In the wake of the inauguration, George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 has become a best-seller, topping the Amazon, USA Today, and iBooks bestseller lists.  Since it was first published in 1949, the book has remained in print and has enjoy strong yearly sales.  Last year, 1984 sold around 221,000 print copies, according to BookScan, a group that tracks sales for physical and digital books.  Last week, Signet Classics reprinted 500,000 copies of 1984.  Seems they expect this surge of interest to continue.

In 1973, David Bowie wrote a song called “1984.”  Inspired by Orwell’s novel, Bowie originally planned for it to be a stage musical, but that idea fell through when Orwell’s wife refused to give permission.  The song ended up on the Diamond Dogs album.  Now, the hit London stage adaptation, a non-musical, will open on Broadway in the summer.

As much as I like Bowie’s 1984 and the Diamond Dogs album, I prefer Spirit’s 1984, written by Randy California in 1970. (Had to put in a plug for one of all-time favorite rock bands.)

Just last week in San Francisco, a “mystery benefactor” bought 50 copies of 1984 at Booksmith, a bookstore in the famous Haight-Ashbury district, and asked that they be given away free to anyone who wanted one.

Evidently, it is not only Trump’s presence in the White House but also Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” comment that has sparked the spike in 1984 sales.  The parallels to our present political climate are obvious, and have been since before the rise of the monster, and the lessons the book provides are stark.  The specter of authoritarianism is always knocking on the door.  Alternate facts, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Thought Police, Big Brother, clickbait.  Where does 1984 end and reality begin?  What about all the Big Brothers out there…  listening…  watching…  recording…

Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.

– George Orwell, 1984

A runaway bestseller in poetry might sell around 2000 copies.  Most poetry book sales are much lower than that.  But in recent years the works of a 13th-century Muslim poet have sold millions of copies.  Late last month, the Washington Post declared, “How wonderful it is that Rumi… has become the best-selling poet in the United States! He might enjoy knowing that Trump’s America is snapping up translations of his homoerotically tinged work even as the country toys with banning Muslims and rolling back gay rights.”

Mowlana Jalaloddin Balkhi, aka Rumi, was born in Persia in 1207.  He was a Sunni Muslim, Islamic scholar and  theologian, and Sufi mystic.

Why is Rumi suddenly so popular?  Lee Briccetti, executive director of the nation poetry library Poets House, suggests that it is because “Across time, place and culture, Rumi’s poems articulate what it feels like to be alive.”  And it’s not just the US, the BBC says, “Globally, [Rumi’s] fans are legion.”

Rumi’s poems are wise, spiritual, beautiful, and at times, puzzling.  Although he was a Sufi teacher, his work moved beyond the confines of blind faith and exclusivity.  In the Post article linked above (about a new Rumi biography from Brad Gooch, “Rumi’s Secret”)  there is a lovely quote from Rumi: “The religion of love is beyond all faiths.”

A US poet, Coleman Barks, has been one of the folks responsible for popularizing the Persian poet.  Yet, Barks has received criticism because he is not a translator (he paraphrases from existing translations) and because he has contributed to The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.

From what I have read, I understand the older translations are more literal.  Newer translations have been produced with an eye toward rendering Rumi’s verse in a way that is compatible with free-form modern poetry, and therefore, more accessible.  I usually lean toward translations that are closest to what the poet or author originally wrote.

Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945) was one of the best Rumi scholars in the English language and his translations are considered authoritative and literal.  Yet, the archaic language he uses (“thou” “dost” etc.) does seem get in the way for this modern reader.  I gave up trying to learn who translated the following poem.  It seems very modern, so if it is true to Rumi or not, I don’t know…

A moment of happiness,
you and I sitting on the verandah,
apparently two, but one in soul, you and I.
We feel the flowing water of life here,
you and I, with the garden’s beauty
and the birds singing.
The stars will be watching us,
and we will show them
what it is to be a thin crescent moon.
You and I unselfed, will be together,
indifferent to idle speculation, you and I.
The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
as we laugh together, you and I.
In one form upon this earth,
and in another form in a timeless sweet land.


– – – – – – – – – –

Miniature painting of Rumi by Hossein Behzad


1984 Knockin’ on the Door

1984George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-four takes place in the nation of Oceania where the Inner Party, headed by Big Brother, controls the government, and everything else including the people’s daily lives. Two-way telescreens are installed in apartments and homes so that the inhabitants of Oceania can be monitored at all times. Telescreens with hidden microphones can also be found in work places and public places. Privacy in Oceania does not exist.

Nineteen Eighty-four was published in 1949, 64 years ago. 1984 the year came and went 29 years ago. But, friends, today in 2013, a real 1984, a 1984 of Big Brother, of ever-present surveillance, is knockin’ on the door.

Yesterday, both The Guardian and the Washington Post revealed that the National Security Agency and the FBI are engaged in what may be the single biggest infringement of American civil liberties ever by tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, monitoring phone calls, photos, email, video, audio, documents, and connection logs. Who are these Internet companies? They are companies that offer services most of us use every day. The US government is monitoring Gmail, FaceBook, MSN, Hotmail, Yahoo, Google, Skype, AOL, and YouTube. The government’s program is called PRISM.

Read this chilling exchange on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, between the host and Glen Greenwald, an American journalist with the Guardian:

Greenwald: “Yeah, what this program enables the National Security Agency to do is reach directly into the servers of the largest Internet companies in the world, things that virtually every human being in the Western world uses to communicate with one another, and take whatever it is they want without any checks of any kind, there’s no court looking over their shoulder to see what they’re taking, and they don’t even have the check that they have to go to the Internet companies and ask for it any longer, they have been given, or taken depending on who you talk to, direct access into the pipes where all the conversations take place and can suck up whatever they want at any given moment . . .

Morgan: What this means in a nutshell, is that the NSA on behalf of the Obama administration has been secretly looking at just about any kind of communication they see fit from any American.

Greenwald: I think this is really the important point, Piers, and that there is a massive apparatus within the United States government that with complete secrecy has been building this enormous structure that has only one goal and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity not just in the United States but in the world. That is not hyperbole. That is their objective, to make it so that every single form of human communication, human interaction, human behavior can never be beyond their reach, and they have developed extraordinary sophisticated technologies and enormously expensive mechanisms in order to make that happen. And it is well past time we had a debate about whether that is the kind of country or world in which we want to live, but we haven’t had that debate because it’s all done in secrecy and the Obama administration has been very aggressive about bullying and threatening anybody who thinks about exposing it or writing about it or even doing journalism about it, and it is well past time that come to an end.

I have never been in favor of the Patriot Act. As one who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, I had hopes that he would at least place some restrictions on this law, if not rescind it entirely. But evidently, President Obama thinks this is a good thing.

The problem is that there are no checks and no oversight. The law says nothing about what the government can do with this power, and it is all done in secrecy.

The aim is to go after terrorists. Yet, throughout our history, we have always said that the United States should never engage in activity that betrays our values. This is a sentiment that President Obama has echoed often. Of course, we have failed to live up to that guiding principle on many occasions, and this is one of them. The concern, given what we now know about what the IRS has been up to, as well as other incidents in history, is that this sort of power can be easily abused. And as Greenwald noted later on the CNN program, what we have seen with the “phone records scandal” is that the government wasn’t just going after terrorists, they were targeting all Americans indiscriminately.

It begs the question from Juvenal’s Satires: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will watch the watchers?

And these from Spirit:

Knockin’ on your door
Will you let it come?
Will you let it run your life?

Someone will be waiting for you at your door
when you get home tonight
Ah yes he’s gonna tell you darkness gives you much more
than you get from the light.

Plexi-plastic eyeball, he’s your special friend
he sees you every night
Well he calls himself Big Brother
but you know it’s no game
You’re never out of his sight.

Knockin’ on your door
Will you let it come
Will you let it run your life?

It’s time you started thinking inside your head
that you should stand up and fight
Oh just where will you be when your freedom is dead
fourteen years from tonight?

Those plexi-plastic ‘copters, they’re your special friends
they see you every night
Well they call themselves protection
but you know it’s no game
You’re never out of their sight.

1984 Knockin’ on your door
Will you let it come
Will you let it run

Randy California for Spirit, 1970.