Recent re-read: George Orwell’s 1984

He loved Big Brother.

Those are the final four words of 1984. When I first absorbed them, they hit me rather hard. It’s been thirty years, but it may as well have been yesterday.

I first read it in a very superficial manner in high school. It didn’t really hit me until the actual year 1984. In fact, on the first date referenced specifically by the main character (April 4, 1984), I may well have been reading it. It was a text for my modern European history survey in college, so a superficial reading would not do–especially for a course in my major.

This time, I was engrossed in Winston Smith’s long, lonely, forlorn struggle against a world of contradictory statements designed to systematically break down the faintest trace of humanity and individuality. Winston, a faceless bureaucrat, declares war against a society whose raison d’être is to possess his mind. The system intrudes constantly; it functions the same whether Winston consents, just passively lies there, or fights back. He twists viciously, flings off the grunting weight of indifferent, impersonal oppression, and decides that he has not really lived until he began to fight.

I’ve been there. In fact, that describes my upbringing.

Winston discovers allies, but hope as one might to the contrary, he confronts a system that handles rebels with an inexorable spirit-grinding mechanism. It is not enough that he die. It is not enough that he submit under duress. It is not enough that he confess to various low crimes. Nothing will suffice but utter submission of the essential self.

Been there too. That describes how the world feels to me in adulthood.

The pressure of conformity insinuates from every direction… not just against me, but against all. My fourth rereading of 1984 left me with the belief that its message grows more relevant every day. I wonder how it can be that our school systems do not ban it, as it is a threat to the conformity that society employs schools to inculcate.

  • “You have no privacy. Get over it.”
  • “It’s just a business decision; don’t take it personally.”
  • “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”
  • “Wear a Tommy Humdinger shirt. Be individual. Be unique.”
  • “Surely you don’t believe those fairy tales about a god and a cross.”
  • “Don’t be rude to telemarketers; they are just doing their jobs.”

“My self-confidence has soared since I got my breast implants.”
“If you want to get hired, you’ll wear a real suit.”
“You don’t understand; this drug replaces a chemical your brain doesn’t produce.”
“A computer on every desktop, running Microsoft software.”
“The nail that sticks up is hammered down.”
“Only ‘liberals’ truly understand the human condition.”

  • “It’s too wordy. If you can’t get the message across in ten words, forget it.”
  • “What do you mean, she’s black (/white/Jewish/Thai)? How could you do this to me?”
  • “Just ignore the bully. Names can never hurt you. Never throw the first punch.”
  • “I still need to lose ten more pounds.”
  • “You don’t want to have children? You’re sick!”
  • “Oh, sure, you’re bisexual. We all were too, before we really confronted our sexuality.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“It’s dirty down there.”
“If you don’t like this country, why don’t you just leave?”
“If you value your Temple Recommend, you’ll do as Elder Sanctimoni and I tell you.”
“You know what the neighbors would say.”
“Nice girls don’t use those words.”

  • “So, John…your mother tells me you haven’t taken communion for two years.”
  • “Ever have those days when you just don’t feel ‘fresh and feminine’?”
  • “Drive the sporty new Acura Spatula LX!”
  • “All my friends listen to Rage Against the Machine, so I will too.”
  • “If you don’t stand up during the national anthem, you’re a Commie.”
  • “Everyone has a car. You have to have a car.”

“How could anyone possibly survive without cable TV?”
“So just throw the junk mail away if you don’t like it.”
“Everyone else is cooperating with us.”
“You, young lady, look like some kind of whore.”
“I watched the Super Bowl just for the commercials.”
“The two-party system may be flawed but it’s still the best ever designed.”

This sort of conformist rhetoric pummels us daily, and it is what comes to my mind when I read the propaganda presented by the authorities of Winston’s IngSoc overlords. I do not believe that a page of the book goes by without a statement that will come as a body blow to anyone who believes in freedom of writing, speech and thought. It does not matter what form those freedoms take for you. Orwell depicts a world in which they are gone.

When Winston loves Big Brother, the light of liberty and determination in him fades to darkness. In the contradictory spirit of 1984, this is portrayed as a moment of dawning light and joy. Ironic. I have read that some women, to their magnified mortification, find that they become aroused and even orgasm during rape, and that this renders it still more traumatic; like having not merely one’s body taken but one’s soul. Maybe that’s what happens to Winston in the end–though in his case, the ecstasy is the closing act, his last thought and feeling. He does not get to grieve.

Contradictions are the mechanism by which the Ingsoc (English Socialism) of Winston’s Airstrip One (formerly England) of Oceania (formerly the English-speaking countries plus Central and South America) breaks down the independence of the psyche. Freedom is Slavery. War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. When constantly bombarded with contradictory statements, in time they may pound one’s unique grip on perceived objective reality down into a numb receptiveness, the mind a blank canvas on which the propagandist can paint today’s version of history–or edit yesterday’s version when its message becomes inconvenient.

It is as though the mind were a collection of odd-shaped stones and Ingsoc the rock crusher; when it is done, the gravel all looks the same. You can use it in cement, or pave a road, or crush it further to make sand, or do as you otherwise wish.

What makes 1984 an important work of literature is the fact that a single page of it can supply the thinking reader with enough questions to last a week. I offer a sampling from page 66 of my copy, said page chosen by confidently closing my eyes and opening the book:

“Rutherford had once been a famous caricaturist, whose brutal cartoons had helped to inflame popular opinion before and during the Revolution. Even now, at long intervals, his cartoons were appearing in the Times. They were simply an imitation of his earlier manner, and curiously lifeless and unconvincing.” (What does this say about the basic value of creativity? Of art? What do we lose when a Bill Watterson quits writing Calvin & Hobbes because he’s simply not willing to conform?)

“And then a voice from the telescreen was singing: ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree; I sold you and you sold me. There lie they, and here lie we; Under the spreading chestnut tree.’ The three men never stirred. But when Winston glanced again at Rutherford’s ruinous face, he saw that his eyes were full of tears.” (How many times has each of us looked into the face of living human ruin? Have we fled from it? Can we confront it? Am I a living ruin?)

“A little later all three were rearrested. It appeared that they had engaged in fresh conspiracies from the very moment of their release. At their second trial they confessed to all their old crimes over again, with a whole string of new ones.” (Why is there so much pressure to make public confession? Do we believe in any sort of rehabilitation? If so, is our ‘rehabilitation’ simply a means of promoting conformity? For whose benefit is it… that of the rehabilitated individual, or so that we may congratulate ourselves on our humanity?)

1984 is not about the repression of individuality, but its systematic destruction. All that makes us unique individuals: love, family ties, our own perceptions of history, an enterprising spirit, egotism, modesty, courage, trust, greed, lust. At one point Winston observes that, contrary to his historic perception, the proletarian masses are still human, and the Party members largely no longer are.

The designation of the Party’s main enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein, as stereotypically Jewish would be easy enough to interpret only at a shallow level. Orwell wrote in 1949, and it is tempting to consider his writing merely a polemic against totalitarianism, as best understood by the world in 1949–either recently-shattered Nazism or triumphant Stalinism, neither of which meant world Jewry any goodwill. That’s only part of what I take away.

Orwell’s message is timeless: any authority that rules by strength of power is shaken by the notion of someone it cannot bribe, intimidate, ingratiate or hoodwink. Short of just stomping with the jackboot, those are authority’s primary tools. Anyone whose values will not be compromised disturbs those who just went along, and those who pressured them to do so.

So it isn’t enough for IngSoc to obliterate Winston, the man. They must steal his newly-discovered soul, and those of all who oppose them. Winston’s thoughtcrime is the disease, to be attacked with antibodies until driven out. What’s left of him can then go ahead and die.

The final line of 1984 affected the path of my life. I would, over the course of life, face many pressures to conform. I learned, with effort, to put on the necessary fronts that may get one by. I did not take that so far as to validate what I despised, and concede that it was really okay. No matter how many people do a stupid thing, or a wrong thing, it will still be stupid or wrong. It reached a point where I learned to begin with distrusting the wisdom or value of an act or attitude in proportion to the number of people doing, touting and flaunting it. This was alienating, but the more things I learned that many people believed were in fact ridiculous, the better that felt. It came to a point where I had to remind myself that now and then, the masses get it right. I still keep reminding myself that mindless nonconformity isn’t much better than mindless conformity, and can easily be worse. Difference for the sake of principle, yes. For its own sake, nah.

When I read the final line of 1984, and grasped its import, something broke inside my own brain. I saw my future in terms of choices, either to go along and say it’s all okay, or to stick to my guns and have a harder life. It meant that a lot of people would make fun of me, ridiculing my choices as irrational–especially when I failed to let law, government and corporations force me to rationalize their actions as acceptable.  There was nothing noble in my decision to hate Big Brother; it was the simple survival choice. It was a choice of humanity. It might shorten my life, but at least  for a time I would be truly alive. My soul might be damaged, but it would be mine. I would look about me and see mostly persons whose souls had been sold–not because they cooperated with oppression, but because they had been unable to combine cooperating with hating, so they redefined oppression as not-oppression, then proceeded to make fun of those of us who hadn’t sold out. Our refusal remained an irritant, a reminder of sordid collaboration, and it must be demeaned by the collaborators at every turn.

The Vichy régime of France during World War II, representative of a France that chose to abandon its liberty and principles rather than fight and defend its beautiful capital to that capital’s destruction, treated its own French countrypeople more cruelly than the Nazi occupiers in many ways. I scorn and despise AT&T, for example–but not half as much as I scorn and despise the mentality that can look at the way they do business, and rationalize blessing that way while cursing the consumer who speaks out against it. The collaborator, who chose the evil side, is more to be despised than the evil side itself, which lacked ability to be good in the first place.

Here’s to Emmanuel Goldstein.

===

This review was originally published in different form on Epinions, a site now deceased. I have reclaimed my work.

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