Friday, December 19, 2008


One of the books I read every year is George Orwell's 1984. It's an important book because it takes a large idea and crushes it down to a human level. The book's concept of history as being flexible is remarkable because Orwell isn't showing us a new idea. He's basically just holding up a mirror. Our possible pasts have always existed. We choose to remember what we want. On a national level, we remember George Washington as a patriot, as the father of our country and not a guerrilla, a terrorist and a rebel who fought against his country. We remember how the pioneers settled the west and fought hostile Indians. We kind of forget the lands were inhabited, the pioneers were heavily armed, occasionally religious fanatics and/or criminals. Because the indigenous people had a different standard for property, we played games with semantics to say even they thought they didn't own it.

On a personal level, we gloss over our own histories. Our pasts are tweaked in one direction or another. We usually had either a great childhood or a troubled one. The truth is many of us had both. We remember relationships (old girlfriends, boyfriends, etc) as either tending toward the negative or the positive. It changes as we repeat the story to suit the situation or our current psychological makeup.

A couple of years ago, I knew a woman who used to talk about a very wealthy, old man she worked with. At some point, he gave her a pair of tickets to a country music concert. What is interesting is how the relationship evolved through the retelling of the story. In the beginning, he was a fatherly type, she was fond of. He was old, nice, but a bit thick-headed. As the story evolved, he became a lascivious kind of flirt not above using his wealth to bed a young woman --not that she ever succumbed to his checkbook charms.

Everybody does this. Maybe they don't turn sad old pudding heads into pimps, but we all change the characters we create from the people we meet to make the story fit our own personal narratives. Truth is hard. We lie to ourselves first.

The difference in 1984 is the state takes control of every one's story. Everyone becomes a minor character in their own life. That's the danger of letting someone have control of your narrative, the danger of censorship. You become who they want you to be.

The book has a bleak ending. Inevitably, the main characters follow a prescribed path of rebellion from society. It is the one laid out for them by their society with a specific end: sooner or later, they'll be caught, forced to confess and recant. They will be reeducated, then eventually executed. Orwell shows us this. What I've found interesting is they might have escaped. They might have regained control of their lives. The mistake was doing what was expected of them.

In its way, 1984 is a manual for how to resist having your narrative changed by someone else.

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