The Orwellian Challenge, By Isa Sanusi
Orwell was obsessed with poverty. He paid keen attention to the living conditions of people, giving precise descriptions of these in pristine details. This brings up the responsibility of the writer to pay attention, and to reflect on reality. As a writer, he was able to put himself at the forefront of asking questions about so many important things in human society…
Not many writers have the grace of being bestsellers almost 60 years after their death. At the onset of the shock that trailed the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, George Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 stubbornly stayed on top of the bestsellers on all the major charts. Every now and then 1984 finds its way to relevance and rhymes with realities that compel people back to it; again, and again. But 1984 is not the only novel that, almost with precision, predicts what the world may look like in the future. However, 1984 stands out because of its concrete reflections of some of the biggest questions that plague existence. Why are some people poor? Why are powerful people keen to control others? Why is original and critical thinking near extinct? Why are authorities always eager to go the extra mile in controlling information and politicising statistics? What is the point of this obsession with controlling the means of communication? Why is language too savagely distorted?
Orwell was not all about 1984. He was also the writer of the ironic Burmese Days (1934) a novel about, among others things, a judge who takes bribes from both sides in cases before his court, only to deliver judgments that are right, making him appear to his employers like an honest man. His The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) is vivid in painting the picture of poverty and the travails of workers in the England of his time. For many, George Orwell is better known for his allegorical fable Animal Farm (1945). Akthough the novella is regularly linked to events leading to the Russian revolution, yet its central message is universal. This iconic work constantly reminds us of the disappointment or even deceit associated with ‘messianic’ interventions to rescue the society from say, a hopeless, crude and devastating rule of one man (a saviour) or group of people who bring ‘change’ only enhance their own fortunes. Orwell had a dynamic life that gave him firsthand experience of almost everything: poverty, abuse of power, classism, and imperialism. His literary interventions in the form of essays are also rich. His essay, “Politics and the English Language” exposes the link between the manipulation of language and dishonesty. Citing examples of the violation language in his time, he points out that clarity can only be possible with the honesty of thought. The essay “Shooting an Elephant” (1936) portrays the dilemma of decision-making, while trapped in a helpless situation. Based on his piercing take on crucial issues affecting human society, Orwell was not only a writer, but his essence was also a challenge to things.
Orwell was never oblivious of happenings around him. Infact, his concern with the future might have been the reason behind 1984. He presents the picture of a future in which the people will or can be at the mercy of powerful people, who control powerful institutions. He also cautions us about how power can be used to control people and deprive them of their privacy, to the extent that the only thing that would matter will be the ‘party’ and ‘Big Brother.’ He tells us about the ‘party’, whose doctrines we are all expected to believe. No one is expected to question the party. The ‘party’ tries to tell people what to think about and how to think – about everything.
Orwell paid attention to the relation between language and power. As he pointed out, “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” At no time is this more apt then now.
In 1984 we are confronted with a reality that makes concrete sense in this age. Wherever you are, and whatever you do, “Big Brother” is always watching you. As a human being, you no longer have the privacy that is at the centre of your humanity. You are constantly being watched, monitored and therefore controlled. What about the continuous widening of the gap created by class? Societies clearly divided between the majority living in the squalor of poverty and the minority getting more powerful and wealthy? 1984 speaks to the fears and anxieties of all free human beings in times of increasing control, abuse of power and the perpetual struggle to determine what exactly is true about current happenings and almost everything. The truth is always negotiated, defined and redefined, largely without reckoning with facts and reality.
Orwell was obsessed with poverty. He paid keen attention to the living conditions of people, giving precise descriptions of these in pristine details. This brings up the responsibility of the writer to pay attention, and to reflect on reality. As a writer, he was able to put himself at the forefront of asking questions about so many important things in human society; the complex relation between power, truth and the people.
Why should we be worried about how language is used and abuse? Why is the essence of governance only to control people? Orwell paid attention to the relation between language and power. As he pointed out, “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” At no time is this more apt then now.
As one critic said; “Orwell relentlessly and uncompromisingly criticised imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, political dishonesty, power, totalitarianism, privilege and private education.” Orwell was never neutral. Why should any writer be?
Isa Sanusi is a writer based in Abuja.