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Monday, February 20, 2012


First sentences: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Hello, I'm back! There has been a long hiatus because the other blog I co-run has had a massive infestation of trolls, which has taken up much of my time and a big bite out of my wellbeing. If you like these analyses, do not feed the trolls.

Anyway, to return to first sentences:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

As is characteristic of Orwell, a sentence complex in its implications and lucid in its language.

The simplicity of the language makes this an approachable work for any reader - it's not uncommon to give it to teenagers in school, for instance, which is how I first read it - but it's also an important thematic and political statement. One of Orwell's most passionate statements is hiding in plain sight.

In 1946, three years before the publication of this novel, Orwell published an important and influential essay called 'Politics and the English Language'. In it, he sets out and argues the thesis that language 'becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts' - which is not merely an intellectual sin but a human disaster, because political writing lends itself to 'defense of the indefensible' when it uses euphemism to conceal brutality. 'If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy', he writes, setting out six famous rules for writing:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four - note that the date is spelled out, not rendered in numerals, forcing us to read it at a slower, more reflective pace, as if seeing something new - Orwell invented 'Newspeak', the jargon language intended to replace English, specifically designed to narrow down the range of thought until 'thoughtcrime' becomes impossible - or at least, impossible to express in the language available. Jargon partakes of lies, and it is lies that are at the heart of evil, from the dull daily tampering with records that makes up Winston Smith's days working at the Ministry of Truth to the torturer O'Brien's blinding insistence that truth does not exist at all. Orwell is consistent. His language is spare, clear and purged. The very style of the book stands in opposition to the evils it will lambast.

So, the sentence is simple. 'The clocks were striking thirteen' - not 'The clocks were just striking thirteen', but a plain, bald rendering of the facts in as few words as possible - or rather, as few words as necessary. Just as Orwell will not cushion us from his anger and disgust with happy endings or hopeful possibilities, neither will he cushion us with phatic verbiage. The world is bare, and so is his writing.

I've mentioned in a previous post that the clocks striking thirteen is an important detail. While Orwell disdains cliched images, he is quite willing to invoke myths through implication: the ill-fated number warns us of Winston's fate before we ever meet him.

On one level the effect is to jar the reader, especially the 1949 reader accustomed to naturalistic fiction from this author: the combination of military time with the old-fashioned striking of a clock is disturbing. The world of this book is not the world we know, and the narrative presents this matter-of-fact. Rather than having things explained to us, they are simply told to us through the eyes of a character accustomed to this grim grey world: Winston has never known a life like ours and is far from certain that a world with political freedom could ever have existed, and the narrative is straitened by his ignorance. He does not know us, so we will hear nothing that acknowledges our presence.

(In this context, the militarism of the twenty-four hour clock is also important. The Party controls people by controlling time, and in the first sentence we see time under control - not just because the old twelve-hour clock has been removed - and imagine the bristling, cluttered face of a twenty-four hour clock with hands - but because the twenty-four hour clock removes ambiguity. Interpretation is forbidden by the Party: one thinks exactly what one is supposed to think or one is arrested, tortured and executed. Any exercise of judgement is dangerous, even down to deciding for oneself rather than being told by the clock whether it is morning or afternoon.)

On another level, of course, there is that unlucky 'thirteen'. For Winston, it merely means the middle of the day, but for us, it's the witching number, the hanging hour. The clocks strike like a chime of doom: the bell tolls for Winston. We need not turn to the last page to know that he is lost. As the Party slogan has it, 'Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' Memory has been abolished in the name of control, and Winston never stood a chance: we may enter into his life as the story progresses, but here at the beginning we see him as if we were O'Brien watching through the telescreen: Winston has no secrets from us and we know he will never escape.

It's also worth noting that to pick up this resonance, we must be aware of the superstition. Thirteen is a number with a past. By invoking its history, Orwell quietly reminds us of the privileges that are denied to Winston. Any connection with the past is a crime in this story: possession of an antique paperweight is illegal, knowledge of old place names can only be scratched from fragments of half-recalled nursery rhymes. Winston clings to a few lines of 'Oranges and Lemons', spoken to him by third parties, as fragile remnants of all that has been erased. He would not know that thirteen is unlucky - or if he did, he would endanger his life if he did not immediately employ doublethink and forget it. We are allowed cultural history, Orwell whispers in our ear, but don't get complacent: such things can be taken away.

Also present in this sentence is the beginnings of squalor. 'The physical texture of life' in Airstrip One is grimy, gritty, sour: the English weather has us from the beginning. But again, the language is not just literal - though it is that, bright cold days are a common feature of the English spring, and while April may not be the cruellest month in Nineteen Eighty-Four it's no kinder than any other - but also resonant. 'Bright' might be hopeful on its own, but coupled with 'cold' it's hopeless. The day is bright: there is no darkness to hide you. The day is cold: there is no warmth in this world. Citizens of this dictatorship are constantly observed, and the brightness is the brightness of an uncaring sun that casts no forgiving shadows.

With another writer, one might say the language was deceptively simple. With Orwell, the language is vehemently simple, ideologically simple, a declaration of war against obfuscation and half-truth. Language and speech are at the heart of this novel, and in this first sentence - stripped of false ornament yet reminding us of our luxuries - we are shown all that we may one day lose. This first sentence isn't just the opening of a story: it's a memento mori to freedom.

I was just rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four and was struck by the fact that I find it even more powerful now than I did when I first read it decades ago. Some of that increased power comes from the fact that I am actually reading it in a different way and some is, I think, due to the fact that changes in politics and technology have answered many of the "technological" questions. One is no longer distracted with the question as to whether/how people would allow themselves to become residents of the Panopticon or whether technology / government would ever be able to effectively rewrite the past. And once one moves past those issues one can see that the book is about the nature of human beings and human societies and power relationships among human beings and the way in which the very consciousness of people arises from their ways of communicating.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book "without hope" and more than that a book that leaves no room for "noble heroics." Winston is doomed from that very first sentence and more than that, Winston knows he is doomed. Winston knows not only that he will be "discovered" but that he will be written out of the past. And since it will be as if Winston never existed then, O'Brien would argue, Winston never did exist.

Orwell does not give the reader the enjoyment of feeling that what they are reading about matters. One doesn't reach the end of the book and feel "well Winston and Julia failed but they have paved the way for the next brave revolutionaries" nor does one feel "this time Big Brother won but each rebellion wears the powers that be down."

Orwell also doesn't allow the reader to wallow in angst. There is such a straightforward matter-of-factness in the writing that the reader is dissuaded from getting distracted. This is what the world is like. What would have to happen to the character of the "normal" human being for this world to come into being and this is the type of character a world such as this would breed
That's interesting; it's a very different way of reading from the way I approached it.

As I read it, Orwell wasn't really creating an 'imaginary future', any more than he was really talking about animals in Animal Farm. He was pointing to things he saw in the real world - brutality, authoritarianism, surveillance and lies - and simply creating a setting in which he could make his points about them. To me, 'How could this have happened?' was never a question: the fundamentals of it had already happened in places like Soviet Russia and could happen again anywhere else.

Which is to say, I didn't read Orwell as talking about the future, but about the present.

Would I be right in saying you were reading it more from the perspective of a genre adventure and I was reading more from a literary viewpoint, would you say?
You would be totally right to say that I (and I think many people of my generation) read it initially from a genre viewpoint. Consequently we got sidetracked into arguments as to "whether they could have setup such a state in the period of time that seems to have elapsed between WWII and the novel" and "well, if there really had been an atom bomb dropped on parts of England there would be more obvious radiation side effects."

In other words, we were focusing on the world building almost to the exclusion of everything else.

To the exclusion of what I think, having read all of Orwell's other works, was his actual point:
He was pointing to things he saw in the real world - brutality, authoritarianism, surveillance and lies - and simply creating a setting in which he could make his points about them. To me, 'How could this have happened?' was never a question: the fundamentals of it had already happened in places like Soviet Russia and could happen again anywhere else.

Exactly. Rereading the book I see that Orwell had made a world in order to make his points about the nature of authoritarianism and the limits of human character.

One forgets that Orwell himself fought in a war. He had seen the reality of how human beings really do respond to such circumstances. And, as I read him now, he makes the point from the beginning that Winston is doomed, in an attempt to turn the attention of the reader away from any world-building and vicarious heroics in order to focus on the authoritarians, less and brutality.
See, that's one reason why I hate the word 'worldbuilding'! I think work of fiction needs some kind of internal consistency, but it can be thematic consistency just as much as literal - and to be honest, to my ears there's something aggressively consumerist about the word. It smacks of saying, 'Right, carpenter, build me a world and then bugger off, and don't forget to doff your cap on the way out.' Building something for other people to live in can be a noble pursuit - I have nothing against actual builders - but in the case of Orwell, it feels like condemning a sculpture because it wouldn't make a comfortable dwelling. You're kind of missing the point. Sculpture and houses serve different purposes, and it does neither any favours to treat one like the other.
Possibly worth bearing in mind that quite a lot of the bureaucracy is said to come directly from Orwell's time at the BBC - particularly his experience coming in to find that someone had been sacked, his desk had been moved away and the others shuffled up to close the gap, and nobody would mention his name.
@Kit: As a longtime fan of science fiction/fantasy I do enjoy reading a good "world building" from time to time -- but many of "those" stories are actually not about human beings. I know we are told that they are by the author but they act unlike any human being outside of a book. They are cardboard characters who are simply moved from one place to another.

To put it a different way, the author doesn't describe a street because PERSON X needs to move from point A to point B and encounter circumstance C on the way in order for the reader to realize what that tells one about the character of PERSON X and the way they may respond to certain pressures/constraints in life and whether they will grow / change in response to life.

In a "word building" novel PERSON X moves from point A to point B so that the author can describe those two places. PERSON X's "character" will be whatever makes them move from one point to another.

So it can be fun saying "I wonder what the world would be like if magic actually worked" or "I wonder what the world would be like if there really were Dragons"[1] but those are closer to "public planning fantasies" than they are novels.

In my own experience reading a book as and exercise in world building gets in the way of seeing other aspects of the book. At least if one is of the "geek" persuasion one is easily distracted by the shiny bauble of "world building" away from the serious project of the author.

Now, I think it is reasonable to criticize authors when lack of internal consistency leads to "glitches" when reading [for example, if the character 'goes upstairs' in what has previously been described as a single-story house] but I think that signals a lack of care and concern by the writer that is more akin to forgetting the names of their own characters than "faulty worldbuilding."

[1] I actually own a charming book [Dragons: The Modern Infestation by Pamela Wharton Blanpied Boydell Press (1997),] which is written as if it were an academic history of dragon infestations. It makes no pretensions to being a novel.
See, I'm pretty much the other way: if nothing interesting is happening to interesting characters in the book, I really don't care about the world. More than that, I tend to see it as a fault of the world: to me, a world that does not sustain life is not a good habitat. Or, to put it another way, character and situation interconnect in an intimate and complex way, and to me, a world needs to be communicated through the psychology of its inhabitants as much as through any external descriptions. People shape environments and environments shape people, and if a book doesn't show the interplay between the two, I'm just not convinced.
@Kit Whitfield: See, I'm pretty much the other way: if nothing interesting is happening to interesting characters in the book, I really don't care about the world.

I can enjoy it but I find it wear very, very thin. And I don't find the books convincing, just what I refer to as "mind candy."

The thing that I find disturbing is how the approach to reading "thinking of this as worldbuilding" can actually stand in the way of the actual book that is there.

I my own experience it has stopped me from fully enjoying / appreciating a number of books -- until I went back and reread them consciously bracketing off the tendency to "judge on the basis of world building."
Where does it come from, this approach? Is it something you've always had, or is it a learned habit? If so, learned how?
The learned approach? It actually applies only to books of science fiction/fantasy. I never read other books that way (I never did read other books that way.)

When I started reading science fiction / fantasy almost everyone else I knew who wrote about it approached it in that way.

Which means that if I first approached a book and thought of it as "literature" or "fiction" or "mystery" I read it much as I think you are advocating. But when I picked up a book that I thought belonged to the world of science fiction I did something equivalent to "code switching."

I think that this is a phenomenon common enough to make writers work hard to elude that categorization.

And now, looking back over our conversations I don't think I have ever made it clear about that distinction--that it has only been a particular "genre" of books which I every approached that way.

And yes, I would say it was a learned habit.
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