A Hopeful Orwell?

Illustration by Bob AulSo, Thomas Pynchon has popped up again. America's premier literary practitioner of silence, exile and cunning—last heard from in 1997, when his massive and beautiful novel Mason N Dixon came out, and whose last publicly available photograph comes from a Cornell University yearbook from the mid-1950s—has contributed a foreword to a new edition of George Orwell's 1984, published upon the centenary of Orwell's birth. For Pynchon devotees, the tone of the foreword will be both familiar and strange. It has the same sort of casual hey-let's-grab-a-bite-and-chat intimacy with the reader as the autobiographical introduction to his 1984 collection of short stories, Slow Learner, which, given the author's lifelong reclusiveness, has to stand out as a stylistic achievement in a career already studded with them. The paranoiac gleam, the lysergic flights, the Dantean swoops into the deeper circles of hell that delighted and freaked out a generation of readers, and which continue to shadow the imaginations of up-and-coming writers, are long gone. They've been replaced by a voice that seems magisterially calm, centered and cheerful in that way some Zen masters are. It's a voice that suggests, as Mason N Dixon did six years ago, that Pynchon's imaginative path—from the frenzied apocalyptics of his early work to the sky-blue, almost Prospero-like clarity we see in his work today—may one day look to us like one of the great brave spiritual journeys of the American imagination. Can't wait to read the first good biography of the man. (We should all live so long, of course.)

Not that Pynchon isn't willing to lean into an argument good and hard. The animating idea of the foreword is to resituate our understanding of Orwell's sullen blast of dyspeptic dystopia. 1984, Pynchon says, is less about the threat of Soviet-style totalitarianism—Big Brother's resemblance to Joe Stalin notwithstanding—than it is about the tendencies of Western socialism, particularly that of the British Labour Party, which Pynchon sees as having betrayed its working-class roots and succumbed to the blind pursuit of power in the years after Churchill got dumped in 1946. “Project this will to power four decades into the future,” he writes, “and you could easily end up with Ingsoc, Oceania, and Big Brother.”

Even more bracingly, Pynchon believes Orwell was saying that the “will to fascism” that gripped Europe in the first half of the 20th century was perhaps just getting started. When Orwell was writing the novel in 1948, he understood, Pynchon writes, “that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not yet even come into its own—the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power, were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the Third Reich and Stalin's USSR, even the British Labour Party—like first drafts of a terrible future. What could prevent the same thing from happening to Britain and the United States? Moral superiority? Good intentions? Clean living?”

Though he gently chides those who indulge the “game some critics like to play, worth maybe a minute and a half of diversion, in which one makes lists of what Orwell did and didn't 'get right,'” Pynchon plays it too. He notes, for instance, how in America “every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia, and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed 'spin,' as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round.”

Or this: “Those who don't learn from history used to have to relive it, but only until those in power could find a way to convince everybody, including themselves, that history never happened, or happened in a way best serving their own purposes—or best of all, that it doesn't matter anyway.”

Pynchon could have buttressed the point with the simple phrase “weapons of mass destruction,” but he may have written this before our latest historical rewrite. He might have also noted the Fox News mantra, “Fair and Balanced. We report. You decide,” which, after an initial flurry of resistance from a press caught slack-jawed by Fox's chutzpuh, has evolved, apparently, into a perfectly acceptable brand of doublethink. Or how about the Bush administration's use of the word war? It's a battle on many fronts, remember, a sort of endless one, just like Big Brother keeps fighting against shifting enemies, and therefore justifies $400 billion defense budgets as far as the eye can see and all manner of governmental curtailing of civil liberties, though the war was also supposed to be over when that “Mission Accomplished” banner flew over W's flight-jacketed shoulder on May 1. War is Peace.

And then how about…whoops, our minute and a half is up.

George Orwell, both as man and writer, had a suspicious incapacity for joy, and so his novel is, man oh man, powerful but crawl-in-the-gutter depressing. Winston Smith, remember, knows that the minute he scrawls the words “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” in a notebook he is doomed, and since this comes on page 19 of a 323-page novel, he's doomed a long time. Whatever bit of hope or respite he finds from the unrelenting dreariness and oppression of life as an Outer Party drone in soggy London is shadowed by the knowledge that he's going to get it sooner or later. The food is gross, the cigarettes are lousy, the Victory Gin is oily, there are spies everywhere, sex for pleasure is prohibited, and total conformity is regulated by telescreens that See All. The only outlet for frustration is the Two Minute Hates, in which Winston and his fellow citizens get to scream at Oceania's mortal enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein. Even when Winston begins his sexy trysts with the beautiful Julia, and has the gall to imagine that “the animal instinct” of desire “was the force that would tear the party to pieces,” the hope doesn't last long. Together, they admit that in the end, they will betray each other to the Party, though they continue to believe “They can make you say anything—anything—but they can't make you believe it. They can't get inside you.”

But the Party foils them here, too. They do get inside them, beating the spirit of resistance and the will to love right out of them in a long torture scene that would have been unimaginable in a work of English literature before World War II accustomed people to horror, so that at the end it's as if Winston's insides have been scooped out by a rusty trowel. The novel's final words, “He loved Big Brother,” seem a thunderous shutting of the door on the hope that the “spirit of Man,” as Winston puts it earlier, can survive.

But then here comes Pynchon to the rescue, bless him. He notes that there's an appendix to the novel—”The Principles of Newspeak”—supposedly written by a scholar explaining the totalitarian language Big Brother employs in Oceania. And he reminds us that the appendix is written in the past tense, and that it shows no stylistic signs of having been influenced by Newspeak. Which means Big Brother may have gained Winston's love, but that he lost the ultimate battle. How he was conquered isn't mentioned, but the only hope that Winston ever invests in, beside his momentary dalliance with sex, are the “proles.” So maybe that's where Orwell put his faith, or, better, in the ability of a work of literature to inspire a spirit of Man that Winston Smith might not be able to sustain but that Orwell hopes his readers can.

George Orwell, 1984, with a new foreword by Thomas Pynchon. Harcourt, Brace, 339 pp. $14, paperback.

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