Saturday, September 8, 2007
1984 and The Stranger: Bleak Worlds
By George Orwell
Signet Classic $4.95, paper
By Albert Camus, Trans. By Matthew Ward
Vintage International $9.00, paper
George Orwell (Eric Blair) and Albert Camus (pictured) present a bleak and hopeless world inhabited by characters who are at the mercy of their respective societies and circumstances. The worlds ultimately destroy these characters, and by the end of each novel, the two protagonists have been changed dramatically.
In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, Winston Smith is a prisoner in his own society. In the state of Oceania, Winston suffers oppression at the hands of the vague, unfocused government, represented first by Big Brother, a figure who stares menacingly out from posters spread all over the city, and later by a party figure known as O’Brien, who tortures Winston until he is completely given over to party ideals.
Throughout the novel, Winston not only is a victim of the oppressive regime, he must take part in his own destruction as a party member. He works in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting news stories at the party’s whim, eliminating references to people who have been removed from society for crimes against the party, and in turn, Big Brother. He is disturbed by what he sees, and what he must do as part of his job. This gives rise to a major theme in the novel: the mutability of the past. If any fact can be changed, if any reference to a person can be eliminated, no person and no event ever existed to begin with, and therefore, those that control the past also control the present and the future. This theme is oppressively disturbing to Winston, and he begins, on every level possible, to rebel against it.
He begins keeping a journal, written in real ink on real paper, items in short supply in his world, and only available in the poorer neighborhoods where the Proles live. He must secretly buy these things on the black market. While purchasing these illegal items, he also picks up a glass paperweight, another relic from a time passed. In fact, he becomes so enamored with the junk shop in the poorer section of town that he rents the room above it from the shopkeeper. This constitutes a treasonous act because the room does not have a telescreen, the party’s in-home listening and visualizing device required by law. In other words, Winston creates his own secret world where, very shortly, he begins to cohabitate with a young party member, a woman named Julia, in a secret and forbidden affair.
As Winston and Julia continue to break rules and live as individuals, their crimes against the party snowball. They become reckless and careless. The shopkeeper is a member of the Thought Police, and the two lovers are arrested in mid-tryst, separated, and imprisoned for their crimes.
Winston faces torture by O’Brien, a shadowy party figure who works in the Ministry of Truth with Winston, and whom Winston sees in his dreams, often spouting the cryptic comment, “We will meet again in the place where there is no darkness.” The promise turns out to be true; Winston is tortured in the Ministry of Love, a place where the lights burn twenty-four, seven and prisoners are watched at all times.
After rounds of torture, and after the final act of being threatened with his worst fear, hungry rats, Winston betrays Julia, and professes his love for Big Brother. At the end of the novel, he sits in a gin-soaked stupor in the Chestnut Café, waiting for the inevitable bullet in the back of the head, realizing that alive or dead, it is all the same.
The bleakness of the ending comes after an endless barrage of hopeless events and images. Winston’s world is hellish. It reflects Orwell’s view of a post-Second World War Britain with the rise of communism and socialism and the growing hopelessness of a world in chaos, subjected to weapons of mass destruction, genocidal events, and meaningless, empty wars. Orwell’s only cause for hope is the poor Proles, who are left alone by the party, and are earthy and procreative in their poverty and ignorance. In the Orwellian world, it is the Common Man and Woman who will defeat an increasingly dangerous and darkened world.
The novel is written in a pedantic and claustrophobic style that leaves little to the reader’s imagination. The strength of the work is in its breathtaking accuracy in predicting the world of the late twentieth century. Orwell captures the incestuous oppression of totalitarian governments and shadowy figures who spy on people. The depravity of O’Brien and the party, the cold calculations of their “civilized” world, make Orwell’s view dark indeed.
Albert Camus’ The Stranger, takes a slightly different tactic. Camus and his translator, Matthew Ward, aspire to poetry in prose. The result is a bit less bleak, and contains several well-written elements, some satire and subtle wit. But the world Camus creates is still bleak.
Camus’ novel revolves around the philosophy of Existentialism formulated by thinkers and writers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Simone de Beauvoir. Existentialism was a group of ideas current in philosophical, religious, and artistic thought during and after the Second World War that emphasized existence rather than essence and saw the inadequacy of human reason to explain the enigma of the universe as the basic philosophical question. Existentialists believed that we, and things in general, exist, but that these things have no meaning for us except as we can create meaning through acting upon them. The roots of Existentialism go back to Rene Descartes’ formula, ‘I think, therefore I exist.”
In practice, Existentialism is characterized by a sense of meaninglessness in the outer world; this produces discomfort, an anxiety, a loneliness in the face of human limitations. There is a desire to invest experience with meaning by acting upon the world, but these actions only lead to anguish, greater loneliness and despair. In Camus’ novel, this concept is portrayed through the character of Meursault. In his conflict with himself—identified by a total lack of connection to anything in his world—we see how the duality of freedom and responsibility create the main source of anxiety. Meursault should feel his mother’s death as the novel opens, but instead feels nothing. Camus renders the details of the funeral in surreal tones. Meursault does little better than sleep through the wake; in fact, he seems caught up in his need to sleep, often a sign of depression.
If left to fester, Existentialism can lead to nihilism and hopelessness. Nihilism is a doctrine that holds that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated; it is the belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.
Indeed, Meursault proceeds to destroy his life. By the end of the novel, he is facing death after murdering an Arab on a beach. But in the act of murdering another human being, he feels something—an emotion—for the first time. He also realizes that his life has meaning; his actions in committing the murder have led the people to hate him. In this case, engendering an emotional outburst in others, even one steeped in spilled blood, means his life has meaning.
The world of 1984 is cold and scary. Having lived into the twenty-first century, and after witnessing both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts, I marvel at Orwell’s gift of prophecy. The novel is a nightmare; there is no hope offered except for Winston’s views of the Proles, and in that idea, I concur. The Common Man has always been the enemy of the state. We use his children to serve in the army and to eradicate our enemies. We test our drugs and vaccines on him. We leave him to sink or swim by his own devices. For his part he is loyal, until he feels betrayed by those governing him, and as we saw in countless protests and acts of civil disobedience over the years, he rebels and affects change.
The Soviet Union could not sustain itself. Many other regimes have fallen as well over time. Any nation that victimizes its people will ultimately fail. This country is no exception. Our first two hundred years were marked by the development of a nation based on ideals of freedom and democracy for the Common Man. Historians may argue we have betrayed him in recent years, and that may yet lead to America’s demise unless we return to those ideas and the average, middle class American rises up and takes back his country.
In this way, I did not find Orwell’s view appealing. It is blunt, dramatically rendered, and frightening, which I am sure was Orwell’s intention.
Camus makes more subtle points. He too, in his own way, is prophetic. We have numbed ourselves to the point of narcotic stupor with anti-depressants. We do not wish to feel anything, because feeling causes emotions and emotions are difficult to rein in and control.
He is also a better writer on an artistic level. There are many beautiful passages in The Stranger, and Matthew Ward manages to not ruin them in translation. In one chapter, Meursault speaks of his life in prison: “In the darkness of my mobile prison I could make out one by one, as if from the depths of my exhaustion, all the familiar sounds of a town I loved and of a certain time of day when I used to feel happy. The cries of the newspaper vendors in the already languid air, the last few birds in the square, the shouts of the sandwich sellers, the screech of the streetcars turning sharply through the upper town, and that hum in the sky before night engulfs the port: all this mapped out for me a route I knew so well before going to prison and which now I traveled blind. Yes, it was the hour when, a long time ago, I was perfectly content. What awaited me back then was always a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet something had changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day…as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent.”
As this passage demonstrates, Camus is a writer of power and beauty. His message appeals to me because it is beautifully written. But his message also rings true when contrasted against our world today. We still suffer from loneliness; we still struggle to put meaning into our lives; we still often feel empty and isolated from each other. Only when we take some kind of action do we accept our role as determiners of our own existence. Although Meursault determines his fate and opens a floodgate of emotions through negative actions, most people today are looking for a positive way to do this.
In the end, I am drawn to the subtly simple prose of Camus. Whereas 1984 exists as a blunt warning, The Stranger does what all art should do: it opens up the mysteries of the human condition in beautiful and poetic language, but unique to this novel, it also leaves us weeping for a murderer. To do both makes Albert Camus more than just a visionary; he is an artist.