Saturday, February 23, 2013

Nineteen Eighty - Four by George Orwell

I have not read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty- Four in several years. I read it twice in my lifetime. Appropriately my first reading was back in the actual year of 1984. I read it for the second time a few years ago. I will likely never read it again. As I found it to be the most disturbing piece of fiction that I ever read, I do not wish to endure this brilliant but terribly dark novel again.  Since I found this work to be so affecting, I have wanted to post some commentary on it for a while. 

Written in 1948 the story takes place in the monstrously dystopian future world of 1984. The planet is divided up onto three horrendously oppressive dictatorships. All members of the middle class are constantly observed with cameras and other electronic surveillance devices installed in their homes, places of work, public spaces etc. Enthusiasm for the ruling party and its leader “Big Brother” is enforced as the state has infiltrated all aspects of life.  The dictatorship has even subverted the language in the creation of “Newspeak”, a dialect that discourages free thought. Television and other media are continually blaring pro government propaganda into all private and public places. The slightest perceived breach of loyalty to the party is punished by ghastly torture. The nation is constantly at war and there are habitual shortages and near famine.

Winston Smith is a citizen of what was once the United Kingdom and is now part of Oceana. Winston meets Julia. The two begin a clandestine love affair and participate in a private rebellion. They fantasize about “The Brotherhood”, a legendary and likely mythical dissident movement.

When Winston and Julia are discovered and arrested, lets just say that really bad things happen. The primary villain is a state operative known as O’Brien whose fanatical loyalty and belief in the party is absolutely insane.

Many people whom I have communicated with, as well as some commentary that I have read, share the opinion that this novel as extremely troubling. There are many reasons for so much reader discomfort.

First this is an extremely negative book. Knowing a bit about Orwell’s life, it is clear that he was disillusioned when he wrote it. Among many reasons for his despondency was that he was sick with tuberculosis, an illness that would soon kill him. I believe this novel to be more of a prediction then a warning. It seems that Orwell believed that the fate of humanity was inevitably leading to horrendously oppressive dictatorship across the globe.

Others have remarked to me that they were disturbed by the accuracy of Orwell’s predictions. Indeed, since the publication of this novel, mass media, particularly television, has shown itself to be devastatingly effective propaganda tool. Both small and large oppressors have used modern technology to monitor people in their homes, workplaces as well as in public areas. I would however point out that as much as Orwell got right, he also got some things wrong. For instance, modern technology has often been the bane of the oppressive and powerful, with people using radio, the Internet, mobile devices, etc. to combat oppression and tyranny. In addition, Orwell clearly felt that the Democracies of the time, particularly The United States, Great Britain and France were soon to descend into chaos and eventual dictatorship.

Many including myself, find the overall theme, fate of the characters, as well as few particular passages in this book to be the most unsettling. Though I will not give away additional details as to the fate of the protagonists, the main idea here is that an oppressive government can crush the best and most noble aspects of the human character and soul. Furthermore, Orwell seems to be saying that there is a sadomasochistic strain in dictatorial regimes, and if the regime is smart and resourceful enough, it will successfully exercise its complete domination over the individual.

O’Brien describes the level of control and submission that the state demands,

“We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, and we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.”

There are a few particular passages in this book that hammer these ideas home and that are exceedingly difficult to take. There is one scene that I find to be unbearable. Interestingly it is not one of the passages that everyone seems to talk about. Often folks will comment upon a part known as the “Room 101” scene and describe it as the most traumatic of the book. This passage is an unimaginable description of psychological and threatened physical torture. This is not however the most disturbing part for me.

Likewise the last few lines of the book are often mentioned as extremely wrenching as they express a shocking and utter moral defeat of the human will. Indeed the above-mentioned parts of the book are really troubling. But for me, it is yet another section that is the worst.

There is a part, near the end. It is a cold March day. Not having seen each other in months, Winston and Julia meet by chance in a park. The description of the day, of dead vegetation and of the dialogue between the two is incredibly well crafted. I will not give away more details, but for me, this is the darkest, most despair filled fictional passage that I has ever been written. It is utter coldness and represents the ultimate in despair. It is difficult to imagine how Orwell wrote about such darkness. I will not read this book again as this part is just too much. There is no point in quoting it here, as it needs the context of everything that has happened before to have any meaning.

Orwell’s main theme is the inevitable obliteration of the individual by a supremely powerful state pumped up with technology and sadism. The message here is that all the character and courage in the world is no match for ingenious and brutal torture. Furthermore, in the author’s view, the world of 1948 was trending dangerously toward societies completely subdued by such hideous forces.

Is there any hope at all in this work? I recall, back when I was seventeen years old and first reading the work, I thought that I had detected something. There is an appendix to the book that explains and analyzes Newspeak. This addendum is written in the past tense. It seems to imply that a scholar is writing it many years after the main events of the book.  It also appears to be written from the point of view of someone operating in a free society. When I reread the book a few years ago I was again struck by the tense and tone of the appendix. Was this book so dark that Orwell felt the need to throw in a tiny wisp of light? Was he implying that Big Brother eventually fell? A little online research reveals that others have noted the apparent mystery of the appendix and that there is debate regarding its significance!

Though it seems that a large percentage of the population have read Nineteen Eighty- Four, a discussion with of many readers that I encounter indicates that it was read at a young age and that the book was rushed through for a school assignment. Often such quick reads overly focus the reader, to the exclusion of all else, on how many of the technological oppressions predicted have come true. Though this is an important aspect of this work, it is a pity, as there is so much more here.

I will not actually recommend a careful Nineteen Eighty- Four unless one is prepared for the darkest of dark tragedies. Though I think that art should be driven by a combination of the negative and positive, this one may go a little too far for many. On the other hand this is in many ways a work of genius and it is of immense importance. Though history has shown that Orwell was too pessimistic, it has also shown that he was amazing prophetic. His warnings are still of great use as a caution to any citizen of the twenty–first century. 

Finally this book also gives us something else. It has provided us with an arsenal of words, phrases and allusions to use against both big and small oppressors. Every time we make a remark about “Big Brother”, or mentions “Groupthink”, “Newspeak” or say that something is “Orwellian,” we shoot a little rhetorical arrow at the tyrannical. This arrow was a gift from George Orwell.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

One Lovely Blog Award

Thanks to Vibina from Books for Me for awarding me this blogging accolade.  I must confess to being a little embarrassed when presented with these honors.

For those who choose to pass the award on the rules are as follows:

1.    Include the blog award logo in your post and repost the rules.
2.   Thank the person you nominated.
3.   Nominate 15 other bloggers and let them know about it.
4.   Post seven random facts about yourself.

Seven facts about me:

1 – I have been married to my beautiful wife for sixteen years.

2 – I have a Bachelor of Arts in History from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

3 – Since 1988 I have only purchased cars that have manual transmissions.

4 –My first rock concert was a Ronnie James Dio show in 1985.

5  – I love to walk in the forest.

6– I currently watch no fictional television shows.

7 – Despite number 6, I have seen every single episode of every Star Trek Series (plus the movies) ever made.

As always, winners should under no circumstances feel obligated to post or pass along. Only do so if you really want to. These awards are just meant to have fun with. I just want to acknowledge Blogs that I enjoy

Recognizing fifteen blogs are a lot for many of us. I imagine lots of folks do not regularly read that many blogs! My advice for those who do want to pass this on is to take the rules with a grain of salt!

The winners are:

Andrew Blackman Andrew is a writer who with a healthy does of smarts and wisdom, He covers literature, politics, social issues and life in general.

Angels are Kids and Furkids – Angie covers a voracious number of books with insightful but often fun reviews.

At Home in the Kitchen – Cat talks and cooks food. This blog will make you hungry!

Book Belle - Belle is a fun and lively writer who comments on a wide variety of books from the classics to contemporary fiction.

Book Dilettante – Harvee writes terrific commentary a vast variety of fiction ranging from historical fiction to mysteries.

An Enduring Romantic – Gautam covers an amazing choice of works from Shakespeare to Hindi Epics.

Joyce’s Choices – Joyce and her guest bloggers provide reviews on books and literary news. Her smart commentary covers literature, history, current events and more.

The Parish Lantern – Gary provides smart and insightful commentary on wide variety of literary subjects. His style and approach is refreshingly different.

Postcards from Asia – Delia is a fantastic writer who covers classic and popular literature, movies and commentary on life in general.

The Relentless Reader – Jennifer’s manages to write such  fun posts while providing smart commentary on literature, history, current events and more!

Resistance is Futile –Rachel covers a wide variety of books as well as topics. I really like her non – stereotypical thinking and approach.

Rivers I Have Known – Amritorupa provides sharp and to the point commentary on a host of different styles of books.

Seraillon – Scott writes brilliantly about the most interesting and thought provoking books.

The True Book Addict – Michelle provides great commentary on books along with amazingly cute pictures of cats. What else can one ask for in a blog!

Winston' s Dad – Stu covers a great variety of books. His commentary is  fresh, surprising and very original.

Wuthering Expectations – Tom’s commentary is amazingly intelligent. He is one of the smartest bloggers out there! He covers literature including a fair amount of poetry.

Congratulations to all the winners I urge my readers to explore all of the above blogs as well as Vibina’s superb site, Books for Me.

Happy blogging and reading everyone!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson

Thanks to Emma of Book Around The Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations. This was one of their Bah  - Humbook recommendations for me.

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson is a novel that was first published in 1759. This is a philosophical but also dynamic and fun book.

Rasselas is the young prince of an Abyssinian Kingdom. He and other royal youths are by tradition sequestered in a paradisiacal valley where they wait to be called into monarchal positions.

Rasselas finds himself extremely unhappy in the placid and pleasant but unchallenging universe of the “happy valley”. After several failed attempts he, along with his sister Nekayah, her attendant Pekuah, and the philosophical minded poet Imlac, manages to escape the confines of the valley.

The remainder of the narrative concerns itself with the question of the elusiveness of human happiness. Faced with dissatisfaction in the Eden-like valley, the group ponders if any situation, lifestyle or philosophy can lead to true contentment. From the beginning, Imlac contends that genuine bliss is impossible. Rasselas initially seems more open-minded and leads his friends on a quest to determine the answer.

As the four travel the region, they sample a variety of lifestyles and encounter a host of characters, each of who advocates various belief systems. Paths of sensualism, gaiety, piousness, mercantilism, political advancement, asceticism, stoicism, scientific curiosity and exploration, marriage, bachelorhood and more are explored. 

All these life courses are found to be lacking in long term fulfillment and do not lead to happiness. Sometimes contentment is possible for short stretches of time, but it ultimately fades into dissatisfaction, frustration or disillusionment.

A surprising turn of events occurs when our protagonists visit a supposedly wise and spiritually fulfilled hermit. They are shocked when they discover that he is miserable,

“I have been for some time   unsettled and distracted: my mind is disturbed with a thousand perplexities of doubt and vanities of imagination, which hourly prevail upon me, because I have no opportunities of relaxation or diversion.  I am sometimes ashamed to think that I could not secure myself from vice but by retiring from the exercise of virtue, and begin to suspect that I was rather impelled by resentment than led by devotion into solitude.  My fancy riots in scenes of folly, and I lament that I have lost so much, and have gained so little.  In solitude, if I escape the example of bad men, I want likewise the counsel and conversation of the good.  I have been long comparing the evils with the advantages of society, and resolve to return into the world to-morrow.  The life of a solitary man will be certainly miserable, but not certainly devout.”  

For all the novel’s negativity, I do not believe that the ultimate message here is despair or nihilism. At times, an underlying current manifests itself in the text.  Though infrequent, there are passages that point to the idea that while life is often difficult and true long term happiness may be impossible to find in this world, one must strive to behave virtuously and morally. 

At one point Nekayah comments

“Whether perfect happiness would be procured by perfect goodness this world will never afford an opportunity of deciding.  But this, at least, may be maintained, that we do not always find visible happiness in proportion to visible virtue.  All natural and almost all political evils are incident alike to the bad and good; they are confounded in the misery of a famine, and not much distinguished in the fury of a faction; they sink together in a tempest and are driven together from their country by invaders. All that virtue can afford is quietness of conscience and a steady prospect of a happier state; this may enable us to endure calamity with patience, but remember that patience must oppose pain.” 

Ethical behavior may not pay off in this life, but there is a promise of immortality and reward in an afterlife. 

After visiting catacombs filled the mummified remains of the dead, Imlac through a chain of reasoning, “proves” that the soul is immortal.

Later Nekayah concludes,

“To me the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity.”  

Hence, I believe this to be a work that at its heart champions a moral existence.

In my opinion, Johnson’s message, at least in regards to human satisfaction, is too simplistic. It is true that many people do find it impossible to find fulfillment, even when living in a materially secure state. However, this is not the case with everyone. There is an entire spectrum of happiness as well as unhappiness that is manifested in a wide variety of belief systems and lifestyles. I do believe, however, that the author does tap into the deep frustration and, at times, despair of a large percentage of humanity who cannot find peace, even when they live in somewhat benign environments.

In addition to the philosophical and ethical musings, Johnson’s work is entertaining. The adventures of the group are often interesting and sometimes very funny.  The four main characters are intelligent and lively, and each expresses their own well thought out philosophies and conclusions throughout the text.

This is highly recommended for anyone who likes a thoughtful exploration of human emotions. The philosophical musings are presented in a relative straightforward way and can be understood by almost anyone. For all the time spent concerning unhappy people and situations, this book is not a downer but actually an amusing and thought provoking read.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Blog of The Year

Thanks so much to Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat for selecting Babbling Books for the prestigious Blog of the Year 2012 award! I am honored beyond belief.  As I posted for The Beautiful Blogger Award, winners should under no circumstances feel obligated to post or pass along. Only do so if you really want to.

The rules of this award are as follows.

1.   Select the blog(s) you think deserve the ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award.

2.   Write a blog post and tell us about the blog(s) you have chosen – there’s no minimum or maximum number of blogs required – and ‘present’ them with their award.

3.   Please include a link back to this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award at The Thought Palette and include these ‘rules’ in your post (please don’t alter the rules or the badges!)

4.   Let the blog(s) you have chosen know that you have given them this award and share the ‘rules’ with them.

5.   You can now also join the Facebook group – click ‘like’ on this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012Award Facebook group and then you can share your blog with an even wider audience.

6.   As a winner of the award – please add a link back to the blog that presented you with the award – and then proudly display the award on your blog and sidebar … and start collecting stars…

My choice of winners are as follows:

Books For Me - Vibina reviews both classics and popular fiction. Her blog is engaging and especially fun to read!

Gently Mad – Sharon covers an eclectic mix of books including history and fiction. Her perspective is both intelligent and original.

A Night's Dream of Books – Maria’s blog is not just one of the most aesthetically beautiful places in the blogosphere, but she provides thought provoking commentary on science Fiction, drama, philosophy, theology and more!

Reading, Writing, Working, Playing – Jane covers history, literature, walking and more. This is a blog takes a fascinating but different approach to book blogging.

St. Orberose – Miguel was the dark horse winner of last year’s Liebstar Award. He provides brilliant commentary on both Portuguese as well as literature from around the world.

Therapy Through Tolstoy – Lucy’s blog is a terrific mix of intellectual literary commentary as well as insightful musings on life in general.

These blogs are all super. Please check them out. If there is anyone remaining out there who is not familiar with Caroline’s blog it is also a must read.

Congratulations to all the winners!

More awards to follow in the coming weeks.