Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Writing for the People

I've now read 1984 three times--once as a Queens teen in the '50s, once as a budding leftist in the '60s, and once as a pop pundit a year before the final gun approaches--and if anything I've been more affected by it each time. Yet because the pundit in me hasn't given up the lessons of his lower-middle class origins or his radical coming of age, he feels a little defensive about this. In the silly tug-of-war over the current political affiliation of a man who died three years before Stalin, 1984 and Animal Farm are the chief exhibits for the opposition--Norman Podhoretz in Harper's, for instance. Those leftists who don't believe he and Podhoretz deserve each other reply that Orwell never stopped calling himself a socialist, or thinking like one. But they're clearly more comfortable with the Orwell who wrote Homage to Catalonia in the late '30s--the freedom fighter whose commitment to working-class revolution snapped into place at the same time as his opposition to the Soviet Union, during the Spanish Civil War.

It's silly to speculate about where Orwell would stand in today's politics because we don't prize him for his positions--we prize him for his independence. His understanding of economics was sketchy, he seemed unaware that women (much less homosexuals) might consitute an oppressed group, and although he was a passionate and prophetic anti-imperialist, it's hard to imagine him feeling any less disdain for the mess of third-world politics than, let us say, V.S. Naipaul. But he hated repression of any sort (not just totalitarianism) so viscerally that it's equally hard to imagine him mouthing neoreactionary rationalizations in which torturers are transformed into the bad best hope of Latin American democracy. So as he approached 80, Orwell would no doubt still be a maverick, valued most of all, as always, not for his political content but for his attitude, his persona, and his writing itself.

Since Orwell believed very emphatically in letting "the meaning choose the words, and not the other way about," this may seem needlessly paradoxical. But in fact Orwell's obsessive ideas about prose constituted a metaphysic that was the ground of his authority. Springing as it did from his deepest political convictions, this metaphysic was the source of his political credibility. The clarity, candor, and common sense of Orwell's style made a kind of transcendent ideal out of ordinary English decency. Amid the rhetoric and romanticism of literary Marxism he strove to speak for plain people whose lives were dedicated mostly to getting on. A colonial and Etonian with a taste for slumming, he probably never knew those people as well as he wanted or claimed--V.S. Pritchett once commented that he had "'gone native' in his own country." But if only because it was in him to try, he got a lot closer to them than most of his peers, and you could feel that in his words. Thus his forebodings about authoritarianism always seemed more down-to-earth than those of Arthur Koestler (or later, Hannah Arendt). And thus would-be populists of the left and right still think he's worth squabbling over.

Because Orwell died the year after 1984 was published, it's come to seem his last word on man's fate, which it wouldn't have been, if only because most of its prophecies were incorrect. Certainly Orwell's vision of an earth ruled by three superpowers was prescient (although he did underestimate the third world's potential for autonomy). But he had the big picture wrong in three crucial respects. First, he was convinced that the '50s would bring worldwide atomic war (one reason he grew so attached to his farm in the Hebrides was as a haven). Second, he partook of the traditional left awe of technology, which he considered illimitable (never wondered about energy) and capable in principle of meeting all human needs (never wondered about food). Third, he believed Stalin's U.S.S.R. and Hitler's Germany represented only the primitive beginnings of totalitarianism, whereas they have thus far proved its nadir. Not that electronic surveillance doesn't now facilitate thought control, or that Pol Pot's Cambodia and Khomeini's Iran and Pinochet's Chile aren't unspeakably horrifying, or that the Gulag and for that matter the Chinese educational system don't qualify as totalitarian. In 30 years, however, nobody has matched both the scale and the sadism of Hitler's or Stalin's lust for control. Small comfort, and I'm not holding my breath. But I'm not predicting that the Hitler/Stalin spirit must inevitably dominate the planet, either. 1984 did.

Yet as it happens the truth value of this proposition is beside the point, because regardless of its realism or lack of same, regardless of how it distorts Orwell's best message, a fixation on the will to power is the secret of the novel's artistic triumph. And it's this triumph, of course, that well-meaning leftists wish they could pick holes in. In 1984, even more than in the relatively digestible (and dismissible) Animal Farm, Orwell achieves the popular contact his political instincts always drove him toward: to attribute the novel's enormous, unflagging appeal to the machinations of anti-Soviet propaganda barons is to indulge in the left's customary cultural elitism and myopia. Where Darkness at Noon now seems a terrifying piece, 1984 reveals less as a satire than as a feat of pop sensationalism not all that different in effect from such sci-fi dystopias as Richard Fleischer's Soylent Green or John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up. Insofar as the novel escapes the usual critical insults--"manipulative," "melodramatic," etc.--it's protected by Orwell's serious and humane persona. He's so obviously a high middlebrow on the same level as those who favor such antipopulist rhetoric that he's immune to charges of commercialism, though not to ad hominem speculations about his dark fascination with the sadistic and the authoritarian--speculations that as far as I'm concerned might just as well be true, because I make it an article of faith that books which carry a real emotional charge tap something deeper in a writer than mere craft. And the hold of this book is so widely acknowledged that I suspect those who resist it of having something to hide, like those who claim to be bored by pornography.

Perhaps what they're hiding (or hiding from) is the old paradox of power on the left--seeking it in order to dismantle it. There would seem to be a logic, after all, in which those who succeed in dismantling their own power will ultimately fall under the control of those who don't, or who never intended to in the first place. This premise is what makes 1984 even scarier than the typical futuristic horror-show, although Orwell, like any good thriller writer, doesn't reveal it until he's 30 pages from the end. "The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness only power, pure power." The idea that a version of this premise might be true, or even possible, is the Room 101 of left intellectuals, and some of them will never forgive Orwell for making it come alive.

But nobody suffers more under Ingsoc (Newspeak for English socialism) than Orwell himself. 1984 is a nightmare of his own devising, a suffocating, self-enclosed system that embodies all his worst fears, every one of which proceeds or at least gains plausibility from the notion that "the object of power is power." Orwell's attachment to the abiding details of daily life, his conviction that change must begin with the needs and desires of ordinary people, and above all his faith in clarity, candor, and common sense--all are turned on their heads. Because the Party won't utilize technology for "the good of others," there are no simple comforts under Ingsoc--everything is cheap, broken, stunted, ersatz, unavailable, as if the deprivations Orwell experienced on the down-and-out side of the Depression have imposed their texture on all of history. The people have become the proles, as incapable of improving their lot without leadership, which is methodically and gleefully weeded out from above, as were the lumpen with whom a younger Orwell roughed it. And for someone who lives through language, the world of 1984 is worse than a nightmare: it's a madhouse without doors or windows at zero gravity,k with nothing, nothing at all to hold on to.

Clearly, then, the physical and social dimensions of Orwell's nightmare can be dismissed as one man's bad dream, although certain specifics make more sense than they usually get credit for--notably, the joyously expedient carnality of Winston Smith's love affair with Julia and the condescending depiction of the proles (who are always viewed through the eyes of Smith, a slummer like Orwell with more excuse). But while it makes some sense to accuse Orwell of metaphysical crudity--a priori and a posteriori get confused in the book's argument at times--his linguistic analysis grounds the novel as decisively as his will-to-power premise, and it's just as substantial. Given the author's fervent belief that meaning precedes language, the process whereby Smith is persuaded that a photograph he just saw never existed or that two plus two equals five obviously terrified Orwell beyond all reason, but it's an evasion to pass off his terror as irrational. Bernard Crick wonders whether social encounters with logical positivist A.J. Ayer mightn't have set off some of his fears, but these can no doubt there can be no doubt that their root inspiration was the means-justify-ends flim-flams (doublethink, you can call it) that so many left intellectuals engaged in during the Stalin era--and which all principled supporters of revolutionary terrorism, myself included, have flirted with for close to two decades. Moreover, if A.J. Ayer gave Orwell the willies, ponder for a moment what he would have thought of structuralism.

I hope my allies don't misunderstand my own position here. I still support revolutionary terrorism, and I'm even ready to argue that the structuralists are saying something real; unlike Winston Smith, I treasure emotionally integrated sex, and I respect the proletarians I grew up with, too. But my reservations about the first pairing--terrorism should be a last resort, linguistics should supplement common sense rather than superseding it--are linked to my awareness of how contingent both my sex life and my class consciousness are: neither would have developed naturally, if at all, in a repressive society. For left intellectuals to pretend that plain Americans are brainwashed into fearing repression above all else is a hideous distortion--if anybody's brainwashed it's the Americans plain and fancy who don't. In short, both the power and the paradoxes of 1984 are worth taking very seriously. It's a cautionary image of a world we don't want to make. And if we think we're safe just because it hasn't literally come true, we don't deserve to call ourselves leftists or intellectuals.

Village Voice, Feb. 1, 1983