Weekend Picks: How “Orwellian” Are We?

Eric Arthur Blair, known as George Orwell, was an English writer whose work was set apart from others' by a sharp insight and significant awareness of social treachery, an extraordinary resistance to totalitarianism, a creativity energy, and an abiding faith in democratic socialism. His impact on contemporary culture, social and political, continues decades after his death. A few of his neologisms, including the expression "Orwellian" — now an aphorism for any manipulative and restrictive social system — have entered the vernacular.

Burmese Days

“So often like this, in lonely places in the forest, he would come upon something–bird, flower, tree–beautiful beyond all words, if there had been a soul with whom to share it. Beauty is meaningless until it is shared.” 

Set in the time of the British administration in Burma, this book is a portrait supreme fanaticism. Flory, a trader, becomes a friend of Veraswami, a loyal subject of the Empire, whose ruin must be accomplished to stop him from joining the local all-white club.

Burmese Days is basically about unlikeable, dull individuals who have been placed in a tiresome club where nothing occurs. Theirs is a provincial society where the whites run everything and the local individuals, regardless of their status in the neighboring population group, have no clear power and can’t get into a club filled with members whose sole distinguishing characteristic is that they are white. If the non-whites became members of the club, it might mean that they could control their province. Flory finds this obvious bigotry frightful, however he has to obey the rules.

“To talk, simply to talk! It sounds so little, and how much it is! When you have existed to the brink of middle age in bitter loneliness, among people to whom your true opinion on every subject on earth is blasphemy, the need to talk is the greatest of all needs.”

Burmese Days is a searing assault on prejudice that appears to come out of every corner of the country.

“It is devilish to suffer from a pain that is all but nameless. Blessed are they who are stricken only with classifiable diseases! Blessed are the poor, the sick, the crossed in love, for at least other people know what is the matter with them and will listen to their belly-achings with sympathy. But who that has not suffered it understands the pains of exile?” 



“War is peace. 
Freedom is slavery. 
Ignorance is strength.”

The year 1984 is a thing of the past now, but George Orwell’s prophetic, nightmarish vision of it, written in 1949 to depict the world we were getting to be, is timelier than planned. 1984 is an example of a “negative ideal world” – a startlingly unique novel that creates a fictional universe that is totally persuasive, from the first sentence to the last four words. Nobody can deny the imagination of an entire generation – a power that appears to develop, not diminish, with the progression of time.

“For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?” 

1984 portrays a Utopia, but not Thomas More’s adaptation of Utopia, rather one which is the direct opposite – Dystopia. Envision living in a nation whose pioneers apply a totalitarian framework in managing citizens in ways which make Hitler, Mao, and Stalin look like babies.

“The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”

The past is controlled, changed into something that will reinforce the ruler of the moment. Who controls the past, controls what’s to come. Who controls the present, controls the past. There is no genuine truth. The “fact of the matter” is whatever the state says it is.

The world in 1984 is separated into three states, which have evolved since the Second World War: Oceania (the Americas, British Isles, Australia, Pacific), Eurasia (Europe and Russia), and Eastasia (whatever remains). Nonstop fighting between these three (which have similar belief systems) is required to keep the general public under control.

“Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” 

Shooting an Elephant

Shooting an Elephant is Orwell’s record of his experience as an official in imperial Burma; executing an escaped elephant before a group to avoid looking like a fool. The Empire’s end came when the people who had already surrendered their arms and all their riches, too, understood that “Jack” was in the same class as his lord, and that the lord was an evil person.

“In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” 

So, the main protagonist had to kill an elephant when he did not see the need to, but it was his role and the elephant was the favourite food of the people he was surrounded by. There was a certain satisfaction in forcing a white man to perform a self-defined role, but defining roles on their own was another story.

“In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity among gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.” 

This work is truly inspirational. The topic is examining Orwell’s perceptions amid his posting in Burma, his stay in a French doctor’s facility (an exceptionally terrible experience), and furthermore his perspectives on different social systems.

“For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life trying to impress the ‘natives,’ and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him… A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things.” 

Photo: Shutterstock

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