Did somebody say … George Orwell?

Owen Holland
July 14, 2014
László Moholy-Nagy, Composition. c. 1923

Shortly before he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), George Orwell read (and reviewed) Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We  (1924), a dystopian satire imagining a glass world populated by nameless human beings known only by their state-assigned serial numbers.  For the hapless numbers of OneState the very idea of a private sphere  has withered and died – not least because all buildings are made  entirely of glass. Amongst other things, Zamyatin’s dystopia was written  in response to the utopian impulse of a text like Paul Scheerbart’s Glass Architecture (1914), the influence of which is traceable in some of László Moholy-Nagy’s paintings from the 1920s, as well as other early projects of the Bauhaus. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Emmanuel Goldstein’s book-within-a-book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, takes  account of this milieu when noting that “[i]n the early twentieth  century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured,  orderly and efficient – a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel  and snow-white concrete – was part of the consciousness of nearly every  literate person.”

Walter Benjamin, for example, enthused over such architectural prospects in conversation with Bertolt Brecht and in his essay on ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’ (1929): “To live in a glass house”, he wrote in discussing Andre Breton’s Nadja (1928), “is  a revolutionary virtue par excellence. […] Discretion concerning one’s  own existence, once an aristocratic virtue, has become more and more an  affair of petty-bourgeois parvenus.” In Zamyatin’s dystopia, however,  the transparency of glass architecture takes on a different metaphorical  significance insofar as it refracts the problematic of political  domination through state surveillance and control.

The tolerability of transparency depends, for the most part, on who’s  doing the watching (or looking, or seeing) as well as the material  interests that motivate such ocular fascinations. Winston Smith,  Orwell’s already dead last man, knows that he is watched and he knows,  too, blessed as he is with an uncanny degree of foreknowledge, precisely  where his narrative will end. We had provided Orwell with a  proto-narrative, so behind Winston’s dark premonitions lurked the fate  of Zamyatin’s nameless protagonist, D-503, who had already been  lobotomised. All that remains of the optimistic vision of the Bauhaus in  Nineteen Eighty-Four is an antique glass paperweight, or, in the  recent stage production, a snow-globe, which looks remarkably like a  microcosm of Zamyatin’s glass-world (or, say, the internet, now that we  know it is also a vast Panopticon).

For much of the twentieth century, many interpretations of Orwell’s  dystopia were heavily over-determined by the geo-political,  inter-imperialist rivalries between the USA and the USSR. Isaac  Deutscher once described Nineteen Eighty-Four as “an ideological super-weapon in the cold war”. Philip E. Wegner has more recently acknowledged  that the text functioned as “a significant boon to efforts in both  Great Britain and the United States to discredit any form of  intellectual political activism”, allowing conservatives and liberals  (or conservative liberals), like Lionel Trilling, opportunistically to  co-opt Orwell into an anti-communist pantheon – without pausing to draw  any distinction between the c-word and its Stalinised, bureaucratic  distortions. For such readers, the icily cold Inner Party apparatchik,  O’Brien, appears as a convenient bogeyman with which to frighten  impressionable young undergraduates, warning them away from the  inevitably disastrous consequences of committed intellectual activism,  which, so it is said, only ever masks a proto-authoritarian  will-to-power, thus proving, once and for all, the Fundamental  Truth-Value of liberal paradigms of disinterested and ‘objective’  scholarship. Those in long-besmirched glass houses, however, should  always have known better than to throw stones.

In part because of its status as a Bible for anti-communists, Nineteen Eighty-Four continues  to occupy an almost unassailable place in the late-capitalist cultural  imaginary. Such liberal-humanist appropriations of the novel might need  to be re-cast, however, in light of the recent revelations about mass  surveillance which have exposed the hypocrisies of the so-called ‘Free  World’ (as it was once known). Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan’s stage  adaptation of the novel makes a number of interesting choices in that  regard. The novel invites adaptation – of which there have been quite a few other notable examples on film and television – not least because Winston’s job in the Records Department of the Ministry of Information  Truth acknowledges textual instability as a necessary condition of any  social formation geared towards the consolidation of class domination.  In Oceania, the past is mutable, which entails constant tampering with  the historical and textual record; in production, Orwell’s text is  mutable and can be manipulated in all sorts of ways. Ogilvy, for  example, the fictional war-hero whom Winston dreams up in Nineteen Eighty-Four in order to fabricate a story by which to unperson the unfortunate Withers is, in Icke and MacMillan’s 1984,  presented to the audience as a ‘real’ person, himself requiring to be  unpersoned: a neat joke at the expense of the diligent reader.

At the Playhouse, the telescreens blast out a constant stream, not of  propaganda statistics and military music, but, rather, ’40s Swing music  – more Orrin Tucker or Anne Shelton than  Glenn Beck – whilst the black and blue overalls of the Inner and Outer  party are swapped for woollen cardigans and sweaters. Winston, who Icke  and MacMillan cast several years younger than thirty-nine, only goes  into a blue boiler-suit after the room behind Charrington’s antique shop  has been revealed as a space of false refuge, whereupon he is  transported to the windowless cellars of the Ministry of Love. The  in-your-face posters of Big Brother are noticeable only by their absence  – an apt enough comment on the more-or-less intangible and ‘invisible’,  but no less pervasive, structures of ideological reproduction which  animate our contemporary life-world. It is sometimes hard to recall that  one is reading pro-capitalist propaganda in the mainstream press, for  example, when it has been effectively naturalised as ‘news’ – which  always carries with it that wonderfully ‘disinterested’ sheen of  ostensible objectivity.

The directors perceive the importance of Orwell’s Appendix on ‘The  Principles of Newspeak’, which is written in the past tense and which  re-contextualises the foregoing narrative by situating it in a temporal  and historical framework the very possibility of which has been  radically de-stabilised by the narrative itself. The citizens of Oceania  cannot remember the past and so cannot conceive of a future, because  all they know is the austere reality of a continuous present.  “Newspeak”, as the first sentence of Orwell’s appendix informs us, “was  the official language of Oceania”, which must mean, somehow, that the  state of affairs described in the tripartite narrative has passed out of  existence – although precisely how this has come to pass is left  unspecified. Robert Paul Resch suggests  that the existence of the appendix frames the narrative in such a way  as to make it appear as a fictional historical novel, written from an  unforeseen future beyond that which is depicted in the story of  Winston’s mundane routines of servile and sedentary record-swapping, his  brief affair with Julia in the pastoral Golden Country, and his  eventual descent into total submission and surrender. The only other  section of the book which at all resembles the Appendix, in tone and  style, is Goldstein’s book-within-a-book – banned by the Party because  of the incisive clarity with which it elucidates the workings of  Oceania’s society. Goldstein, a rebel against Big Brother, is, as is  known, a cipher for Trotsky and his book offers something akin to  Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed, or The History of the Russian Revolution.  O’Brien, who clandestinely supplies Winston with a copy of the book,  later claims to have written it himself after it becomes clear that he  is, in fact, a more-than-willing agent of Big Brother. However, the  truth-value of his claim is, like so much else in the book, ultimately  unfathomable. O’Brien also pointedly refuses to specify whether  Goldstein’s cellular network of revolutionary militants actually exists  or not. The possibility of revolutionary organisation is simply left  hanging as a desperate question in the face of a fully-totalised regime  of mass surveillance, but it is certain – to us, at least – that the  regime must be overthrown.

Icke and MacMillan frame their adaptation of the narrative with two  short scenes at the beginning and the end of the production which, so it  seems, offer a jarringly anti-naturalistic depiction of a book group  engaged in collective deliberation about the story of Winston Smith (who  is played by Sam Crane). The book group exists in a future set some way  beyond the horizon of the narrative. The happenings of the narrative  are thus made to seem like historical events which are safely located in  a past which has passed, or, at least, which seems to have passed. The  frame narrative seems like it offers a new version of the ‘happy ending’  reading, the problems of which have been recounted  by Richard Sanderson. ‘Winston’ initially seems to be participating in  the book group, passes out, and wakes in Oceania thinking of  Shakespeare. Then again, the thirteen chimes of the bell toll before the curtain goes up, so perhaps the book group is not entirely what it seems either: never send to know for whom the bell tolls.

Were we to speculate about filling in the gaps in the novel between  the narrative and the appendix, or between the narrative and the  frame-narrative in the stage production, we would immediately stumble  upon the question of political agency. We might begin by considering  Winston’s oft-repeated dictum that “if there is hope”, as he scratches  out furtively in his diary, “it lies in the proles” – a thought which  returns to him shortly before he and Julia are apprehended by the  Thought Police in the room above – or is it behind? – Charrington’s  shop. In this particular adaptation, however, Winston cannot bring  himself to say the word ‘proles’ – which is an ugly abbreviation of that  apparently difficult word ‘proletariat’ –  and so, in a ‘timely’ and  ‘relevant’ populist gambit, he replaces it with the word ‘people’  instead. It is a telling sleight of directorial hand insofar as it  serves to occlude and write out any explicit reference to the class  politics palpably present in Orwell’s novel. It is symptomatic of a  wider failing in the production which only tries to give us glimpses  into the world of the Inner and Outer Party, whilst mostly ignoring –  and cutting – those passages which describe the life of the proles who,  after all, make up close to eighty-five per cent of Oceania’s society –  if society is quite the right word to describe a life-world in  which all traces of sociality and solidarity are constantly in the  process of being erased (cf. the past forty years of neo-liberalism).  Much more could be said on this score, were it not for the fact that  that portion of the culture industry predominantly located in the West  End has hardly ever provided a venue for A Good Night Out in John  McGrath’s sense of the phrase.

Orwell toyed with The Last Man in Europe as an alternative  title for the novel which eventually came to be known by its now  culturally ubiquitous numerical appellation. As O’Brien puts it to  Winston when interrogating him in the Ministry of Love: “If you are a  man, Winston, you are the last man”. Zamyatin’s We provides one stream of influence for Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Mary Shelley’s The Last Man  (1826) provides another, more distant comparator text. Winston Smith  is, amongst other things, the last gasp of a humanistic romanticism – or  the “human heritage” as he puts it – in a totally administered world,  struggling to hold on to a sense of self and identity – a “lonely ghost  uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear”. Winston, however, is  neither a romantic nor a tragic hero. He possesses no powerful force of  critical insight or intensity of perception, but he does dimly  comprehend that “[t]ragedy […] belonged to an ancient time, to a time  when there was still privacy, love and friendship.” O’Brien will later  effectively eviscerate any claim Winston may wish to make about standing  for the liberal-humanist tradition, pointing to Winston’s professed  willingness to engage in the most nefarious of means when conspiring to  overthrow Big Brother. The liberal anti-communism of a Lionel Trilling  or a Richard Rorty already bore within it the moral crimes of Abu Ghraib  and Guantanamo and the NSA and… the list could go on. The last man, in  the liberal-humanist sense, is nakedly exposed by Orwell as a rotting  bag of filth. If there is any hope, we are asked to acknowledge, it  emphatically does not lie with the decaying and ossified remnants of the  petit bourgeois intelligentsia, cherishing an illusion of private  conscience and ‘independent’ commentary in the face of an all-powerful  state.

This, then, is where another of Icke and MacMillan’s changes provides  a moment of final provocation. In the novel, O’Brien goes much further  than Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor or even Zamyatin’s Benefactor in  granting that the Party is only interested in consolidating its power  for power’s sake. The rule of Big Brother has nothing to do with  guaranteeing an unfree and stupefied happiness for the masses. “Power is  not a means,” O’Brien says, “it is an end”, before proceeding to  undermine all of Winston’s claims to moral superiority. In the stage  production, Tim Dutton succeeds, for the briefest of moments, in making  O’Brien’s tirade terrifyingly convincing when he departs from the  novel’s script to bark at Winston that all he, Winston, is really  interested in is coffee, sex and chocolate – i.e. Winston is unable  effectively to challenge Big Brother’s authoritarian state, because he  is only concerned with securing slightly better rations for himself  under the present dispensation, without fundamentally altering Oceania’s  political coordinates. He nostalgically hankers after the bourgeois  private sphere, as would any right-thinking petit bourgeois parvenu –  but what if the bourgeois private sphere really should be  abolished, as Benjamin hints in his discussion of Breton? Winston may  well taunt Julia for only being a rebel from the waist down, but his own  oppositional stance is no less rooted in the search for bodily  pleasure. Unfortunately for Winston, though, the hedonistic utopia of  continuous gratification is precisely equivalent with the  liberal-democratic utopia of free-market consumerism which, in case you  hadn’t noticed, is, at the present time, bringing the planet to its  knees. If there is hope, then, it lies only with the ‘proles’ –  which we might take as a problematic place-holder for the uncertain  possibility of revolutionary socialist praxis. Winston does not need to  finish Goldstein’s book to know that this is its final message, but it  is not a possibility which is made visible in this production, for all  its sparkle and slickness. The proscenium arch of the Playhouse frames a  window onto a world which is both ours (glass, shards, surveillance) and not ours. It is time that we began learning again where properly to direct our stones.


All by
Owen Holland