All art is theft.
Thus it comes as no surprise that aspiring writers with an interest in politics and the environment fall under the spell of George Orwell. Not just his novels 1984 and Animal farm, but his majestic essay Politics and the English Language.
Christopher Hitchens, perhaps one of the greatest essayists of the last decade, was an enormous fan of Orwell. One can consider Hitchens writing a long exercise in paying tribute to – and wanting to be – Orwell.
Fortunately for Hitchens (and us) he found his unique voice. Hitchens has the same command of language, clarity and sense of justified outrage found in Orwell’s work. Read Hitchen’s God is not Great to see his righteous anger filtered through a powerful prose style.
A recent piece on The Conversation about the value of art in understanding the environmental crisis got me thinking about which novels and films we regard as having an “environmental” theme.
Novels like Cormac McCarthy’s biblical The Road paint a bleak world – the product of some unknown apocalypse. It depicts the journey of the unnamed father and son. They are simply called The Man and The Boy – through this world to the perceived safety of the coast. It is both nightmarish and grueling.
And yet it ends with hope.
Indeed, the ending of The Road is poetic and uplifting: its prevailing mood of pessimism is sharply punctuated by hope. Maybe it is just a glimmer, but it burns all the more brightly in contrast to the ash and death of the world painted by McCarthy.
McCarthy affirms a truth we all know – the human spirit can endure the worst horrors, provided we retain our humanity.
For “the Man” of McCarthy’s novel, it is not enough to merely survive: retaining one’s humanity in a world that has gone to literal Hell becomes the central question, far more important than finding the next meal.
This is also the core of Orwell’s 1984.
The focus of 1984 is Winston Smith’s struggle to retain his humanity in a world that may not be Hell, but is something very akin to it. He has only the vaguest memories of his childhood and mother. All he recalls is loss and horror, and some snippets of a song.
Winston implicitly understands the world is not as it should be – that it does not have to be this way. He suspects he exists in a counterfactual nightmare; a parallel universe to what might have otherwise been. As the reader, we know the world is better than what Winston experiences. But for us, that increases the horror, not reduce it for we step into the world of Big Brother.
Winston can imagine better worlds. He may not know where they are or what they look like, but he is convinced they exist. The tragedy is Winston’s failed struggle to find this world and retain his humanity. We all know how 1984 ends.
The facility to imagine a better world, despite the evidence before our eyes, is a crucial component of our moral imagination. This is what makes us human: to reflect on all possible worlds, and hope to create one closer to Paradise than Hell.
Perhaps this Utopian impulse is unrealistic. At times this impulse has been dangerous, as the distorted racial and economic utopias of Nazism and Stalinism of last century taught us.
However, at times this impulse has been liberating for humanity: Martin Luther King had a dream.
It is my firm believe this impulse resides within all of us, and this is a good thing. We should cultivate it, but temper it with realism, compassion and dare I say it – a dose of conservatism? At least the kind of Edmund Burke who feared the horrors the French Revolution unleashed.
But fear of change? We should embrace change, for that is the permanent state of the universe.
Thus, reflecting on the great “environmental novels” mentioned in The Conversation article it struck me Orwell’s 1984 contains implicit environmental themes.
Ostensibly Orwell’s novel is about politics, the dystopian future of Big Brother and the creation of a monstrous and intrusive police state. It is Stalin’s Russia writ large across the globe and taken to logical extremes. For good reason Orwell was signalling the dangers of totalitarianism.
But the politics of the world Orwell creates shapes the fictional environment, even if the author did not recognise this.
We now know Soviet industry made a polluted wasteland of large parts of Russia and regions of the Soviet Empire. The industries of the Eastern Bloc countries were technologically backwards and polluting. Their collapse increased the air quality and well-being of the environment of those countries, but at great economic cost and social dislocation.
Does not the political process and the choices our society make shape the environment of today? If you doubt that claim, merely look at our failure to act on climate change.
Are today’s coal-fired generators soon to be the equivalent of the shuttered and empty factories of Eastern Europe – relics not merely of a failed industry, but a failed world view?
It is unlikely Orwell would view his work as an environmental critique. However, authorial intent is often at odds with the perception of readers.
Environmental themes are there in the details of the world of Big Brother and Oceania.
The streets of Airstrip One (the renamed England) are strewn with refuse – everything is ruin.
The universe is in a state of entropy, of falling apart. And yet everyone is indifferent to this state of affairs. They are too preoccupied with the basic questions of survival: of having enough food to eat and avoiding the worst aspects of the security state.
All is ruin.
All live in indifference.
All avoid the truth before them.
All seek the safety of anonymity.
All live in denial: even those in the elite of The Party.
However, don’t let your imagination stop there: dwell on the image of the world Orwell created in 1984.
It is run down and exhausted.
Look in the corners of his world and you will see the poverty and shambolic social services.
What else do you see?
The exclusive use of resources by the military and political elite at the expense of the populace; the stifling of voices who question this status quo; every organ of the state exists to control the use of resources and keep the people compliant through violence, language and surveillance.
People are distracted by a vast political-entertainment complex, the “proles” living on an information diet of sensationalist news and pornography.
How very prescient of Orwell – no doubt unintentional – to paint the picture of an exhausted and run down world, in which the elites squabble over the remaining scraps.
How very much we risk the creation of such a world.
All art is theft.
All art is truth.