The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

“A squat grey build­ing of only thirty-four sto­ries. Over the main en­trance the words, CEN­TRAL LON­DON HATCHERY AND CON­DI­TION­ING CEN­TRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COM­MU­NITY, IDEN­TITY, STA­BIL­ITY.”

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were strik­ing thir­teen. Win­ston Smith, his chin nuz­zled into his breast in an effort to es­cape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Vic­tory Man­sions, though not quickly enough to pre­vent a swirl of gritty dust from en­ter­ing along with him.”

I think we’d all guess, in a pub trivia night, say, which books start this way: Al­dous Hux­ley’s Brave New World and Ge­orge Or­well’s Nine­teen Eighty-Four. As it hap­pens, a lot more peo­ple know the an­swer today as both books have raced up the best­seller charts in the wake of Don­ald Trump be­com­ing US Pres­i­dent.

The sales boost has sparked a de­bate about who was right, Hux­ley in 1932 or Or­well in 1949. Both nov­els are set in a dystopian fu­ture. The dystopias are achieved dif­fer­ently — Or­well went for re­pres­sion, poverty and the Ju­nior Anti-Sex League; Hux­ley for tech­nol­ogy, drugs, en­ter­tain­ment and sex — but the out­comes are much the same: the state is all-pow­er­ful.

It does seem the Trump “al­ter­na­tive facts” ad­min­is­tra­tion is flu­ent in Or­well’s Newspeak. The Nine­teen Eighty-Four quote I’d like to pull out, though, is: “The Party told you to re­ject the ev­i­dence of your eyes and ears. It was their fi­nal, most es­sen­tial com­mand.” Trump was there for ev­ery­one’s eyes to see and ears to hear, and he was elected, not re­jected.

Or­well cre­ated a Stal­in­ist to­tal­i­tar­ian world, the sort of state the West feared through the long Cold War. Yet, as Christo­pher Hitchens ob­served in 1999, Or­well’s “house of hor­rors” col­lapsed soon af­ter the year in which he set the novel. The Ber­lin Wall came down, the Soviet Union sep­a­rated. “Hux­ley,” he wrote, “rightly fore­saw that any such regime could break be­cause it could not bend.”

This does seem the pre­vail­ing view on Hux­ley, Or­well and Trump. There’s also a fas­ci­nat­ing side de­bate on who we should be read­ing in­stead, such as Mar­garet At­wood, Philip K. Dick and Yevgeny Zamy­atin. Don Wat­son, in The Monthly, sin­gled out Her­man Melville’s The Con­fi­dence-Man. Nov­el­ist Sid­dhartha Deb joined in with droll hu­mour in The New York Times. The rush to read Nine­teen Eighty-Four was “per­versely group­think­ish”.

Deb names a 1985 book that has been re­ceiv­ing a lot of post-Trump at­ten­tion: Neil Post­man’s Amus­ing Our­selves to Death: Pub­lic Dis­course in the Age of Show Busi­ness, in which he con­sid­ers Hux­ley and Or­well’s views of the fu­ture. I haven’t read it but will soon.

The author’s son, nov­el­ist An­drew Post­man, in The Guardian said, more or less, “my Dad nailed it”. His fa­ther thought Amer­i­cans “mis­tak­enly feared and ob­sessed” over Nine­teen Eighty-Four (“an in­for­ma­tion­cen­sor­ing, move­ment-re­strict­ing, in­di­vid­u­al­i­tyema­ci­at­ing state”) rather than Brave New World (“a tech­nol­ogy-se­dat­ing, con­sump­tio­nen­gorg­ing, in­stant-grat­i­fy­ing bub­ble”).

Nine­teen Eighty-Four is one of my favourite nov­els, but af­ter read­ing a few para­graphs from Amus­ing Our­selves to Death I’m lean­ing to the Hux­leyites in this de­bate: “What Or­well feared were those who would ban books. What Hux­ley feared was that there would be no rea­son to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Or­well feared those who would de­prive us of in­for­ma­tion. Hux­ley feared those who would give us so much that we would be re­duced to pas­siv­ity and ego­ism. Or­well feared that the truth would be con­cealed from us. Hux­ley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of ir­rel­e­vance. Or­well feared we would be­come a cap­tive cul­ture. Hux­ley feared we would be­come a triv­ial cul­ture.”

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