Why 2 + 2 should never equal 5

War is Peace

To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone – to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone:

From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink – greetings!

George Orwell, 1984


Fearing for his life, 1984’s Winston Smith scratches these words, with an old-fashioned fountain pen, on the first blank page of a diary.  In a regime where everything is seen, it is a hidden, illegal and subversive act; it reaches across time, connecting with the ‘future unborn’ in an attempt to describe the repressive regime of IngSoc to a readership which, Winston hopes, will – at the time of reading – have moved beyond it.

A recent stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 reminded me how much this novel still speaks to contemporary culture.  Staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, a collaboration between Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company and Headlong, it was a thought-provoking and innovative production, which used digital technology to enhance the theatrical experience.  For instance, the room above the antiques shop where Winston and Julia have their clandestine meetings was off stage; the characters were hidden, in a physical sense, and yet we could watch them on a screen.  This opened up the performative space; it also forced into the position of hidden observer, to ‘become’ Big Brother.  As it suggested in the play’s programme, the adaptation sought to ‘explore the relationship between the systems of surveillance described in Orwell’s novel and the operation of surveillance in contemporary Britain.’

Arguments about identity cards, internet tracking and security systems aside, what chimed the most for me – as it did when I first read the novel at the age of 16 – is the influence of language and creativity on thought and freedom.  Winston’s work for the Ministry of Truth requires him to erase written records which record fact, or historical truth:

When there were no external records that you could refer to, even the outline of your own life lost its sharpness.  You remembered huge events which had quite probably not happened, you remembered the detail of incidents without being able to recapture their atmosphere, and there were long blank periods to which you could assign nothing.

1984 was not meant to be an instruction manual

For me, there’s another contemporary resonance here, too.  Only a couple of months ago, there was a suggestion that, in the ongoing reform of the English education system and the development of the Ebacc, the Government may drop the compulsory study of literature.  Language will be retained as a subject, but it would no longer be necessary to read the classic texts which have shaped the literary education through decades, if not centuries.  The result, Polly Toynbee suggests, is that, in this system, these classics will ultimately disappear and die out.  Of course, this is only the case for those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these texts.  For many children whose parents don’t read, who don’t have books at home, study of literature at school is the only portal to a past culture.

The implications of this are enormous.  In 1984, as we know, this kind of control means the assertion of a new kind of truth in which 2+2=5 (or whatever number the ruling party decree it to be).  What is crucial in the novel is that this manipulation of the truth (and the ownership of the written and spoken word) is exercised by society’s upper strata.  There is a secret truth to which ‘the proles’ will never have access; it is the Inner Party which possesses words and the truth about the censorship of language, and therefore of the past.  If we consider the proposed changes to the GCSE syllabus alongside Orwell’s fictional world, there’s a chilling implication.  Lose these texts and we lose a window on past cultures.  We gain a scenario in which Government legislation begins to control language and the reception of texts.  Ironically, Orwell himself is one of the authors on Toynbee’s list.

There are, of course, novels that follow 1984 which explore this same territory: the written word and its relationship with submission to a particular reality or truth, as well as the glimmer of a possibility of resistance to that truth.  Resistance often takes the form of owning artefacts or words from the past, rather than their new, virtual replacements.  In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the main character, Offred, is permitted (by the Commander who ‘owns’ her) to play an ancient game of Scrabble.  She feels, momentarily, the thrilling power of creating and owning words.   In 1984, it is Winston’s diary, with its creamy, fifty-year old paper, which becomes the repository for his rebellion of thought and word.  Like 1984, the characters in Antonia Honeywell’s forthcoming debut novel The Ship (to be published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson early in 2015) are also ruled by the screen.  The inhabitants of the ship, cut off from the land and from the artefacts of the past, can only experience literature and art through the screen, where they look at digitalised copies, rather than the originals.  One of the key questions posed by Honeywell’s new novel is this: can a world cut off from reality be, in itself, real?  What will be the stories the inhabitants of the ship tell themselves about their past, and their future?

Studies have suggested that the reading of literary fiction positively fosters empathy.  I’d argue that reading any kind of fiction – literary or otherwise – moves us from our present circumstance to see things we might not otherwise see.  Literature connects.  It promotes empathy; it means we’re not alone in the world.  More importantly, it encourages a multiplicity of perspectives, and the possibility of moving beyond our current circumstances.  The crucial point is that everyone (not only those who own or have ready access to these texts) should have access to the endless possibilities offered by reading.

Taking English literature off the syllabus at GCSE not only restricts access of the texts themselves, it prevents social mobility.  It restricts the ability to be fully human: to empathise, to connect with others and to the experience the infinite variety of thought and perception.

On this matter, let’s hope that Gove sees sense.

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