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Gennady Gerasimov

Before and After 1984: Big Brother Is with Us

The Royal Chemical Society has criticized George Orwell's essay, A Nice Cup of Tea, which was written a long time ago — in 1946. The author recommended eleven ways of brewing good tea, and the royal chemists approved ten of them. But, referring to the data of the Research Institute of Nourishment in Norwich, they asserted that it was necessary first to pour a little milk into the cup and only then add the tea, which made tannin more effective. Whereas Orwell insisted that the milk should be added after the tea has been poured into the cup, thus giving it a better flavour.

This episode reminds one of the argument between Swift's heroes over which end of the egg one should start eating it from. At the same time it shows the topicality and contemporaneity of Orwell not only as an condemner of totalitarianism.

Eric Blair, a tramp

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the birthday of the writer, which was celebrated on June 25 this year, the British Evening Standard sent its correspondent David Cohen with a sleeping-bag, tooth-brush and a little change in his pocket to Paris and London in the footsteps of the writer.

In 1933, a book by Eric Arthur Blair, entitled Down and Out of Paris and London came off the press. He used the name “Orwell” for the first time in order not to distress his well-to-do respectable parents by the fact that their son, a graduate of the prestigious Eton College, had turned into a tramp. When choosing this pen-name it is possible he recalled a little river named Orwell familiar to him from childhood.

In his book of sketches and essays he described the life of the London and Paris lower depths from the first — hand knowledge he had gained living there and sleeping on benches and under bridges across the Thames and Seine.

And what did the Evening Standard correspondent find there 60 years later? Similar, if not worse, things. Orwell cited the figure of 2,061 homeless in London. Today they number 51,200. True, today the police do not persecute them as before, and if a tramp does not disturb others he can spend the night wherever he pleases.

Orwell is contemporary even in his essays on tea, the homeless, or in his eulogy of English cuisine. But what really made him famous were the two books he wrote: Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). They have been translated into almost 60 languages. Another work of his — Homage to Catalonia — is regarded the best collection of essays about the civil war in Spain in the mid-1930s. (The author took part in that war and was even wounded there.) Then there was his article, Politics and the English Language, which is now a must for those studying journalism. The Straits Times, a newspaper in Singapore, wrote that “if journalism were a religious order, George Orwell would be its Patron Saint”.

In his article about language, he called on his colleagues not to use political cliches, but see through the paling of hackneyed phrases, which, as he wrote, were designed “ make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to mere wind”.

This reminds us of many talk shows on our TV.

And we, too, are virtually rolling in Orwell's “newspeak”. For instance, the phrase “administrative resource” actually means “the use of one's administrative post for personal gains”. Or “the rule of law” is in actual fact “the rule of the bureaucracy”. The words “political technologies” give a semblance of respectability to a set of skeleton keys to the heads of the voters. The English equivalent “spin doctor” is more honest.

George Orwell, a democratic socialist

His allegorical book Animal Farm describes the history of the Great October Revolution in a grotesque way. Noting that it was a criticism of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Orwell added in one of his letters that his satire was aimed at all “violent conspiratorial revolutions led by unconsciously power-hungry people”, which can only “lead to a change of rulers”.

The author of the writer's biography, Professor Bernard Crick, wrote that “Animal Farm a lament for a revolution that failed, a lament for the annihilation of the old Bolsheviks by the Stalinists, a lament for all the hopes that were attached to the early stages of the Russian revolution”.

Orwell regarded himself a “democratic socialist”. He was not anti-Soviet, but anti-Stalinist. He would have liked the plays of Mikhail Shatrov and books by Anatoly Rybakov.

In an article for The Washington Post Glenn Frankel recalls that in the American edition of Orwell's works there was a quotation: “Every line I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism...” Here the quotation ends. Meanwhile, Orwell went on, “...and for democratic socialism as I understand it”.

The Soviet epoch has ended, but Orwell is as timely and contemporary as ever. Loraine Davidson writes in the British Daily Mirror: “North Korea in 2003 is George Orwell's 1984”. True, the reader himself can find the place on the map where the notorious 1984 is on the political calendar without Loraine Davidson's help...

Orwell did not overstate his literary talent when he called himself a writer of lampoons, but his novel, according to the poll carried out by the BBC, is included on the list of the ten best books in English, along with those by Charles Dickens and Tolkien. He gave journalists such catch words to be used forever and ever as “Big Brother”, “newspeak”, “doublethink”, and the famous phrase “All (animals) are equal, but some (animals) are more equal than others...”, etc.

The American human-rights campaigners have used the words “Big Brother” when they denounced the Washington authorities for their onslaught on the rights and freedoms of citizens, especially now, after September 11, 2001. The pretext and, possibly, the cause of this was the fight against international terrorism. The legal basis for it was provided by the Patriot Act hastily adopted by the US Congress. This 342-page document endowed the authorities with far-reaching powers in adopting “preventive measures”, including apprehension, searches and secret surveillance.

Citizens are urged to be vigilant and inform on one another. An editorial article in The New York Times was even entitled “A Country of Spies?”

The problem here lies in how to balance freedom and security.

The Economist, a British weekly, sums it up in the following way: “Orwell's voice speaks as equally to our times as it did to his”.



Translation from Russian:
© 2003 The New Times

Gennady Gerasimov: ‘Before and After 1984: Big Brother Is with Us (Do i posle 1984-go: Bol'shojj brat s nami)
Published: magazine ‘The New Times’. — RF, Moscow, 2003. — September.

E-text: thanks to Nona Iosifovna.
Formatted by: O. Dag
Last modified on: 2020-01-07

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