Happiness and freedom: Social Science Imagination notes 25/02/16

SSC 25th February, 2016, Mint Lane, 7-9.00 pm.

Present: Mike Neary, Andrew McCulloch, Paul Boyce, Laura Stratford, Lucy McGinty.

The subjects of the discussion, led by Paul and Mike, were the dystopian novels “We” by Yvegeny Zamyatin (1921) and “1984” by George Orwell (1949). “We” was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988 and slipped awkwardly into English and French in the nineteen twenties. Not all of us had managed to read both novels but partial reading should not and does not stop discussion at the SSC meetings.

Mike introduced a discussion about “We”, which is now in a newer, superior translation by Clarence Brown (1993) when compared to the wooden US translation of 1924. The Brown translation recognises that this dystopian novel is a constructivist work, which reads almost like a poem or series of poems. Orwell reviewed a French translation of the book for the journal Tribune on 4th January 1946. He found much to admire in the book but did not enjoy the style of writing. Paul introduced a discussion of the much better known “1984”. Orwell’s book owes much to “We” and the influence was never denied. Of course, Orwell’s book is much bleaker than “We”. However, both books present a picture of an imaginary society in which, as Orwell put it in his review of “We”, “happiness and freedom are incompatible.” Both books portray a society of the future where the capacity for imagination and free thought is only an undesirable source of mental torment. Affection and love are therefore dangerous, and disturbing emotions because they are unpredictable. In both portrayed societies human beings live under constant surveillance and the source of this surveillance is a remote and inaccessible centre of unchallengeable power.

Laura asked, why should we read these novels when their message appears so depressing. We saw them as warnings, imaginative forays into possible futures which still have purchase on our by no means perfect present. We acquiesce in trading away our freedom of thought and action lulled by an empty affluence. The deliberate political presentation of a constant rumble of war and terror around the world, promotes a general sense of helplessness and personal and social insecurity.

Laura suggested that we read for next week some research which was positive and appeared to demonstrate, on the contrary, that freedom and happiness are indeed compatible.

We will read together on Thursday 10th March at 7.00 pm at Mint Lane, the following:

When Freedom is Not an Endless Meeting: A New Look at Efficiency in Consensus-Based Decision Making.

If you have not had time to look at the paper but are interested, do still come, as we will read the paper together. If you can print out your own copy, that would be great. Depending on how the meeting works we might continue reading this another week, or even another week after that.

 

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