1984: A Rereading
Kellyanne Conway introduced us to “alternative facts"
this past January on Meet the Press, there was a sharp spike
in the sales of Orwell’s 1984; one that made
it the best-selling book on Amazon.com. It instantly
To put a number on it: “… a 75,000
copy reprint…larger than our typical reprint for ‘1984,”
a Penguin Books spokesman told CNN.” Even larger than
the 30% increase following last November’s election.
Given this sort of phenomenon for a book published
almost seventy years ago— which aside from that of “To
Kill a Mockingbird” when it was announced that a long-lost
sequel of it was to follow— I can think of no other
which, lightning quick, became a “must reread.”
Though it took me almost four months to get around to it.
And once again, it did not disappoint.
“Alternative facts” will become
part of our nomenclature and Kellyanne will be immortalized,
for what was no doubt an impromptu utterance. It echoed or
suggested an alliance with the many words and catchphrases
in 1984, characterized by: a minimalization of speech,
the absence of nuance, and a contortion of logic and reason.
These would include “doublethink” (believing contradictory
things), “newspeak” (ambiguous, political propaganda),
2+2=5 (self-explanatory). All rather Trumpian, one might say.
While all politicians have played footsy with
facts, there has never been even a mosquito-bite sized bump
in 1984 sales owing to something coming out of the
Carter, Reagan, two Bush’s, Clinton, or Obama administrations.
Nixon might be another story, and one I don’t wish to
revisit at the moment. Especially as a special prosecutor
has been assigned to look into the dealings of all this president’s
men (and daughter?). A whiff of Watergate is in the air.
I read 1984 for the first time in
the formative years amidst Woodstock Nation, when youthful
idealism was at fever pitch. It was a page-turner that had
a bone-chilling effect. Especially disturbing to me—the
torture scenes not withstanding— was the Two Minute
Hate. A daily ritual wherein the people of Oceana (the fictional
place in which the novel is set), stop whatever they are doing,
to watch a film depicting those they have been told are their
enemies. And in knee-jerk response, they shout out their vein-popping
hatred against them.
Cut to 2016, where we saw something not too
dissimilar. Take those Trump campaign rallies (please), wherein
the crowd would be egged on by the vitriol coming from the
podium. Nor can I erase the memory of that scene at the Republican
convention, when Mike Flynn led the hall assemblage in that
vile chant against Hillary, “Lock her up!” “Lock
her up!” “Lock her up!”
Now it is Flynn himself, who could wind up
the “lockee,” (which rhymes with “we’ll
see”), when this slew of investigations has concluded.
Though as of this writing he’ll be taking the fifth.
And whatever else he can take to finesse the mess.
All this has raised questions that many of us never seriously
considered before. But do now. Could a totalitarian governance
ever emerge in the USA? Wherein, “we the people,”
who have boasted of having the greatest democracy ever known,
could no longer live a life grounded in truth? Who could no
longer separate fact from fiction? Which brings to mind what
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the esteemed U.S. Senator from New
York once famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his
own opinion, but not his own facts.” Until now?
For the four of you who haven’t read
1984, nor are familiar with its premise, nor have
ever heard anything described as “Orwellian,”
in short (spoiler alert)…it is a story told through
the experience of the protagonist, a regular guy named Winston
Smith, who to quote some excerpts from a synopsis…
“…is living in a society controlled
by an omnipresent, totalitarian power, which distorts
the truth, erases and alters evidence of the past and
essentially controls its subjects.
… and who as a member of the Outer
Party… works for the Ministry of Truth (or Minitrue
in Newspeak)… whose job is to rewrite past newspaper
articles so that the historical record always supports
the party line…so that no proof exists that the
government is lying.”
Imagine how much tougher Winston Smith’s
job would be today what with all that video and social media
out there in the hands of the masses? How do you get hold
of it? Do away with it as if it never existed? Or doctor it
so that it became unrecognizable?
On second thought, you might not need to!
Today, for example, even with first-hand visual accounts at
our disposal, we are often told that what we just saw, we
didn’t see. As in, “Who are you going to believe,
me? Or your lying eyes?” The alternative fact regarding
the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration readily comes
to mind. (Unforgettable, as he keeps harping on it.). Not
to mention the multiple instances, of the unwarranted gunning
down of African-Americans by local law enforcement (a white-hot
topic best left for debate on another day).
have been critical of the book for being so off the mark,
in that nothing Orwell literarily foretold actually came to
pass by the year 1984. But that was never his intention. What
he was offering was a dark existential forecast of an
Take the very title itself. As I just learned,
it was originally, “The Last Man in Europe.” And
as the story goes, Orwell’s publisher suggested an alternative,
as this one didn’t have much punch or “sales appeal.”
Various scholars have suggested, that given it was written
in 1948, Orwell then chose “1984” by simply reversing
the last two numbers of that year.
All that said, there was one piece of technology
in the book, which one can’t help but notice for its
irony and similarities here in 2017— wall mounted “telescreens.”
If one has a “smart” TV these days, wall-mounted
or not, it can indeed intrude on one’s privacy. “They”
can track what you are watching and buying, and that information
can then be sold to marketers. And the access “they”
have to our behavior on all of our electronic devices, goes
without saying. Although I just said it.
Of course, this is all a far cry from Big
Brother literarily watching you 24/7 through ubiquitous screens
that permeate every aspect of your daily life, both in one’s
home and out of doors. Followed by punishment for the slightest
perceived infraction against the party line. Though the more
dour among us may say, that’s coming next.
Another not so tangential issue raised in
the book—though I never realized it at first reading
in my youth and I imagine few focus on— is the question
of the value in the use of torture. It’s a contemporary
subject that has been much discussed and debated, what with
the U.S. in a constant state of war in one place or another.
Though thankfully not on the scale of that depicted in 1984.
What is clearly illustrated in the book, is
that under physical duress, a person will say anything or
agree to anything to save his own skin. And therefore, any
information gained through such tactics is not likely to be
valid. One noteworthy person holding this opinion being John
McCain; a man who ought to know something on the subject.
The long lasting power of the novel is evident,
given the many other dystopian novels, short stories, essays
and poems it has inspired. And particularly in our culture
and that of the U.K., it has been adapted into other mass
media— TV, radio and two noteworthy featured movies
that closely followed the book. One in 1956 starred Edmund
O’Brian, and the other, actually released in 1984, starred
John Hurt and Richard Burton (in his last cinematic role).
Both of which I have seen and would highly recommend. And
who can forget that dramatic Apple commercial which aired
in the 1984 Super Bowl, that arguably, was the best ad ever
And now, as reported in Rolling Stone among
many other outlets, “George Orwell's 1984 will hit Broadway
this June. The stage adaptation of the dystopian classic has
had four successful runs in the U.K. so far and opened in
Los Angeles in early 2016.”
I love 1984; I hate its conclusion.
Consisting of just four words, it is one of the most famous
last lines ever written in a novel (spoiler alert again)…
He loved Big Brother.
Eager black faces
Every day in the lobby
Of the building where I work
And the girls roll by.
The young men—“Security”
In front desk uniforms
Down in the lobby
Every day in the building
Of the recognized professions
And the girls roll by.
On the way to a lunch
Of a lite tuna salad
First a quick hit of cash
From the ATM machine;
“My you look pretty,”
Ooze the courtly Southern gents
As if coming by to call
In an evening thick as cotton
On the porch of a dream
Where the girls roll by.
Moths to a light drawn
They flutter for they must
Yet they dare not touch the bulb
‘Cause it’s all in the basking
Of a smile in reply,
Just a perk of the post
Though there’s no tomorrow in it…
And the girls roll by.
It was FORTY (plus
TEN) years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
is hard to believe that ten more years have passed in
the day of a life. For on the fortieth anniversary of
the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely
Hearts Club Band,” I did a rather “short-‘n-sweet”
piece on it (JUNE,
2007 MUSE-LETTER). A teaspoon of remembrance…
a tablespoon of homage.
a generous dose of some poetically-licensed editing, I
offer it again. For what was true upon reflection then,
remains so now. Though ten years after (not to be confused
with the English rock band by that name), given the current
environment, you might find yourself singing on more than
one occasion… “I heard the news today, oh
June 1967: Queens,
We studied the album cover
as the joint got passed around the room. A small apartment,
where while one in our group was getting lucky behind a closed
door, the rest of us were trying to identify the montage of
famous people on the front of it. Which was a first for that
sort of graphic design on an album. And we sang along, what
with the lyrics of every song being printed on the back. A
first-time cover concept for something like that as well.
Lenny Bruce. Freud.
Marlene Dietrich. Edgar
Were lyrics in Rock ever more
tantalizing? More entrancing? More poetic?
W.C. Fields. Brando!
Laurel and Hardy.
Marx (“Where’s Groucho?”). Marilyn.
Crescendo! Was a piano chord ever held longer?
Was this fantastical use of “high” tech sound
mixing and double tracking ever heard before? Other than,
say, on another planet?
And what’s with these pseudonyms? Sgt. Pepper? Mr. Kite?
A “concept” or
“theme” album, yet one having so many discordant
chords and styles that somehow meshed together. Which only
further served to enhance the altered state that the listener
might be in the process of seeking.
From a funky sitar riff on
one cut (how third-world-sounding-sensitive-cool was that!),
to a music hall strutting number immediately following, “When
I’m Sixty-Four.” And written by a rock ‘n
roller lad named McCartney, at the age of 15 no less. Though
we didn’t know that on that day in Queens. “Imagine
actually being 64,” someone said.
And can you “dig”
the day-glo military costumes? With stripes and patches and
badges—oh, my! And the Fab Four mustachioed in a stunning
To say Sgt. Pepper was an immediate hit upon release (June
1st in the U.K…June 2nd here), is to understate its
impact by at least two-and-a-half. Rolling Stone
magazine has long since called it “The best album ever
made.” (Though the Rolling Stones might contest that).
But beyond any assessments of its musicality, it captured
the zeitgeist of the times (a word that might have
sounded to us like a response to a sneeze). And just what
was that “z”? I’ll take a stab at it:
Youthful counter-culture sensibilities,
the new artistic expression of psychedelia.
And of course, “Don’t
trust anyone over 30!” A sentiment first expressed by
a guy named Jack Weinberg at the height of the Free Speech
Movement (full disclosure: I had to look that up).
But however one may define
it, or whatever one might feel about that era— especially
in a rear view mirror of fifty years passing— it was
a time the likes of which we will never see again. And in
retrospect, the strongest drug taken might have been that
of wishful thinking. Performer and audience, we thought together,
we could change the world; that we could get by with a little
help from our friends.
Hyperbole? To coin a phrase, “You had to be there.”
Though it has also been said that “If you remember the
60’s…you weren’t there.” Well, some
of us were and still remember. Perhaps, because like Bill
Clinton (“It depends upon what your definition of is
is”), some claim to never have inhaled. But for certain,
all were high on this transformative album. Which in the blink
of a “cataracting” eye, is now a half of a century
old. And as a personal sentiment, oh if only to actually be
Quote of the Month
With Apologies to
Jimmy Cannon Once Again
slow news days, this renowned New York sportswriter from
yesteryear, would offer a buckshot of non-sequitur observations
and ruminations in his column, that would range far and wide
beyond his regular beat. Usually they revolved around his
pet peeves or picadilloes, as opposed to any serious world
events. Everyday sorts of things that might strike a note
of familiarity with a reader. Beginning with the phrase “Nobody
asked me but…,” he would be off and running.
While it seems that there are no longer any
slow news days—especially on CNN—and as a means
to escape it all, and with apologies to Jimmy once again (I’ve
done this before; NOVEMBER,
2014 MUSE-LETTER), I offer my version of:
Nobody Asked Me But...
I never use a pencil anymore.
People in bus terminals always look depressed.
I’ve never been served by a Starbucks
barrister, who didn’t stop to speak to a co-worker while
in the middle of my transaction.
Banks have much more space these days than
People walking in front of me are always going
too slow; those in back of me, too fast.
I’m getting tired of hearing about Mars.
I hate when celebrities show pictures of their
kids, as if no one has ever had kids before.
Do birds ever run out of energy?
Millennials have to stop saying “I’m
like,” after just about every other word in a conversation.
Joe Cocker belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall
There’s too much cotton in those small-sized
containers of over-the-counter medications.
I will never go totally “paperless,”
despite monthly statements nagging me to.
Regarding climate change… New York
is warmer in the winter and chillier in the spring, than when
I was a kid.
I’ve never seen a mortally wounded character
in an opera, die in under ten minutes.
People having a smoke outside in doorways,
always have a sheepish look on their faces.
Putting pineapple on pizza is offensive.
It is impossible to understand a cable or
cell phone bill.
Something’s off about Mike Pence being
so uptight about being alone with a woman who is not his wife.
Whatever happened to Susan Boyle?
I never met anyone who lived in the Dakotas.
How can a Central Park carriage horse be
so strong eating only oats?
Judge the quality of an ice cream brand by
the taste of its vanilla.
Not everything is “Breaking News.”
Doctors seemed more puzzled in making a diagnosis
than they used to be.
When are we going to get rid of pennies?
I don’t know anyone who eats a full
Why does every tech support person you’re
finally able to get on a phone, have a heavy accent?
Hugh Downs is still alive.