George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four still challenges our understanding of freedom, writes Charlotte Wood
Several years ago I found myself in the most depressing rooms I’d ever entered. To find the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre you must first speak to the security guard at the gate of an ugly residential apartment complex, then find your way through various towers to an unmarked door, then take the stairs or creaking elevator to the basement. There you will find hundreds of propaganda posters from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution on display.
When I returned to George Orwell’s — first published in 1949 — after more than 30 years, and revisited Winston Smith’s colourless flat in Victory Mansions, with its broken lift and the ‘‘dulled mirror’’ of its all-seeing, all-hearing telescreen, it was those rooms that swam up from my memory.
It’s not just the giant face of Mao looming, Big Brother-like, over the ecstatic faces of the overall-clad masses that conjures for me now, but something more frightening; something to do with the clammy basement air, the inescapable sense of being watched. The flimsy plaster walls, the weak fluorescent lighting. The low, peeling ceilings, and the overwhelming desire in me for escape.
It is as though my schoolgirl’s mind internalised Orwell’s vision and held it, dormant, for decades, until it could spring out and take threedimensional form in those rooms below the Shanghai streets. For, no matter how long ago you first read it, and regardless of the sunny Australian adolescence out of which you may have puzzled at its grim messages, this novel’s images and words went in deep, and lodged there. When you open its pages now, a sudden cold plunge lets you know that the iconic first line — ‘‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’’ — has never left you. Rereading the whole book is an exercise in creeping, dreadful deja vu.
After this first shock of recognition, what strikes me now is how closely Orwell’s bleak vision resembles the drab postwar England in which it was written, with its smells of ‘‘boiled cabbage and old rag mats’’, the damp grey hallways of Winston’s flat, the clanking pneumatic tubing of the Ministry of Truth’s filing system, the rationed cigarettes and coffee. Even Winston’s body, with its coughing fits and the horrible varicose ulcer above his ankle, seems like something from the history books. No wonder we snickered, from my bleached and heatstruck 1980s classroom, about how wrong Orwell had got our time.
Three decades on, it’s easy to see how much more he got right. The subversions and degradations of our language are obvious. The novel’s terminology has embedded itself so deeply in our culture we can no longer trace the source; when a 25-year-old acquaintance asked about the book I was reading and I mentioned Big Brother, he assumed I meant the TV show. When I summarised the novel’s plot, he seemed bemused. For him, vanished privacy holds no threat. Constant surveillance is part of our natural, everyday existence now, unremarked, unnoticed. We have freedom, after all. There is nothing to fear.
It’s tempting to read the novel only to spot predictions. Take the Two Minutes Hate, where Orwell seems to foresee the outrage-churn of contemporary social media with alarming accuracy. In the Hate, ministry employees are encouraged to spit and hiss and hurl abuse in response to video footage of Goldstein, the Enemy of the People.
Next time a talk-show host blurts some ig- norant bile on immigration or gendered violence and you feel like joining the Twitter pileon, think of this: In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against
A scene from the 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s novel; Charlotte Wood, right