Sunday, May 14, 2017

An Unexpected Insight From Margaret Atwood

"1984" is a brilliantly written book, but a horribly depressing one.  The totalitarian world it creates for the reader is as realistic--and conceivable--as it is brutal and merciless.  Reading it is not a pleasant experience, but it has been a necessary one almost from the moment it was published, and never more so than now.  It is possible, however, to read it and appreciate it as a literary experience. This is not only because of how well George Orwell uses language to make his nightmare feel real, and to make you care about what happens in it, but because language itself is part of the subject of the book.

Newspeak, the language of the book's totalitarian state designed to suppress dissent, emerged from Orwell's concern as a journalist about the misuse of language by politicians to manipulate or conceal the truth rather than advance it.  He took the subject of language seriously enough that, at the end of the book's main story, he included an essay as an appendix entitled "The Principles of Newspeak," in which he describes in detail the structure of the language and how it operated to limit the potential range of thought.

I have read "1984," including the appendix, several times, and somehow never noticed a rather interesting fact:  the appendix is written in the past tense.  That is to say, it is written in such a way that it describes a process of language creation that had already begun, and was planned for completion in the future, but may or may not have been actually completed.

Margaret Atwood, the author of another dystopian book, "The Handmaid's Tale," recently said that she interpreted this use of the past tense to mean that the "author" of the appendix was writing from some farther point in the future, perhaps at a time when the world as described in "1984" had collapsed.  In her view, the author of the appendix was not meant to be Orwell himself, but some survivor of his nightmare world who was living at a time when life was better, and people were trying to make sense of what had happened previously and learn from it.  She added that this perspective had inspired the structure of "The Handmaid's Tale."

I would like to believe that her take on Orwell and "1984" are accurate.  It makes me think about the end of "The Hunger Games" trilogy, which also depicts a dystopian world that eventually ends up in a better place.  Perhaps hope is ultimately impossible to destroy, as long as there is a single human being capable of feeling it.  Even if the human being is a dystopian author.  Something to hang onto, as the world seems to spin faster and faster toward chaos.

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