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Contemporary political discourse often references George Orwell’s 1984 as an example of how government interference infringes on our rights as individuals while we remain complacent in the face of these violations. For example, the falsification of facts in news articles constantly goes unnoticed because we accept information as truth if it comes from a medium that makes a claim to objectivity. We link appearance to content. While we can connect these concerns to Orwell’s novel, a deeper reading of the novel dredges up far more troubling issues that extend beyond the reach of politics by questioning our intellectual capacity for determining the “truth.” One aspect of this Orwellian future society is the practice of revising written records in order to eliminate inconsistencies in leaders’ statements and actions. The original written records employ the same falsifications as the revised ones, making it impossible to determine if a recorded event actually happened. Additionally, the newspaper, propaganda pamphlets and the Newspeak Dictionary are the only existing forms of literature in this totalitarian society. Winston discovers that the one way to resist this rights violation is through memory. However, without physical evidence to verify this memory he has trouble attaching it to his version of the truth. While “truth” carries a fixed epistemological significance, unwavering and indestructible, the contents of our head are capricious and unstable. People are unable to detect lies not simply because they are complacent but because they lack the tools to do so. The Orwellian government, then, does much more than propagate lies. It renders the pursuit of truth impossible.
The presence of the pneumatic tube in 1984 verifies the importance of written material as representations of truth, or at least “truth” as defined by the Inner Party. Writing is a method of structuring history and presenting it to the world. If there were no inherent value to be found in written material—if in fact everyone was capable of composing history out of a string of memories—then the destruction of this material would be unnecessary. Winston’s attempt to relocate the past through memory is destined to end in failure.
The practice of revising and destroying written records complicates the process of intellectual inquiry. Scholarly research as we currently define it relies on empirical evidence. A scholar must refer to previously written documents already in existence in order to establish credibility. If people cannot physically locate these documents, then they will not trust the scholar as a provider of truth. Winston’s inability to provide physical evidence for his moments of revelation undermines his confidence in his ability to locate the truth: “That was all, and he was already uncertain whether it had happened… There was no evidence, only fleeting glimpses that could mean anything or nothing: snatches of overheard conversation, faint scribbles on lavatory walls… It was all guesswork: very likely he had imagined everything” (Orwell 18-19). All of these moments are examples of information that could easily be misinterpreted—“snatches,” “scribbles,” “rumors.” Winston’s evidence forces him to make assumptions, which by their very nature have an antithetical relationship to “truth” as we define it. Because we receive “history” as a written chronology that we can trace back through centuries, Winston lacks the ability to construct history because his memories reveal only disconnected events. Throughout the novel Winston’s moments of hope—a glint in O’Brien’s eye, a citing of three revolutionaries at a café–appear in flashes that disappear before he has the chance to analyze them.
The Party slogan “WAR IS PEACE/ FREEOM IS SLAVERY/ IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH,” the names of the Ministries (Truth, Peace, Love and Plenty), and the fact that “thoughtcrime” is a punishable offense provide evidence that Orwellian society places value in philosophical concepts just as our society does. People often mistakenly conceive of “philosophy” as a set of fixed values that reveal absolute facts about human nature as Winston does in this passage: “It is impossible to found a civilization on fear and hatred and cruelty. It would never endure…There is something in the universe—I don’t know, some spirit, some principle—that you will never overcome” (Orwell 221-222). What Winston fails to understand is that philosophy is not a self-contained entity that exists outside of man’s relationship with his environment but, like everything else in this totalitarian society, is constructed by those in power. O’Brien makes this latter notion clear: “We control life, Winston, at all its levels… We create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable” (Orwell 222). The values that constitute human nature do not develop biologically but are encapsulated in the form of statements and written material that those in power pass down to us. Therefore, Winston is naive in believing that people will be unhappy living in a world of hatred and oppression because these people have no knowledge of alternative governments.
The lack of an accurate historical database results in a crippling isolationism that accompanies the pursuit of truth. The references to other sources in a scholarly text create a comforting sense of shared affirmation. The loan intellectual—one with no ideas to reference other than his own—risks being labeled a heretic. The stages of Winston’s progression from rebellion to conformism also indicate a progression from alienation to acceptance. These opposing values can be seen by comparing Winston’s trepidation as he writes in his diary with his victory in this passage: “There had been a moment… of luminous certainty, when each new suggestion of O’Brien’s had filled up a patch of emptiness and become absolute truth, when two and two could have been three as easily as five, if that were what was needed” (Orwell 213). Winston rejects an idea that he previously viewed as basic commonsense (two plus two is four) not out of fear but out of the desire to share an idea with another person. The Party’s ownership of all intellectual material allows them to control minds because Orwell’s society, like our own, promotes the idea that the content of one’s head is useless unless others affirm this content as truth.
It is tempting to characterize the inferior classes in a totalitarian government as mindless drones. Yet the members of the Outer Party do not robotically recite the Inner Party philosophy; they invest themselves in this philosophy emotionally and intellectually. Syme’s face becomes “animated,” his eyes “dreamy,” as he discusses Newspeak: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words… Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad?’… In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words—in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?” (Orwell 46). Syme references the Newspeak Dictionary in the same way that contemporary philosophers reference the writings of Socrates and Aristotle when presenting their theories. In this passage, Syme demonstrates an ability to form his own opinion, to take a clear stance, to use persuasive language to defend his stance, to strengthen his viewpoint with examples, to develop a conclusion and to cite his source. Syme’s precise diction and impassioned tone show that he has not only internalized the Inner Party philosophy but has mastered an understanding of it and taken it to heart. In our present-day universities, we are trained to master texts in the same way that Syme has mastered the dictionary. These texts are similar in that institutions present them to the people as fundamental works of literature. The Newspeak Dictionary is Oceania’s version of The People’s Republic or Common Sense. The existence of a literary canon in our own institutions is evidence that the ideas we consider representative of our sophistication and enlightenment have been passed down to us by those in power. The ability to intellectually grapple with the philosophical conventions of a totalitarian state, then, is not necessarily a way to overcome oppression.
1984’s existential doom makes it a troubling piece of social commentary. The phrase “Big Brother is watching you” does not merely refer to the literal practice of surveillance but to the structuring gaze of a totalitarian government that molds individual thought and behavior to satisfy one singular vision.
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