Book of the Week: Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

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One of my vague, non-time-bound goals is to cover all the classics in the dystopian future genre. Perhaps I should set myself more cheerful goals. Anyhow, I digress. Nineteen Eighty Four is a book I picked up too early and abandoned halfway. I don’t remember for sure when I started reading it but it was certainly before I had a working knowledge of politics and a concept of individual freedom. This time around, having finally figured out that Animal Farm isn’t really about animals, I felt better equipped to make it through 1984.

Animal Farm, being an allegory, appealed intellectually. I had a more viscereal reaction to 1984 because it’s easy to imagine any or all of of it actually happening. Constant surveillance, obliteration of identity, vaporization of dissent, the very concept of thought crimes – we’re never too far from it all. If Animal Farm is all about describing the state of affairs. 1984 goes on to explain why and how The Party exists and sustains itself.

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. – O’Brien

The only way it can hold on to its power is by controlling the minds of its members and by defining reality. The Party survives by slowly limiting freedom to think, to believe, to disagree, and to even feel. In essence, it is like a hive mind with a single queen. Whatever the queen decides the drones do. But humans are not drones. For The Party to succeed in its aims, civilization and perhaps evolution itself must be reversed. They know this. And they are willing to do what it takes to achieve this new equilibrium.

When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us: so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation. In the old days the heretic walked to the stake still a heretic, proclaiming his heresy, exulting in it. Even the victim of the Russian purges could carry rebellion locked up in his skull as he walked down the passage waiting for the bullet. But we make the brain perfect before we blow it out.

Yet what if your mind refuses to bend itself? Can you hold on to a thought, the only thought that keeps you sane? (reminiscent of how Sirius Black survived in Azkaban) What if you are the only one who refuses to see that two plus two equals five?

Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad. – Winston’s thoughts

To die hating them, that was freedom. – Winston’s thoughts

How far can a mind hold out? Is it possible to die with dignity in the face of any form of torture? Room 101 tells us otherwise.

“By itself,” he said, “pain is not always enough. There are occasions when a human
being will stand out against pain, even to the point of death. But for everyone there is something unendurable — something that cannot be contemplated. Courage and cowardice are not involved. If you are falling from a height it is not cowardly to clutch at a rope. If you have come up from deep water it is not cowardly to fill your lungs with air. It is merely an instinct which cannot be destroyed… You will do what is required of you.” – O’ Brien

And so it all ends. It is possible to break the human spirit. Of course it is. We all know that it is. It’s foolish to believe otherwise.

“They can’t get inside you,” she had said. But they could get inside you. “What happens to you here is forever,” O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover. Something was killed in your breast: burnt out, cauterized out.

But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

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