Love is best. — last line of Robert Browning’s “Love among the Ruins”
He loved Big Brother. — last line of George Orwell’s 1984
Reading Orwell’s 1984 once again, I was reminded of the Victorian lady who complained that she disliked Hamlet as it was full of clichés. So it might seem to us on the Dissident Right when confronted with Orwell’s masterpiece. Much of the book — which was originally titled in its draft stage The Last Man in Europe — is so familiar to us that it has its own recognizable glossary: Big Brother, Newspeak, Two-Minute Hate, telescreens, Room 101, War is Peace, memory holes, doublethink, The Ministry of Truth . . . 1984 contains the lexicon of our modern surveillance state. To a Dissident Right in search of an ur-text, our very own Little Red Book, Orwell’s last novel is taking on an almost Koranic centrality in our overview of the swiftly-changing West. In addition to being a grimly accurate prognosis of a rapidly decaying civilization, however, 1984 triumphs on another level: It is a love story.
It is, of course, a tragic love story, and it was also the last story its author would live to write. Orwell, a very sick man, retired to the remote Scottish island of Jura in 1948 to write 1984 (the juxtaposition of digits is striking). Suffering from chronic tuberculosis, he would be dead within two years, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes to the end. He must have felt like the last man in Europe.
Eric Blair — Orwell’s real name — intended 1984 as a critique of Communism, which makes the book’s relevance today all the more frightening. While the modern Left believe that totalitarianism is a utopia to be desired, we all risk our past being thrown down the Memory Hole, as is already happening, from the “decolonization” of academic curricula to each toppled statue. We risk, in short, the revival of Communism.
Although famously a socialist, Orwell referred to the “Pansy Left” — a phrase which, if coined today, would outrage an already perpetually-enraged Left. It is that Pansy Left, however, that effectively runs the West, an extension of Orwell’s own diagnostics concerning England in The Lion and the Unicorn, in which “England is a family with the wrong members in control.” That familial dysfunction has now gone global and is cemented not by Newspeak but, shall we say, Wokespeak.
Orwell himself would have had no time for political correctness. Delightfully, he writes to Anthony Powell in 1936:
It is so rare nowadays to find anyone hitting back at the Scotch cult. I am glad to see you make a point of calling them ‘Scotchmen’, not ‘Scotsmen’ as they like to be called. I find this a good easy way of annoying them.
The Guardian would have a self-righteous seizure over this today. In fact, the Left in general have gone rather quiet about the man who could lay claim to being Britain’s most famous socialist, certainly in the realm of literature. Perhaps there is a suspicion among the woke Left that, in writing 1984, Orwell rather gave the game away. This novel, after all, describes what today’s hard Left actually want — and because the Left’s main cultural talent is for destruction, those things which benefit ordinary people will fall first. One of those things is love and, as noted, 1984 is a love story. Amor vincit omnia, as Virgil wrote in the Eclogues. Love conquers all. The only conquering love does in 1984 is in its famous last line, effectively the last thing Orwell ever wrote: “He loved Big Brother.”
But before the commencement of his love affair with Big Brother, Winston has another affaire du coeur to pass through with Julia, whose surname neither we nor Winston ever learn. The lovers are painted with a brutal and honest brush. Winston is a physical cripple — a shade, perhaps, of Orwell’s tubercular self — and Julia is not attractive. “Except for her mouth, you could not call her beautiful,” we are told. I was once briefly introduced to Suzanna Hamilton, the actress who played Julia in the film of 1984 released in the same year. She was well-cast in that she was not Hollywood attractive (not hard-edged and vulgar, in other words) but had a vaguely pretty, homely face. That film version of the book, incidentally and if you haven’t seen it, is worth a look, largely because one of England’s most underrated actors (John Hurt) and possibly Wales’ finest (Richard Burton, Hopkins notwithstanding) produce a psychological tension entirely appropriate to Orwell’s atmosphere in the novel.
It is Orwell’s skill and technique to begin Winston and Julia’s affair in conventional ways which, in the context of the book, are given disturbing and psychologically wrought twists. They pass in the corridor, he admires her from afar, a note is passed, meetings are arranged. There is even a first date — of a fearful sort — at dinner. But this is no dating-app romance. Orwell’s first description of Julia is curiously disjunctive: “She was a bold-looking girl of about twenty-seven, with thick dark hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements . . .”
Perhaps Orwell was trawling his own romantic past to produce a strange composite. No one looks “about twenty-seven,” particularly in a world in which Winston notes constantly how prematurely aged everyone appears. Also, I am sure there are dark-haired women who are also freckled, but I haven’t seen many and I suspect they are rare, freckles being associated more with redheads and blondes. We are intrigued by Orwell’s description as we would be meeting someone with oddly-colored eyes.
His curious impression of Julia aside, there are two points concerning the role of women in 1984. The first was made admirably many years ago by British journalist Peter Hitchens, who pointed out that Orwell didn’t get everything right. Julia works for the “Junior Anti-Sex League.” It transpires that Julia is very sexually experienced (to Winston’s revolutionary delight), and appears to Winston on one occasion in make-up and stockings, wishing to be, in the room in which they meet, “a woman, not a Party comrade.” But her later sensuality and enthusiasm in bed notwithstanding, Orwell did not predict the rampant sexualization of culture we see today with his Anti-Sex League.
The second point is an almost throwaway sentence which may explain Orwell’s expulsion from today’s house of woke: “It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.”
This is one of 1984’s truest prognostications, and one of its least mentioned. Admittedly, Julia is playing a part when she shocks Winston by hurling a Newspeak dictionary at Goldstein’s televised face during the Two-Minute Hate, but she knows how to play that part, having understudied her peers in the acting skills necessary to stay alive. As Winston has.
So, love is in the air. But so is hate. As 1984 temporarily Venn-nests with another great British dystopian novel, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Winston can’t help thinking about his new object of desire:
Vivid, beautiful hallucinations flashed through his mind. He would flog her to death with a rubber truncheon. He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like St. Sebastian. He would ravish her and cut her throat at the moment of climax.
Who doesn’t day-dream about their girl? Orwell shows rather than tells that the Party has destroyed, or at least temporarily debased, love, along with its other trophies. Love leads to sex, which leads to families, and families lead to disloyalty to your new family, the State. This is pure Leninism.
One of Orwell’s great strategies with this novel is to make the protagonist neither young nor old, but of a generation in transition. Winston has vague memories of life before the Party, and he retains some of the vestigial decency of earlier times. He meets an older, married lady shortly after his murderous mental episode over Julia:
It was Mrs. Parsons, the wife of a neighbor on the same floor. (‘Mrs.’ was a word somewhat discountenanced by the Party — you were supposed to call everyone ‘comrade’ — but with some women one used it instinctively).
The Party may have warped love, but it can’t reach respect.
Freud would have come to Orwell’s attention, being very much in the post-war intellectual water supply, and after a textbook dream of Winston’s in which his mother is replaced by a naked Julia, “Winston woke up with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips.”
There is, to an English literary man, nothing more English than the Bard, himself a great poet of love, and Orwell would have been very much aware that in setting the first tryst between Winston and Julia in a bluebell wood he was obeying the rules of English pastoral. The pastoral tradition in English literature sees troubled couples run away to the wild wood, from which they return with their differences settled. Shakespeare uses it in both The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The fact that Gordon Comstock — Orwell’s alter ego in his earlier and partly autobiographical novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying — also has a penchant for love in the open air may indicate a wistful peccadillo of Orwell’s.
The pastoral doesn’t work out as happily for Winston and Julia, but it does help clarify exactly what their love affair means. The key passage in 1984, viewed as a love story, occurs just after Julia and Winston make love for the first time in the wood, as the doomed lovers realize what their love has begun;
But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.
The climax was a victory, a political act. Perhaps this is why O’Brien announces, while he is torturing Winston, the Party’s intention of abolishing the orgasm.
The lure of the greensward is not without risk, however. Winston has suspected for some time that Julia has been following him. Usually, in the case of love, this idea appeals to the man, but Winston fantasizes about “smash[ing] her head in with a cobblestone”.
Orwell’s description of Winston and Julia’s love-making is as austere and organized as the rest of his prose. Orwell’s journalistic background (not least at the BBC, which becomes Minitrue, or the propaganda-controlling Ministry of Truth, in 1984) honed his writing style to a clipped perfection. This is not to say he is not occasionally drily funny. A man wears “a concertina-like black suit.” A room contains “a deep, slatternly armchair.” His sparse scene-setting is perfect for the sense of despair and hopelessness pervading almost every scene. Grit, dirt, grease, dust, sweat: These are the elements of Orwell’s laboratory. The bed on which Winston and Julia have sex is riddled with lice.
In passing, it is pleasant to note that Orwell, as all writers must, has his images which fascinate him. In 1984, a ruined woman neighbor is seen “fiddling helplessly with a blocked wastepipe.” The same desperate image occurs in The Road to Wigan Pier, as Orwell sees a woman from a train “kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain.”
Of course, it is an old literary device to place the truth in the mouth of a lover, and so it is with Julia. But, in a sentence more chilling than anything in Goldstein’s book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, or Orwell’s appendix on Newspeak, Julia describes her memories of what she thinks of as the fruit known as an “orange”: “I’ve seen oranges. They’re a kind of round yellow fruit with a thick skin.”
In English, oranges are not a yellow fruit, they are orange. It is Orwell’s genius to show us how language has already been reorganized so that the color “orange” no longer exists and is just a sub-set of yellow. The Party’s ultimate triumph will be to make the word “love” go the same way down the same Memory Hole as the word “orange,” so that love exists merely as a sub-set of something else.
As aware as we all are of the prophetic power of Orwell’s classic warning, occasionally the book takes those of us on the Right by surprise. Winston and Julia, after making love, are looking out from the window of the room which would soon become their Gethsemane. They see a woman whose body is described as that of
“a woman of fifty, blown up to monstrous proportions by childbearing, then hardened, roughened by work until it was coarse in the grain like an overripe turnip.” A snippet of conversation passes between the lovers which would interest the modern feminist:
‘She’s beautiful’, he murmured.
‘She’s a meter across the hips, easily’, said Julia.
‘That is her style of beauty’, said Winston.
No fat-shaming for Orwell.
In the end — and it is a fate both these star-crossed lovers are more than aware awaits them — the Party, the State, has the decisive say concerning love: where it may exist, and where it may not. The pair is arrested in the room they love so much. “We are the dead,” Winston says, echoing a phrase first used by O’Brien when he was fooling Winston into stating his sympathy for the renegade and mythical resistance movement, “Brotherhood.” O’Brien agrees, from behind the painting: “You are the dead.” Love and death, just as linked in the contemporary mind as they always have been.
In the end, Orwell did not predict everything correctly in 1984, but that is hardly a criticism. The modern, bespoke dystopia we are now living in is actually a mixture of Orwell’s final novel, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Zemyatin’s We, which Orwell certainly read before writing 1984, also plays a part, providing Orwell with that peculiarly Central/Eastern European feel for the mechanical as an integral part of totalitarianism.
What totalitarianism does to love is encapsulated by Julia’s note, passed to Winston while she feigns a painful fall in order to have him help her up. He is petrified at the prospect of what it might say and, when he finally unfolds it among his work documents and away from prying telescreens, it reads: I love you. In the end, it is a fatal statement, a literal death sentence.
Finally, during the harrowing final torture scene, O’Brien plays the lovers off against one another, telling Winston that Julia had betrayed him. For once, O’Brien is telling the truth. She had given him up, just as he would give her up in Room 101. This makes Julia’s vow during their affair all the more poignant: “If they could make me stop loving you. That would be the real betrayal.”
Winston and Julia meet one last time after their ordeal and it is ugly and awkward, and Orwell does ugly and awkward very well.
Now that Orwell’s disturbing and prophetic final novel has been hard-wired into our DNA, as it were, we should remember that the Party — or our slightly cosmeticized contemporary version of it — sought not only to destroy liberty but also love, which for the damned lovers of 1984 is their only freedom, a freedom Winston cannot quite believe ever existed:
He wondered vaguely whether in the abolished past it had been a normal experience to be in bed like this, in the cool of a summer evening, a man and a woman with no clothes on, making love when they chose, not feeling any compulsion to get up, simply lying there and listening to peaceful sounds outside. Surely there could never have been a time when that seemed ordinary.
During his final rant, during which he encapsulates the Party’s mission statement, O’Brien states that in the future there will be no love but that for Big Brother. Thus, love is not cancelled, merely reallocated, and perhaps for reasons hinted at by a drowsy, post-coital Julia:
When you make love you’re using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don’t give a damn for anything. They can’t bear you to feel like that.
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