Friday, 4 January 2008

BOOK is the new COOL

I first read 1984 at the age of 15 not long after reading Animal Farm, these dystopic visions appealed to my teenage angst and quickly became two of my favourite books. I was interested to see how my understanding of Orwell would be altered in this re reading for the fourth Library of Secrets book club debate. I was also somewhat daunted by the idea of looking again at Orwell with a critical eye after loving the book for so many years.

If anyone could enable me to criticise the book and its author it was Murrough O’Brien gracing book club once again with his literary prowess. Murrough opened the debate by asking us how plausible Orwell’s fantasy is? And yes, although we know this is based on the realities of totalitarian Russia circa 1948, this is ultimately sexed up
sci fi/ fantasy at its best. So, do we really believe that human beings can be controlled to Orwell’s 1984 extremes? Can 2+2 ever really =5?

I argued that however extreme Orwell’s fantasy was rooted in the reality of what was occurring in his time. The book is sci fi but it resonates on so many levels with society today as if Orwell was prophesising what the world was to become. Murrough definitely agreed with the books relationship to our own experience of society, but he didn’t believe that such repression could be maintained. Could a society devoid of sex simply be fulfilled by 'Hate Week'? Murrough pointed out that human beings are incapable of maintaining such a heightened state of hysteria, we would all get too tired after a while.

Liane focused our attentions on the forms of control and propaganda in the book. Big Brother not only controlled party members through the surveillance society of the telescreen but also through more basic forms of addiction, in particular alcohol. Victory Gin is Winston’s tipple, a substandard version of the real thing having the same mind altering effects minus the pleasure.
“He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine.” pg 7
Victory Gin not only signifies a form of control but also the class system of 1984. It is a drink of the Middle party, of the characters that give us their perspective on Big Brothers world. The Upper party has access to fine wines and spirits of the old world and the Proles drink beer. Liane reminded us how Orwells use of alcohol in the book touches on the way in which societies have been controlled for centuries using the Native Americans as an example.

Such forms of control led us to talk about Orwell’s use of propaganda in the book. We considered good and bad propaganda and some members were reminded of the Pathe news broadcasts that everyone relied on during the war. Orwell certainly uses the cinema as a tool for Big Brother to disseminate his propaganda.
“Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him. First you saw him wallowing in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea around him turned pink…”pg 10

We considered our relationship to broadcasting of war news today. Polly noted how desensitised she was to the images of people being killed at war. They are so far removed from our daily lives and we are over saturated with such imagery that apathy becomes the only response available. Peggy reminded us that we could see hangings on the internet if we so wished and that we weren’t that far removed from the behaviour of party members in Orwell’s dystopia.

On a lighter note, Murrough proudly told us that his grandfather was the Second World War propogandist Toby O’Brien. He famously wrote the verse “Hitler has only got one ball” set to the Colonel Bogey March commonly associated with the theme music to ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’:

Hitler has only got one ball
Goring has two but very small’
Himmler is somewhat sim’lar
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.

We all giggled in amazement and realised the importance of such political satire in keeping peoples spirits up during an intense and threatening period. There is no such light relief in 1984, the chants and motos are forms of control winding people up into a frenzy of fear and hate.


The state of Oceania is dogmatic and uses simple slogans to control the thoughts and behaviour of party members.

The group was genuinely disturbed by the novel, the thing that we agreed on unanimously was the terror created in the concept of erasing history. To live in a society where no one tells stories, where no one has a personal history is unthinkable and inhumane. The fact that the countries at war in 1984 were so easily interchangeable was powerful and shocking, especially in the way people never questioned this rewriting of history. We considered our relationship to the current wars in the world, in particular Iraq and felt a sense of being completely removed from the torture and pain that is broadcast to us on a daily basis. Emily told us about her young friend a doctor serving in Iraq and how detatched she has had to become to the threat of being blown up or seeing something being blown up. Peggy said that the telling of first hand accounts gives a reality to the war that is not present in 1984. There are no personal accounts of war in the book, we are never made aware of the soldiers, this is not their story. Peter reminded us how easily we forget war veterans referring to his own son who was put in a wheelchair during service and now survives on a meagre pension.

Even though we have these personal accounts of war they are overshadowed by media representation. Our ‘War on Terror ‘ is not so dissimilar to Orwell’s depiction of an invisible war fought by politicians and rhetoric that has no bearing on our reality. It makes war seem unreal but as we heard amongst the group, people are being effected by aspects of war that are not so well documented.

Returning to the implausibility of Orwells vision, Liane was curious to know what Murrough thought about Newspeak. This is Big Brothers ultimate plan to control thought through the reduction of language. Orwell based his idea on the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ which recognises the relationship between language, thought and behaviour. For example, If you could create a society that didn’t use the word freedom then they would not know what freedom was and would not want freedom. As we have seen with attempts to reduce or change our own language such as Esperanto it has never really been successful. Orwell was exposed to Esperanto in 1927 when he lived with his aunt and uncle in Paris. Both were keen Esperantists yet Orwell did not warm to the experience and only felt alienated by a language that was supposed to unify people. The group agreed that language is living and constantly growing therefore could never plausibly be reduced to the extremes of Newspeak.

However, it is interesting to consider how technology affects our use of language just look at text messaging. Not so long ago there were fears that this new method of communication was going to produce a generation who reduced everything to achronym's and wouldn’t be able to spell. In reality we have responded to text messaging by creating a whole new language that is reduced for speed but is also like a code language. Instead of being frightened by new technologies which is often our knee jerk response we can see how new technologies develop and evolve new elements in our language.

A friend recently told me that BOOK was the new COOL. I always new that books were cool but I hadn’t realised that teenagers are using BOOK instead of COOL. This shift has developed out of predictive text messaging, when you start to text cool the text predicts book. This may be as close to newspeak as we will really ever get. In reducing meanings and cadence Big Brother attempts to make it impossible for anyone to express how they feel. In reality it is virtually impossible to dilute or reduce language, incidences such as BOOK = COOL only add to language, which is a living entity and cannot be destroyed.

1984 stirred up some interesting ideas amongst the group and in reading this classic we realised how much this novel resonates with current event in our lives. It is only when our rights are impinged upon that we realise to what degree our lives are controlled by the state. One of our members experienced the effects of the nanny state recently when she decided to take down her blog because it was too political and could be used to discredit her professionally. She was an avid blogger but believed her job was under threat because she had been speaking her mind. Orwell’s 1984 may be implausible in parts but it is also a profound warning for ourselves and for future generations.

Many thanks to Murrough and the book club members for another great debate.
Our next meeting is on Thursday January 17th 6.30pm, we will be discussing Frankenstein.