Is It Really Time to Teach '1984'?

H. Michael Karshis, Creative Commons

February 13, 2017

One can’t get very far these days without bumping into a headline — on CNN, USA Today, NPR, The New York Times, even The New Yorker — about the resurgence of 1984 on best-seller charts, must-have lists, and class syllabuses. With newspeak, doublethink, and alternative facts suddenly commonplace, one can’t help but wonder: Should I really be teaching this classic Van Halen album in my classroom?

The question demands a closer reading of the most famous parts of the text itself.

Chapter 2 is, by far, the most well-known section of the piece — Side A, Track 2, for those who remember such a thing as "albums." Roth et. al.’s first No. 1 best seller, it is dark indeed: "Ow, oh, hey you/who said that?" Roth intones early in the chapter — clearly foretelling the paranoia of the Trump era.

And here 1984 does, indeed, seem to offer us a glimpse of our reality: "Baby, how you been? You say you don’t know …," echoing our insecurities at the beginning of this new era before getting right into the chorus of despair and anxiety that has racked much of the country: "Ah, might as well jump/Might as well jump/Go ahead and jump/Go ahead and jump."

One might be tempted to dive right in after that short section — and only you know the maturity level of your students — but given the predilection of teens to copy each other to the last, one should strongly consider all possible outcomes before assigning a piece in which the protagonist so blatantly encourages suicide as an answer to difficult times.

Chapter 3: Although controversial in its own right, the third section of 1984 is certainly a safer one to assign. In fact, because of its multitude of possible readings, "Panama" may be the most appropriate piece for in-class discussion.

Is it a satire of colonialism, capital, and rampant consumption raging out of control — "Got the feeling, power steering/Pistons popping, ain’t no stopping now …" — or an endorsement of that very same consumption? Is it more Modest Proposal or Devil Wears Prada? As the country tips from republic to empire, these are exactly the questions your students should be asking.

Moreover, for professors following a multimodal strategy for learning, the short film made about this piece is also rife with compelling contradiction: A "model citizen" with "zero discipline" roughly handled by the police, taken out of his abode in the middle of the night, contrasted with almost avant-garde scenes of a rhythmic gymnastics routine featuring both ribbon (a metaphor for peace) and sword dancing (the opposite).

Chapter 6: Do not do it. "Hot for Teacher" is not cheeky, with it, cool, or mischievously wicked. No matter who populates your nighttime dreams, bringing them into the light of day in this context is likely to get you fired. Although it might seem like the election of a Commander-in-Chief caught bragging about his sexual assaults might make this a topic du jour, do not be mistaken. You are a dirty old man, or woman, and should remember, always, Clausius and Thomson’s fourth law of thermodynamics.

If any section of 1984 tips the scales toward syllabus inclusion, it is Chapter 7. It deals eloquently with the unquenchable thirst and unrealistic expectations that drive a consumer society toward autocratic leaders. "I’ll wait till your love comes down," the narrator says to the idealized version of love — an air-brushed photo in an automobile magazine.

The poignancy of this unsatisfiable yearning only becomes deeper when, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138, the narrator reveals in the second stanza that he is all too aware of his own self-deception: "I wrote a letter and told her these words/That meant a lot to me/I never sent it, she wouldn’t have heard/Her eyes don’t follow me/And while she watches I can never be free/Such great photography!"

It is here that 1984 undoubtedly hits its mark most strongly. In his longing for the unobtainable pleasure of the object, the narrator becomes a stand-in for all of us in this newfound, postmodern tyrannical society. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek says, "It’s that mysterious something more … a desire is never simply the desire for a certain thing … it’s always also a desire for desire itself. A desire to continue to desire."

This is 1984’s clearest comment on Trumpian society: Inundated with pleasure at every level, we must then desire more. Our fulfillment becomes our dissatisfaction, and we long to return to a past in which — we believe — we still had unmet desires, a past in which we were brimming with potential, and potential "greatness."

What can be said about the remaining sections of 1984? "Girl Gone Bad" is most usefully applied to a reading of Stephen Crane’s classic novella of the streets; "Top Jimmy" as a flimsy precognition of the current FBI director; "Drop Dead Legs," with its clear thematic plagiarism of the best-seller from the previous year, only serves your students as a lesson in citation. And the ending chapter, "House of Pain," is a dirge that, though tapping correctly into the national mood, fails to contain the revelation so sought after in a political work like this.

Indeed, although generally considered a popular classic, 1984 is not even the best work of 1984. Critics find it uneven at best — it only ranks at No. 81 on the list of top 100 albums of the 80s, according to Rolling Stone. That’s right, lower than albums from luminaries like ZZ Top and Def Leppard.

In fact, given the amount of fires Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway have to put out every day, it might be more appropriate to assign your students Pyromania, an album that not only came out a year earlier than 1984, but whose single "Photograph" deals with much of the same subject matter as 1984’s "I’ll Wait" — a single that reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Tracks chart, besting "I’ll Wait" by 12 full positions.

The renewed interest in 1984 makes sense: The election; the reignited conservative crush on Ronald Reagan; Russia flexing its newly rediscovered muscles, and students once again sporting rolled-up jeans in class. But — like most retro-nostalgia — it is misguided. One can reasonably assert its value as an artifact of its age. But should it be on your syllabus? A deeper look at the work itself makes the answer abundantly clear: No. No it should not.

David Andrew Stoler is a freelance writer and an adjunct lecturer at City College of the City University of New York, and at Berkeley College in Manhattan.