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.”
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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.