Back in October of 2018, I was wandering around Dublin, Ireland – had to go over for VISA reasons, long story don’t ask – and happened into a little book shop along the river Liffey that runs through the center of the city. The shop had a small collection of Penguin Classics, short little books by single authors on individual topics. Sort of like the pamphlets that used to be published back in the early days of the printing press of the 16th and 17th century. One of the classics was Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell. Considering the ongoing debate and divisions back in my home country, I picked it up along with a couple of other volumes in the small book collection.
After reading and writing a review of Notes on Nationalism I realized I had never actually read anything else by Orwell. Somehow my grade and high school education did not include reading any of his work. As such, I was never forced to read Orwell by any of the Dominican priests that haunted my childhood. I never even got around to seeing the movie version of 1984 with John Hurt and Richard Burton.
Soon after finishing the essay and posting the review, I was approached by one of my friends and former employees regarding not only 1984 but also Animal Farm. He wanted my opinion as to how George Orwell, a devout socialist most of his life, could write two books harshly criticizing communism. I gave him the response I have been giving most of my more conservative friends (I do try and keep some of them around if only to make sure I know what sort of shenanigans they are up too; same reason I keep the more liberal ones around)on social media lately when they make some of their grand sweeping and generalized statements regarding some of the policies being put forth by some of the United States more left leaning politicians. That comment being socialism and communism are not the same thing even if they have some concepts in common.
Even though I felt comfortable with my response in general, I realized that it didn’t get to a more detailed and precise answer. I generally can’t abide missing nuance any more than I can abide broad sweeping generalizations spewed on social media. Hence why I still have arguments with my left and right leaning friends and can’t seem to get myself off of Facebook. So I decided to rectify the situation.
I rented the movie version of 1984 the same week. And don’t get me wrong, it is a great movie and anyone reading this review or not should watch it, but it just made me want to read the source material.
Everyone surely knows the story in 1984. Or at least they think they do nowadays with terms like facecrime and doublespeak being thrown around the news and social media as if we’ve all just come from a high school English Lit course. I certainly thought I did as well.
1984 warns of the dystopian future where the state has taken control of every aspect of life. It controls what you eat, where you live, who you can associate with and what you do for a living. More insidious then this however, it even tries to control fact, retrofit history, and control how you think.
The protagonist, Winston Smith, has his life and love – and eventually even his free will – slowly taken from him. The state takes control and breaks him, not just out of some need for control but as control itself. Without this ability to reshape people, the state realizes it will lose control and fall back into the cycle of revolution and replacement that has plagued human society since the beginning of time. As the state strips control from your hands, and from your mind, and even from your heart; the world becomes a duller and less inviting place. Even the act of love itself is to be erased and replaced solely with the love of the party. With love of Big Brother who watches over all.
Like most people though I had missed some important points by not reading the source material. There is significant nuance and detail in both the main story of the book and especially in the epilogue and notes at the end of the book. These final sections explain in more detail the development of newspeak and the why and how of how it is used.
Actually these are the most important factors. The concept of doublethink that is explained to Winston as he is continually dragged back from the abyss of nonexistence during his torture by the representative of the Party, O’Brien. The need for the party members to not just lie to each other and to themselves about the true nature of the world. But that fact that they must tell the lie and immediately forget they have told it. That the lie is actually the truth and has always been the truth. In some cases that both the lie and the truth are in existence at the same time.
In other words, high ranking party members have to hold two diametrically opposing views in mind at the same time and give them both equal validity. Not only that, but they have to do this not because the party says to or out of fear of what the party will do; but because they themselves actually want to hold these ideas. This is the true horror of the book. Not the coercive power of the state but the – at some point – choice of every member of the party to submit to madness. To choose the doublethink of their own free will.
This is Orwell’s main point. It is not that Socialism or Capitalism, or Confucianism (as pointed out by the three main powers that exist in the story it doesn’t matter what sort of government you start out with) is bad in and of itself. It is the individual not having the moral courage to hold onto reality. It is the individual making the choice to submit. Not just to lie about it or to try and fight against it. Even Winston at the end lacks the moral fiber needed to hold onto his convictions to the bitter end if needed. Even unto death.
That is the true horror of Room 101. As O’Brien says, everyone knows what is in Room 101, for what is in the room is what you fear the most. What every individual fears the most. It is our own weakness. Our own lack of conviction. Our ability if need be, to give up what we love – and even what we fear – for what is right. Sometimes in order for the other side to lose, we need to make the ultimate sacrifice. This is the weakness Winston shows and the weakness Orwell warns us we need to have to stave off enslavement.