Friday, September 27, 2013

1984 and Newspeak

If we listen to the daily news we know that the world is "going to hell in a handbasket." Although I tremble at how these events will affect my children and grandchildren, I tremble even more at God's judgement on a people who have learned to call good evil and evil good. (Isaiah 5:20) What better example in literature is there than Orwell's 1984 in which the government teaches, "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength"?

Orwell's book gives glimpses of a world gone mad, where people are not allowed to think or believe anything outside the party line. It is a world of re-written history books, broken families, and moral poverty. Call me nuts, but what struck the most terror into my soul was Orwell's vision of a world without beautiful words.

In the appendix to the novel, Orwell explains the intricacies of "Newspeak", the language meant to abolish all possibility of thinking deep thoughts. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought (a thought diverging from the principles of the government) should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as though is dependend on words. (p. 299)

Vocabulary was divided into three groups. "Group A" consisted of words needed for every day life (hit, run, dog, tree, sugar).  But all ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged out of them. So far as it could be achieved, a Newspeak word of this class was simple a staccato sound expressing one clearly understood concept. (p. 300) The words "warm" and "bad" were replaced by "uncold" and "ungood."

 "Group B" consisted of compound words invented for political purposes. Expressions such as "orthodoxy" and "exchange of ideas" were replaced by words such as "goodthink, crimethink, and oldthink." The words honor, justice, morality, democracy, science and religion simply ceased to exist. (p. 304)

The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologicallly neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness... A Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets... Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all. (p. 307)

"Group C" involved words having to do with science and technology and were known only to the men and women who used them in their field of study.

The overall purpose of truncated language was to inhibit any thinking that would go against the reigning powers. With powerless words the worst thing one could say against Big Brother was that he was "ungood". Furthermore, as "Oldspeak" became more and more a thing of the past, literature and history books written in previous centuries (with their richness of language and thought) would become unintelligible.

Even more than the rest of the book, the appendix to 1984 gave me much to ruminate over. It's been three months since I read it and yet whenever I come to a potent word in a book I'm reading, I think to myself, "This wouldn't exist in Orwell's world."

I even started a list on my Kindle notepad of words that would be lost forever: languid, luscious, copious, salient, piety, virtue, indefatigable, petulant, steadfast.

It's enough to break your heart.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Adam Bede by George Eliot

A friend once told me that Uncle Tom's Cabin was the most Christian novel he'd ever read. Since I haven't read it, I'll have to reserve that label for George Eliot's Adam Bede. This is the third novel I've read by Eliot and I'm again amazed that a woman of such ungodly principles could write so winsomely about men of women with sterling characters.

Apart from her excellent writing, Eliot has tremendous insights into human nature and into human suffering. And she's funny! Her little asides about the foibles and weaknesses of the characters in her story had me chuckling throughout the book. Another treat to me were the glimpses into early Methodism (Itinerant Methodist preacher, Dinah Morris, is one of the main characters in the book.)

Adam Bede is the story of young English carpenter at the turn of the 19th century. He's in love with Hetty Sorrel, a beautiful woman far beneath him in brains and heart. You'll spend the first half of the novel dreading the culmination of his dream to marry her.  But by the time his lady love topples from her pedestal, your judgments will not be so clearly marked against her since Eliot has the gift of making her characters seem flawed and loveable at the same time. I cannot tell anymore of the story without spoilers.  I can only say that it is a powerful story of redemption, manhood (both true and false), and love (both shallow and deep).

One of my favorite themes in Adam Bede was echoed in Eliot's Middlemarch, the idea that common, honest people contribute more to the good of mankind through their quiet acts of love and duty than do famous heroes.

Be warned that the first half of the book is slow-going and some of the dialect makes it difficult, but then things pick up quite a bit; it's worth the effort and it's free for Kindle.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Are Schools Anti-Reading?

I have Barbara to thank for pointing out "School is no Place for Readers." It's a lengthy post on how schools push reading fairs and reading logs, but in reality discourge kids from digging deeply into books. Here's a sample quote:

School libraries are filled with computers and the shelves are filled with dreck based on video games, cartoons and movies. It is said that this is the only way to tempt children away from screen to page, but these book impostors are created to foster and capitalize on an appetite for a product. is it likely that "Barbie in a Mermaid Tale," printed out as sixteen pages of dull and disjointed summary, will increase the odds of the child reading Alice in Wonderland or Swallows and Amazons? Whatever the market may cast before consumers, school should not be its enthusiastic accomplice in corrupting the taste and abilities of the young. We must know these things for what they are. The Pokemon Character Guide is not a book, it is a toy. Children ought to have toys, but they should also have books.

The complete article offers lots to ponder.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

In this 560-page tome Bloom highlights twenty-six writers whose writings set the standard for all literature  that followed them. (Shakespeare, Dickens, Milton, Tolstoy, etc.)

I admit it.  I’ve been in awe of Harold Bloom as the “guardian” of classic literature ever since I first heard about him.  I have struggled through several of his books, but The Western Canon was the last one I’ll ever have to read because it knocked him off his pedestal.  I still appreciate, but no longer idolize, him. It's partly because I’ve become more sure of my own reading tastes and am no longer inclined to swallow someone else’s opinions about what I “should” be reading. It's also due to his disturbing view of the Bible. Although he has tremendous respect for it, he believes the Old Testament was written by a woman and that it has been revised beyond recognition from its original texts. Listen to this gobbledygook:

After Shakespeare, the greatest representative of the given is the first author of the Hebrew Bible, the figure named Yahwist or J by nineteenth-century biblical scholarship.  J, like Homer, a person or persons lost in the dark recess of time, appears to have lived in or near Jerusalem some three thousand years ago, well before Homer either lived or was invented.  Just who the primary J was, we are never likely to know.  I speculate, on purely internal and subjective literary grounds, that J may very well have been a woman at King Solomon’s court… [Probably] Bathsheba, mother of Solomon… The J writer was the original author of what we now call Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, But what she wrote was censored, revised, and frequently abrogated or distorted by a series of redactors across five centuries, culminates with Ezra, or one of o his followers, in the era of the return for Babylonian exile….J’s Yahweh is human – all too human; he eats and drinks, , frequently loses his temper, delights in his own mischief, is jealous and vindictive, proclaims his justness while constantly playing favorites, and develops a considerable case of neurotic anxiety … By the time he leads that crazed and suffering rabblement through the Sinai wilderness, he has become so insane and dangerous, to himself and to others, that the J writer deserves to be called the most blasphemous of all authors ever. (p.4, 5)

Really? When you read drivel like that about a book Bloom considers to be one of the absolute greatest in the Western Canon, how can you continue to hope that his other thoughts will be enlightening?

But Bloom isn’t considered the Protector of Great Literature for nothing.  He believes (and rightly so) that great literature will continue to exist, not because it’s “good for you”, but because true readers actually enjoy the stuff.  Sadly, however, (and he’s right again here) colleges and universities will have less and less lit majors.  What are now called “Departments of English” will be renamed departments of “Cultural Studies” where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies, and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Wallace Stevens. (p. 484)

Dismal but true. This book is worth skimming through to find out why the Great Books are worthy of the name.


In recent years controversy has been brewing over the New International Version of the Bible. The 1984 version has been one of the most-loved and most-used of all Bible versions, but a few years ago the editorial staff made some decisions that produced a newer version that many find unacceptable. The original version is no longer in print, nor is it available online as it used to be (at Cripplegate has a good article about it called "Farewell, NIV" if you want to read more.

My NIV (1984) is still in pretty good shape so I won't be switching to another version just yet. What about you? Have you switched? Do you have a recommendation for a good, solid translation?