Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Reading From George Orwell...

From 1984:

  She began to enlarge upon the subject.  With Julia, everything came back to her own sexuality.  As soon as this was touched upon in any way she was capable of great acuteness.  Unlike Winston, she grasped the inner meaning of the Party's sexual puritanism.  It was not merely that the sex created a world of its own which was outside the Party's control and therefore had to be destroyed if possible.  What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship.  The way she put it was:
  "When you make love you're using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don't give a damn for anything.  They can't bear you to feel like that.  They want you to be bursting with energy all the time.  All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour.  If you're happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and Three-Year Plans and Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?"
  That was very true, he thought.  There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy.  For how could the fear, the hatred, and lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force?  The sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account.

This passage, and few others like it in Orwell's novel, speak to something that's been on my mind for a long time; sexuality as the last bastion against total rationalization, plain horniness as a spring of unending creativity, and efforts to try to control and channel sexual passion into things more "useful."
Of course, commercial culture continues to find new ways to exploit these desires and to turn them into profit.  We always end in grief and infamy when we let our nads do all of our thinking for us.  We are not farm animals, but then, we aren't angels either, and we are at our most beastly when we try to become angels. However, Orwell's writing articulates ideas very much at the heart of the current series of David Wojnarowicz paintings that I am working on.

It seems to me that the kind of controlling puritanicalism Orwell describes in this passage better describes certain autocratic fundamentalist religious sects than most political movements these days (with the possible exception of 20th century totalitarian hold-outs like North Korea).  That transformation of sexual passion into "fear, hatred, and lunatic credulity" describes any number of fundamentalist movements.

Sexuality, and especially long illegal same sexuality, played a very political role in Wojnarowicz's art and writings.  For him gay sexuality was a force for resistance and liberation in an over-rationalized culture full of constraints that rewarded predation and mendacity at the cost of authenticity and justice.  That is how I saw homosexuality for many years.  That anarchistic edge was part of its fun and a big part of the struggle against those everlasting bourgeois vices of conformism and hypocrisy.  The dramatic recent embrace of that formerly criminalized sexuality by larger society is causing something of an identity crisis for me and for others.  How much do we want to be part of a conventional society that values profit over justice, marketing over truth, and confuses survival skills for "values."   There are times when I wonder if gays and lesbians are finally fully enfranchised as citizens, or whether we are simply valuable as a profitable niche market.  There are times when I wonder if the much discussed acceptance of homosexuality by the younger generations is because they really believe in fairness and equality, or because they just don't give a shit anymore.  I don't know.

I'm reading 1984 for the first time.  I've read some of Orwell's work before; Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London, and some short stories, but until now, I've never read 1984.  I wonder if all the many political pundits who invoke this novel have ever really read it.  It certainly is based on Communism, especially the Stalinist kind, but it seems to me that what the book is really about is the capacity of language as a weapon to dominate and control people.

"Do you see that the whole point of Newspeak is to narrow that range of thought?  In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words to express it.  Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten... Every year fewer and fewer words and the range of consciousness always a little smaller."  

And further:

"The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed.  Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron -- they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but changed into something actually contradictory of what they used to be...  The whole climate of thought will be different.  In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now.  Orthodoxy means not thinking -- not needing to think.  Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."


June Butler said...

"How much do we want to be part of a conventional society that values profit over justice, marketing over truth, and confuses survival skills for "values."

Doug, we're not all like that.

"There are times when I wonder if the much discussed acceptance of homosexuality by the younger generations is because they really believe in fairness and equality, or because they just don't give a shit anymore."

I can't speak for young people, but only for myself. I came to advocacy for fairness and equality for LGTB persons late in life, and it was surely not because I didn't give a shit.

Orwell was spot on about the reasons for the efforts of fundamentalists, whether religious or political, to suppress sexuality. But, as we see with sex scandals involving well-known political and religious leaders who shout about "family values", the effort so often fails. Sexuality will out.

Counterlight said...

June, you are one of the very last people I would ever describe as "conventional."

June Butler said...

Let's face it, Doug. No matter how accepting of homosexuality the greater society becomes, neither of us will ever be mainstream, so no worries there.

rick allen said...

"There was a direct intimate connection between chastity and political orthodoxy."

Speaking as someone who's long admired Orwell (I read "Animal Farm" in elementary school and "1984" in junior high), and would recommend him to anyone and everyone, I nevertheless don't go along with him on this particular.

Chastity is simply sexual self-control, based on a conviction that sexual love is only a good if coupled with agape, the love that seeks not its own. Its opposite, lust, seems no more subversive to me than gluttony, sloth or avarice. It was Puritans who cut of the heads of kings, not libertines. And if a restless population can be appeased with bread and circuses, how much more so a population encouraged to pursue every pleasure while shaking off the habits of commitment?

Lest I seem too puritanical myself (a label we all dread and deny), I would appeal to Phil Ochs' "Small Circle of Friends" and, more seriously, Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." Granted, in the repressive, grinding horror of 1984, any human feeling, heroic or hedonistic, would be subversive. But I think Huxley is more correct on the relationship between social docility and what in the last century began being advocated as "free love."

(Interestingly, the society of Brave New World also requires the suppression of Shakespeare, Milton, and their ilk.)

Counterlight said...

I think what Orwell was talking about was not voluntary chastity, but compulsory chastity imposed on people without their consent and against their wishes.

JCF said...

Wot Doug Said. Compulsory (or coerced, ala "DO this, if you want to have your call to the priesthood affirmed") celibacy is an ENTIRELY different kettle of fish...

I have mixed feelings, re the notion that somehow LGBT people are assimilating their outlaw sexuality via (for example) marriage. Certainly, there are assimilationist ASPECTS to marriage. But I think the concept of making lifelong vows of monogamous fidelity to one other person is actually a pretty radical act (I mean, let's face it, it's cray-cray!). The BEST marriages always look OUTWARD, taking the monogamous love and using it as a source of STRENGTH: love is ALWAYS bigger than the sum of its parts. Now, that outward agenda can devolve into the Duggars, to be sure. But it CAN be so much more. I think same-sex marriages, in particular, have the potential to multiply agents-of-change, into Revolution. Maranatha!

rick allen said...

Doug, your post got me to thinking about how little I know about Orwell himself, apart from a few of his books (I also listened to an audio version of "Homage to Catalonia" a few years back, my only exposure to his autobiographical works). Given the times he lived in I can certainly understand his aversion to any kind of "orthodoxy," and I was always under the impression that he had little sympathy with the religious outlook. Anyway, a little googling around turned up the following, which I thought you might find interesting:


Counterlight said...

Thanks for the article. I had known that Orwell was buried an Anglican at his request. I didn't know how long, complicated, and turbulent his relation to Christianity was. I'm not surprised though.

As for my orthodoxy, I can say the Creeds, Apostles' and Nicene, without crossed fingers. While I'm quite left/progressive in my politics, it is out of a religious conviction that Justice is our responsibility to each other and to God. I certainly do not share the liberal religious belief in human improvement, that human nature itself has improved and progressed. I certainly don't see any evidence of that, but neither did Orwell.

As for the hope of heaven and the terror of hell, I always remember this quote from a Muslim saint from the 8th century, Rabiah al Basri:
"O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
But if I worship You for Your Own sake,
grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”

Counterlight said...

One of the things I've always appreciated about Orwell is his distaste for "terrible simplifiers," in the words of Jacob Burckhardt. I share that distaste for both too-tidy religious orthodoxies and for equally facile secularism. And like him, I very much oppose any attempt to cut through the Gordian Knot of the world's mess and complexity. Those efforts to tidy everything up always end up doing far more harm than good, if they do any good at all.

As for the whole Christian thing, one of the many things that still keeps me with this obscurantist religion that's mostly made up of arrogant, bigoted, and perfectly awful people is the idea that what God desires from us most is the one thing He cannot command from us, our love.

June Butler said...

Rick, thanks for the link to the Spectator piece on Orwell. That he couldn't let go entirely of the concepts of God and religion is quite intriguing.