“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”“1984,” by George Orwell
“He unrolled a page of London Pleasures. In the middle of the labyrinthine scrawlings a line caught his eye. Momentary regret stabbed him. After all, parts of it weren’t half bad! If only it could ever be finished! It seemed such a shame to shy it away after all the work he had done on it. Save it, perhaps? Keep it by him and finish it secretly in his spare time? Even now it might come to something. No, no! Keep your parole. Either surrender or don’t surrender. He doubled up the manuscript and stuffed it between the bars of the drains. It fell with a plop into the water below. Vicisti, O aspidistra!”“Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” by George Orwell
Here, we see the final breakdown of two men. In the first, the end result of psychological and physical torture at the hands of a reality-defying totalitarian state. The second, the acquiescence of a one man crusade against a middle class lifestyle.
As plots go, “1984” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” are two sides of the same coin. Alternating specimens of a personal revolt against reality. Although both characters realize the lie they’ve been raised to believe, and take action against the lie, the nature of their conviction and subsequent capitulation diverge immensely.
“1984” left me hopelessly optimistic. Our individual rebellions, at times empowering, are fruitless against the endless powers of a systemic tyranny. The truth is subjective, easily warped; distorted beyond recognition. Yet, the ease with which truth was perverted allows us room (if only a sliver of elbow room) to grow our own realities; to declare war. Winston represents, not a fruitless rebellion destined to subjugation, but one of thousands upon thousands of glitches the machine cannot hope to solve.
Gordon, however, represents an uninspiring (not to mention dangerous) form of personal rebellion. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is the story of an eradic, sometimes idiotic one-man rebellion against the “money game,” as Gordon calls it. Fed up with the middle class obsession with acquiring a “good job” – a well paying job with upward mobility and respectability – and the trappings that go with a respected middle class existence. Subservience to the Money-God is a life without a soul. Gordon won’t have it. So he refuses to play the game.
Although Gordon’s moment of awakening is similar to Winston’s (and those of us who’ve come to realize the banality of the good life we’ve been sold on), it mostly ends there. While Winston looks for solidarity in a dark world, sharing his realization with others, Gordon retreats and demonizes everyone around him.
The ire Gordon has toward women, for example, is unbelievably misplaced and sexist. Mistaking victims for perpetrators is common among socially jaded people. And Gordon is no different. He classifies women as the enforcers of the money-God. They ensnare men with promises of love into acquiescing to the demands of the money-system. Marriage, children, a comfy home, it’s all a trap. It’s no surprise then that Gordon treats Rosemary (his love interest) like shit. He accuses her of only being interested in him acquiring money. Everything (and I mean everything) is about money, even when she won’t have sex with him.
Sex shows us where Gordon’s true motivations lie. Not in the sense that he only cares/wants sex. But that sex is only wanted because it cannot be had. It’s in this realm of the denied desire that Gordon thrives. When Rosemary finally decides to have sex with him (he being unaware of her intentions until she shows up in his grimy room), he can’t manage to exert an emotional response. He barely wants it.
He doesn’t want a decent paying job, so much as he wants to use the lack of one to complain and whine about his lot in life. He could live in better conditions (even while making diddly squat), but he opts for a hole in the wall attic bedroom filled with bugs.
The whole thing reeks of a child bothering their parents for a specific trinket, only to lose interest five minutes after getting it. Gordon is never satisfied, because his fight is not an ideological one. It’s a selfish one.
A silly game – like the money-game he so vehemently spits on – with hurtful consequences. And the two people closest to Gordon are hit hardest by the disaster that is his life. Rosemary, as we’ve seen, is demonized as an assassin in service of the money-God. Drawn-out and intensive arguments over money and women’s role in it feature prominently in their relationship. What’s worse is Gordon doesn’t seem to notice how fucked up this is. He berates her constantly for his self-induced sufferings. That she keeps coming back over and over again despite the verbal abuse and gaslighting says something to her understanding of Gordon’s fight as a limited one. He complains that she will never understand it (his one-man fight against the money-God). Yet, she understands it clearly! It’s not really his fight. She knows he’ll eventually come out of it.
With Ravelston – Gordon’s rich friend and literary editor – we see the same friendship qualities repeated from Rosemary. Ravelston is more than happy (and able) to help Gordon monetarily. But Gordon won’t have it! No sir, charity is the worst thing that could happen to Gordon, next to surrendering to the money-God. That charity disgusts Gordon shouldn’t surprise us. His crusade is performative. Charity threatens that. Ravelston, being the good friend and enlightened bourgeoisie that he is, can only look on Gordon with pity.
While Rosemary consciously or not realizes the hollowness of Gordon’s crusade, Ravelston takes him too seriously. It is the relation of an ideologue to a self-centered whiner. Despite ripping the middle class and the bourgeoisie a new one every encounter, Gordon refuses to connect what he sees with a comprehensive ideology. Time and time again Ravelston attempts to bridge Gordon’s complaints with his socialist alignments. Every time, Gordon refuses.
Gordon refuses Ravelston’s ideological leanings, and his help. On one hand, Gordon doesn’t want to ruin a friendship with charity. A fair aspiration. Although, I’m sure we’ve all needed help from close friends at some point or another, and our friendships continued with not so much as a dent in them. But to make matters worse, Gordon is rarely kind to Ravelston. He detests him, more for Ravelston’s combination of kindness and wealth, than wealth alone.
Wealth does not disgust Gordon. Nor does its inequalities, suffering, and destitution. The incision points where wealth invades Gordon’s personal life are his real targets. Wealth exists in between Rosemary, Ravelston, and him. He senses the inequality between them, the pulls of wealth’s strings. Yet, he opts to bolster himself through endless complaining and verbal abuse toward his friends. It’s all a confidence boost.
When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, it’s enticing to fashion giants. Giants, whose sole target is you. All against one, one against all.
It matters little whether the situation is of your own creation (like Gordon’s was). Or if it is constructed by an external master. We will be tempted to internalize, center the situation on ourselves. To close our blinders to just our immediate experiences. This hurts me. I am the sole (although never explicitly admitted to) victim. We’ll downplay at the very least, or harshly critique at the worst the sufferings of others. “I was hurt, abused, and went through shit. But those people? They’re just playing the victim.”
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To deny the humanity and struggles that another person has gone through while claiming the status you deny them is one hell of a combo. Gas-lighting, pettiness, self-centeredness, and arrogance, to name a few. For those of us who unfortunately walk down this path, we need a Rosemary in our lives. Someone who won’t take our shit seriously. Someone who will eventually require more from us than our petty selfishness will tolerate. And just to add to this, we should be careful not to feminize this quality. These qualities are not feminine, nor mostly found in the construct that is the feminine. We can mention how often women are in the position of Ravelston – as opposed to Rosemary – to highlight this. Required (often a product of a patriarchy that requires women to mother any man in their lives; to be the guiding light for the man’s self-actualization) to assist in almost any capacity, even after the man has denied the help for arrogant reasons. Receiving countless abuses both mentally and emotionally. Gas-lighted and maliciously criticized for their social position and their assistance. Eventually left behind when they’re no longer needed.
Gordon might have been pulled out of a hole by the responsibility of a newborn, but it represents another escape. Responsibility is by no means immune from escapism. Mostly because responsibility is not some higher calling that magically alleviates whatever problems you were facing before. I know plenty of self-help gurus and influencer psychologists would have you believe otherwise, but it’s just another box for you to hop into. New drapes over the same old broken window. Toward the end of the novel, Gordon throws away his poems. An acknowledgement that even his artistic output was just another escape. An excuse for his petty choices. Ammo against all others around him. Our isolated selfishness eats away everything in its path, including art. Even newborns aren’t safe for long.