1984: george orwell

George Orwell, 1984

In a speech entitled ‘Literature as Freedom’ Susan Sontag defines a writer as “someone who pays attention to the world”. Writing entails, “trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of”. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this insight into ‘wickedness’ – so thoroughly explored – continues to connect so many readers with the struggle for freedom.  Winston Smith, the novel’s hero speaks to the anguish of those under totalitarian control when he asks,

For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn…How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature, impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him; or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949)

The future did listen however to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1949, the novel appeared at a point in history following a world war that claimed the attention and lives of millions, when capabilities for human ‘wickedness’ seemed at no point more unfathomable.  In doing so, it connected through iron curtains the unmistakable message of individual freedom. Perhaps no novel communicates more our Literature’s potential to recognize the universal in humanity, separated by ‘mind-forged manacles’ and real world boundaries.

Set in ‘Oceania’, a future socialist dystopia, the individual citizens of a former England are subordinated by ‘Big Brother’, a vast government machine whose technology of surveillance controls its subjects’ thoughts and actions.

1984‘s hero Winston Smith cannot repress his memory of history, even as he toils in the ‘Ministry of Truth’. He works as a propagandist, under orders to alter facts according to the official ruling party’s allegiances. Smith comes to see ‘2+2=4’, if no longer a ‘fact’,  as a personal and self-controlled connection to reality, the expression of freedom itself. He contrives to commit the ‘thoughtcrime’ of privacy, writing – at great risk-  to a diary.

Translated into 65 languages, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a psychological thriller, a story whose individuals live in constant fear. The novel’s airtight atmosphere surrounds the reader through a minimal use of dialogue.

What makes 1984 such an important historical fiction work, is – like Winston Smith’s diary – that the novel was at risk of never being read. The book was banned in Eastern Europe, and, like the shifting alliances in the story, almost banned in England while the country remained an official ally of Stalin after WWII. Yet Nineteen Eighty-Four helped in smuggled form (samizdat) to forment dissent throughout eastern bloc states. Through Orwell’s characteristically simple, direct style, the novel’s insightful, complex themes were shown to be well suited to translation in many languages

This ability for art to cross borders was in fact, two-way. In Russian author Ayn Rand’s Anthem (published in Britain, 1938) the characters live in a world where only ‘we’–  not ‘I’ – is ever spoken. Language is used as a symbol of the repression of individual thought itself. In this respect both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Anthem must acknowledge a literary debt to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the 1920 Russian satire of a post-revolution police state. The exchange of works across the East-West divide, writes Hitchens, “kindled a spark in the Siberias of the world, warming the hearts of shivering Poles and Ukrainians, and helped melt the permafrost of Stalinism”.

Author Czeslaw Milosz, who worked under communism in the Polish Ministry of Culture, testifies the banned Orwell “fascinated [communist officials] through his insight into details they knew well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden because allegory; by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor”. (qtd in Hitchens, 2002,p.54)

This insight is further captured fictionally in Nineteen Eighty-Four , and is shown by character Big Brother‘s orders to reduce language to basic ‘Newspeak’ terms; “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect”. The citizens of ‘Oceania’ are so removed from private abstractions and imagination, they even work to a 24hr clock, lest ‘8 o’clock’ share two abstract meanings.

Nineteen Eighty-Four remains utterly relevant today, reminding us of the powerful manipulative role language can play in the shifting contest over History: “He who controls the Past, controls the Present.” It also gives powerful testament to why those living under tyranny place themselves at such evident risk to their own life fighting against it.

He was already dead, he reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now when he began to formulate his thoughts that he had taken the decisive step. The consequences of every act are included in the act itself. He wrote, “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.” Now that he recognised himself as a dead man it became important to stay alive as long as possible.

“To die hating them, that was freedom,” thinks Orwell’s hero. Life must have meaning and sanctity. In the real world, the oppressed began living again, committing the unpardonable act of opening secret copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and beginning to read. ♦


song of myself: american essay

The Best American Essays 2011 

Edwidge Danticat, Ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co

The Best American Essay Series this year takes the reader beneath the skin of personal experience. Its the 26th series of long form journalism pieces sourced from among America’s most insightful journalists, thinkers and authors.

Annually, a prominent writer is awarded the task of selecting the years’ shortlisted essays. This format, according to the values and premises of each editor, demonstrates the versatile form of the essay and its subjects, distilling complex ideas from diverse fields to a wider audience.

Edwidge Danticat is editor of The Best American Essays 2011.


Haitian born author Edwidge Danticat follows from last year’s editor, late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens championed essays by scientists and other specialist writers, focussing his selection on the importance of communicating the breakthrough benefits of Science, and  arespect for the scientific process in general, to a wider audience.

Danticat is author of Create Dangerously and the National Book Critics Circle award-winner for her autobiography, Brother, I am Dying. Sensitive to the challenges of writing from the self, Danticat’s selection is poignant, written almost entirely from journalists’ and authors’ first-hand observations. They include eyewitness accounts of self experience that meet the challenge of illustrating a wider issue. Danticat writes,

Such is the power of the stories we dare tell others about ourselves. They do inform, instruct and inspire. They might even entertain, but they can also strip us totally bare, reducing (or expanding) the essence of everything we are into words.

The 2011 essay selection speaks of the potential personal stories, as good stories do, to bring readers to greater understanding and empathy. The strengths of the technique lie in giving readers direct experience of rare, unusual or painful events. For many, these events would otherwise remain distant and remote. Mischa Berlinski‘s essay brings us right into Haiti’s harrowing earthquake;

The horizon swayed at an angle…the visual effect was precisely that of the grainy videos that would be shown later on television, as of somebody shaking a camera sharply. It was tremendously loud- like huge stones grinding…

Scene from Port Au Prince after the 2011 Earthquake, Haiti

Hitchens is also a contributor to this year’s edition. His ‘Topic of Cancer’ is deservedly acclaimed here for fearless self reporting during an author’s own cancer-ridden decline. First written for Vanity Fair, ‘Topic of Cancer’ began a series of articles by Hitchens. With his body rapidly approaching its Mortality, his writing reaches further toward immortality.

‘Lucky Girl’ from Bridget Potter takes readers to Brooklyn, 1962; to friends to beg for illegally bought contraception; to finding oneself unmarried and pregnant; to begging doctors to be pronounced ‘neurotic’ and so be allowed an abortion; to compulsory expulsion from school; to sharing the decision of 80% of single pregnant women who opted for illegal abortions that year over adoption; to trying to find a back-alley doctor within the remaining few ‘safe’ weeks for operation;  to trying to find money and fleeing to Puerto Rico and risking ones’ own life.

Sneaking into an empty office at work and locking the door, I picked up the phone. The overseas operator found the number and placed the call. The connection was crackly, and the man who answered neither confirmed nor denied that they would help.

The wider statistics of Potter’s experience are shared here, but the writing is acute enough that today’s political implications are powerfully, if indirectly addressed. Through the eyes of ‘Lucky Girl’ readers can imagine from a personal perspective what a nightmare scenario it recollects. Its power to astonish is that such a status can be still blithely contemplated in today’s political discourse, devoid of the kind of empathy Potter’s ‘Lucky Girl’ demands of its readers.

Personal experiences, masterfully told as here, help populate and pierce the screen of observation, bringing us into the sharply defined pixels of a larger narrative. Danticat’s selection of story essays demonstrate that senses really can be common, as can our humanity ♦

imodernreview critiques The Best American Essays 2010 in this previous article. 

enlightened doubt: christopher hitchens 1949-2011

Renowned author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, died yesterday, after a year long struggle with cancer. Left behind are a modern legacy of articles and essay collections projecting his solemn passion for Enlightenment values of reason and human rights. It is a passion keenly felt and shared here at iModernReview.  In reading his works it would be difficult to find a more eloquent spokesman or fiercer champion of its values in contemporary journalism.

‘Hitch-22: Confessions and Contradictions’ (2010) by Christopher Hitchens

‘Contradiction’ was a term that often followed in his wake. His bestselling memoir Hitch 22 , and Letters to a Young Contrarian focus on his much remarked shift from any easy labels of left and right-wing, liberal and conservative in his analysis of world events. His fierce critiques fix on an array of targets, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Theresa. Taken as a whole however, it is consistency that encapsulates his allegiance to the reasoning mind. Through his own, there lies its proof in the tremendous output of his journalistic career, where his decisive commentary is more the hard-won result of first embracing his doubt over easy certainty.

The modern Enlightenment, with its corollary values of scientific inquiry and individual rights he argued, are a sustained outcome of continuous criticism. So long as a society embraced free speech, it would continue to seek the best explanations and correct its mistaken paths. It’s darkest errors were never more apparent than his discomfortingly close analysis of the war zones he witnessed.

We lose something important if we forget Kosovo and the harrowing events that finally led to the self-determination of its nearly 2 million inhabitants. Long deprived of even vestigial national and human rights, then forced to retreat at gunpoint onto deportation trains and threatened with the believable threat of mass murder, these people were belatedly rescued by an intervention that said, fairly simply, there is a limit beyond which law cannot be further broken down and conscience further outraged.

(‘Why Kosovo Still Matters, 2010)

A self-described Trotskyist, he denounced any totalitarian regimes’ – be they Left or Right – crackdown on dissent.

Spare me the letters that remind us all that Cuba has a good healthcare system and has abolished illiteracy. A healthy literate people do not need to be told what they can read.

(‘Minority Report’, 1989)

A journalist for liberal publications such as Slate and The Nation, he decried the Left’s pacifism and instead championed the US conservative government’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. He visited for himself the chemical storehouses and the Kurdish mass-graves of the Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. He also won an equal share of enemies on the Right. While many liberal publications including The New York Times would euphemistically adopt along with conservatives new coinages like ‘enhanced interrogation‘ Hitchens condemned water-boarding as torture, underwent waterboarding – himself as victim – so that he might objectively describe its horrors for readers of Vanity Fair.

Hitchens argues for humanist values in literature and art in ‘god is not Great’ (2007)

Hitchens’ notoriety and fame rose in 2007 with god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Here again, Hitchens argued for Enlightenment values of doubt and continuous criticism. In embracing the ‘certainties’ of faith, he argued, people disarm themselves from a lifeline of continuous re-evaluation and reasoning thought. In the concluding chapter ‘The Need for a New Enlightenment’ he writes,

Of course it is better for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything.

Therein lies both the virtue of an Enlightenment project and of Hitchens’ writing, identifying the ‘enemy’ of the modern as the uncritical and totalitarian mindset (See also his interview with Richard Dawkins for The New Statesman). The Enlightenment, were it to hold any fixed element, would be to codify the freedom to doubt, change, think, alter, criticise and pursue. Hitchens found his enlightened place on Earth, fiercely expressing himself through this consistency.

Imagine a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony, and you have summoned a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability, such as Huxley with all his gifts was only able to sketch. Only one other sacred text mentions “happiness” without embarrassment. But even in 1776, this concept was thought to be mentionable only in the consequence of a bitter struggle, just then being embarked upon. The beautiful word “pursuit,” however we construe it, would be vacuous in any other context.

(Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001)

‘Pursuit’ finds worthy and serious meaning in the life of Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant thinker, eloquent writer, and humanist who found his permanence in the Enlightenment search ♦

Hitchens’ essays are also found in collected works, including For the Sake of Argument (1994)  Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays (2004), and most recently Arguably (2011). iModernReview had previously reviewed his editor role for Best American Essays 2010.

celebrating reason: ayaan hirsi ali

They were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel: My Life

 Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an ardent feminist, atheist and best-selling author. Her autobiography Infidel details her escape from a life of oppression under her Muslim clan in Somalia to live in the comparatively secular West, first in The Netherlands, where she became a member of Parliament, and later as a political activist and founder of the AHA Foundation in the United States.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, AHA Foundation, Author and Rights CampaignerHirsi Ali will be attending as one of the keynote speakers at next year’s Global Atheist Convention A Celebration of Reason to be held in Melbourne Australia. (April 12-15) The event is expected to attract 4000 convention goers, and include other freethinking speakers, including authors of The God Delusion, biologist Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great, journalist Christopher Hitchens.

Hirsi Ali has endured death threats, not for escaping an arranged marriage in her ‘home country’, but from Islamic extremists in Europe for her screenplay of Dutch filmmaker Theo VanGogh’s documentary Submission, which details the subjugation of women in Islamic societies. Theo Van Gogh was murdered in an Amsterdam street.

On fleeing Somalia she writes,

I [had] escaped. I ended up in Holland. With the help of many Dutch people, I managed to gain confidence that I had a future outside my clan. I decided to study political science, to discover why Muslim societies- Allah’s societies- were poor and violent, while the countries of the despised infidels were wealthy and peaceful. I was still a Muslim in those days. I had no intention of criticizing Allah’s will, only to discover what had gone so very wrong.

Ali’s roles as parliamentarian and activist for the plight of women and political refugees, and brave storyteller, will offer listeners to the Global Atheist Convention much to ponder. They will owe the greater measure of gender equality in the West that allows Hirsi Ali’s intellect to be read, heard and appreciated, the benefit gained from her insights and experience of life under tyranny. The audience will no doubt acknowledge the generally secular nature of Western democratic society for Hirsi Ali’s ability to critique the dogmas and rules that oppress populations of, curtail opportunity for, millions throughout the un/developing world.

One question remains; what role can Australia play in gaining the wisdom, intelligence and fierce bravery of those seeking political asylum to our shores, as Hirsi Ali had in Europe? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy both for they and us, if like the regimes they attempt to escape, we not accept and reward the contributions they have to offer? To turn away and turn them away?

Next year, Australians will owe Ayaan Hirsi Ali for coming so far to celebrate reason. That would indeed be lucky for us, and a responsibility to share with others ♦

[Quotes also taken from Ali, A.H. (2007) ‘How [and Why] I Became an Infidel’ in Christopher Hitchens Ed. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer. Hirsi Ali is also author of The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason and Nomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations]

essays unassailable

The Best American Essays 2010 Christopher Hitchens, Ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co

The Best American Essay series has released its 25th edition, a collection of long form journalism pieces sourced from amongst American journalists, thinkers and scientists.

Each year, a prominent writer in their field is awarded the task of winnowing, as the title suggests, the most exemplary shortlisted pieces into the annual collection’s book form. This year- a troubling one for him in terms of his health- the task fell to iconoclast Christopher Hitchens, arguably one of the most provocative thinkers this decade.  In a period when series editor Robert Atwan ponders in the Foreword whether essay form is in a kind of inexorable decline itself, it’s heartening that Hitchens’ introduction brandishes from the barricades, the case in this 2010 edition for the vital work that essays accomplish.

 As Hitchens notes in the introduction,

An essay is really a try, an attempt, even an adventure.

America is for him, a uniquely suitable source,

Somewhat like the word ‘intellectual’, the word ‘essayist’, and its cousin ‘pamphleteer,’ has a natural kinship with the idea of dissent… may this kinship flourish and bring forth numerous and vigorous descendants.

Of unexpected pleasure among the 21 essays collected are those that deal with specialist and scientific subjects. Specialist John Gamel’s ‘The Elegant Eyeball’, an article first published in The Alaska Quarterly Review is especially engaging. Gamel treats his subject with passion and precision, using a mix of specialist terms explained in clear layman’s language. In doing so, Gamel not only educates with great respect to reader intelligence, but beckons, like an intrepid explorer inside an ocular adventure of mountains, ravines and channels; an inner world that from this miniscule vantage looms impressively.

There before me lay a stunning image- a lacework of arteries and veins delicate as a spider’s web, spread on a burnt umber palate swirled and streaked with shades of ochre. Most spectacular of all was the retina, a transparent wafer that gleamed…in the center the optic nerve shone like a risen sun. I was in love.

Only writing of this kind can serve more entertainingly and practically than any news piece to demonstrate the importance of scientific research, an attempt this essay fully accomplishes.

The adventure of this and Steven Pinker’s ‘My Genome, My Self’ go some way to answer Hitchens’ plea, made himself in writing over a decade ago, that more be written to bring scientific advances, in areas such as bacteria research and DNA to the wider awareness of a reading public. At no time in history has the physical sciences surged so far ahead and is yet more needing of general understanding, and its corollary respect, in the wider culture.

As might be more expected, but with no decrease in pleasure, Hitchens has also selected those writings of a more literary bent. Elif Batuman’s ‘The Murder of Leo Tolstoy is history written as murder mystery. Like any good novel, this ‘dead body’ is thrust to the beginning, the first piece in the collection. David Sedaris’ ‘Guy Walks Into a Bar Car reminds us that essays can serve a lighter purpose by highlighting the ordinary in extraordinary detail. The characters described in a train’s bar compartment are delimited so finely (and as such, so hilariously) here, you begin to appreciate all over again what John Gamel wrote about in ‘The Elegant Eyeball’. Nothing escapes David Sedaris’ merciless retina.

Zadie Smith’s ‘Speaking in Tongues’ pokes at the connections between voice and Identity. Here her pen serves just as eloquently to bridge cultural divides with empathy, knowledge and a breadth of personal experience.

Christopher Hitchen’s masterful selection has shown us the powerful need for this kind of literary form. The essay, as with the examples chosen for The Best American Essays 2010 will hopefully span the generations to come.