Altered Grammar: Re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the Time of Trump

Darren Ambrose, editor of k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), on Orwell, through Pynchon, in the age of Trump.

There is a terrifying moment in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four just after Winston and Julia have spent their final stolen afternoon together in the attic room of the old antique dealer. Believing themselves to be alone they begin discussing their shared hope that the ‘proles’ are ‘storing up in their hearts and their bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.’ (p. 251) They reflect bitterly on the fact that, compared to the surplus of hope the ‘proles’ must have in their heart, it is absolutely hopeless for the two of them, and that they are indeed already dead. It is at this point that they hear a voice coming from behind the picture on the wall:

‘We are the dead,’ Winston said.
‘We are the dead’, echoed Julia dutifully.
‘You are the dead,’ said an iron voice behind them.

Suddenly ‘Big Brother’ is revealed as all they had feared – all knowing, all encompassing, all powerful and total. Everything is lost. In that single moment their paranoiac fears about ‘Big Brother’ and ‘The Party’ are irrevocably confirmed. They are not alone: they have been set up, watched, and followed by the Thought Police from the very beginning. They have been manipulated and finally exposed as ‘thought criminals’. As had always been destined, the last vestige of their humanity will now be crushed in the ‘Ministry of Love’ behind the door of ‘Room 101’.

For me, and many others, the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the USA was an equally revelatory moment, where the true horror of ‘democratic’ tyranny took to the stage, and a new dark age of ignorance, hatred, war and oppression slithered nakedly into view. Trump’s election finally confirmed what many of us already knew had been happening for several years but were either afraid, naive or too optimistic to fully admit. The months since have consisted of a series of seismic shocks that have left many people reeling – feeling disorientated, fearful, uncertain and hopeless. The fragile social consensus that appeared to underpin some of the most basic elements of our shared reality field has been violated and much of it now lies in ruins. In truth, these alliances have been under attack for a very long time, but as in the final dying days of a besieged and defeated city, the last eighteen months has seen the citadel of that reality suddenly stormed and sacked. Living as we are under a new regime of enemy occupation, the fundamental coordinates of language, truth and reality are being reconfigured in the most brutal fashion. Old certainties, axioms and values are being dismantled by the extreme right. Every day it is as if that regime is telling us, over and over again, ‘You are the dead’. Things seem locked into an endless cycle of impotent shock and outrage. As the American political analyst and historian Thomas Frank wrote in a recent Guardian column, the liberal commentariat seem confined to a never-ending ‘parade of the aghast’ ‘with all the skills of the journalist reduced to a performance of perturbation and disgust.’

In the days following Trump’s election I felt a strong need to re-read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It turns out that I was not alone: sales of the book soared in the immediate aftermath. Its speculative and futural symptomatology feels intimately connected to the present ‘post-truth’ era with its terrifying nihilism; and ‘The Party’s’ ultimate denial of rational human agency where 2+2=5 is all too bitterly familiar. As Orwell writes – ‘Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.’ (p. 61) A new American empire, controlled by elites, is fully engaged with the vigorous creation of its own reality through a sustained project of neurolinguistic programming ranging from immigration, health care, social welfare, race, gun control and taxation. By any means necessary. Orwell’s doublethink has become alternative facts. The currents of this right-wing neoliberal construction have been there for all of my life, steadily eroding the previously held consensuses around the social contract, socio-economic objectives, cultural norms, values and beliefs. It is clear that we now stand, nearly two decades into the new Millennium, upon a socio-economic and cultural landscape as dramatically altered by neoliberalism as that of the physical landscape of the Grand Canyon by the Colorado River. We undeniably exist in a very different reality – a ruined, ignorant, greedy, violent, divided, and stupid one. Reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four at this point in history is a very painful experience – it reads like a dire warning that went unheeded, a precise analysis and diagnosis that was ignored, and a final confirmation, if one were needed, of what the future became. Last year I felt such a strong need to immerse myself back in the purity of that experience, to dwell in its confirmatory narrative and dystopian vision, like a person senselessly clutching onto a hospital letter confirming their inoperable cancer.

I found that my old copy of Orwell’s novel had gone missing, probably in one of the many house moves we’ve made in recent years, and I had to buy a new copy. Whilst the latest Penguin edition has an entirely new introduction by the American novelist Thomas Pynchon, the familiarity of Orwell’s novel was somehow reassuring. We embody a history of the things we have read throughout our lives, and we can read the outline of ourselves from the map of our reading. An irreducible aspect of all of this reading, and no less influential upon what we believe we have become, is what might be called ‘history itself’, the times as they exist outside the text, the place ‘in’ which we carried out all of our reading. All the books we read in our youth, throughout our teens, twenties and thirties, were not only seen through our own eyes but were readings inflected with the times in which we undertook them. There is a doubling of our own age and the broader age within which we read, that make the books what they are for us and what we become for them. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book I first read in 1984 when I was 15 years old, remains one of the key books of my life in this double sense.

When I got hold of the new Penguin edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four I decided to begin by reading Pynchon’s introduction, which is not something I usually bother doing. I’ve always skipped such introductions, sometimes because of the risk that they usually give away too much of the story, but more often than not they are simply unilluminating and dull. But the idea of the arch post-modernist Pynchon providing the introduction to this novel intrigued me, and there was certainly no concerns about plot reveals as I already knew the events of the novel so well. Pynchon’s introduction provided me with a real shock. Looking back I’m not quite sure what I expected him to write about Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, but I was extremely surprised by what he did. In a mere 21 pages Pynchon did that very rare, but all-too-welcome, thing; he suddenly and irretrievably altered the way I thought about both Nineteen Eighty-Four and our present predicament.

Towards the end of his introduction Pynchon turns his attention to the conclusion of Orwell’s novel, i.e. the crushing of Winston and Julia by The Party. He writes of our particular fears for Julia, who believes that she could resist and beat the regime with ‘her good-natured anarchism’:

“They can make you say anything – anything – but they can’t make you believe it.They can’t get inside you.” The poor kid. You want to grab her and shake her. Because that is just what they do – they get inside, they put the whole question of soul, into harsh and terminal doubt. By the time they have left the Ministry of Love, Winston and Julia have entered permanently the condition of doublethink, the anterooms of annihilation, no longer in love but able to hate and love Big Brother at the same time. It is as dark an ending as can be imagined. (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxii)

Indeed it is. I’ve never forgotten the words of O’Brien to Winston in Room 101 – ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 307) He goes on, ’We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.’ (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. 308-9) When I read this as a 15 year old in 1984 I was appalled, fascinated and terrified by its anti-humanism, nihilistic certitude, stark presentation of state control, and its overall lack of hope. As Irving Howe, writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four, says – ‘Orwell has imagined a world in which the self, whatever subterranean existence it might manage to eke out, is no longer a significant value, not even a value to be violated.’ (Howe, ed. 1984: Texts, Sources, Criticism. New York: Harcourt, 1982. p. 322) It is interesting to note that the ultimate devaluation of the human is reflected in Orwell’s original title for the novel, The Last Man in Europe. Pynchon, however, makes a quite startling suggestion. He notes that Orwell’s bleak and nihilistic ending ‘strangely, is not quite the end’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxii) There is the appendix, ‘The Principles of Newspeak’. Orwell, as Pynchon explains, went to some effort to keep this appendix intact at the end of the novel despite serious misgivings on the part of publishers. He cites Orwell responding to an American publisher’s demand for him to remove it – ‘A book is built up as a balanced structure and one cannot simply remove large chunks here and there unless one is ready to recast the whole thing.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiii) The question remains, however, why end such a bleak novel as this with a scholarly appendix? What is the balance in the overall structure being cast by it coming after the end of the novel? Pynchon’s answer to this question is powerful; he suggests that the true answer may well lie in its ‘simple grammar’. The appendix is consistently written in the past tense, which suggests ‘some later piece of history, post Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiii) It suggests a temporal perspective beyond that of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and more importantly, given that it is written in our own pre-Newspeak English language, it suggests a future where the society of Big Brother and the Party have been defeated. ‘The ancient humanistic ways of thinking inherent in standard English have persisted, survived, and ultimately prevailed, and that perhaps the social and moral order it speaks for has even, somehow, been restored.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiii-xxiv) For Pynchon the perspective opened up by the grammar of Orwell’s perspective offers a degree of hope otherwise not contained in the main body of the text. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that it sends ‘us back into the streets of our own dystopia whistling a slightly happier tune than the end of the story would have warranted.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiv)

Despite having read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four numerous times since that first time in 1984 I have never personally left the novel whistling a happy tune in the streets of my own dystopia. There never seemed to me to be anything at all suggestive of redemption and restoration in the novel. However, I found Pynchon’s observation undeniably seductive and entirely convincing. It is difficult to make sense of the reflective appendix given the overwhelming inevitability of Big Brother’s absolute power in the novel itself. The more you think about the presentation and form of the appendix (i.e. its grammar) the more it appears as something written from a completely alien vantage point (albeit in familiar English), literally presented by a visitor from another world at some distant point in the future. This stark incommensurability resonates with something pervasive in the ‘streets of our own dystopia’ where the neoliberal socio-economic hegemony has achieved an almost naturalistic state of being, what Mark Fisher called ‘Capitalist Realism’. The ideology of late capitalism seems not only all pervasive and inevitable, but entirely natural, where imagining the end of the world is easier than trying to imagine the end of capitalism. The axiomatic grammar of capitalist realism renders it absolutely inevitable and permanent. There seems so little hope of resistance given the absolute lack of any convincing alternative. Neo-liberal capitalist ontology has spread its tentacles into every fibre of our existence, its body having become so totally swollen as to have taken up all available space and air in the world.

The current state of things seems as bleakly dystopian and final as the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Just as the novel suggests an arrest of history where it will always be 1984, signified by apparent permanence of the proper name Nineteen Eighty-Four, we also seem to have slid into ahistorical inertia where it is permanently the year 2000. And yet…here is Pynchon suggesting that Orwell’s reflective appendix indicates that something different happened, an alternative order prevailed in Nineteen Eighty-Four, human resistance finally overcame the machinic ideology of Big Brother and the Party, where 2+2=4 again. The reflected reportage on the history of the principles of Newspeak in the appendix suggests that the world of Newspeak dies at some unidentified point beyond Winston’s story, and that this world is now nothing more than a relic, a dead subject to be studied. The novel is transformed from being a form of speculative dystopian fiction to a weird form of mythical historicism that acts as warning about a wayward path once taken by human beings. Political sci-fi becomes redemptive sci-fi. I subsequently discovered that Pynchon was not the only person to have commented on the grammar of the appendix and how it signals the possibility of hope and restoration; the author Margaret Atwood made a similar point in a 2003 article for the Guardian:

The essay on Newspeak is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen, and that language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. Thus, it’s my view that Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he’s usually been given credit for. (Atwood, ‘Orwell and me’, the Guardian, 2003)

Andrew Milner, author of the book Locating Science Fiction, notes both their observations about the appendix, and argues that ‘they are surely right: the ‘Appendix’ is internal to the novel, neither an author’s nor a scholarly editor’s account of how the fiction works, but rather a part of the fiction, a fictional commentary on fictional events. And, although Atwood fails to remark on this, it is anticipated within the main body of the text, by a footnote in the first chapter, which assures us, again in standard English, in the third person, in the past tense, that ‘Newspeak was the official language of Oceania’ (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 6).’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 123)

In a 2003 review article written when Pynchon’s introduction to Nineteen Eighty-Four first appeared, titled ‘Pynchon brings added currency to Nineteen Eighty-Four’, David Kipen notes how

Pynchon’s essay uses Nineteen Eighty- Four’s almost always skipped Appendix, ‘The Principles of Newspeak,’ to reverse-engineer a crack of daylight into Orwell’s hitherto unforgiving midnight of an ending’, and describes Pynchon’s introduction as ‘the finest, deepest, sanest new 20 pages around…[that] wipes the floor with just about anything else published this year.

When I read it last year, the revelation about the appendix completely altered my understanding of Orwell’s novel. Yet Pynchon also goes on to make a further subtle observation about what Orwell was suggesting as being responsible for finally overcoming the nihilism of totalitarian rule. He cites a particular photograph of Orwell taken in 1946 where he is pictured with his two year old adopted son Richard. In the photograph Pynchon cites, the young boy is ‘beaming with unguarded delight’ with Orwell holding him ‘gently with both hands, smiling too, but not smugly so’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiv). Pynchon reads this photograph as if it is a moment of a discovery on Orwell’s part, a moment of finding ‘something that might be worth even more than anger’. Pynchon notes earlier in the introduction the extent to which such anger was precious to Orwell and how he had ‘invested blood, pain, and hard labour to earn it’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xviii), and that when he came to write Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1947-8 Orwell was ‘imagining a future for his son’s generation, a world he was not so much wishing upon them as warning against.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiv) Pynchon reminds us that, politically, Orwell was impatient with dire predictions of inevitable dystopia and remained confident in the capacity for ordinary people to change anything. ‘It is the boy’s smile, in any case, that we return to, direct and radiant, proceeding out of an unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good, and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted – a faith so honourable that we can almost imagine Orwell, and perhaps even ourselves, for a moment anyway, swearing to do whatever must be done to keep it from ever being betrayed.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiv-xxv)

If Pynchon’s first observation altered my understanding of Orwell’s novel, his second had a more powerful existential affect. It seemed directed at all of the feelings I was returning to the novel with, right now. In an uncanny way it seemed to be speaking very directly to me. Pynchon’s introduction, written in 2003, does seem oddly attuned to our current times, and if one didn’t know any better one might believe that it was written for all of those who, like myself, would one day soon come running back to Orwell’s novel from the dystopian streets of the present. Pynchon takes the opportunity to remind us that this is not merely a bleak novel of dystopian confirmation, but a dire warning about the road that will take us there, a journey of seemingly inevitable ruin infused with a strange seed of redemption and hope. Orwell’s novel, he argues, is redemptive science fiction. I returned to Nineteen Eighty-Four wanting to immerse myself in a static and fatalistic analysis of totalitarian dystopia; Pynchon prevented me from doing that. It provided me with an abrupt interruption and a shift of perspective where I caught a glimpse of the simple possibility of an alternative future. This is a future rooted in the redemptive humanism of a child’s smile that emanates from an ‘unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good, and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted.’ In fact, it was confirmation of this, something that I know intimately from spending every day with my own young son as he slowly comes to terms with, and navigates his way around, the world, that immediately sprang from my rereading of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That was not quite the confirmation I had expected. The first time I read Pynchon’s thoughts on the photograph it brought to mind something the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze had written in his final published essay ‘Pure Immanence’, which had also made a deep impression upon me when I read it over fifteen years ago. There he writes of small children:

Very small children all resemble one another and have hardly any individuality, but they have singularities: a smile, a gesture, a funny face – not subjective qualities. Small children, through all their suffering and weaknesses, are infused with an immanent life that is pure power and even bliss. (Deleuze, ‘Pure Immanence’, p. 30)

Equally, the smile of Orwell’s son in the photograph is not simply a subjective quality. As Pynchon suggests, it is emblematic of something immanently powerful, something singular ‘worth even more than anger’. It is nothing less than life expressing itself through the indomitable gestures of the child. And it is this indomitability which grounds the sheer nihilistic dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning rather than an historical inevitability. The smile of life is the unassailable light in the darkness, the intangible, imperishable and enduring substance in the nothing of the now. My own son is the same age as Orwell’s in this photograph, and as I read the introduction, I felt an instinctual truth in Pynchon’s observations. They ignited something new in my mind, not dormant or forgotten, but something else. Something new, unsuspected and alive. Amid the hopelessness and despair I was feeling post-Trump, his words actually confirmed something else, something different, something other than the darkness of the present. And it is simple, like a pure sober note rising out of the cacophonous discordant noise of the present crying “Look for the smile, listen for the laughter”.

It is there. Like in the simple grammar of Orwell’s appendix. The hope is right there because life is right there. A simple shift in grammar allows the light stream in. We need to shift our own grammar of existence, to gravitate towards alternative spaces of imagination outside of the present world. Because this present world is not all there is. It is not inevitable. It is their world, it is a terrible simulacra of a real world, but it is not our world. It holds sway merely by default. We are trapped in their world, and there we are the dead. We have become instrumentalized, commodified, banalised and reduced. The simple fact though is that they are the dead. The imperative, if we are to ever escape, is to try and strip ourselves back to nothing in the terms measured by their impoverished coordinates; we must become progressively less and less in the reality field they have imposed upon us. We must disinvest from the naturalised grammar of the present existence. We must drift away from the consensus fields we have been conditioned by them to believe as being all there is, from the inevitability of greed, selfishness, self-interest, nationalism, consumption, violence, anger and entertainment. We need to disconnect from the dead network of drives and desires we presently think of as the real world by treating it as something definitively of the past, as a dead-end and a distraction. We need to progressively disappear from their world and start appearing in our own. It is our task to develop an altered grammar to challenge this dead present, to develop the ideas, policies and practices of the future, and to try and keep them alive and available until what currently seems to be politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. Part of this altered grammar is to begin to think and to talk about what else is possible as something realisable, as an inevitability to come. Yet, in what looks like a weird and violent form of ascetic futurism, we must continue to survive in the present by always remaining anchored to that simple yet powerful note of faith in the real world, in all of that life that emanates so generously from the child’s smile – we mark it with words like human decency, goodness, kindness and love. All future alternatives worthy of real life will flow from them.