#64 = Volume 21, Part 3 = November 1994
Metapropaganda: Self-Reading Dystopian Fiction:
Burdekin's Swastika Night and Orwell's Nineteen
The Knight put his hand again under the desk and this time
drew forth a huge book of deep yellow colour. As he opened it the leaves made a
peculiar thick crackling sound, unlike the rustling of paper.... 'Ha!' said
Alfred, striking one fist into the other palm. 'Then there was some
history? It wasn't all darkness and savagery? I knew it! I knew there must be
something more than Hitler and Christians and Legends.'... 'there is a
book, a real book, the only one in the world.' —Swastika Night (§4:73-74)
There were also whispered stories of a terrible book, a
compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author and which
circulated clandestinely here and there. It was a book without a title. People
referred to it, if at all, simply as the book.... A heavy black volume,
amateurishly bound, with no name or title on the cover. The print also looked
slightly irregular. The pages were worn at the edges, and fell apart, easily, as
though the book had passed through many hands. —Nineteen Eighty-Four
First things first: I make no apologies for taking you to a
common contemporary critical haunt in this article, the abysmal realm of books
within books, because there are political issues at stake in both sets of books.
In entering the abysmal realm I'm not looking simply at (c)overtly
metafictional frame narratives, the common enough strategy of the
text-within-a-text, but also at something I think more unusual and more
significant. I'm looking at particular political texts—novels—and at the
ways in which their narratives focus on the effects of political texts on
readers. In each of the dystopian texts quoted above, a potential rebel is
handed a book by a figure of authority (a figure who, as we shall see, is in
part an author), old ragged books that function as new heroic characters.
We know these books are out of the ordinary, not least because the leaves of one
sound "unlike the rustling of paper," while the print of the other
"looked slightly irregular." The introduction of these books
transforms the narratives of the books into which they are introduced. The
desire to read, to possess these books, energizes both the lives and minds of
the protagonists and the lines in which their stories are told. In Reading
for the Plot, Peter Brooks points out that "narratives both tell of
desire—typically present some story of desire—and arouse and make use of
desire as dynamic of signification" (37). In both Katharine Burdekin's
often ignored feminist dystopia, Swastika Night (1937) —which is set in
a future 600 years from the time of its writing, a future in which a
superpatriarchal Nazi Reich still controls Europe—and George Orwell's rarely
ignored Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), desire and reading are important
narrative factors, factors that contribute to the narrative energy of the texts.
Such energy is produced through moments like those above, that are both
self-commenting (referring to the text-reading process) and extra-textual
(referring to the psychical and political effects of the text-reading process).
In a late interview discussing work in progress, Michel
Foucault talks about "the role of reading and writing in constituting the
self" (Rabinow 342). Theories of autobiography—writing as construction of
self—have expanded greatly in the past twenty years, especially in the work of
feminist critics.1 The role of reading the self rather than
writing it, however, has not been subject to the same scrutiny. This is one of
the things I am interested in here; what I term (after autobiography theory's
coining of the term self-writing) self-reading. I look at how the
conjunction of text and self, where the one contributes to the construction of
the other, is achieved through reading a text rather than writing one.
"Reading and writing," writes Linda Hutcheon, "are both active,
creative exercises and always have been" (137)—but in the two texts I
feature here the political connection of these activities is stressed as well.
There is a socio-critical impulse at work. The possibly unique books introduced
into the narratives/societies of Swastika Night and Nineteen
Eighty-Four are viewed by the protagonists as foci of opposition to the
regimes that are depicted in the texts. They are textual critiques of
(intra-textual) societies embedded in textual critiques of (extra-textual)
In Literature and Propaganda, A.P. Foulkes
distinguishes between viewing a text "not as propagandist but as attempted
demystification of propaganda" (83). Either way, the concern is still with
the propagandist process, which seeks to affect the reader in a particular
fashion, seeks to reconstruct the subject to a particular viewpoint or position
of scepticism. Hence my term metapropaganda, which signals a literary
form that deals with the tactics and techniques of literary conation.2
Robert Graves's future utopia, Seven Days in New Crete, features
Venn-Thomas, the protagonist from the past, explaining to a New Cretan that
"in my age, to speculate on a futurity to which we don't belong and which
we have no means of forecasting...distracts attention from the present and often
deranges the mind" (8). This ironic moment at the opening of the text is
both self-referential (discussing speculation in a speculative text) and
extra-textual (focusing on the social and psychical effects of the process of
speculation). These are the points I want to look at in detail here, the
relations among text, subject, and the social context of the reader, in
speculative narratives that "often derange the mind" when read. Such
speculative narratives are propagandist in that they set out to destabilize
and/or reconstruct the subjectivity of their readers, which is usually set in
the semantic field of social and ideological institutions and formations.
It's worth noting that both the texts I am looking at are
products of a particular European moment, the conjuncture of Fascism and
Stalinism, a kind of heyday of propagandist writing. The question of referentiality is central to a discussion of the role of propaganda in literary
texts.3 Propagandist texts are not (primarily) intended to be
well-wrought urns or verbal icons. There is a narrative text, and there is
intra-textual activity in order for there to be extra-textual resonance; there
is a story, and something happens within the story so that something can happen
outside the story. This is not necessarily detrimental to any aesthetic
experience, nor is it to be dismissed, despite, for example, its apparent
dismissal in the taxonomy of texts Catherine Belsey constructs in Critical
Practice.4 The very purpose of the propagandist text is to refer
outside itself, blurring the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. It
constitutes "a social practice" (Neale 39) in which the twin sites of
activity are text and reader. There are formal implications in this situation.
Fiction using documentary forms (for example, what Lorna Martens identifies as
the "genuine document fiction"  of diary and retrospective
self-writing) also questions any clear distinction between fiction and
non-fiction. Indeed, in a point pertinent to this discussion of political books
within political books, Michael Wilding argues that the twin modes of political
fiction—which he identifies as romance and realism—have formal attributes.
The romantic mode is associated with the fantasy, the fable; the realist mode is
associated with the documentary: "These are not decorative, aesthetic,
abstract conflicts; the aesthetic clash carries the force of ideological
clash" (Wilding 11).
Both Swastika Night and Nineteen Eighty-Four mix
the two modes Wilding identifies, introducing into the fantastic future the apparent
realism of the written document.5 (I'll return to this point
later.) Further, there is a "dialectical tension" between the two
modes (Wilding 6), so that, following Wilding's argument, the very form of the
text exhibits the dynamic structure of political struggle, which is one of the
primary sites of action it seeks to explore. This needs qualification, though. I
would argue that it's not simply that there are competing texts so that the
aesthetic and the ideological meet on a common battlefield. The ideological
loading is surely semantic as well as formal: both the books within the books Swastika
Night and Nineteen Eighty-Four are history books, read in
future times when history has officially ended, or is only official. They
describe and critique social/political institutions, and so have that additional
Subjects in propaganda can be termed the propagandees. Steve
Neale identifies what he terms "a social subject in struggle" (32),
the turbulence of the struggle being instigated by the conative function of the
propagandist text. I would distinguish then between the propagandee in the text,
a particular character reading or being subject to influencing or destabilizing
texts, and the propagandee outside the text, the reader taking in this
metadiscourse on propaganda. What is the mode of reception for each of these
propagandees, who are involved in a process of self-reading? What are the
textual implications of this approach? These questions are the concern of the
rest of this article, concentrating mainly on Swastika Night and Nineteen
At this point of distinction between the propagandized subject
in the text and that outside the text, it's useful to introduce the work of
Naomi Schor on "interpretation as performance" (167). (This
interior/exterior spatial metaphor has problems of its own, of course, but it is
a convenient distinction to start with here, even as one of the purposes of this
article is to explore a textual situation in which it is problematized.) For
example, in Russell Hoban's brilliant idiolectic post-holocaust text Riddley
Walker (1980), the puzzles of "terpitation" (interpretation) are
laboriously mulled over by Riddley and Goodparley in the text, and by the reader
outside the text. All our joint responsibilities lie in trying to make sense of
the post-holocaust world, so there is a coincidence of interpretive activity:
what they do in the text, we do with it. But, unlike Swastika
Night and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Riddley Walker is not a
socio-political dystopia, an extrapolated and exaggerated nightmare. It's a
post-holocaust text, one predicated on absence rather than on critical
extrapolation or satirical exaggeration. Its postmodern plurality of
signification overtly problematizes any propagandist approach, too. Further, the
Legend and the Eusa Story which are interpreted by characters in Riddley
Walker are not oppositional propagandist texts in the way that von Hess's
and Goldstein's books are perceived to be.
Schor, bringing together the work of a number of contemporary
critics (167n.), argues that such a coincidence of interpretation by a character
in the text and by a reader of it is a feature of modern fiction in general.
Indeed, she goes further than this, writing that "interpretation is viewed
not as something that is done to fiction but rather as something that is
done in fiction" (168). For Schor, interpretation in modern fiction
is a theme explored through the proairetic performance of interpretation.6
Schor offers one example of Kafka's The Trial, though in this context
of dystopia perhaps his "In the Penal Colony" is more apt:
interpretation as performance, as spectacle, as torture, as sadism and
masochism, as murder. Schor's is a suggestive if potentially rather unwieldy
argument (interpretation as the transcendent moment or activity of modernism?),
and I propose to limit my use of it to the interpretation of texts, and more
specifically political texts.
Schor coins names for the two interpretive roles she
identifies: "[I] distinguish between two types of interpreters: the
interpreting critic, for whom I reserve the name interpreter, and the
interpreting character, whom I will refer to henceforth as the interpretant"
(168). To bring together the ideas of Neale on the "social subject in
struggle" of propaganda and Schor on the split interpretive subject(s) of
modern fiction in my context of metapropagandist discourse is to put forward
something like this:
Both Alfred and Winston have the names of famous and heroic
English leaders. The connection of a sense of history and self developed by
reading history books is highlighted by their names. They are, as well as
become, historical characters. The reading processes of Alfred and Winston are
secret activities, punishable ones. They take place in significant settings, in
their respective "pockets of the past" (Orwell §2.5:155)—under
Stonehenge, above Charrington's antiques shop. Performing their readings under
and above, Alfred and Winston work on different levels to the mass of their
fellow subjects. Their reading sets them apart. Even prior to reading the book,
Alfred is a relatively sophisticated literary critic: reading the hegemonic
Hitler Book, he comments: "It's quite obvious that a lot of the teaching
has been put in later. And even all the Blood stuff, you don't know whether
that was Hitler himself or a lot of people. It's an unsatisfactory book.
Something wrong somewhere. It leaves you empty" (§2:29).
Of course, Winston too is quite a textualist, both at work and
at home. The oppositional books in both books are connected with secret
oppositional organisations called "the Brotherhood"—though Winston
could be more suspicious of this than he is, since the Brotherhood sounds more
like Big Brother's fan club than his fanatical enemy. I want to look at the
descriptions of the reading process of forbidden books that both Swastika
Night and Nineteen Eighty-Four portray. Why focus on these moments?
Because, as Schor points out, "via the interpretant the author is trying to
tell the interpreter something about interpretation and the interpreter
would do well to listen and take note" (170). The "something about"
that interests me is the potential slippage between interpretant and
interpreter that is inscribed in both novels.
2. The book, "a real book, the
only one in the world," in Swastika Night, is six centuries old, and
was written by one "Friedrich von Hess, Teutonic Knight of the Holy German
Empire" (§4:74) during the lifetime of Hitler. Friedrich made the
parchment and wrote the book while in exile from Germany—in Britain, of
course. Not only historical by virtue of its age, it is a book "about the
history of human beings" (§5:87), written clandestinely in reaction to the
systematic destruction of all books by the Nazi regime. It has been preserved
through the centuries by the von Hess family, despite the many potential dangers
of being caught in possession of such an artefact. Not necessarily overtly
propagandistic in terms of textual address in the way of Goldstein's tract,
nonetheless in its position as a social practice or ritual it is powerfully
propagandistic. When the Englishman Alfred is told about von Hess's history
book, he is physically transformed. He moves "lightly, like a triumphant
man," and speaks "excitedly" (Burdekin, §4:74). He is also
psychically transformed: the "Knight's tale" produces in Alfred one
of his "giant moods" in "his secret mind" (§5:97). In
contrast, the same information strikes Alfred's lover Hermann, a
none-too-intelligent and fairly loyal Nazi, rather differently: this big
physical man "stumbled back...like a drunkard," the certainties of his
world having "collapsed" (§6:101). The book functions to destabilize
subjectivity. Both men's worlds are turned upside-down: with the knowledge of
the book's existence, which signifies a pre-Hitlerian history, Alfred is in
"a fantastically upside-down state of mind" (§8:163). Like the
"terrible book" in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the von Hess book has
a conative function simply by its very existence, or by a story about its
existence. Before the text is even read it has a massive impact—unread, it
challenges the society and history of dystopia. Actually, the few odd sentences
that are quoted or reported from it tell only of Friedrich's own emotions—a
fact for which he is castigated by the later von Hess Knight for "wast[ing]
two whole lines of writing on his precious parchment" (§5:86).
The actual reading event takes place in "an old gas
chamber or dug-out" (§7:140) under Stonehenge, the entrance of which is
guarded by skeletons with a machine-gun, skeletons that have been dressed by
Alfred to resemble soldiers. The inexplicable but monumental sense of the past
can be experienced by Alfred only through fleshing out the bare bones of an old
man's ancient memories. The reading process, and its effects, are foregrounded
as Alfred subjects the book to close textual analysis: "It was a great
night when they had got once all through the book, having carefully considered
every sentence to try to draw from it its deepest meaning... (§9:172);
"his head full of confusion and glory...he could get in touch with lost
civilisations and the thought-mechanism of complex human beings" (§8:156).
Through being able to get in touch with these, Alfred's own
"thought-mechanism" is provoked and inspired, and he becomes himself a
more "complex human being." Like the "deranged mind" of
Robert Graves's reader of utopias, Alfred's head is "confused"—he
is one of Neale's "social subjects in struggle," who has now a focus
for his struggle. Alfred's is an act of self-reading: he reads a sense of
himself into or out of the von Hess book. Following the initial destabilization,
he is able now partially to construct and resituate a subjectivity which was
never possible and barely imaginable until he saw the book with his own eyes.
Alfred's analytical activity in "carefully considering every
sentence" is highlighted as significant for the extra-textual reader of Swastika
Night, who presumably would do well "to try to draw from [Swastika
Night] its deepest meaning" too. The intra-textual moment of
self-reading resonates extra-textually.
There is also a history book in Nineteen Eighty-Four—"the
children's history textbook" (§1.7:76) which Winston has often read and
from which he copies extracts into his diary. It's not a satisfying read for
him, though: "How could you tell how much of it was lies?," he wonders
(§1.7:77). But there is a far more attractive book for Winston: the book. Contrary
to the popular belief that the book is "a book without a title"
(§1.1:17), it does have an "inscription on the title-page." It is
called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by
the (Trotskyite) Jew-figure Emmanuel Goldstein. As signaled by the title, it is
an overtly and even scientifically political tract. It is known by all citizens
of Oceania as "a compendium of all the heresies" (§1.1:17).
Throughout Nineteen Eighty-Four the words "the book" are
italicized, displaying an iconic otherness, which is also a vocal one:
"even O'Brien, Winston noticed, seemed to pronounce the words as though
they were in italics" (§2.8:182). The italics function as scare quotes,
meaning real fear for most citizens. Narrative fear and narrative desire
intertwine, though: the book trails "whispered stories"
(§1.1:18) about itself in its wake. While rarely read, it is the source of many
narratives. Winston's reading activity is foregrounded in the text—there are
several sentences in which Winston's verb is "to read":
"Winston began reading.... He went on reading.... Winston stopped reading
for a moment" (§2.9:189,190,205). There are also in-depth descriptions of
Winston's responses and reactions as he reads.
Winston stopped reading, chiefly in order to appreciate the
fact that he was reading, in comfort and safety. He was alone: no
telescreen, no ear at the keyhole, no nervous impulse to glance over his
shoulder or cover the page with his hand. . . . It was bliss, it was eternity.
Suddenly as one sometimes does with a book of which one knows that one will
ultimately read and re-read every word, he opened it at a different place and
found himself at Chapter III. He went on reading. (§2.9: 189-190).
Winston here appears as the saltatory reader of the
"blissful" text, foreshadowing perhaps the reader of Alasdair Gray's
otherworldly Lanark (1981), who also starts at Book III, albeit at the
command of the author. Perhaps his deliberately disordered reading is a brief
protest against the regimentation, the un-"blissful" nature of life in
the Outer Party.
The blissful feeling of being alone with the forbidden
book...had not worn off.... The book fascinated him, or more exactly it
reassured him.... It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for
him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind
similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic. (§2.9:205)
Again, the emphasis is on the transformative effects which the
propagandist text has on the reader, on how Winston changes while reading.7
This is one of Winston's moments of self-reading, in which the doubts and
nagging suspicions that are not erased by his act of self-writing (as when he
takes up diary-writing early on in the narrative) are here overcome.
Whereas as a self-writer in the end "the therapy had not worked"
(§1.6:72), as a self-reader he is far more successful in "reassuring"
and consolidating his sense of subjectivity. After being (literally) out of
order—beginning at Chapter 3—he is now impressed by the
"systematic" intellect that "orders" his "scattered
thoughts." Rather than a text that "deranges the mind," in Graves's
ironic phrase, "after reading it he [Winston] knew better than before that
he was not mad" (§2.9: 223). Winston's process of self-reading operates
more as a restabilizing than a destabilizing event.
The reading process, this singular narrative activity itself,
is further stressed in Nineteen Eighty-Four since this social act is the
specific requirement necessary for membership in the Brotherhood. Indeed, this
narrative rite of passage may be the only way in which membership in the
secret, supposedly oppositional organization is gained or proven. Reading here
has explicitly extra-textual significance: it is not an innocent pastime—it is
not a pastime at all— but a deeply subversive act. As O'Brien explains it,
reading is the founding activity of the Brotherhood: "I shall send you a
book from which you will learn the true nature of the society we live in, and
the strategy by which we shall destroy it. When you have read the
book, you will be full members of the Brotherhood" (§2.9:179; my
In a society obsessed with membership, a society organized
around Inner and Outer Parties, reading has a pivotal function for supposed
subversives: they will be made "full," made authentic rebels, solely
by reading. Apparently, this book really does change lives. The book,
with its claims for truth and millenarian change, is a dystopian Bible and O'Brien
is its priest. It even resembles a Bible, a "heavy black volume"
(§2.9:188). (What a family Winston is adopted by, with his Big Brother and his
Father O'Brien.) The Brotherhood "is not an organization in the ordinary
sense. Nothing holds it together except an idea..." (§2.8:180).
Alternatively, nothing holds it together except an activity: the activity of
reading. Of course, the subsequent undercutting irony for Winston is that there
is no Emmanuel Goldstein, no Brotherhood, and the book has been not only
read but also written by O'Brien: "That is to say, I collaborated in
writing it" (§3.3:267). For a society that is intent (hell-bent, even) on
destroying narrative ("It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of
words" [§1.5:55]), Oceania remains remarkably narrative-centered, even in
its traps. What Winston has taken as anti-State agitation propaganda is in fact
another device of the provocateur. He's been had. His thought that the
book is "the product of a mind similar to his own" is transformed into
the inescapable and imprisoning irony that O'Brien's "mind contained
Winston's mind" (§3.2:262). Even narrative desire is the property
and the controlling device of the Inner Party. The social subject in struggle
Winston perceived himself to be, as addressed and confirmed by Goldstein's
propagandist text, turns out to be a social subject in total fragmentation under
the will of the Party.
3. There is more to the effects of
the reading process of the propagandist text in both Swastika Night and Nineteen
Eighty-Four. As a guardian of the von Hess history book, Alfred must add his
signature to the written oath that swears to protect the book. His own small
piece of text is added to the main body, using a "special ink"
(§5:89). His self-writing is a supplement to the book, so that he becomes an
up-to-date historical figure in a history book. He is both the producer of and a
segment of text that refers outside the rest of the text. The change in the oath
from German to English signals in a small way the impending collapse of the Nazi
Reich. Alfred's short, simple supplement writes history as well as self:
"Laboriously under the Und Ich he wrote a sprawling badly formed
'And I' in English script. Under the von Hess names he wrote 'Alfred' and
under Knecht he with toil and pain inscribed the word 'Englishmun'
[sic]" (§5:89-90). He becomes a part of the text, inscribes himself in it.
The "badly formed" "I" becomes a more aware (English)
subject through the "toil and pain" of the reading process of the
German text, of the expressive writing process. Though spelled incorrectly
"Englishmun" is nonetheless the illegal expression of a colonized
nationhood, and as such a subversive act. Indeed, the very incorrectness is
symptomatic of the historical rupture resulting from 600 years of a Nazi Reich,
of the problem of reconstructing subjectivity in such a context. Alfred bolsters
his partially reconstructed subjectivity achieved through self-reading by small
acts of self-writing. Some of his last words to his son before he dies are:
"Write your name—under mine" (§10:195), so that the book will be
handed down from Englishman to Englishman now, rather than from Nazi Knight to
Nineteen Eighty-Four contains substantial chunks of
Goldstein's Theory and Practice. In fact, around ten per cent of
the novel is taken up by excerpts from Goldstein's text. Many critics have
found this particular side dish to the main course of Nineteen Eighty-Four unpalatable:
Alex Zwerdling writes that the excerpts are "like so many lumps in the
porridge" (hardly complimentary to the rest of the novel either—making it
Orwell's political "porridge"), and Richard Gerber complains of
"a good deal of undigested material" (both quoted in Wilding 10). Yet
Michael Wilding, for example, argues for the importance of Goldstein's text,
which reinforces the "genuine document" (Martens 191) aspects of the
novel. "The incorporation of documentary materials into the political novel
is important to establish the texture of the created society, to provide the
data for the sociology" (Wilding 10).
For Wilding, sociological text establishes societal texture.
Documentation does not just provide sociological data in Nineteen
Eighty-Four, though. The interesting point for me here is that the excerpts
from Goldstein's text are presented through the activity of Winston reading
them. He sits in his secret place and reads to himself, and also aloud to Julia,
who—"a curious detail" Daphne Patai notes (xii)—falls asleep, as
does Hermann while Alfred is reading aloud from his "forbidden book"
in Swastika Night. The influence of the reading process on the subject—Winston
or Alfred, self-reading—is highlighted by its non-effect on other characters:
some minds are "deranged," or rearranged, others narcotized. Perhaps,
too, the text is more vital, more influential, through direct contact with
"the black letter" (Burdekin §8:167), through reading rather than
being read to. Both texts privilege the active, involved reader here, presenting
ideal propagandees through contrast with rather half-hearted ones—presumably a
prod in the ribs for the extra-textual reader to stay alert, too.
Because Goldstein's text is included in the text of Winston's
narrative, and because it is included as Winston reads it, the fact that a
parallel reading process is also taking place within the actual reader leads to
a coincidence of intra- and extra-textual subject. That is, reading Goldstein's/Big
Brother's text at one and the same time are Winston and the
reader—you, me. We perform the same action, inhabit the same space. Orwell
makes this quite clear: Theory and Practice is introduced to the reader
through Winston's action of uncovering it, opening it, beginning to read it.
We start at Chapter 3 because Winston decides to open it at Chapter 3. There are
four interruptions to it as Winston momentarily breaks off—four reminders of
the relation between intra- and extra-textual readers. Goldstein's text ends
not at a chapter break but with ellipses, as Winston's concentration lapses
(§2.9: 223)—he makes the decision when the extract ends, the extra-textual
reader relies on his choice of text: we really do inhabit the same space.
Such simultaneity of the reading/propagandizing process constitutes a
significant difference in Swastika Night, which offers very little actual
text from the von Hess book, mainly reported comments on it. In Nineteen
Eighty-Four though, propagandee and metapropagandee merge. Not only is
propaganda here a textual form that refers to itself and to the outside
world, but such a combination of referentialities is compounded by the
coincidence of the subject in the reading process. The propagandist dystopia of Nineteen
Eighty-Four offers a parallel vision to its own reader being propagandized.
The conjunction of the two is a symptom of a worldly textual product and
process. It's not just that there is a coincidence of interpreting activity
between the intra- and extra-textual readers, but that the textual focus of
interpretation is the same—Goldstein's political tract, quoted at length.
Through reading it, we too become members of the Orwellian Brotherhood, we too
are subject to the propagandist text. The "textual force" (Brooks 47)
that is also a political force imposes itself on readers far and wide.
Of course, this coincidence of interpreting activity between
intra- and extra-textual readers is not unique to the political fiction I look
at here—it's also found, for instance, in the epistolary form, where letters
are the focus of the reading action, both intra- and extra-textually. A
character in an epistolary novel may read a letter at one and the same time as
the reader of that novel, though without necessarily the added description of
the intra-textual reader's process and reactions, such as Nineteen
Eighty-Four supplies. Epistolary fiction thus generically offers a confusion
of readers. And, as both Todorov and Schor have argued, interpretation within
the text is commonplace in wider literary practice, in detective fiction, even
in modernist fiction. But I am arguing that Nineteen Eighty-Four constitutes
a special case. The merging or blurring of propagandee and metapropagandee in Nineteen
Eighty-Four is a significant textual strategy, and one that foregrounds the
political operation of the text. This is especially so since the focus of
reading within the text is itself an overtly political text—The Theory and
Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. Nineteen Eighty-Four is thus
structured so that not only is it a political text but also it is concerned with
the conative function of political texts. Nineteen Eighty-Four not only
wants to influence its reader, it also wants to explore the notion of fiction
influencing readers. "And yet," writes Schor, "the interpreter/interpretant
relationship is not an easy one: the lure of narcissistic identification only
makes it more difficult for the interpreter to keep his distance from the
interpretant. My concern here is not, however, with the (impossible/ fatal)
coincidence of interpretant and interpreter...." (169).
My concern here has been with precisely such a
coincidence, that is both possible and, I think, rather than "fatal,"
a potentially enlivening moment in the political reading. In Swastika
Night and Nineteen Eighty-Four the processes of self-reading I have
explored take place within and outside the texts in ways that open the texts up
and out and contribute to their narrative energy. The reading moments that are
both self-referential and extra-textual permit a plurality of subjects in the
reading process. Such a plurality problematizes any assumptions of univocality
in propaganda. The connection I've laid bare between the textual
representation and exploration of Alfred and Winston self-reading their
political texts and the actual readers engaging with the novels, signals the
novels' continuing critical awareness of their own positioning processes. Such
self-referential strategies transform propaganda into metapropaganda. We may or
may not agree with Winston when he thinks while reading the book that
"The best books...are those that tell you what you know already"
(§2.9:205), but we are increasingly conscious of the propagandist text
operating on us, because we read in that propagandist text of one operating on
Alfred or on Winston, and of them reacting to it.
But this doesn't take into account the fact that the
political texts I've been looking at are dystopias, fantasies,
non-realistic. Is there further metafictional comment via the self-reading
processes of Alfred and Winston on the subject of fantasy texts, as well as of
political texts? I would suggest that there is. This brings me back to my
earlier point, following Michael Wilding, that both Swastika Night and Nineteen
Eighty-Four introduce into the fantastic future the apparent realism
of the written document. It's more the case that both von Hess's and
Goldstein's apparently realistic books are fictional or fantastic, to varying
degrees. Von Hess's is self-confessedly partial and amateur: this man who
"had never written down anything in his life except one or two papers on
agricultural matters and private letters...thought he had pinned down everything
he could remember" (§5:87). It's a personal history, with
autobiographical comments. Theory and Practice was, as we've seen,
written by O'Brien and others, and even its title-page author (Goldstein) is
part of the fiction. Winston himself thinks that "It might very well be
that literally every word in the history books...was pure fantasy"
(§1.7:78). In these dystopias, these fantasies that are predicated on
mutability (according to Goldstein "The mutability of the past is the
central tenet of Ingsoc" [§2.9:219]), questions are being asked about the
reliability of textual fact. This isn't simply a symptom of the by now
familiar dystopian "campaign against the Past," as it's put in Brave
New World (Huxley §3:50), in which history is rewritten and/or erased. On
the contrary, it sends out rather more complex and contradictory messages. How
are we readers to trust these political texts, these propagandas, when what they
represent to us is the equivocation of propaganda through the reading process?
Do we self-read as destructively or dissatisfyingly as Alfred and Winston do,
one to die, the other to be cured and love Big Brother? It's important to
remember A.P. Foulkes's distinction between viewing a text "not as
propagandist but as attempted demystification of propaganda" (83; my
emphasis), because these dystopias both rely on and question that distinction.
There's a sense here in which both Burdekin and (especially) Orwell are trying
to have their propagandist cake and eat it. On the one hand they're
demystifying the processes of propagandist textual address by focusing on the
reactions of Alfred and Winston as propagandees; on the other they're
positioning the reader as metapropagandee to accept the authority of their
(propagandistic) representation of the dangers of propaganda. Is this simply a
neat doublethinkful circle? I think not. It's part of the auto-critical
impulse of dystopia, in which distinctions between fantasy and realist text are
constructed and undermined, in which procedures of political address are
employed to expose the dangers of political address, in which extra-textual
readers are positioned by a strategy of exploring the problems of textual
positioning on intra-textual readers. By my argument, then, the dystopian
fictions of Swastika Night and Nineteen Eighty-Four employ the
textual construction of a parallel self-reading moment to inscribe a
self-conscious and energizing metapropagandistic discourse into their
NOTES. Earlier versions of this article were read at a
Cultural Studies Research Seminar at the University of Central Lancashire in
February 1992, and at the Impossibility Fiction Conference at the University of
Central England in July 1993. Many thanks to all who listened to the papers and
contributed to the discussions afterwards.
1. See for example Smith, Benstock, and Brodzki and Schenck.
2. The "conative function [is] introduced by Jakobson as
one of his key functions of communication in the speech event. An utterance with
conative function is oriented towards the addressee. Commands...typically have a
conative function, as do any utterances generally which aim to have a specific
effect or influence on the addressee (e.g. propaganda discourse)" (Wales
3. I have explored versions of referentiality particularly in
science fiction in "'Time back way back': 'Motivation' and Speculative
Fiction." Critical Quarterly 34:102-16, Spring 1992.
4. Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice identifies
the propagandist text as the "imperative" text, that which gives
orders, in effect (91). Belsey is not, however, much interested in the
imperative text. The "three kinds of text" she identifies are
declarative (classic realism), imperative (propaganda), and interrogative (open,
self-questioning); the first and third are discussed at length, a chapter each,
while the imperative text gets only two paragraphs. Ironically for a book so
predicated on hierarchies of discourse, in her taxonomy Belsey constructs her
own hierarchy of discourse. She notes that "the imperative text is not
usually fictional, since it is marked as referring to the world outside
discourse" (82). This is precisely the point—and the point of interest—of
the propagandist fiction I am looking at here, that it "refers to
the world outside." The propagandist text not only raises the question of
the relation between literature and politics, it blurs these issues.
5. So of course do many other dystopian and utopian fictions,
often by means of further-future editorial prefaces or afterwords. Contemporary
examples include Adrian Mitchell's The Bodyguard (1970), Suzette Haden
Elgin's Native Tongue (1984), and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's
6. Detective stories have of course been a focus of
theoretical activity in this field, where the detective's interpretation of
clues and reconstruction of the (criminal) narrative are seen as a paradigm of
"interpretation as fiction." See, for example, Todorov and Hutcheon.
7. Significantly, Winston is sitting near an open window (not
terribly wise, I would have thought, in such a snooping world). More
significantly, reading is associated with fresh air. In the first passage,
"The sweet summer air played against his cheek" (§2.9:189); the
second also mentions "the touch of the faint breeze from the window that
played upon his cheek" (§2.9:205). Orwell here builds up the dramatic
irony for the later disclosure.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. 1985. London:
Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. 1980. London:
Benstock, Shari, ed. The Private Self: Theory and Practice
of Women's Autobiographical Writings. London: Routledge, 1988.
Brodzki, Bella, and Celeste Schenck, eds. Life/Lines:
Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention
in Narrative. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.
Burdekin, Katharine. Swastika Night. 1937. London:
Lawrence and Wishart, 1985.
Elgin, Suzette Haden. Native Tongue. 1984. London:
Women's Press, 1985.
Foulkes, A.P. Literature and Propaganda. London:
Graves, Robert. Seven Days In New Crete. 1949. London:
Gray, Alasdair. Lanark: A Life in Four Books. 1981.
London: Paladin, 1985.
Hoban, Russell. Riddley Walker. 1980. London: Picador,
Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional
Paradox. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1980.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1932. London: Granada,
Kafka, Franz. "In the Penal Colony." 1919. Metamorphosis
and Other Stories. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
Martens, Lorna. The Diary Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge
McKay, George. "'Time back way back': 'Motivation'
and Speculative Fiction." Critical Quarterly 34:102-16, Spring 1992.
Mitchell, Adrian. The Bodyguard. 1970. London: Picador,
Neale, Steve. "Propaganda." Screen 18:9-40.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1949. London:
Patai, Daphne. "Introduction." Burdekin, q.v.
Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to
Foucault's Thought. London: Penguin, 1991.
Schor, Naomi. "Fiction as Interpretation/Interpretation
as Fiction." The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and
Interpretation. Ed. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton: Princeton
UP, 1980. 165-182.
Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women's Autobiography:
Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation. Bloomington: Indiana
Todorov, Tzvetan. 1966. "The Typology of Detective
Fiction." The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard.
Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977. 42-52.
Wales, Katie. A Dictionary of Stylistics. London:
Wilding, Michael. Political Fictions. London: Routledge,
This article engages with recent theoretical work which has
developed the notion of texts offering models of reading for their readers. More
specifically, it looks at ways in which science-fiction texts position readers,
and at the ways in which political texts comment on their own reading processes
and propagandizing strategies. A comparative analysis of George Orwell's Nineteen
Eighty-Four (1949) and Katharine Burdekin's neglected feminist dystopia Swastika
Night (1937) focuses on a textual device common to both. The reading process
of subjects in dystopia is explored: both Winston Smith and Burdekin's Alfred
are presented reading political texts, secret books. Swastika Night and Nineteen
Eighty-Four are political texts intended to influence readers, embedded in
which are scenes where political texts influence readers. The article discusses
the significance of these scenes, which are both self-referential and
extra-textual It identifies and explores some of the problems of the parallel
activities of the reader in the text and that outside the text—you, me. It
concludes by arguing for an auto-critical impulse in dystopia, which is also a
source of narrative—even propagandizing—energy. (GM)
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