The smell of rotting cabbage

I first read George Orwell's 1984 in the 8th grade. Mrs. James, my middle school English teacher, silently handed me a copy after I had finished my basic skills test early and was looking forward to goofing off in the remaining 10 minutes of the testing period. Mrs. James hated seeing students simply sitting there, so she would sometimes furnish them with a book to read. I don't know why she chose 1984 for me. Perhaps she had spotted me reading some classic science fiction (Heinlein, Ellison, Bradbury), which was a phase I went through in my reading life at about this time.

Then again, maybe it was for no particular reason at all. Maybe she just had a copy of the novel handy. In any case, I read it over the next few days and was really affected by it. For one thing, 1984 has some surprisingly frank depictions of sexuality--at least it did for this 8th grader. Indeed, the sexually liberated and joyfully hedonistic Julia may have been my first literary crush.

But 1984 isn't about procreation so much as elimination: the elimination of language, history, privacy and even human nature. To what degree, Orwell seems to ask, is it possible to redirect human nature, to control our desires, not only for love, but for freedom and individuality? Can our essential natures be reworked so that we want something else? Of course the default setting in much of the social sciences and humanities today is social constructionism. To one degree or another, there is a foundational assumption underlying the various sociopolitical "isms" that identity is malleable, negotiable, and socially constructed. When it comes to who we are, there's really no there there, or so say the reigning theorists du jour.

This means, of course, that our natures are pliable and we are free to reconstruct our societies to engineer away past injustices. We simply have to topple the prevailing power structure and replace it with a better one. But that's not exactly the view Orwell holds. It's not so simple to revise human nature in the world of 1984 (else why would the Party have to employ such extraordinary means to redirect desires?). Orwell implies that there really is some basic human orientation toward freedom and individuality, and it is only with the greatest ruthlessness and effort that it can be ferreted out and destroyed. What's darkly terrifying about 1984 is not that we lack an essential orientation to freedom and individuality. It's that we do. There is a there there, and it can be erased.

I have not read 1984 since that time long ago in middle school, but we've started it this week for sophomore honors section. What strikes me at this reading is not its sexuality or the constant olfactory references to rotting cabbage (and not even those horrific rats at the end). No, what troubles me is Orwell's pessimism about the durability of human longing for freedom and individuality. I really didn't register that before.


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