A question for everyone ready to scream from the tedium of seeing George Orwell’s name coupled yet again with dystopia: yes, yes, but have you tried re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four lately? If for instance you, like the writer of this pG entry, last immersed yourself in it decades ago, aged about fourteen, shouting with laughter as you read out to your mother passages that struck you as fiendishly funny, which nearly always mentioned Big Brother, an outlandish caricature you couldn’t conceive of as connected in any way to your own rather boring life?
At the start of 2020, there is not much to laugh about in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It has become too alarming and depressing to re-read voluntarily. Why? Because of its underestimations of the nastiest possibilities of intimate Big Brother surveillance, for one thing; and because we have no believable protection from its deployment by either governments or oversized corporations.
In the novel’s opening pages, when its protagonist Winston Smith starts a diary in a blank notebook — an out-of-date and semi-illicit ‘compromising possession’ — he can carefully seat himself in his living room outside the field of the spying telescreen that is capable of receiving and transmitting simultaneously: ‘Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it.’ Extrapolating from today’s ‘internet of things,’ there will soon be nowhere for a Winston Smith or any of us to hide, as any number of networked ordinary household objects could be doing the telescreen’s job. On the page before that scene, he turns back from the window where he has been reflecting on the malign, barbed wire-clad Ministry of Love and, on his way to his kitchen, ‘set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen,’ on which Big Brother could be watching him.
Only last month, a prominent UK newspaper reported behind its paywall, that ‘emotion recognition is the latest thing in surveillance,’ and that systems designed for this form of monitoring have been installed in the Chinese province of Xinjiang to ‘identify signs of aggression and nervousness as well as stress levels …’.
Orwell, writing in the late 1940s, has Winston worrying, as he begins his diary and considers its prospective readers far off in time, ‘How could you communicate with the future?’ — which could be so different from the present as to make his dystopian predicament ‘meaningless’? Very much to the contrary, as we nearly all realise by now, it could hardly be more significant. Winston’s creator has no equal for writerly prescience about our moment, almost anywhere on the globe, even if one participant in an online discussion last January, @WMD, remarked that in the West, ‘we do seem to be much closer to the drug-induced, zonked out, sheep-like mentality’ of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which was published in 1932, nearly two decades before Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Narcotics, the indispensable element in Huxley’s nightmare future — his imaginary drug called soma, used by World Controllers to lull the population into blissful, hazy, submissive detachment from the consequences of their manipulations — came to mind recently in an untidy clump of wondering about how reminders of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and only that work of futuristic fiction, become more unavoidable each day. This led naturally to the question of what explains the steel-pointed accuracy of so much of its envisioning. Recalling Orwell’s four years as an officer with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (Myanmar) in the 1920s was part of the associative clump, and trailing in its wake came thoughts of opium, of which Burma was then and is to this day a dominant producer. Ah! But then, what was the generally accepted understanding among Orwell experts about any connection — or lack thereof — between George and this narcotic, or any other mind-altering substance stronger than caffeine or alcohol?
The specific trigger for the meditation was probably a casual, intermittent discussion over several weeks about a friend who made a first pilgrimage to Burning Man last summer, and reportedly came away impressed by the high-wattage brainiacs from Silicon Valley, investment banking, and academia with whom he shared an ultra-exclusive tent for the duration of the celebration in the Nevada desert — with some of those minds seemingly amplified by full doses of psychedelics, not the micro-dosing said to be part of the ordinary work week at the office, for many of them.
Imagine the surprise of finding no consideration by Orwell scholars of any role that drugs might have played in shaping Orwell’s flow of ideas about Nineteen Eighty-Four — unless anything like that is beyond easy reach, through search engines. Nothing, that is, except for a diligently researched, persuasive argument on the website of Darcy Moore — an Australian schoolteacher, Orwell-admirer and memorabilia collector — that the novelist almost certainly had more than theoretical and imaginative experience of opium use. It reminds us that because Sonia Orwell, his widow, ensured at his request that no one was able to write his biography for over thirty years after he died, attempts to sift through his personal habits were obstructed while the information about them was still fresh.
Among the facts Moore has assembled are these:
• Orwell’s father spent his working life as a supervisor of opium production, quality control and trade in India, when it was part of the British Empire.
• Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘has the protagonist agreeing “to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases…” before being given a political manifesto which mentions “the truth-producing effects of drugs”.’
• In reviewing the memoir of a well-known opium addict of his time, Orwell said that the bliss of using this substance was ‘indescribable,’ and Moore asks — reasonably — whether a man ‘who was prepared to quit his career against his father’s wishes to become a writer, steel himself to go down a coal mine with working men, get purposefully arrested, associate with a criminal underclass in Paris and London, spend time with the poor and homeless as well as risk his life in a time of civil war in Spain …’ would have hesitated to sample the drug himself.
But none of the known facts about the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World establish any direct connection between drug use and sublime artistic inspiration. Those of us who are abysmally ignorant about risky, habit-forming drugs — and who have been shocked by observing their worst effects directly — find it easier to relate to Aldous Huxley’s depictions of their deeply negative consequences in his famous futurama, apparently written before he had any personal experience of ingesting them. He did, however, become a radical convert to, and advocate of, the joys of psychedelics after he lost his virginity as an experimenter with controlled substances. Sadly for him, his novel Island, published in 1962, exactly three decades after Brave New World and a radical contradiction of it — since it depicts a drug-enhanced utopia — appears to have had few readers (not including this writer). The novelist and literary scholar Margaret Drabble has summed up the justifiable criticism by detractors of Huxley’s works — other than BNW — that they are ‘smart and superficial, a symptom rather than an interpretation of a hollow age.’
If only that were not so. If only experimenters with mind-expanding chemicals among today’s policy-shapers and influencers had more to offer us than testimonials virtually identical to Huxley’s about glorious, life-changing alterations in perspectives on the world and fellow human beings, but — also like him — with no specific great work in any field to point to for an illustration of such benefits. If only the British Psychological Society Research Digest, last August, had not concluded, about the most recent scientific investigations into this trend, that ‘no placebo-controlled study has found statistically significant effects of microdosing on creativity.’
If only the opposite were true, and someone was capable of writing, now, a counter-imagining of Nineteen Eighty-Four powerful enough and influential enough to accomplish what Orwell hoped to, when he wrote it — which was to head off the possibility of privacy-smashing, totalitarian mind control that instead, looks well set for conditioning our everyday existence in the not so distant future.