Dueling Dystopias

On this day in 1949, Aldous Huxley wrote to George Orwell to say how much he liked Nineteen Eighty-Four, published the previous June. Despite the praise, Huxley goes on to say that he would still back his own version of totalitarian horror over Orwell’s:

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. The philosophy of the ruling minority in 1984 is a sadism that has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and that these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World…. Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience…. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.

Wole Soyinka was appointed a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador on this day in 1994, his mandate to promote human rights, freedom of expression and African culture. A few weeks later, fearing reprisal for his efforts to oust the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, Soyinka fled into exile. His decision was no doubt influenced by his previous experiences with the Orwellian boot, including a twenty-two-month stay in a Nigerian prison.

Neither the exile and subsequent death sentence, or recent African and international history, has deterred Soyinka from addressing ““the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the color of the foot that wears it.” His 2006 memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn takes some of its inspiration from his fellow Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by General Abacha’s regime. Soyinka says that Saro-Wiwa’s example and last words — “Lord, receive my soul, but the struggle continues” — confirmed his commitment to the dawn journey, for as far and long as it takes:

I am persuaded that I have always known that human aberrations such as Sani Abacha exist…. It is sufficient, a modest life mission, to ensure that such monsters do not enjoy the last laugh, do not rob individual beings of the fundamental right to a dignified life and a dignified exit, afflicting one’s living thoughts with echoes of the brutal laughter of power over the courageous, farewell words of a fighter…. Within such a commitment, I believe, is captured the essential teaching of that paradox, the Yoruba god of the restless road and creative solitude, the call of the lyric and the battle cry: Ogun.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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