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Friday, August 17, 2007

Shifting Perspectives

I’m going to plagiarize myself today. I feel no guilt. I’m indolent by nature. I wrote most of this entry over a year ago for another blog (a now-defunct literary blog). I had just reread George Orwell’s 1984 (for the umpteenth time), and had put my thoughts to paper.

Orwell’s words continue to resonate within me. Karl Rove’s recent “retirement” brought this book back to mind. In case you haven’t guessed, I consider Karl Rove (well, the entire Bush administration, actually), the embodiment of evil.

I realized how much one’s perspective can change over time. I first read 1984 in high school. I was attending an all-boys’ Catholic school (as a student in the “Honors” class). Anyway, we read this book and argued its meanings vigorously. Oh, how we debated Nazism, Stalinism, European Socialism, Marxism, Maoism, Capitalism, etc.! We averred that 1984 could never happen here in America. We were full to bursting with book smarts and testosterone. We felt our opinions had gravitas. We considered ourselves to be thoughtful intellectuals. My God, we had even begun to shave!!! Turns out we were nothing more than downy-whiskered children.

We understood nothing.

I picked up this book again in my late twenties. I had been to the Soviet Union. There I met my paternal grandfather for my one and only time. You see, he had been exiled to the Russian gulag slave-labor prison system for 20 years. He spent several years in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo prison being tortured and beaten repeatedly (he was rendered an epileptic as a result). It was in Lithuania that I heard about aunts, uncles and cousins who had starved to death in the frozen Siberian wilderness. I had red-faced, alarmed strangers hush me on the tram when I casually offered an opinion about what I witnessed all around me. I had visited the Doleriniai, the “Dollar Stores” (stores that only accepted U.S. currency…i.e., money from tourists) with shelves creaking from the ponderous mass of merchandise…and the empty bakery and butcher shops that supposedly offered goods to the average citizen. I saw long, dispirited lines in front of depleted shops. I saw despoiled, abandoned churches. I saw political posters and slogans everywhere. I slept in a room where the radio played constantly…eavesdropping on my every conversation (the well-traveled hotel guests and several staff had warned me the rooms were bugged). I saw frustration, hopelessness and fear. My perspective had changed. George Orwell was right. He had brilliantly foreseen the motives, means and methods that would be used by those in power to stay in power.

I finally understood what it all meant in human terms. I had witnessed the reality of what George Orwell had foreseen.

Fast forward three more decades. I’ve come to understand that Orwell wasn’t decrying a particular regime. Not at all. He spoke to a universal truth: that people in power, the wealthy, the privileged and spoiled (regardless of political persuasion), maintain control through artifice, fear and illusion. The Bush administration is chillingly reminiscent of the regime portrayed in 1984. Not as extreme, certainly, but close enough. Too close (Gitmo, waterboarding and warrantless wiretapping, Alberto?).

But it wasn’t politics that drew me back to this book. No, I’d had my fill of doublethink and the realities of power. I was haunted by the final vision of Winston and Julia sitting in two iron chairs facing each other with nothing to say. I wanted to revisit their love story.

I’ve come to see that George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, actually) saw the world with an exceptionally keen eye. He was not writing about a particular regime. He understood universal truths. He wrote that there are three kinds of people in this world: the High, the Middle and the Low. I’ve come to understand the truth of that. I look at the world, and my own United States, and I see how the struggle manifests itself. We live in a time of doublethink and Newspeak right here within our very shores. Orwell understood power and control even better than Karl Rove. But Orwell wasn’t just an observant critic. He understood that, while we will always be subjected to the whims and the grotesqueries of the High’s, our human relationships are our only salvation. Our only refuge against the horrors and injustices of the world is our basic humanity. Love is our only sanctuary. I’ve come to understand what I think Orwell was trying to communicate. Only love can protect and save us. That “what mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself.”

I see now that Orwell wrote a cautionary tale. The world is harsh. Power is greedy and cruel. All we have is love. Deny love, betray love, reject love and we are surely doomed.

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Blogger anna said...

All I could do as I read this was sit and nod in agreement. I was just talking to a friend about greed and cruelty earlier today. Some people are scary and I wonder if they are even capable of love. Then I wonder how a human being can be incapable of it.

Fri Aug 17, 05:04:00 PM  
Blogger Laurie Anne said...

Wow. Your words so eloqent, Jonas. I love revisiting a constant, like a book, and review the changing perspectives. I love how you describe the innocence and passion of your youth.
I will have to revisit 1984 now. I remember reading it at 16 and literally getting the chills when they meet at the end of the book. I still recollect it.

Sat Aug 18, 02:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems that sadly, the nature of humans is to repeat the same mistakes our ancestors made, over and over and overr again with little or no wisdom gained. I don't remember much of the book anymore, read it in high school too, but it seems that those in power are more concerned with staying in power than, honesty, truth, or justice. That part doesn't seem to change.

Lord Acton wrote in the 1800's

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.


Great men are almost always bad men.

Things don't seem to change much.

Sat Aug 18, 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Interesting comments all. It does my heart good to see that others see the world with similar eyes. It leaves the door open for Hope.

Sat Aug 18, 12:38:00 PM  
Blogger Fiona said...

It's amazing how books read and re-read can hold such different meanings to us. We see different things in the same words, depending on where we are in life. That, is the incredible power of the written word. It never, ever, dies.

Mon Aug 20, 05:37:00 AM  

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