If you can't be happy, at least you can be a psychopath.
The past is a curious thing. It’s with you all the time, I suppose an hour never passes without your thinking of things that happened ten or twenty years ago, and yet most of the time it’s got no reality, it’s just a set of facts that you’ve learned, like a lot of stuff in a history book. Then some chance sight or sound or smell, especially smell, sets you going, and the past doesn’t merely come back to you, you’re actually in the past ... Is it gone for ever? I’m not certain. But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you.
George Orwell, Coming Up For Air (1939)
You’ve heard this one, right? Guy walks into a shop, no mask, definitely a guy who prides himself on being That Guy, the guy he doesn’t realise that he is, and he starts in on some minimum wage worker about government control, “Kung Flu” and the mask they’re wearing—‘have you ever read 1984?’ It’s one that won’t go down the memory hole because like Fatty Bowling’s past in Orwell’s last pre-war novel, you’re actually in it. With him, in his past. For the time being. But it’ll be your past eventually and whether you remember it or not some kind of memory will take its place.
It’s been said of social media that if you’re not paying for it then you are the product. That the companies advertising you to their customers—like chum to sharks—are integrating their surveillance systems vertically and horizontally. Coal, oil, gas, data. They take the fragments of your public life and piece them together into an avatar with genomic precision, a golem that walks, talks, shops and recoils in fear just like you. Predicting the derangements of this animal has become the business of business.
Social media probably led you to me. It makes no promises, and it certainly isn’t Big Brother. It doesn’t need to control you; it just wants to get to know you better. But it’s not your friend either, or your lover. It’s your dealer. Unhappy people make the quickest marks, the fiercest addicts. They have the most to gain from breaking out of the everyday, the knowledge that just because things are worse than we suspect, that doesn’t make them interesting. The world never promised us happiness, yet still we expect it to provide a hit, at least. In our derangement, the images flash by of past happiness (whatever it was, whether it was or it wasn’t) and we grasp at them like flakes of something white and crystalline but too warm to ever melt. The deadliest criticism of the way things are is that it makes us unhappy—a terminal unhappiness that reneges on some fundamental but unspoken promise. Let me tell your fortune quickly before you’re led away again.
Your avatar says: if you can’t be happy, at least you can be a sociopath.
Orwell’s Coming Up For Air charts the derangements of England before the war: the fear, the unhappiness, the involuntary loss of illusions, the almost-certain knowledge that war was coming without knowing what that meant, the terrible knowledge that some things have no meaning despite being epoch-defining. Fatty Bowling catches the eye of a young shop girl as the floor-manager unloads a barrage of humiliating scorn on her performance. Fatty immediately regrets it, regrets the insight that everyone is terrified of getting the sack, the girl and the boss alike—‘Fear! We’re steeped in it. It’s our element.’ Fear transforms the involuntary animal intimacy of urban life from a wellspring of erotic energy into a kind of psychological torture. ‘She’d have murdered me if she could. How she hated me because of what I’d seen! Much more than she hated the floor-manager.’ Thank God that we can promote only the posts that show our glittering selves to a world that’s horny for punishment.
Coming Up For Air does an equally good job at giving voice to the sadism born of middle-class fear as Winston Smith’s doublethink, yet it’s 1984 that’s earned the eminent reputation as That Guy’s go-to distress signal. Where sadism goes masochism must follow, and so the sensuousness of being dommed wouldn’t slap the same way without a shiny leather boot on his neck. Oh Big Brother, Where Art Thou? cries every one of That Guy. It must be a unique pleasure, a real special thrill, to swing around this kind of limp-dick terrorism—to try and try, counting on failure, to scare the shit out of people who are already terrified. The word “Orwellian” simply doesn’t pertain to an age in which our anxieties stem not from being watched, but from not being watched.
If men cannot grasp the enormity of the present how will they ever be able to think in terms of the future? We have been thinking in terms of the past for several thousand years. Now, at one stroke, that whole mysterious past has been obliterated. There is only the future staring us in the face. It yawns like a gulf. It is terrifying, everyone concedes, even to begin to think what the future holds for us. Far more terrifying than the past ever was. In the past the monsters were of human proportions; one could cope with them, if one were heroic enough. Now the monster is invisible; there are billions of them in a grain of dust.
Henry Miller, The Time of the Assassins (1946)
The allure of the “Orwellian” lies in its wonderful sense of fantasy: free individuals who, left to our own devices, can at any time lay claim to the past (bedrock of the ego) and the future (where the ego projects its unqualified desires). The nightmare that “Orwellian” signifies is that of being overdetermined—of not being able to fool ourselves that there’s a mere, simple, single cause for fear. Some “outside” force like the state using time, the past, the future, against us. Our time. A past that belongs to us as much we belong to it. We fear the circumcision of our past by a state that’s at once violently paternal (Big Brother) and cloyingly maternal (the nanny state). We’re afraid, terrified even. Because that kind of terrorism works. So, we’re far from free. We just don’t want to be reminded of it.
Social media—the latest stage of our extraction economy, hoarding fragments, an inheritance of images, potential pasts that can be called up but probably won’t be—reinvigorates the freedom lie. State surveillance wouldn’t work without our faith in the security of ourselves as spectacular objects. And everybody has their own version of the lie to tell themselves: the fleet in their dead silence pushing forward like a shark; the slightly-worn salesmen in the marketplace of ideas; the older ones afraid for their pasts, who cry for what the past could be if only they would let it, what the future could be again, as it was so ever shall it be if only. But like history, like a life, you can’t read it straight through front to back.
I have nothing against social media. It’s fun to be a sociopath sometimes. Sign the contract that says: ‘Allow me to moderate your present while you get your past together.’ Liberal democracy is the same: it mines the data of history. They call it “progress.” It suggests that yesterday was totally unlike today, but its inhabitants were not. So they were like you but tragic. And you’re like them but better. The tragedy is that they had to produce you but that they couldn’t be you. But if you voted like yesterday actually happened, you wouldn’t vote. Because a cursory glance at history shows that tragedy is, by definition, those instances when it’s not actually your call, which is something like a constant state of affairs.
Fatty Bowling goes nuts about the past because the present feels like a future waiting to happen, a future that almost certainly means upheaval, destruction, the end of something—warplanes overhead, not yet dropping the end of time on dense little warrens of houses where actual people hope to continue living. And the tension is unbearable. He travels in space, though he means to travel in time. Aiming for the past, he sneaks off to the town where he was born, to a pool where as a boy he’d gone fishing and been almost happy. When he arrives, the pool is gone. In its place is a rubbish heap. The locals won’t even call it that—it’s a place with no name. It’s not his place, it’s no place. Dystopia indeed. Don’t let the author’s hatred of Stalinism distract from the fact that nostalgia’s as good as forgetting.
George Orwell grappled on paper with the seed of an idea that Henry Miller put in his head: namely, that maybe we’re not the authors of history but are masters of our own tiny and limited destinies. What can you do but sit inside the fish that swallowed you, like Jonah, and call it a whale—and try to be happy until it spits you out again? Coming Up For Air takes Miller’s temptation seriously: to believe in the possibility of happiness even though—maybe because—the world is ending. But Henry Miller was an American and Orwell was not. And to live outside is to know that there is no outside. Everywhere you go, there’s your whale. Like Fatty Bowling traveling in time to see with his own eyes. Like Winston Smith snatching at scraps of happiness as though no one could see. It’s with you all the time. Just like us, wondering if anyone else is watching. Don’t call me cynical, I’m just trying to be happy.