Bookends: Tales of Shirley Jackson & George Orwell

The two best tales of the last century to fortell the future are "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson and "Nineteen Eighty-four" by George Orwell. The authors were prophets of their time for whom we would be wise to reconsider as their prophecies have come to light a little more than sixty years since the publishing of their tales: Jackson's in 1948, and Orwell's in 1949.

Both tales are a mirror of our times as Jackson wonders how a society could keep doing something absurd, even as it instinctively knows it's ridiculous, and yet keeps following the pattern, because of built in systems or traditions of a perilous nature, including that of hardly ever upsetting the established viewpoints. Nuclear energy programs all around the world are a case in point, as humanity produces extremely hazardous atomic waste by self-replicating caseloads, stuff they have no idea of where to put, but putting it someplace nonetheless, none of which is a good place, and that of which getting into the worst places, as it inevitably does, wrecks the ecosystem, not to mention occasional meltdowns and a million years-or-so life spans of unfriendly to humanity and animals alike radioactive particles. All of this is particularly curious since there are relatively safe energy alternatives from wind, solar, and geothermal sources that are far from being fully developed. As for other Jackson-type "lotteries" that societies partake in, the list is long.

Then there is Orwell. If Shirley Jackson was the prophet of illogic unchecked, then George Orwell was the prophet of politics gone astray, as his "1984" shows that power, unchecked and immovable, gives rise to totalitarianism and tyranny. Today, the Constitution is ignored regularly, with barely a murmur of protest, as many think that seemingly practical things, like omnipresent security, are more important than the rule of law, and politicians and judges have figured out a way to squirm around basic democratic norms, by simply acting in a way that makes democracy narrow and nominal. Whereas economic power is regarded as practically supreme by those political and institutional forces that erode democracy.

In a way, Orwellianism, and Jacksonian illogic make good bookends as an ominous warning to society, because one could probably not thrive without the other. Illogic thrives when Orwellianism rules. Orwellianism thrives when illogic rules.

[revised on 10/14/13]

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