George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949)

orwell1984

Undoubtedly, Nineteen Eighty-Four was a significant milestone in the trajectory of twentieth-century Western culture. Orwell’s novel is also the true national epic of Great Britain. Surely you did not expect that it would be Shakespeare, who merely retold popular European stories in good verse.

Let us first summarize the conventional interpretation of 1984, and to make sure that we do not misrepresent it, let us consult sources that are reliably incapable of unconventional thought. Here is the Washington Post in 2017: “Orwell wasn’t writing about a particular party. Although he was inspired by full-scale abuses in the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, he was also borrowing from the methods of communication control he had witnessed in Britain. He was describing, in other words, the basic function of power, the tendency of leaders and governments — ‘from Conservatives to Anarchists‘ — to cement their authority by controlling our language and by extension our thought and behavior.” In 2019, The Conversation reached a similar conclusion: “Today, Nineteen Eighty-Four comes across not as a warning that the actual world of Winston and Julia and O’Brien is in danger of becoming reality. Rather, its true value is that it teaches us that power and tyranny are made possible through the use of words and how they are mediated. If we understand power in this way, especially in our digital world, then unlike Winston, we will have a better chance to fight it.” In short, the cruel, sadistic world depicted in 1984 is the absolute essence of organized political power, its “basic function,” all that remains when the rhetorical trappings have been removed.

orwell1984newPage numbers from this 2020 edition,
but the full text is available here: http://www.orwell.ru

The text appears to support this interpretation. In fact, these commentators are simply repeating O’Brien’s long monologues from Part III. Here is O’Brien, torturing Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love:

He came closer to the bed. ‘For ever!’ he repeated. ‘And now let us get back to the question of “how” and “why”. You understand well enough how the Party maintains itself in power. Now tell me why we cling to power. What is our motive? Why should we want power? Go on, speak,’ he added as Winston remained silent.
[…]
‘You are ruling over us for our own good,’ [Winston] said feebly. ‘You believe that human beings are not fit to govern themselves, and therefore–‘
He started and almost cried out. A pang of pain had shot through his body. O’Brien had pushed the lever of the dial up to thirty-five.
‘That was stupid, Winston, stupid!’ he said. ‘You should know better than to say a thing like that.’
He pulled the lever back and continued:
‘Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. 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. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’

(Orwell, 270-272)

The more he insists, the more I wonder. O’Brien is no ordinary Party member — he claims that he “collaborated in writing” (270) the book under Emmanuel Goldstein’s name that is shown to every potential dissident, and also that he “took part in [the] interrogation” (264) of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford, three of “the original leaders of the Revolution” (77) who were later purged. O’Brien boasts, “I saw them gradually worn down, whimpering, grovelling, weeping… By the time we had finished with them they were only the shells of men.” (264) If he was entrusted with such a task, one might suppose that his stature within the Party hierarchy is at least comparable to theirs.

What this means, however, is merely that O’Brien is next in line. Earlier, we see one of Winston’s acquaintances at work, a man named Syme who “believed in the principles of Ingsoc, he venerated Big Brother, he rejoiced over victories, he hated heretics, not merely with sincerity but with a sort of restless zeal, an up-to-dateness of information, which the ordinary Party member did not approach.” (56) Listening to him hold forth on Newspeak and “the beauty of the destruction of words,” (53) Winston suddenly realizes: “One of these days…Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.” (55) And, indeed, it does not take long before “Syme had vanished.” (150) But O’Brien is even more intelligent and sees even more clearly than Syme; his higher status only makes him more vulnerable, and the pride with which he describes his personal participation in all these great deeds makes him stand out more. If Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford could have been reduced to such a state, then clearly nothing will save O’Brien. There is no difficulty in finding historical parallels.

yezhovAs the head of the NKVD, Yezhov was closer to O’Brien
than to Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford.

O’Brien’s argument is that one who “can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party,” in so doing, becomes “all-powerful and immortal.” But he is referring to death by natural causes, “the decay of my own body.” (273) The example he gives is, “Suppose that we choose to wear ourselves out faster. Suppose that we quicken the tempo of human life till men are senile at thirty. Still what difference would it make? Can you not understand that the death of the individual is not death? The Party is immortal.” (278) But O’Brien will not die of old age. To achieve his desired “thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless,” (277) the Party must perpetually feed upon itself, and O’Brien will surely provide a much greater “thrill” to his future torturers than some lowly clerk who barely even had time to read a few pages of Goldstein’s book and hardly understood any of it. The collective immortality that (according to O’Brien) the Party seeks is precisely what makes it fundamentally impossible for any one person to “merge himself” in it. The imperative, rather, is to throw that person into the meat grinder at the very moment that he believes himself to have “merged.”

Perhaps O’Brien is not bothered by such an outcome. But, considering how long his speeches are, it is very conspicuous that he does not openly say so. His philosophy requires a form of voluntary self-sacrifice, what he calls “an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will,” (257) in order to achieve unity with the Party; but being involuntarily sacrificed by the Party, through separation from it followed by physical destruction, for the sole benefit of the Party’s continued existence, does not seem to enter into his calculations. Winston puts up only a feeble straw man, in the form of “something in the universe — I don’t know, some spirit, some principle — that you will never overcome.” (279) Really, O’Brien has gotten too used to easy “victories” over pitiful opponents, blubbering in pain. This self-satisfied obliviousness does not bode well for him.

Everyone knows that many details of Orwell’s setting are based on the Soviet Union under Stalin — not only does Big Brother sport a “heavy black moustache,” (1) he speaks in “a style at once military and pedantic, and, because of a trick of asking questions and then promptly answering them (‘What lessons do we learn from this fact, comrades? The lesson — which is also one of the fundamental principles of Ingsoc — that,’ etc., etc.) easy to imitate.” (48) But Stalin’s repressive apparatus was dismantled after his death, not as a result of insurrection, but by agreement among a majority of the Soviet leadership. Forty years later, the Soviet Union itself was likewise abolished by backstage agreement between Soviet functionaries; the disoriented public was presented with a fait accompli. O’Brien triumphantly proclaims that, “There is no way in which the Party can be overthrown. The rule of the Party is for ever,” (270) but the means that have been proposed for achieving this goal appear to be ineffective. In fact, they jeopardize the rule of the Party: they make life unbearable, not only for the masses, but for the ruling elite itself, thus giving the latter a reason to discontinue them and find some other way to preserve itself. It is therefore quite unlikely that this system is truly the “basic function of power” toward which all “leaders and governments” naturally gravitate, if not held back by the courageous, informed readers and writers of the Washington Post. Perhaps we should ask where this interpretation came from and why we must continue to hear it.

One answer lies on the surface. When journalists remember 1984, it is not out of love for literature. All of these articles are constructed in the same way and have the same point. The Guardian worded it (in 2019) as, “I first encountered Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager in suburban south London… [Ah, the personal touch! This always gives so much weight to journalism. -FL] I found it shocking and compelling, but this was circa 1990, when communism and apartheid were on the way out, optimism reigned and the world didn’t feel particularly Orwellian… In 2016, the world changed. As Trump took the White House, Britain voted for Brexit and populism swept across Europe, people took to talking anxiously about the upheavals of the 1970s and, worse, the 1930s.” Of course, anyone can do this, motivating another Washington Post article in 2021 with the headline “Conservatives crying ‘Orwell’ are downright Orwellian.” What this really means, though, is that everything is Orwellian. Any such piece bringing up Orwell will invariably contain some sort of polemical attack on someone who is compared to Big Brother. 1984 is a source of political caricatures, as hackneyed as Rutherford’s cartoons, “a rehashing of the ancient themes — slum tenements, starving children, street battles, capitalists in top hats — even on the barricades the capitalists still seemed to cling to their top hats an endless, hopeless effort to get back into the past.” (79) The edition I am quoting has a foreword by Thomas Pynchon and an afterword by Erich Fromm, so the text is literally packed between two ideological interpretations. Both serve the immediate needs of contemporary liberalism, seeking to distance it from the “reactionary” (326) Soviet Union. Pynchon triumphantly reclaims Orwell from “anticommunist ideologues,” describing him as “not only of the Left, but to the left of Left,” (ix) while Fromm reinterprets 1984 as a critique of capitalism rather than communism: “Orwell…is simply implying that the new form of managerial industrialism, in which man builds machines which act like men and develops men who act like machines, is conducive to an era of dehumanization and complete alienation[.]” (337) It seems like a stretch to ascribe such intentions to Orwell, but then, above all, 1984 is very convenient; that is probably why it was written (commissioned?). It can be put to work just as easily when divorced of all content:

A columnist for The Guardian then unwittingly created a moment of complete aesthetic perfection by copying and pasting this text and attributing it to Orwell. Journalists do not read books; from the cradle, all that ever matters to them is networking.

This comical mangling of 1984 is not totally irrelevant to the novel; rather, it is a response to something that was already there in it. There is, in fact, a hint of absurdity in how someone of O’Brien’s stature is enthusiastically spending so much of his presumably valuable time on someone as insignificant as Winston. Orwell’s explanation is that the Party’s philosophy requires it to go through this process with every single person who ever has “an erroneous thought…however secret and powerless it may be,” (263) but the sheer organizational scale required for this enterprise is ridiculously disproportionate to the outcome. An entire complement of thugs, interrogators, spies, psychologists, and medical personnel is required to handle Winston alone. “There was no physical act, no word spoken aloud, that they had not noticed, no train of thought that they had not been able to infer. Even the speck of whitish dust on the cover of his diary they had carefully replaced.” (286) They barely gave him enough time to read a few pages of Goldstein’s book, but it still took a whole team of Party intellectuals to write it. And Winston’s case hardly stands out — by the end of the novel, every named Outer Party member has been subjected to repression, even the dull and obedient Parsons. Staffing and training the Thought Police must be a truly Herculean labour, especially since every single member of it will also have to be purged after a fairly short time. Oddly, it flatters Winston (and, by extension, the reader) to have such trouble taken on his account. O’Brien even pays him a compliment: “You were right. I enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles my own mind except that you happen to be insane.” (267) In a certain sense, 1984 has always pandered to readers, and hacks of all stripes have instinctively picked up on this quality.

But just because Orwell can be made to say anything does not mean that he has no convictions of his own. Here is one that is central to both the novel and its cultural significance:

[O’Brien] paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: ‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’
Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.
‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.’

(Orwell, 275-276)

Crucially, this time Winston does not even protest — he cannot perceive, even on an instinctual level, that power can be expressed in any other form. On this question, the torturer and the victim, and therefore the author as well, all agree. But is the answer really so obvious? Is there no one else who could provide another opinion? Well, when it comes to Western moral philosophy, there is no place to look but Star Trek. Certainly you won’t find it in the Washington Post.

The alien’s speech is written with deliberate parallels to O’Brien’s — in fact, as we will see, 1984 was openly used as the blueprint for this villainous race — because this character serves as a mouthpiece for any statement that the show’s American writers distrust and disdain. And yet, even for him, the object of persecution is not persecution; torture and suffering may be used “only if it’s necessary,” but this very wording already implies that it may not be. In other words, he at least allows the possibility that Winston could be persuaded to love Big Brother in a more even-tempered manner.

We wrote before that the aliens in Star Trek represent the American understanding of European culture. The principle of “power” that is being parodied here is not Orwellian, but European — the principle of noble-mindedness, generosity toward the vanquished. What O’Brien abhors is also this same principle:

In other respects, Caesar conducted himself impeccably after the civil wars ended. It was even decided — and, they say, with good cause — to dedicate the temple of Clemency to him as a sign of gratitude for his magnanimity. It is true that he forgave many of those who had taken up arms against him, and even gave high positions to some, such as Brutus and Cassius: they were both praetors. Caesar did not allow the statues of Pompey to lie where they had been cast down from their pedestals, but ordered them to be returned to their places. About this Cicero said that Caesar, by restoring the statues of Pompey, had laid the foundation for his own.”

Plutarch, “Life of Caesar”

‘But could it ever have been otherwise?’ [Napoleon] thought. ‘Here it is, the capital, at my feet, awaiting its fate. Where is Alexander now and what is he thinking? Such a strange, beautiful, majestic city! And such a strange and majestic moment! …One word from me, one movement of my hand, and this ancient capital des Czars will perish. Mais ma clémence est toujours prompte à descendre sur les vaincus. [“But my clemency is always ready to condescend to the vanquished.” -FL] I must be magnanimous and truly great…I will spare [Moscow]. Upon these ancient monuments of barbarism and despotism I will carve great words of justice and mercy…I will give them the laws of justice, I will show them the meaning of true civilization, I will compel generations of boyars to speak the name of their conqueror with love. I will tell their delegation that I did not and do not want war; that I warred only with the false politics of their court, that I love and respect Alexander and that, in Moscow, I will accept such terms of peace as are worthy of myself and my peoples. I do not wish to use the fortunes of war to humiliate a respected monarch. Boyars — so I will tell them: I do not want war, I want only peace and prosperity for all my subjects. Indeed, I know that their presence will inspire me, and I will speak to them as I always do: clearly, solemnly and greatly.

War and Peace, Vol. III, Part III, Ch. XIX

Orwell might tell us that these men were hypocritical or delusional. But we would remind him that both Plutarch and Tolstoy already included a measure of irony in their descriptions. Everyone knew from the start that Caesar’s actions had self-serving motives, but still, of all the different ways to serve oneself, Caesar chose this one. Even Machiavelli, whom no one would accuse of being unduly sentimental, wrote in the Discourses on Livy that “an act of humanity and benevolence will at all times have more influence over the minds of men than violence and ferocity…provinces and cities which no armies and no engines of war, nor any other efforts of human power, could conquer, have yielded to an act of humanity, benevolence, chastity, or generosity.” Of course, Machiavelli also frequently discussed the utility of violence and ferocity, but that is the point — to him, both clemency and cruelty were equally useful tools of statecraft. O’Brien (and, through him, the Party) has demonstratively abandoned one of these tools, to no clear benefit.

From a certain angle, the Party looks strangely weak. Embracing sadism has made O’Brien dependent on his victim. He makes a considerable effort to establish a dialogue with Winston, encouraging him to speak freely and even demonstratively shutting off the torture machine so that Winston will not be afraid to ask questions. He shows anger when he thinks that Winston is trying to hide something from him, as if it were a betrayal of his trust. By admitting that he “enjoys talking to” Winston, or that the two of them are similar, he is bringing Winston closer to his own level. But then, in a sense, he is “inflicting pain and humiliation” on himself. On some level, even he must realize (as does the alien in Star Trek) that “the thrill of victory” can be found only in defeating an opponent of equal or greater stature, who can fight back, and who ideally surrenders of his own volition, recognizing his own moral bankruptcy. This is the ideal of knightly combat that originally helped shape Western European culture. According to this way of looking at the world, dehumanizing the enemy also deprives the victor. One can choose to reject this cultural code, but without any clear replacement, one may as well reject human speech or sentience.

You may laugh, but even the Star Trek writers understood this. In a different storyline, the heroic Capt. Picard is captured by a different representative of the same villainous race, and tortured in a scene that all but directly quotes from 1984. Recall Orwell’s most famous invention, epitomizing the Party’s rejection of objective reality:

‘Do you remember,’ [O’Brien] went on, ‘writing in your diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four?”‘
‘Yes,’ said Winston.
O’Brien held up his left hand, its back toward Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.
‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’
‘Four.’
‘And if the Party says that it is not four but five — then how many?’
‘Four.’
The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five.

(Orwell, 257)

Like O’Brien, the alien torturer Madred also has no real objective. Just as Winston never posed the slightest threat to the Party, Picard does not possess any information of any serious military value. Forcing him to believe that there are five lights becomes an end in itself — and, just as in 1984, it is not enough for Picard to merely say that there are five. “No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four.” (258) Like O’Brien, the Star Trek villain has thoroughly studied his victim, mentioning personal details such as Picard’s interest in archeology (“Did you know that Cardassia boasts some of the most ancient and splendid ruins in the entire galaxy?“). Of course, his purpose is to get into Picard’s head, but he forgets that personal contact always works in the opposite direction as well. He begins to oddly identify with Picard, letting him see bits of his own personal life, for example when he lets his daughter visit him in the torture chamber. There is some rationalization for this: in this way the daughter can be politically indoctrinated (as children are in Orwell), and Picard can be further degraded by being made to hear that “human mothers and fathers don’t love their children as we do,” as if he were not there. Yet, at the same time, the very intimacy of this situation also makes Madred vulnerable:

‘I’m surprised that you let her come in here.’
‘Why?’
‘To expose a child to this. To someone who is suffering. To see that it is you that inflict that suffering.’
‘From the time Jil Orra could crawl she’s been taught about the enemies of the Cardassians, and that enemies deserve their fate.’
‘When children learn to devalue others, they can devalue anyone, including their parents.’
‘What a blind, narrow view you have. What an arrogant man you are. What do you know of Cardassian history?’

Picard and Madred

Madred suddenly begins to sound defensive. He resumes brutalizing Picard, but now that only comes across as a sign of weakness. Evidently “the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless” is not quite sufficient for complete happiness, after all. Of course, O’Brien would have never let things get this far out of hand; in any case, he has no family. But then, his opponent is merely a miserable, terrified, inarticulate clerk who has already been beaten into a stupor. Madred is up against a European military aristocrat — in a touch so brilliant that it could only have happened by accident, the Picard character is French. And Madred himself belongs to a genuine educated elite, comprised of people who have real families and are capable of seeing deep significance in parenthood. This dimension makes him Picard’s equal in a way, and therefore gives more substance to Picard’s moral victory (very much in the traditional Western sense) over him. But what sophisticated pleasures has O’Brien known? In a certain sense, he is indeed similar to Winston, equally disposable. And, however invincible he may be, he still resembles Madred in one respect, namely that he needs Winston and cannot truly be satisfied by anything that he does to him. The formula “Imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever” (Orwell, 277) is a contradiction in terms. It emphasizes that the face has to be human. But, by stamping on it, O’Brien destroys its humanity, thus making it impossible to fulfill his own requirement.

So, the horrors of 1984 are not an inevitable consequence of “power” or even authoritarianism. Rather, they are abnormal and unnatural, and seen as such by every system except the one in the novel — even Khruschev chose not to formulate his arguments against Stalin in terms of “demanding sterner measures against thought-criminals and saboteurs,” (55) but rather centered them around Stalin’s “repression and physical destruction” of “those who are in error, who are mistaken[.]” Nor is O’Brien’s philosophy useful for achieving “immortality” or any other goal. It is not even useful for experiencing the vaunted “intoxication of power.” (Orwell, 277) One can embrace it only to one’s own detriment, whether we consider individuals or organizations. It is self-destructive, and therefore, self-destruction is the only possible reason to embrace it — or, to paraphrase Orwell, the object of self-destruction is self-destruction. One becomes the victim who is degraded and destroyed, first mentally and eventually physically. Many aspects of the Party’s philosophy are much more comprehensible from this point of view. O’Brien boasts, “We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now.” (276) But this program is more consistent with a desire for non-existence than with one for immortality.

zukunftOn public display in Berlin: “Future or climate killer?
In the future there will be no procreation, either.

There is some reason to see the absolute misery of Orwell’s world as an expression of self-hatred. At least this would explain the novel’s extremely unpleasant sexual compulsion. This is how Winston describes, in his diary, a past visit to a prostitute: “What he had suddenly seen in the lamplight was that the woman was old… There were streaks of white in her hair, but the truly dreadful detail was that her mouth had fallen a little open, revealing nothing except a cavernous blackness. She had no teeth at all.” Orwell’s concluding words in this scene, “He had written it down at last, but it made no difference. The therapy had not worked. The urge to shout filthy words at the top of his voice was as strong as ever,” (70-71) sound like they could just as easily be describing the novel’s author. The affair with Julia is not much healthier: she and Winston both say, “We are the dead.” (227) Multiple critics over the years have tried to trace the novel back to some sort of boarding school trauma, and indeed, it is not too difficult to find parallels with, “A society in which one could be guilty without doing anything deliberate, in which surveillance was assumed to be total, and in which shame and fear and humiliation were profoundly internalised,” to put it in the words of a 2014 article in The Guardian. But, of course, if that had really been the literary goal, there were far simpler and more straightforward ways of achieving it. The novel’s suicidal philosophy may mirror its author’s mindset, but it reaches far beyond Orwell himself.

Refresh the setting in your mind. In 1984, Britain has undergone a communist revolution and become part of “Oceania,” one of three global superpowers. As a result, while London is still inhabited by recognizably English people, there are numerous petty yet (for British readers) significant details suggesting that these radical changes have been imposed on Britain from the outside. For example, Oceania has adopted the metric system, which is actually made into a dramatic lament in one scene where Winston goes to a bar for the downtrodden underclass:

‘I arst you civil enough, didn’t I?’ said the old man, straightening his shoulders pugnaciously. ‘You telling me you ain’t got a pint mug in the ‘ole bleeding boozer?’
‘And what in hell’s name is a pint?’ said the barman, leaning forward with the tips of his fingers on the counter.
‘Ark at ‘im! Calls ‘isself a barman and don’t know what a pint is! Why, a pint’s the ‘alf of a quart, and there’s four quarts to the gallon. ‘Ave to teach you the A, B, C next.’
‘Never heard of ’em,’ said the barman shortly. ‘Litre and half litre — that’s all we serve. There’s the glasses on the shelf in front of you.’
‘I likes a pint,’ persisted the old man. ‘You could ‘a drawed me off a pint easy enough. We didn’t ‘ave these bleeding litres when I was a young man.’
‘When you were a young man we were all living in the treetops,’ said the barman, with a glance at the other customers.”

(Orwell, 90)

The radical critic John Dolan saw these particulars as a sign of reactionary fear on Orwell’s part, and made well-deserved fun of them, writing, “The xenophobia starts in the very first line of 1984, the famous opening: ‘It was a cold, bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Oh the horror of the continental (Papist) 24-hour clock! Anything but that!” Certainly this may be another case where Orwell’s personal prejudice happened to align with his literary aim. Dolan also pointed out the odd deliberateness of giving the torturer an Irish name: “Consider the real names of the men who have governed Britain — and then explain why Orwell named his villain ‘O’Brien.’ Bad conscience trumped sense yet again. He hates the O’Briens so much that he foolishly imagines they’re going to rise to the top in the coming Soviet Britain and take their revenge on the Orwells (or should I say the Blairs).” Still, the currency of Oceania is not the Irish pound: “Now, if it so happened that you wanted to buy it, that’d cost you four dollars. I can remember when a thing like that would have fetched eight pounds, and eight pounds was — well, I can’t work it out, but it was a lot of money.” (Orwell, 98) And we do know that the former United States is also part of Oceania, because Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford once attended “some Party function in New York.” (80) Then why not simply view Oceania exactly as it appears to be, as an Anglo-American synthesis?

Part II gives a few excerpts from Goldstein’s book that give some depth to the comparison. The Floating Fortress that “has locked up in it the labor that would build several hundred cargo ships” (195) — what is that but an aircraft carrier? The vast activity of countless American geopolitical think tanks is completely encapsulated in Orwell’s description of, “The strategy…to acquire a ring of bases completely encircling one or other of the rival states, and then to sign a pact of friendship with that rival and remain on peaceful terms for so many years so as to lull suspicion to sleep. During this time rockets loaded with atomic bombs can be assembled at all the strategic spots; finally they will all be fired simultaneously, with effects so devastating as to make retaliation impossible. It will then be time to sign a pact of friendship with the remaining world power, in preparation for another attack.” (200) Even the name “Oceania” is nothing more than Mackinder’s “Midland Ocean.”

It took longer than Orwell guessed. In 1992, American television was showing the battle of wills between Picard and Madred, which inverted 1984 into a rebuke of itself, laying bare the stunted, self-defeating essence of Orwell’s philosophy of history. But in 2004, high-ranking American officials were essentially repeating O’Brien’s proclamations that “We make the laws of nature” and “Nothing exists except through human consciousness.” (274) You may remember this: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality… We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality…we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.’” Around the same time, American television was now showing 24, in which the merits of torture were a central theme. By the end of that decade, Quentin Tarantino, who had become a kind of spokesman for American culture simply by virtue of there being no one else left, had made a film showing an alternate history in which World War II is won by sadistic American commandos. Even the New York Times had to timidly ask, “Am I being overly fastidious, or does Quentin Tarantino’s new movie…provide a more unapologetic justification for torture than Dick Cheney has been articulating lately?” And yet, somehow, looking back on this in 2022, it appears that none of it had any effect in bringing about “A world of victory after victory, triumph after triumph after triumph” (Orwell, 278) after all. However “helpless” individual people become, American elites appear less “all-powerful and immortal” than ever before, first of all to Americans themselves. Maybe bringing back ration cards will help.

ingloriousSadism has been Tarantino’s stock in trade throughout his entire career.
For all his talent, this is not a sign of sound mental health.

The garish, hyper-exaggerated character of Tarantino’s film only serves to demonstrate this spectacular futility in its purest form. The mission statement of his protagonists is, “We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us… And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us.” Indeed, the fascination with “disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies” has come a long way since Col. Kurtz and even since Tarantino’s film; he hadn’t thought of giving his heroes full back tattoos of demon heads. But Kurtz still remembered that “you have to have men who are moral.” At some point his descendants convinced themselves that psychopaths will do the job even better, and thereby showed their own pathological inability to imagine, even hypothetically, any other point of view from which their designated enemies might think. “Sickening” German soldiers with cruelty is like frightening Japanese samurai with extravagant seppuku. This strategy will not deter people with centuries of martial tradition; on the contrary, it can only remove whatever barriers still remained in their minds, precisely because, in their eyes, Tarantino’s fearsome commandos will no longer be human. When dehumanization of the enemy becomes a strategic objective, an end in itself, the result will be self-dehumanization. The enemy may even be saved some trouble; having enthusiastically turned oneself into a rabid animal, it is not far from there to the thought of tearing oneself apart. The great empires developed rules of war, not out of benevolence, but out of self-interest. Tolstoy wrote, “the French troops entered Moscow still in order. It was an exhausted, depleted, but still combat-ready and formidable army… As soon as the men of the regiments began to disperse between the empty, rich houses, then was the army destroyed forever, and there formed neither residents nor soldiers, but something intermediate called ‘marauders.’” Or, as American culture once warned itself, “When children learn to devalue others, they can devalue anyone, including their parents.”

Hatred of reality is a better motive for suicide than statecraft. The official who talked about “creating other new realities” apparently believed that this was the proper work of kings, and the manner in which they build everlasting monuments to their greatness. But why bother erecting great pyramids if the nature of the world in which they will exist is intrinsically undesirable? And why expect that any “other new reality” would be more satisfying? What value could “immortality” in any such realities have? Instead, one might as well pursue the true immortality that can be glimpsed only when the flawed debris of existence has fallen away. “Because this earth, these stones and in general everything here is damaged and corroded, like things that have been corroded by seawater, so that nothing good can grow here and, one might say, nothing is perfect, only the pitfalls, sand, endless ooze and dirt — everywhere where there is the earth, and none of this can possibly compare with what we call beauty.” Plato began “The Republic” with a calm discussion of justice, but the moment he envisioned life as a shadow on the wall of a dimly lit cave, he lost all interest in building a society. All those minute details of organizing the “just city,” breeding and educating guardians and so forth, add up to a parody of the Athenian fascination with grand rhetoric, the sophistic claim that “wisdom” could be provided on demand to instantly make an ideal statesman out of any paying customer. Plato never took the city seriously. “Such prisoners [Of physical existence. -FL] would completely accept the shadows of objects, as they were being carried by, as their true nature.” Improving the governance of such a society isn’t worth the time. Only a very peculiar mindset could interpret “The Republic” primarily as a work of political science, connoting at least some sort of direct practical implication. But, apparently…

In the world of 1984, the dream came true: Anglo-Saxons on both sides of the pond finally overcame their differences and assumed control of the Midland Ocean, then bent the world to their will. But just when eternal victory was in their grasp, they devoured themselves and insisted (Orwell providing the intellectual foundation and O’Brien serving as mouthpiece) that that was actually the victory. But really it happened for no reason. The outcome was not pre-ordained; no one forced them into it or even expected that it would happen; they chose it freely. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

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