Monthly Archives: February 2016

1984: How to Start a Religion

1984-book-cover-slice

 

There are some stark contrasts to my last blog entry about George Orwell’s, Coming Up for Air, with regard to what I’ll say about his monumental classic, 1984.

In commenting on Coming Up for Air, I went to great length to romanticize both nostalgia for the past but also the ability to live in the present moment. In 1984, government abolishes any capacity for nostalgia by erasing the past and making every moment in time somehow the present. The atmosphere of constant war, perpetual hate, and mandated conformity create a reality that only allows someone to live in the present.

It’s hard to know where to begin the analysis of 1984. My first thought is that Orwell has created a “how to” book on controlling large populations of people. From what I understand about Solviet communism and what I know of George Orwell, 1984 simply took the extremes of communist party doctrine and took their current practices, institutions, and intentions to the extreme. While Orwell likely had socialist, revolutionary leanings, he did not agree with the form it took with Stalin’s accession into power. It is my understanding that Animal Farm is a blatant, analogous account of the Bolshevik revolution, the death of Lenin, the rise of Stalin and fall of Trotsky, and the emergence of the USSR under Stalin.

I don’t want to rehash the narrative or the plot for you. If you haven’t read 1984 all I can say is, “What are you waiting for?” Rather, I’ll present the ideas that I had while reading and as I’ve contemplated it since. So, as an instruction manual for obtaining control, here goes.

(If you think these tactics only work in politics or revolution, just pay attention with a truly open mind and heart and look around at the faces of those with you the next time you’re listening to a sermon in church. Having been educated in a Russian Orthodox Seminary, though he became an atheist, Stalin surely learned a great deal about the process of controlling the human mind.)

Step One: Establish an Infallible Leader.

(I don’t mean to make this about a man but, lets be honest, how many women have done the things I’m about to describe? For brevity I’ll refer to the “leader” in the male form.)

The circumstances upon which the dear leader came to power must be mystical and unverifiable. This may include the fabrication of events surrounding his birth, upbringing, anointing, and revelation. Clever regimes will learn to tell the facts in compelling way to make the leader seem set apart from the common man, but fabrications and half-truths that can’t be verified are critical to generate appeal.

Make acceptance of his words and conformity to his commands required. Consequences of rejecting the leader’s words may range from social and family ostracizing to pain and death. The most powerful motivator for some will be the promise of eternal suffering. This can never be proven, but men can be made to fear it. Instill this fear and stir the zeal of the faithful with mob tactics–use emotional furor fed by demogoguery to mobilize the tentative among the mob of the faithful.

A word about devotion: Orwell shows examples of wives informing on husbands, children against parents, and so on. What struck me the most was Winston’s description of his wife, for he had been married at one time. He described her as completely devout to the party. She only consented to “making a baby” because it was to raise up children for the party.

The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act…The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party. Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema. This again was never put into plain words, but in an indirect way it was rubbed into every Party member from childhood onwards. There were even organizations such as the Junior Anti-Sex League which advocated complete celibacy for both sexes…the Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it…And so far as the women were concerned, the Party’s efforts were largely successful.

A paragraph later, Winston describes his wife, the devotee of the Party:

As soon as he touched her she seemed to wince and stiffen. To embrace her was like embracing a jointed wooden image. And what was strange was that even when she was clasping him against her he had the feeling that she was simultaneously pushing him away with all her strength.

Bind their devotion to this leader by emotion. Teach them the virtue of statements like this one: “There is nothing you could tell me that would make me question the dear leader.” Make them reaffirm their commitment to the party and its leaders often both in private and, more importantly, in public amongst their peers in the zealous masses.

Create in their minds the idea that, if something does not turn out as promised by the prophetic leader, that it must be their own fault. They did not work hard enough to obtain the promises that have been made; they misinterpreted the meaning and intent of the leader; they were not worthy of the blessing. Make them demonize themselves and turn to the party first for answers and help because the party and dear leader cannot fail. Thus, the party remains above reproach.

Big Brother  is infallible and all-powerful. Every success, every achievement, every victory, every scientific discovery, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue, are held to issue directly from his leadership and inspiration…His function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear, and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt toward an individual than toward an organization.

Step Two: Establish a Single, Eternal Enemy.

People need something to fear if you are going to manipulate their minds, therefore you must convince them that there is a prime enemy who is always attempting to subvert the work of the trusted leader or leadership. All influence contrary to the party is surely the direct meddling of this adversary. The resultant fear of this enemy and loathing of his ill-intent will keep followers from considering the slightest thought or idea that does not come directly from the mouth of party leaders.

Vilify the party member who even casually entertains a contrary idea. Marginalize them, tell everyone that they are weak minded, deceived, sinful, and sinister.

Luckily, the party leaders–beginning with the dear leader–have proven themselves beyond the grip of this villain. Their every act is directed toward protecting the people and exposing the designs of the adversary. You don’t need to question them because they are the purest of heart and strongest of mind.

Step Three: Habits are Powerful; Make Rituals Out of Them.

Create rituals and habits that become ingrained in each person while very young.  Convince them that following through on these rituals will gain them power against the eternal enemy. Make the rituals progressive, with more to look forward to as they get older and progress in the party. Always ensure that the members feel obligated to certain daily, weekly, and yearly rituals. Make them so much a part of their life that they notice the missing component when it is neglected only once.

Use leaders close to individuals to check up on them to see if they are doing their rituals regularly. Train other citizens to keep an eye out for transgressors and to confront them or notify leaders should they see someone falter. Leaders must behave with shock and concern when they find members not in conformity, even better, create leaders who actually feel shock and concern. Promise individuals they will be happier if they consent to and participate in the rituals. Most of all, praise them when they do it and tell them that what they feel is the reward of obedience. If done when they are children, they will crave the praise of their superiors and accept that as the mystical reward for conformity. Within a generation you’ll have no need to deceive because the leaders brought up in the faith will genuinely believe it themselves.

Create in their minds the idea that all goodness is found in the party. Use this to create devotion in individuals first to the party and its infallible leaders. This devotion must be greater than that of husband to wife, parents to children, and amongst friends.

Concerning his wife, Winston recollects:

She had without exception the most stupid, vulgar, empty mind that he had ever encountered. She had not a thought in her head that was not a slogan, and there was no imbecility, absolutely none, that she was not capable of swallowing if the Party handed it to her.

Step ThreePointFive: Indoctrination with Dogmas and History.

Convince them that the only way to feel self-love and peace is by conforming to the party ideology and then make any mode of living contrary to the ideology a living hell for them. Monitor them with regular interviews, constantly preach of the goodness of the party’s way and the abyss of any other way, make their friends marginalize them when they stray–even in the slightest–for fear of being led astray themselves.

Start with rituals and habits every day and build with regular sermons and prayer and preaching and schooling. Make anything scientific suspect and vilify purveyors of unapproved theories. Orwell uses regimented, daily exercise routines and something called “The Two Minutes Hate,” (think of a “daily devotional”), and Hate Week (Jesus Camp), among other requirements, for these purposes.

And the people’s reaction to “The Hate”:

The little sandy-haired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her. With a tremulous murmur that sounded like “My Savior!” she extended her arms toward the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.

At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of “B-B!…B-B!…B-B!” over and over again, very slowly… It was a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise.

Step Four: Control Language and Other Forms of Expression.

In 1984, the party is well aware of the power of language therefore they begin to create a language they called “newspeak.” In this way they can control the understanding and the minds of the people under their power. Any words, phrases, or concepts that went beyond those bounds they labeled as vulgar or obscene. They know that a man who can say four letter words is a man who has a free mind and is willing to express his emotions regardless of what others may think of it. Worst of all, such a man is not worried about protecting the image of the party. Language is a powerful thing and you can control people when you control what they say and how they speak, but most of all, when you control how they feel about what they say…especially how they feel about what they think.

Make everyone thought police for themselves. Build in them the compelling need to tell an “authority” of any sleight in thought but fearful of letting anyone else know.

Make sure that the language of the Party is the only language with which they are truly conversant. Do this through “encouraged” personal study every day in the official, endorsed tomes of the Party. Make any other learning encouraged but only when Party study has been completed. Fill their lives with so many other obligations that they can’t give time to anything else. Further indoctrinate them in language through their regular Party preaching and sermonizing. Communicate with them in Party language at all times. Make periodicals and broadcast communication that reinforces this language. If this is done from an early age, it will ensure Their discomfort when contact with foreign language is encountered. They will feel completely inadequate in a conversation based in intellect like physics, biology, or psychology. They will nevertheless feel completely justified in their position by falling mentally into their programmed language, and they will feel that those to whom they speak are ignorant or unintelligent because the Party member cannot make himself  understood to them.

Instill in them the power of phrases like, “It will be done.” Compel them to respond to any command with such phrases. Use words like “gentle admonition” or “loving persuasion” but make them feel subconcioulsy that “requests” are really “commands.”

In 1984, there is a government agency called “The Ministry of Love” that deals with those guilty of “thoughtcrime”. The people know that The Ministry of Love is a place of cruelty and fear. But they are made to feel that, since Big Brother and the Party have their best interest at heart, what is done there is done out of love. Reminds me of something called a “court of love.” The real interest here does not seem primarily for the good of the person on trial, but for the image of the Party and the ensured conformity of a person’s heart not just their actions.

Another interesting word used by Orwell is “doublethink.” I doubt I need to explain this to you but, to be simple, it means ignoring what it apparent to your eyes and mind and believing what the Party tells you is the real truth.

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right!

If the Party tells you that 2+2=5, then 2+2 does equal 5. Even though you know the answer is 4, you choose to happily believe it is 5. And if you don’t…..

—–

To keep this short, Winston is given an old, tattered book that was written by Emmanuel Goldstein, the “eternal enemy” of the Party. The book outlines how the party operates and their reasoning/justification for controlling all aspects of a man or woman’s life. There are some great insights here and I am left believing that George Orwell was not only highly intelligent but also incredibly wise.

The consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival…Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war.

World conquest becomes:

an article of faith. It is to be achieved either by gradually acquiring more and more territory and so building up an overwhelming preponderance of power, or by the discovery of some new and unanswerable weapon.

Proselyting=gradual acquisition.

Armageddon and the rapture (I hear this one all the time in Arkansas)=the final weapon that will kill all those who oppose the Party and ensure total victory.

This compels me to share one thought from outside of Orwell from one of my favorite authors, Christopher Hitchens. If you think of the idea and message of 1984, and apply the lessons to any entity attempting to mandate how people think, this is the direct application for each of us.

With a large part of itself it quite clearly wants us all to die, it wants this world to come to an end you can tell the yearning for things to be over, whenever you read any of its real texts, or listen to any of its real authentic spokesman, not the pathetic apologists who sometimes masquerade for it. Those who talk, there was a famous spokesman for this in Virginia until recently, about the Rapture, saying that those of us who have chosen rightly will be gathered to the arms of Jesus, leaving all of the rest of you behind: if we’re in a car it’s your lookout, that car won’t have a driver anymore; if we’re a pilot that’s your lookout, that plane will crash; we will be with Jesus and the rest of you can go straight to Hell. The eschatological element that is inseparable from Christianity, if you don’t believe that there is going to be an Apocalypse, there is going to be an end, a separation of the sheep and the goats, a condemnation, a final one, then you’re not really a Believer and the contempt for the things of this world shows through all of them. It’s well put in an old rhyme from an English exclusive Brethren sect: “We are the pure and chosen few, and all the rest are damned. There’s room enough in hell for you, we don’t want Heaven crammed!” You can tell it when you see the extreme Muslims talk, they cannot wait for death and destruction to overtake and overwhelm the World, they can’t wait for what I would call without ambiguity a Final Solution. When you look at the Israeli settlers, paid for often by American tax dollars, deciding if they can steal enough land from other people and get all the Jews into the promised land and all the non-Jews out of it then finally the Jewish people will be worthy of the return of the Messiah, and there are Christians in this country who consider it their job to help this happen so that Armageddon can occur, so that the painful business of living as humans, and studying civilization, and trying to acquire learning, and knowledge, and health, and medicine, and to push back the frontiers can all be scrapped and the cult of death can take over.

Don’t let you kids play with kids who don’t go to your church. Don’t hang out with people who may not have the same values as you. Ever read All Quiet on the Western Front? You should. Turns out German soldiers, rather than being vicious, cruel robots intent on killing all others, felt the same way American soldiers felt. From 1984:

If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.

Imagine being told that a bar is an evil place and that anyone who sets foot in one is a miserable lost soul. I have news for you, NOT SO. Some of the most friendly people I’ve met were during my time in dental school and they enjoyed going to the bar on the weekend. Some of the most miserable and likely to stab me in the back went to church each Sunday and made sure you knew it. (Including me at that time. I was a pretentious jerk. Now I’m just pretentious.)

The citizen of Oceania (the fictional country of 1984) is not allowed to know anything of the tents of the other…philosophies, but he is taught to execrate them as barbarous outrages upon morality and common sense.

Election politics anyone?

You have to wonder if the book by Emmanual Goldstein, which was given to Winston by the man who would eventually torture him in The Ministry of Love, was propaganda for the Party. I am still trying to grasp this, because it seems so blatantly anti-Party. For example, in it, we read:

The main item in the Socialist program, with the result, foreseen and intended beforehand, that economic inequality has been made permanent.

The essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living. A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate it successors…All beliefs, habits, taste, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived.

A Party member is required to have not only the right options, but the right instincts. Many of the beliefs and attitudes demanded of him are never plainly stated, and could not be stated without laying bare the contradictions inherent in [English Socialism]…in any case an elaborate mental training, undergone in childhood and grouping itself round the Newspeak words…makes him unwilling and unable to think too deeply on any subject whatever…He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy o hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.

Oh, I could go on. The Emmanuel Goldstein writing was some of the most interesting that 1984 had to offer and I left out a great deal. Moving on to the most shocking part of the novel, Winston does indeed get arrested for “thoughtcrime.” While in the Ministry of Love, he goes through weeks or months of interrogation and mental reprogramming until he does admit easily and freely that 2+2=5. But it is not enough. He has to believe it. They send him to Room 101.

Just imagine the worst, most terrifying thing you can think of. That is what they not only threaten you with but prepare to inflict upon you. For me it might be being thrown into a pool of hungry sharks or having my hands tied to a pyre and being burned alive. For Winston–I still struggle to comprehend Orwell thinking of this–it is having a mask connected to his face that allows starving rats to eat his face off while he is alive. Of course, at this point, Winston experiences a complete conversion to Big Brother. And this is the thought I had as I read that portion of the book:

If you had taken Abraham of the Old Testament to Room 101, he would have found Isaac, wood, and a stone altar. The one person he would not have betrayed was Big Brother which is exactly the purpose of the trial in Room 101. Of course, in both cases, when obedience was shown, neither punishment was inflicted.

Consider Jesus’ admonitions to “take no thought for the morrow” or “let the dead bury their dead.” Isn’t he really saying, Big Brother is all you need to adore.

Such is the way of dictators.

 

George Orwell and my love of reading

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I was first introduced to George Orwell, like most Americans, in High School English class. Unlike many of my classmates, I not only completed the readings we were assigned, but I also enjoyed most of them. I did have one teacher–in an “advanced placement” class–who disliked some of our assigned readings and didn’t always require us to complete them, rather she would show us the movie to appease us and to satisfy the required “reading.” One book that comes to mind, specifically, that we watched the movie instead of reading was The Grapes of Wrath. Had I been a better student, I might have read it anyway.

I was lucky enough to have a father that read and enjoyed reading. What he hated was shopping, particularly in shopping malls. When I was young, having been raised in a town with the nearest stop light an hour away, we would occasionally travel to a small college town two and a half hours away to shop for clothes or other non grocery items. Invariably, mom and the older girls would want to go to the mall and see what JCPenney or Sears had on the rack. In that mall there was only one store my dad could tolerate and it was the book store (back before even Waldenbook–RIP–was around). We’d spend an hour or more perusing books while the others shopped. I don’t remember any specific books from this time but I do remember the feeling and the smell of books.

I would say the book that first got me hooked on reading was Beverly Cleary’s, Ribsy. I don’t know what it was but I was hooked. I followed this with a second home run in one of my all time favorites, Caravan to Oregon (this is a particularly pleasant smelling tome). During those early years I read such great books as Sign of the Beaver, The Great Brain series, The Wizard of Oz, The Blue Sword, A Wrinkle in Time, and Bridge to Terabithia. I was introduced to Louis L’amour in fourth grade and still enjoy many of his titles today. Calvin and Hobbes also became a regular read and re-read.

In sixth grade I was lucky enough to have a teacher who broke with convention and saved us from reading in a mind-numbingly awful collection of sixth grade reading drivel called Beacons. This wonderful teacher obtained permission from the school district to read classic literature with us as students. Here I was introduced to The Hobbit, The Wheel on the School, Summer of the Monkeys, and Banner in the Sky. Though this wasn’t where my love of reading began, the year certainly fanned the flames and propelled me into an appreciation of the reading I would be assigned in high school.

Seventh-grade was even better. Miss John allowed us to read anything we wanted, the only stipulation that we had a reading journal we had to write each week and we were graded on the quality of thought we put into the material we read. This was the year I fell in love with my favorite author, Gary Paulsen. A prolific purveyor of young-men-coming-of-age prose, Paulsen made me feel deeply about the characters, showing me the power of written words to change our world view. Some of my favorite books are still Paulsen’s and I reread them frequently. My poor librarian couldn’t order enough to satiate me, and I’m sure even Mr. Paulsen would have struggled to keep up at the time. Harris and Me, Hatchet, The Winter Room, Foxman, The Cookcamp, Woodsong, Canyons–just to name a few. I read them all. Up to the age of 16 I read everything he wrote.

I don’t remember much of freshman English, though I think that was the year of Romeo and Juliet. I do remember some grief my sophomore year when I was put in the class of the “rouge” English teacher who selected for our readings the alternately approved classics. Something of a scifi nut, while other teachers were reading Lord of the Flies and The Heart of Darkness, he had us read Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and other such works. I should have learned from my sixth grade experience, but I was angry at first. Now, I look back with appreciation.

Somewhere during junior and senior years, I was introduced to George Orwell with Animal Farm. This was the time of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Johnathon Livingston Seagull, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities (Regrettably, this title also fell prey to an uninterested teacher and fellow students ending up with The Grapes of Wrath as a title I took in only in movie formand The Old Man and the Sea. Despite the strangeness of Seagull, the hopelessness of The Pearl, and the tragedy of Of Mice and Men, (and of course, the rich language of Shakespeare that quickly and unfortunately lost my interest at that time of life) I enjoyed nearly all of it. I have deep impressions of several of these books though I struggle to recall many details. Of Mice and Men is probably the most memorable to me which means to me that in some way I must have identified with George and Lenny. I felt as much sadness for George as I did for Lenny. I may be the first time that a book caught me by surprise in such an appropriate and awful way. It is definitely a book that has made me think about it ever since.

Animal Farm was a real pleasure. I think any child with exposure to Charlotte’s Web would enjoy Animal Farm for similar reasons, even without the profound allusions to the human condition. Of course, arguably the most famous line in the book, “Ask not what your country can do for…” Just kidding. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” sticks with all of us. I think even the most superficial reader would have to be impressed by this blatant hypocrisy. But really, that is what I took from Animal Farm. I was really too ignorant to grasp any more than that.

Fast forward from 1998 to 2014. I’m going through a significant crisis of faith in the religion of my upbringing. To keep it short, I found a great deal of solace in the words, writings, and language of Christopher Hitchens. A master of euphony, irony, and principled thinking, Hitchens words struck a resounding chord in me. I wanted to know everything about him to know what made him think, write, and speak the way he did. This exploration involved learning about those who had influenced him.

This leads us to George Orwell.

Don’t think me arrogant enough to speak for Hitch, but it seems he had three or four profound influences among dozens of significant ones. Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, P.G. Wodehouse, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh,and George Orwell to name a few. If I put three at the top they would be Paine, Jefferson, and Orwell. I made my first real dive into understanding Mr Hitchens influences by reading a book he mentioned several times and that, for some reason, sparked my interest by title alone.

This book was George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air.

comingupforair

It wasn’t what I expected yet I found that I enjoyed it in a way I didn’t anticipate was possible. You see, after high school most of my reading was in fantasy. Tolkien, Hobb, Feist, Jordan (soap opera with pubescent whiny brats), Rothfuss (my personal favorite), and Harry Potter (I really kicked against the pricks on this one, but I am very glad I relented and read and enjoyed them). As I grew older I developed a keen interest in biography, history, social commentary, and behavioral psychology books. Isaacson’s Steve Jobs; Krakauer’s, Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Eiger Dreams; Christopher McDougall’s, Born to Run; Susan Cain’s, Quiet; Ann Coulter’s, Demonic; John Stossel’s, No We Can’t–as you can see, the best sellers at airport book stores. I thought many had a profound influence on me but now, having read Orwell as an adult, I see just how little they did for me in comparison.

Orwell gives us characters to whom we can relate. They are real and honest. I can’t help but think he is speaking through his characters rather than creating a purely fictional hero (especially this book where it has a somewhat autobiographical tone and a main character named, well, George). And very often his characters, as much as they try to be heroes, end up the tragic victims. Unlike Winston in 1984, George Bowling is the victim of his own choices who finds himself feeling powerless to change amidst the commercialization of society and the expansion of corporate industry into the genteel life of rural England.

I identified with George Bowling because of his intense nostalgia. If I were to pick one theme from the book it would be the power of nostalgia. Unfortunately, this sentimental, hopeful emotion is crushed by external influences. There is a sense of hopelessness that pervades the narrative as England draws closer and closer to war. Occurring between WWI and WWII, the impending, pressing fear of war is just around the corner. Still, in the midst of it all, George goes on a trip down memory lane to the sweet simplicity of childhood. I didn’t count but if I had to venture a guess, I would estimate that this remembrance involves two-thirds of the book.

A lesson I learned before reading this book was that nostalgia is both therapeutic and dangerous. Thus, for me, it is both a strength and a weakness. Sweet memories are a salve to a weary, wounded soul. Obsession over better times in the past creates bitter resentment for the chains of the present and the fear of the future. But as a kid, we don’t have that fear of the future. We just enjoyed the present without a past to compare it with. Perhaps that is why nostalgia is almost always associated with our childhood. When, but as a child, can we truly enjoy living in the now? This reminds me of some Wordsworth:

 

To her fair works did nature link, the human soul that through me ran

And much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.

 

We really are the architects of our own misery as we move into adulthood.

George Bowling’s memories of his youth are beautiful and charmed. He goes to great lengths to express his love of fishing and how important that activity was for him. He recalls with longing the small store his father owned and the care taken to provide a good, reasonably priced product for his customers. He recalls school and fights and friends. He even recalls WWI with some fondness, not for the culture and climate of war but for the life he led before marriage and the responsibilities of making a living. He spent a great deal of time during the war in some remote posting in West England, far from any danger and in a place where he was getting paid to sit on his rear and read and learn whatever suited him.

Through it all, George maintains a grounded perspective.

His marriage, it seems, is the source of a great deal of George’s anxiety. He seems to really despise being married. I’m not certain if the man would hate marriage in general, if his wife in particular is the problem, or if it is a combination of both. But his wife maintains a despairing attitude with a particular fear of not just the future, but of the present.

We’ve lived all our life together to the tune of “Next week we’ll be in the workhouse.” It’s not that Hilda’s mean, in the ordinary sense of the word, and still less that she’s selfish. Even when there happens to be a bit of spare cash knocking about I can hardly persuade her to buy herself any decent clothes. But she’s got this feeling that you ought to be perpetually working yourself up into a stew about lack of money. Just working up an atmosphere of misery from a sense of duty.

I found myself excited for George’s return to his childhood home. I couldn’t wait for him to get back to his roots. Orwell adeptly builds up George’s anticipation for many small but significant things. He is so excited as he comes over the rise in the road to see the small town he remembers; he can’t wait to see downtown and find his parents’ store; he sees a woman he used to date; he finds the old fishing hole he’s been dying to try out that he never did as a kid. Nothing is as he remembered it. Nothing. This may have been the most discouraging thing of all. He says early on in the book, as he recounts the death of his mother that:

Don’t think I didn’t feel for Mother’s death. I did. I wasn’t in the trenches any longer, I could feel sorry for a death. But the thing I didn’t care a damn about, didn’t “even grasp to be happening, was the passing-away of the old life I’d known.

His mother’s death notwithstanding, the point that we don’t notice how significantly our lives change at these moments is something I fear.

My favorite place to go as a child was my grandmother’s home. There was love, play, candy, and all the sweet memories tied into smells, sounds, and feelings. Even now, recalling the sensation of it all makes me yearn for it. In retrospect, I could have gotten happily stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of reliving those times. When my grandmother passed away years ago, I remember feeling grieved at her death but also an immeasurable sense of loss for the life I had once lived in her home. Though I was grown and married, it had never struck me, until her funeral, that those days were long gone–even though they had already been long gone for a decade!

Consider this quote from Andy Bernard on The Office television show:

I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.

andybernard

That’s what is so magical about childhood, as I mentioned earlier. We have this great ability to live in the present without fear of the future or regret/yearning for the past. The present is all that matters. Sure, we adults shout “Carpe Diem!” at the top of our lungs but we don’t do it. We get overwhelmed with debt, responsibilities, jobs, kids, keeping up with the Jones’, back trouble, you name it. We suck at seizing the day. We get stuck in a rut and stop changing, stop learning, stop trying to understand the world beyond our physical, emotional, and indoctrinated reach. George Bowling makes this observation of a teacher he knows and visits whom he refers to as Old Porteous:

Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea. Old Porteous is like that. Wonderfully learned, wonderfully good taste—but he’s not capable of change. Just says the same things and thinks the same thoughts over and over again. There are a lot of people like that. Dead minds, stopped inside. Just keep moving backwards and forwards on the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.

Kids are always ready for something new, to embrace new ideas, to see from a different angle. Sure they don’t want to try a vegetable they aren’t familiar with but their minds are moldable.

But it is the world that can jade us, make us slaves to fear, fortune, and societal expectations. Take John Krakauer’s, Into the Wild. I read this book on a whim. While traveling back from Alaska on a dental school internship, I found this remarkable read in the airport bookstore. I always carry a book with me but shelled out the seventeen or so dollars and started reading. I don’t remember what book I was reading that I gave up on, I only remember that I couldn’t put down Into the Wild. If you haven’t read it, I strongly encourage you to do so.

Into the Wild is a third hand account of Christopher McCandless who, upon graduating college, rejected his family’s wealthy lifestyle, donated $20,000 of savings to charity, and disappeared. After his body was found years later in the remote Alaska wilderness, Krakauer was sent to write a magazine article about it. Retracing Chris’s steps backward, Krakauer would interview everyone who claimed to know Chris and write a compelling, sympathetic book about this seemingly troubled young man.

When I finished the book, however, I felt like he was the only sane person in the world and everyone else was troubled. He rejected expectations and learned to live in the moment, enjoying the present with no other concern. His youth involved a significant betrayal that surely contributed to his need to find meaning in life. Still, he was an intelligent, honors student with the world of prestige ahead if he wanted it. Ironically, in rejecting society, with his death he has likely influenced far more people and to a far deeper degree than he probably would have done as a lawyer or businessman.

Back to Orwell, this simple life of living and breathing and focussing on the here and now are platitudes we don’t understand as adults, even inasmuch as we preach them and think we believe them. “Carpe Diem” has become a vestigial sentiment we utter with reverence and vigor but seldom put into effect in our lives with any degree of significance.

Coming Up For Air captures this struggle in one man and contrasts it with the apathy of the world around him, a world that has outpaced him as he loses himself in nostalgia and anxiety. Like much of what I’m learning from Orwell, his writing has a fatalistic zing. Life will overcome us. But within that, there is a hope for a return to simpler times. There is a yearning and expectation for mankind to learn to live again in the present. Also, I think there’s a resignation to the inevitability of the future. His disappointing return to the town in which he was raised seems to say, “Sometimes memories are better left memories.”

So now I have taken in many of Orwell’s thoughtful essays on writing and politics. While his intellect truly shines in these commentaries, it is in his characters that his philosophy and admonition really gripped my mind. Empathy augmented my capacity to learn from him through an honest individual, even a pig on two legs. This quality is more rare in essays and for that reason I realize the power of fiction to move us and influence our point of view, changing our paradigm in a way perhaps no other medium is capable.

I’ve just finished 1984 and loved it. That ought to be the subject of my next blog entry.

I don’t think Coming Up For Air is a book for everyone but, like high school assignments, I found myself thoroughly enjoying what others spurned and ridiculed. If you have read it or do read it, let me know what you think.