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Next Year, It's 1984!

In 1949, George Orwell wrote the book which immortalized him. We read 1984 then voraciously, snickering at what we recognized as the telltale signs of his prophecy already in our own day, but ultimately relieved that the gloomy world being foretold was still so far away. Plenty of time, we thought, to read the writing on the wall, to rectify, to take action.

How simple Orwell's vision appears today, boiling down basically to the good guys and the bad. Those not yet assimilated were the good. The rest of the world was made up of the "proles," the police guard, and the party members. Boo, hiss.

It is instructive to read the Appendix to 1984, entitled "The Principles of Newspeak." Newspeak, it will be remembered, was the official language of Oceania which in 1984 was conceded not yet to be the "sole means of communication, either in speech or writing." The fictional author clearly believed that language, in and of itself, contained enormous force and vitality and was therefore to be warily watched by those in power and, where necessary, redefined. ("Various writers, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Byron, Dickens and some others were therefore in process of translation . . . ") Orwell's fantasy world was surely not the first to take so powerful a view of language. Political power, past and present, keeps an uneasy eye on what may be perceived and expressed, verbally and nonverbally, and by whom.

The music quoted repeatedly in 1984 bears recollection. Its description is both hilarious and devastating, consisting of opiate drivel in banal cockney rhymes. Everyone knows it by heart; it is constantly in the 1984 air. It is meant to be, and is, the music of and for the Untermensch. (Not yet conceptualized by Orwell is a musical language exclusively by and for the practitioner. Or, if he already thought of it, he didn't think it of sufficient statistical significance to warrant parody. There just weren't enough professionals to make a difference.)

Our world has become so complex, so ambiguous, as we march relentlessly towards the millennium, that the hero/villain dichotomy of the Orwells, Huxleys and Brechts rings less piercingly true than it may have earlier in the century. More and more, we sense that we are all both heroes and villains, Yins and Yangs, leaders and followers. Nowhere is this more evident than in our arts in which simplistic moral concepts have been reduced to objects of ridicule, mockery and sham. And yet, alongside our new sophistication, our studied veneer of skepticism and cynicism, do we not wish to believe that those same human traits which our forefathers revered still exist and still are desirable? Do we no longer prize love and loyalty, the search for truth and compassion?

Our growing awareness of and reconciliation to our own dualities may, in fact, be one of the truly salutary achievements of our day. It is no longer necessary for us to be "all or nothing at all." And, in an age which permits such broad exposure to education (in all its manifestations), it is no longer necessary to choose one form of artistic expression over another. Moreover, one notes in virtually all the arts a merging of components which hitherto were at odds, if not actually poles, apart. As we, as a nation, mature, we think less of "good" or "bad," "serious" or "pop," "right" or "wrong," and instead take more joy from the very pluralism of our lives and our arts. It is this abundance of expression which makes the mulch of culture. The historian has testified that it is by way of the arts that our identities are remembered.

We must insist on safeguarding the soil of cultural pluralism from the clutches and manipulations of tyrants, be they within or without. Even Orwell's tyrants were pragmatic enough to know that everything takes time, that the literature of the past could not be destroyed until Newspeak had eradicated the consciousness of man: "It was chiefly in order to allow time for the preliminary work of translation that the final adoption of Newspeak had been fixed for so late a date as 2050."

Oh well, it's just 1984.

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