Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Nineteen Eight-Four: Tragedy or Comedy?
One of the benefits of my editing job is that I get to learn new things from my clients. Not too long ago my new tidbit was the word bildungsroman, a term that has been around long enough that Webster’s Online rates it as an English word. I guess I don’t travel in the right circles: when I looked it up, I was expecting it to be treated as a German word, but it’s not.
Anyway, for those of you who haven’t learned the term yet, a bildungsroman is a coming-of-age novel, “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.” A tragedy in that genre would, I suppose, involve a protagonist who either refused to grow up or grew up crooked. But I would guess that most bildungsromans are comedies: the protagonist learns his lesson and lives happily ever after.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The elevator-talk version of the plot is this: the protagonist, Winston Smith, a formerly married man who is becoming increasingly skeptical of the ruling authorities, and Julia, a female co-worker, another anti-authoritarian, fall in love and have a series of conjugal trysts. The authorities catch them in flagrante delicto (another word that I would have expected to be italicized) and use what would today be called “enhanced rehabilitation” to turn them against each other. After their return to society, the lovers meet, but the affair is dead, and the protagonist decides to join the side of the the authorities.
From the time I was first able to read the book and understand it in the late 1960s, I have always thought of it as a tragedy: the authorities, whose evil is limited only by their incompetence, employ torture to break Winston's will, they take away from him everything that gives his life meaning, and he ends up gladly becoming one of them.
I was not the only one who read it that way. When anyone said, “This is like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” everyone I knew or had ever even heard of would immediately know that the speaker was talking about dystopia, tyranny, evil.
But that was before the year 1984, and it was certainly before “9/11 changed everything.”
I wonder if my conservative Christian brethren would now read the book as a comedy, a triumph of good over evil. Would they not point out that Winston and Julia were involved in an extramarital affair, and if the purpose of the civil government is to punish evildoers, it was fulfilling its job by having its eyes everywhere, capturing them, and persuading them by whatever means to end that affair? Perhaps more importantly, Winston and Julia were contemptuous of authority, doing everything they could to avoid being subject to it. Doesn’t the book’s final line, “He [Winston] loved Big Brother,” describe perfectly the attitude all subjects are to have toward the powers that be, ordained of God? Aren’t those who would read the novel as a tragedy thereby glorifying sexual immorality and rebellion?
The shift in reading from tragedy to triumph may indeed indicate that the American evangelical church is maturing in Christ, that it has taken the gloves off and is urging the powers that be, ordained of God, to unsheath the sword against evildoers. But I find it not irrelevant that today’s “mature” church matches the surrounding culture (one denounced both inside and outside of churches as sexually immoral) in rates of abortion, divorce, bastardy, and fornication—not to mention plain old, garden-variety, let’s-stop-attending-church apostasy—a feat it had not achieved in the days when the book’s title was synonymous with hell on earth.
As the American evangelical church celebrates the establishment of an imperialist police state that not only makes Orwell’s nightmare seem tame by comparison but is getting to the point at which it defies parody, let me suggest that if Jesus reads Nineteen Eighty-Four as a comedy, we are on the verge of a turning to Christ in this nation that is beyond our wildest dreams as the spy state leaves evil nowhere to hide and uses enhanced methods to convince people of their need to submit to authority. Libertarians and anarchists will either become statists or be left behind, but rank-and-file Americans will turn to him in droves.
Or, if that omniscient state turns against us, we could be on the verge of persecution beyond our wildest imagination. In that case, if the saying that the church grows fastest where the persecution is the worst is true, we’re in for massive turning to Christ that way too.
But if Jesus reads the book as a tragedy, American evangelicalism has some serious thinking to do.