More than any other dystopia, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four concentrates on its hero’s psychological state and his efforts to reveal the truth of the superstate in which he lives. Orwell’s meticulous attention to the engineering of reality and the digesting of the individual into the political entity makes this the definitive dystopia of post-Stalinist authoritarian power. The novel is divided into three books that cover, respectively, Winston Smith’s rebellion under the grind of daily life in Oceania, his love affair with Julia, and his incarceration, torture and erasure. The story is basically a struggle for truth, love and liberty where these are criminal. Gradually, through reflection, experience, and a “successful love affair,” Winston discovers the nature of his oppressor and briefly steals the freedoms that make life worth living, acknowledging from his first crime against the state, writing in a journal, that he is a “dead man.”
Archive for the ‘Art’ Category
–Jeff Spicoli, Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Ever return to your country from a trip abroad and realize that something to which you previously gave little importance is, in fact, important? That was how I arrived at the importance of being cool. I’d just come back from a long stay in Montreal. I was off the plane, sitting at a bus stop, and saw a young guy walking toward me on the sidewalk. His baggy jeans were riding around his thighs, exposing about four inches of boxer shorts. He wore a baseball cap cocked to one side, bill pulled down, out of which flopped about a foot’s worth of dreadlocks. His zip-up sweatshirt was of a fabric I’d seen in little kids’ pajamas—a thick, soft cotton printed with cartoonish designs. His gait was a slow, lopsided shuffle. One arm was out in front of him, bent at the elbow and moving in little circular motions to the rhythm of his walk, as if he were beating eggs. I thought it might be polio or palsy. Then I realized that he was cool.
In 1950, when Fahrenheit 451 first appeared as “The Fireman” in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, television was fast becoming a ubiquitous feature of the American home. The big three commercial television networks (NBC, ABC, CBS) had just connected their cables coast to coast. Soap operas, talk shows, sitcoms and game shows were piped into nearly every household all day long. A country of postwar housewives did their ironing to As the World Turns, while their hubbies worked the white-collar jobs of the burgeoning middle class. The freeway network of Southern California, where Ray Bradbury lived, had commenced construction. And the Korean War, launched that year, was one in a series of wars of which most Americans were only dimly aware. Such was the present that Ray Bradbury logically extended into the “insane world” of this classic dystopia.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1947 novel Bend Sinister doesn’t focus on class war, a projected future or the awakening of an individual under authoritarian rule. It follows an exceptional man’s loss of all that makes his life worth living. Though the book’s protagonist, Adam Krug, is finally crushed by the stupidity and brutality of a police state, the narrative concentrates on his psychic condition, with little attention given to class or politics beyond a farcical sketch of the political ideology and rise to power of the dictator Paduk. If there is any dystopian element here, it’s the ultimate destruction of the hero, a profoundly intelligent, conscientious and cultivated man, under the barbarous and pseudo-efficient regime that seizes his nation.
In keeping with the anti-authoritarianism of the late 1960s and early ’70s, my parents weren’t too stringent about what they left around the house. So it was with the usual excitement of having discovered something “dirty” that I saw my first shunga (“springtime pictures”) woodblock prints at the age of six. My dad was an artist and frequently left books of pin-up art, nudes and those early issues of Playboy on the coffee table. The shunga prints, however, made a more powerful impression on me than any of the airbrushed bodies that Hugh Hefner gave the American public. The swollen, labiated, oozing vulvae and massive, veined, rigorously enthused penises in shunga represented the human sex organs undergoing a physical transformation that was dramatically outsized. Despite my ignorance of the realities of sex, I took them as symbolizing excitement and pleasure, which is how I see them to this day.
Sinclair Lewis wrote this political satire of American exceptionalism in the early 1930s, when one in four Americans were out of work and the complacent assumptions he’d ridiculed in Babbitt were rasped away by real poverty. What most Americans assumed couldn’t happen on the economic front had happened, and even more had happened in Germany, Italy and Russia, with the rise of nationalist totalitarian regimes. So Lewis aimed his satire at the smug assumption of the American politician and parochial patriot that a despotic, militant, nationalist tyrant and, consequently, organized atrocity, were foreign, or only possible elsewhere.
By the time the sun hits the sidewalk in a West Coast city, the East Coast is half done with a day’s work. In the American West you live with a sense that the East has already established what the world will regard as American civilization—Wall Street, Capitol Hill, The New York Times… Six hours behind and three thousand miles ahead, the West looks back at the East as a youth his parents: “You’ve done your thing—I’m doing mine.” Thus identity and lifestyle are not only common preoccupations in the West, they’re reflected in popular conceptions of what the West is all about: psychedelia, pop psychology, chaos theory, virtual reality, New Age, free love, etc… The East Coast may look patronizingly at this vain experimentalism, but it sometimes has to eat its words of critical admonishment—especially when the West profoundly influences the world.
H.G. Wells originally published When the Sleeper Awakes in 1898 as a serial in The Graphic, an illustrated London newspaper. In his preface to the 1910 edition, The Sleeper Awakes, he expressed disappointment with the book, claiming that it was hastily composed and overwrought and that he was badly in need of a vacation at the time. He also claimed that in editing the original he did not rewrite it, as what concerned him at the age of thirty-one no longer did at forty-three. So he cut out some of the fat and reworked the latter part of the book to give it more thoroughness and depth. What has come down to us in this 2003 Modern Library edition, When the Sleeper Wakes, is not one of Wells’ better novels but a template dystopia containing both accurate and inaccurate forecasts, as well as the fundamental dystopian elements of class war and awakening consciousness under authoritarian rule.
Jack London’s political dystopia, The Iron Heel, published in 1905, is not so fantastic as it is relevant, not so prophetic as it is cogent. The question the novel leaves you with, in this age of unprecedented income inequality, conservative-libertarian populism, corporate propaganda fronts and political puppetry, is why the country has not gone down the path that London took it almost a hundred years ago. Why, with our increasingly vast poverty, waning middle class, wealth stratification beyond levels since those seen before the Great Depression and legislators thrall to powerful corporate and industrial interests, hasn’t the republic degenerated into the modern oligarchy as portrayed in this book?
Yergeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We is not the first dystopian novel. There was The Iron Heel (1905) by Jack London and The Sleeper Awakes (1910) by H.G Wells, Russian translations of which Zamyatin edited. It is, however, regarded as “the archetype of the modern dystopia”—or so says the back cover of my Penguin Classics, 1993, Clarence Brown edition. We is fundamentally a political satire of the nightmare of total control. Its dreamlike scene shifts, fantastic imagery and atmosphere of confusion and apprehension set it apart from those earlier novels. And it introduces what have become standard dystopian themes: rule by authoritarian rationalism, hyperbolized technological advancement, love as a catalyst of dissidence, and, as a final outcome, the crushing of that dissidence, literally, under the cast-iron hand of authority.
They had big dictums, deep erudition and cunning linguistics. Marianne Moore translated La Fontaine’s easygoing French into an English of conspicuous difficulty. In Pound’s hands the rudimentary Italian of the troubadours and bare-bones Chinese of Confucius became abstruse Victorianese. TS Eliot gave us the musical equivalent of thought—or sonorous obscurity. William Carlos Williams gave us things, things with ideas in them—supposedly. And Wallace Stevens? Who to this day knows the motive of most of his metaphors?
Activism is now like poetry or philosophy. Few people take it seriously. These days the activist, like the poet or philosopher, has no public. And as the poet and philosopher have lost their power to engage, educate and entertain, so has the activist lost the power to effect progressive change—assuming progressive change is the objective of the activist. Somehow all public protest of this corrupt and intransigent government appears futile. Mainstream American culture regards such activity as self-indulgent and effete. The present cultural context of activism is now the absence of a cultural context. The only reason to proclaim that one is an activist at all would be to gratify a sentimental delusion that such a role might still exist—a proclamation that would ring as ridiculous as that of being a poet or philosopher. Nevertheless, there are those who visibly assume the role. And it’s embarrassing to watch them as they go public with their naked need for attention. Like impoverished street musicians, they’re mocked and ignored. Folks pass by, wisecracking in hushed tones or feigning distraction to bypass the unpleasantness of being embarrassed for them. Fortunately, most poets, philosophers and activists do not go public. They gratify their vanities in supportive, obscure subcultures, or in universities where they ply their passions on the young, gullible and whimsical. Some survive outside of these safe havens, but only by hiding from coworkers and acquaintances the obscene futility in which they daily engage, closeting their perverse leanings toward intellectual inquiry, esthetic perfection and social betterment. They hide the outrage evoked by a political climate that abets and exploits mass stupidity, shuffling obsequiously from office to market, suppressing an urge to take dramatic action against this pervasive chicanery like a flasher suppressing an urge to show his penis to the checker.
A guy with a couple of decades of office avoirdupois pumps up on his $3,000 touring bike, sporting about $500 worth of highly flammable stretch material in 15 garish colors, covered with the logos of his “sponsors.”
“Passing on the left,” he quacks as he goes by on the sidewalk, where it is illegal to ride. Then, nearly missing me, he cranks his head around and yells, “I SAID, PASSING ON THE LEFT!”
He’s beyond reach. No need to get flustered over a dude posing as Lance Armstrong. But another passes, and another, and it dawns on me that not one of these cyclists is wearing civilian dress—that the jerk in tights (JIT) is not the exception, but the rule.