To the Editor:
In “Orwell in Perspective” [March] Herb Greer likens 1984 to Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the basis of an alleged similarity of the political effects rather than by demonstrating any genuine understanding of Orwell’s book. 1984 is not merely a slightly sentimental and melodramatic polemic against oppression; it operates on a more profound moral level which seems to have eluded Mr. Greer.
In casting around for comparisons with 1984 the most obvious place to begin is with the peculiarly 20th-century genre of dystopian fiction, for example Zamyatin’s We or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is especially illuminating to draw a contrast with the latter. Secure in the English upper classes, . . . the worst kind of world Huxley can imagine is one in which science reigns triumphant and all values are annihilated except for the utilitarian pursuit of pleasure. Huxley’s . . . vision nevertheless lacks Orwell’s dramatic intensity because the nature of the values at stake is radically different. In Huxley’s world we have lost the values of an aesthete; in Orwell’s we lose our very humanity.
For instance, compare Huxley’s Shakespeare-spouting Savage to the commonplace Winston Smith whose idea of the good life is both tender and fallen: something to eat, no nosey neighbors, a chance to take his girlfriend to bed. In thwarting Smith the political system of 1984 thwarts values essential to our being human, very basic and very precious notions like honesty, personal integrity, love, and tenderness. It is a vision all the more terrible because these values are systematically and deliberately eradicated. Mr. Greer mentions Orwell’s “hatred of oppression,” but he is silent on the deeper issue, the destruction of our very humanity, which generates the book’s all-pervading sense of despair. He fails to see that Orwell is concerned with the threat to us as moral beings represented both by totalitarianism and by our machine civilization (it is no accident that two-way television plays an important role in domination, and is not, as Mr. Greer implies, a mere stage prop). Thus to complain that Orwell did not fully understand the mechanisms of totalitarianism is like condemning Animal Farm because pigs do not speak.
To represent 1984 as either a polemic against oppression or as a political treatise is equally mistaken. It is an essay in myth-creation, where myth is understood as embodying the fears, aspirations, and moral concerns of its age. Someone who could find nothing wrong with Brave New World would not perhaps be a very likable person, would have the wrong values at heart, whereas someone who did not find the moral corruption of 1984 abhorrent would be inhuman. The essence of this difference Mr. Greer fails to comprehend. . . .
Herb Greer writes:
Michael Taylor’s letter makes me hesitate and consider Proverbs 26:4, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him,” a text cited more than once by George Orwell. But he also quoted Proverbs 26:5, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” Mr. Taylor’s remarks are such a perfect example of the academic bosh referred to in my piece that I should like to comment on them.
George Orwell was a journalist, essayist, and novelist. He liked to debunk myths, and was not in the business of making them. Myths are the hobby (sometimes the métier) of people like Mr. Taylor who build them with fake language, like “idea of the good life . . . both tender and fallen,” and with vague rhetoric about values. 1984 is emphatically not about “the destruction of our very humanity.” On the contrary, it portrays in melodramatic and exaggerated form a phenomenon which is all too human, both in our century and in earlier times: the oppression of a dissenter and his final conversion to the faith of his oppressors. I observed that the mechanisms of this process in the novel were only a superficial match with the totalitarianism we know in real life. This is because most citizens in most totalitarian countries are not dissenters; they actually accept and support their governments. Thus the common people, sentimentally idealized by Orwell, are an important part of the totalitarian “mechanism”—perhaps the most important part. Orwell did not understand this very well, which is one principal reason why 1984, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, lurches so far into maudlin melodrama. It goes far deeper than Mr. Taylor’s inapposite non sequitur about talking pigs. There are other reasons, but this is not the place for yet another essay on this much-discussed novel.
Mr. Taylor is of course free to compare 1984 with whatever he likes. I confess to finding his own scale of values a trifle particular. E.g., Huxley’s Savage and Winston Smith are both loving, tender, honest, and possessed of personal integrity, as I am sure Mr. Taylor will agree. However, by Mr. Taylor’s account, Winston Smith is limited in his tastes to gluttony, lechery, and an understandable itch for privacy. Apparently he sees this as superior to the Savage’s love of Shakespeare. Ah, well—chacun à son goût.
I would guess that Mr. Taylor has been sucking up rather a lot of bad criticism, mostly from myth-makers, while paying little attention to original texts. Otherwise (to give one example) he might have stumbled across a grown-up edition of Gulliver’s Travels and discovered that there is nothing “peculiarly 20th-century” about dystopic fiction. It would seem that the professors at Brasenose College have quite a job on their hands.