For the last decade or so, I have felt as if I am living through a dystopia. I have titled this column ‘The Dystopian Moments’ and not called it ‘Our Dystopias’. So, I want to make it very clear that my focus is not on our current political or social situation in the country. My focus is on the human condition as we find ourselves at this juncture in history. A complete century after the Spanish influenza of 1918, the death, destruction, and the complete illogical responses of countries across the world is also dystopian. In fact, recently, a Supreme Court bench referred to Orwell in an order regarding Pegasus software.
This brings us to the simple question: What is a dystopia? Dystopia is defined as an ‘inverted, upside down’ utopia. Utopia is considered an ideal world where everything is perfect and in harmony with each other. Sir Thomas More’s book is also called Utopia. A dystopia, on the other hand, is a world where nothing is perfect and the world which the characters inhabit can be very scary.
As the reference in the Court order was to George Orwell, let me talk about him. His novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered pathbreaking and prescient in many ways. There’s a TV in the room where Winston Smith lives and it keeps on praising Big Brother’s achievements all day long. There is also Thought Police which scans the minds of every citizen that they should not have nefarious thoughts. There’s no history except what is dished out by the regime. And keeping pens or paper is frowned upon. Also, romantic relationships between the citizens are forbidden. Nothing can happen without the sanction from the Big Brother.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is known as a political dystopia. And some version of the North Korean model with Chinese high-tech facial surveillance systems could get us some idea about the state of life there. But even North Korea under the current regime does not have Thought Police. Winston starts having doubts about the propaganda and questions pop up in his mind because a lot of things seem incongruous to him. Winston is certainly caught and his ‘reeducation process’ begins. His greatest fear was rats and his head is put in a cage with big rodents. What Nineteen Eighty-Four teaches us as a novel is that oppressive regimes work by fear and by exploiting the worst fears of the people.
Quotes from Nineteen Eighty-Four:
“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
“Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently.”
A novel which relates to our current times is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Here, there is a fireman, and his job is to burn books. Guy Montag is the protagonist. His work is to burn outlawed books or rather all books. The world depicted in the novel is a cultural dystopia, where there is no space for books. Mildred, Montag’s wife, is addicted to pills, so, this kind of refers to the opioid crisis that can be seen in many countries of the world. In fact, she reports on him too. Another fascinating aspect of the novel are the billboards on highways; the cars move so fast that the billboards need to be a mile or two long.
You might like to watch this interview by Ray Bradbury: FAHRENHEIT 451. Interview with Ray Bradbury.
Mildred’s desire is to have televisions on all four walls of the rooms in the house, like the rich people have. The sheer commercialism of our times is brilliantly captured in Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451.
Quotes from Fahrenheit 451:
“Where’s your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in those books never lived. Come on now!”
“It doesn’t matter what you do…so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”
“Nobody listens anymore. I can’t talk to the walls because they’re yelling at me, I can’t talk to my wife; she listens to the walls. I just want someone to hear what I have to say. And maybe if I talk long enough it’ll make sense. And I want you to teach me to understand what I read.”
But the novel, the dystopia, that really scares me is neither Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It is William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. You could watch a Ted-Ed video explanation of Golding’s novel here: Why should you read “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding? – Jill Dash
In my view, Golding’s novel is scary because it shows what happens to our world when the social, democratic fabric breaks down. The novel starts with schoolboys from an elite English school when they are marooned on an uninhabited island. But soon, differences develop between them. There are fights over exercising power. The rules made when they arrived at the island are all flouted. The boys kill each other too in an utter display of savagery. Golding successfully shows how the best in the society can degenerate into ghoulish savagery. Maybe, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is a novel of our times.
You can watch the entire movie online at: Lord Of The Flies – full movie
We are living through dystopian lives and I have felt this for at least a decade. All I would advise is to keep our human values alive, to keep our social fabric strong, to display empathy and understanding towards our fellow beings. And never, never to lapse into sheer savagery and evil. Let us recover ourselves from the banality of evil surrounding us.
Quotes from The Lord of the Flies:
“The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away.”
“We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything.”
“He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet.”
“The mask was a thing on it’s own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.”
“His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”