Of course, it scarcely suffices to look at what we’ve wrought at Guantánamo and abroad and call it Orwellian or Kafkaesque.
From Roger Cohen's Op-Ed in The New York Times (A Command of the Law, Nov. 26):
Of the 770 detainees grabbed here and there and flown to Guantánamo, only 23 have ever been charged with a crime. Of the more than 500 so far released, many traumatized by those “enhanced” techniques, not one has received an apology or compensation for their season in hell. What they got on release was a single piece of paper from the American government. A U.S. official met one of the dozens of Afghans now released from Guantánamo and was so appalled by this document that he forwarded me a copy. Dated Oct. 7, 2006, it reads as follows:
“An Administrative Review Board has reviewed the information about you that was talked about at the meeting on 02 December 2005 and the deciding official in the United States has made a decision about what will happen to you. You will be sent to the country of Afghanistan. Your departure will occur as soon as possible.”
That’s it, the one and only record on paper of protracted U.S. incarceration: three sentences for four years of a young Afghan’s life, written in language Orwell would have recognized. We have “the deciding official,” not an officer, general or judge. We have “the information about you,” not allegations, or accusations, let alone charges. We have “a decision about what will happen to you,” not a judgment, ruling or verdict. This is the lexicon of totalitarianism. It is acutely embarrassing to the United States. That is why I am thankful above all that the next U.S. commander in chief is a constitutional lawyer. Nothing has been more damaging to the United States than the violation of the legal principles at the heart of the American idea.
Let’s face it, Orwell has become kind of a cliche. (No fault of his own; if the most sincere form of flattery is imitation, the most flattering form of sincerity is to have one’s ideas transmorgified into cliches.) It’s not just that Orwell was, in 1984, writing about a futuristic dystopia; he was describing parts of the world that already existed. The best science fiction, of course, has always anticipated the future by channeling the present. History is obliged to repeat itself because the human beings who make history do so in such a predictable, patterned fashion. And so, Orwell has the curious fate of being over-quoted and under-read: everyone knows what Orwellian means because they’ve already seen what it means (in movies, in the news). More importantly, everyone understands that the horrors Orwell depicted are passe; totalitarianism is so 20th Century. Except for the fact that it isn’t, and never was.
(It’s tempting to point out another immortal text, one that is arguably second only to 1984 in terms of ubiquity and the type of cultural resonance that is so often invoked and so seldom analyzed. Nevertheless, it’s all there in Conrad’s fin-de-siecle classic Heart of Darkness: the dehumanization, for political purposes and/or the expedience of power, of the Other; an “other” who is assigned this designation necessarily from a position of powerlessness (powerless to protect, powerless to define). The naked will of brute force for the ostensible purpose of “exterminating the brutes” invariably involves religion or money, but either way, it always involves a struggle for power. Sadly, few seem to have bothered reading Conrad’s novella, but everyone has seen Apocalypse Now, so it’s a wash.)
But there is an exposed nerve running from Conrad to Orwell that might be best explained by considering the two Russian masters who connected the dots in between them: Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov. The former’s novel We (1921) and the latter’s The Master and Margarita (commenced in 1928, completed in 1941) deal directly with the dehumanizing repercussions of totalitarian rule. Focusing more on the (very human) consequences of identity destruction and the suppression of self–-a paramount objective of those in power, and a necessary condition of remaining in power–-these novels are quite literally notes from the underground, infused with the verisimilitude of an insider’s experience. They lived it and they wrote about it.
Orwell took that torch of truth and continued onward even as the scope of Fascism cast an ever-enlarging shadow over other parts of other continents: again, his work resonates because he is depicting (then, and now) realities that anyone who has lived inside an autocratic regime can easily recognize. And as Americans, we quickly apprehend the causes and effects of totalitarianism because, our history books austerely inform us, we did much to eradicate them. And so we did. But it was well before 9/11 that certain segments of society (usually the dreaded leftist types who work in universities or for newspapers–or even worse, the ones who write fiction or poetry or music) perceived the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which even this most democratic society has at times unintentionally and at other times willfully revealed a dark heart that contradicts its own Constitution.
Notice to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry
Here’s the thing: people have read Orwell even if they haven’t (because the author of Animal Farm is a de rigeur point of reference for any writer, particularly a politically oriented writer, who hopes to be taken seriously), and they’ve watched Conrad (or at least a sensationalized action-epic that delivers visually even if it severely lacks the scope or coherence of its inspiration), and few people have any interest in reading dead Russian writers not named Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky (and those that do are already ensconced in English graduate programs). Fortunately, for better or worse, we nevertheless have an author (and text) that covers everything already mentioned (the fiction, the non-fiction, and the considerable overlap in between them both, otherwise known as History). The good news: his name is, if possible, even more incessantly invoked than Orwell’s. The bad news: even fewer people have actually read him. If that seems Kafkaesque, it’s because it is. Well, actually it isn’t; but that is the point: as an adjective, Kafkaesque is misused with greater abandon than Orwellian. Or, to put it slightly less pessimistically, it has been bludgeoned into submission. Put slightly more pretentiously, Kafkaesque awoke one morning from uneasy dreams it found itself transformed in its bed into a gigantic Cliche.
Franz Kafka, "The Trial" (Der Process)
Listen: an unassuming citizen is informed, one day, that he is accused of a crime. He has committed no crimes that he is aware of, but that is all but irrelevant, since a description of the crime is not given. He spends the rest of his harried life making the futile attempt to exonerate himself or, short of that, have the specific charges explained to him. Immersed in a Byzantine maze that is at once inherently bureaucratic and at the same time nonsensical, his will slowly dissolves in this irrational paralysis. When, ultimately, he is executed, it comes almost as a relief.
Of course, it scarcely suffices to look at what we’ve wrought at Guantánamo and abroad and call it Orwellian or Kafkaesque. It is both of those, in equal measure, but it’s also something quite a bit more appalling. Partly because it’s true–-this has actually happened; partly because we’ve done it before and claimed we would never do it again. Mostly because, while it was happening, there were actually people (quite a lot of them) who raised the alarm and found themselves scoffed at, or threatened. Some were actually disenfranchised; most were simply dismissed. Eventual (inevitable?) progress has been sickeningly slow in coming, but at least there is a miniscule crack in the one-way glass. Once that hole gets bigger (and it will, as it always does) many of us are going to be disgusted at what we see (what we did, who was responsible for organizing it all, what was done in our name by others we paid to do what we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to do). Some will defend it all, naturally: the acts, the people who undertook them; it is, after all, just good business. Others will, obviously, decry the (demonstrably liberal) media that seems to take so much pleasure pulling back the curtain to reveal the cretins scurrying into the cracks. Same as it ever was. And finally, there will be the newly-awakened, who’ll shake their heads and lament that extraordinary times occasionally inspire atrocious activities. But never again, at least. At least we’ll have learned that much.
A cliche: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
A tragedy: those who do not read literature are doomed to inspire it.