominently remembered had they not been presented in such poignant prose.
Newspeak, the language Orwell devised in his dystopian opus Nineteen Eighty-Four, demonstrates the exactitude of his diction. With brutal efficiency, Newspeak sought to limit the scope of expression available to its speakers, with the ultimate end of subjecting thought to prior restraint by the government. Orwell crafted an elegantly truncated version of the English language, carefully removing the possibility of nuance and shades of meaning. There was no need to describe the awesome potential of language as a weapon; he breathtakingly illustrated it.
Orwell is famous for the precision of his storytelling. His stories are filled with assiduously arranged details. Given the graphic nature of the torture scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four, for instance, it is no surprise that many school districts have sought to ban the book. Because it populates vividly described worlds with believable characters (even those who happen to be anthropomorphic animals), Orwell’s writing appeals to my own sense of alienation. He shows how disquietingly easy it is to condition people to accept the absurd as normal.
Everything in Orwell’s novels is described in an exquisitely matter-of-fact way. He proves that a voice of authority can easily convince people that the implausible or the outright impossible are facts of life by mere power of assertion. Nineteen Eighty-Four and Orwell’s most famous other work, Animal Farm, share endings which are only more insidious for their predictability. The 1999 adaptation of the latter, which is otherwise faithful to the novel, takes the liberty of changing the ending, essentially overturning the author’s ruling on how the story concludes. How can a story act as a caution about the power of a totalitarian state if the spirit of the individual prevails in the end? Diluting the extraordinary clarity of Orwell’s writing diminishes it to a fun story with talking animals.
Unfortunately, the dystopian imagery of the two novels has motivated numerous efforts to ban them from public schools and libraries. Both are violent and psychologically taxing, but not in the sense of a bad horror movie, violent for its own sake.
There is no other way to convey the crucial ideas Orwell deals with. An academic discussion or the bowdlerized shell of one of his novels does not communicate the terror of an unchecked government. It is only too predictable that tales about governments that seek to control the thought of their subjects would be targets for censorship. At a certain point in a student’s education it is incumbent upon him or her to grapple with those ideas. A responsible citizen has no better arena for that struggle than Orwell’s novels.
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