Back to 1984

2 + 2 = 5

I finally decided to re-read 1984. The first time was probably when I was in high school, and devouring anything science-fictiony. Not sure I actually read the whole novel. It is a bit of a slog, and vastly more meaningful once you’ve learned something about the political history of the world. Orwell’s work is being cited frequently, of course, with the explosion of the ‘cancel culture’ of the militant Left—cited, that is, on right-wing Internet sites, where George Orwell looks increasingly like a prophet. There is reputedly a T-shirt with the slogan, “Make 1984 Fiction Again.”

New American Library Edition, 1961

But if 1984 is an operating manual, I doubt if the militant Left has read it, and if they did, it might well serve as a “Stop! Bridge Out!” sign. Victim of Big Brother’s ministrations, tormented Winston Smith certainly is an advertisement for single-minded political ruthlessness, but Winston was a loyal Party member who nursed just a quiet doubt or two. That was his undoing, and it would surely occur to any modern-day Party loyalist that what happened to Winston could as easily happen to him.

Or would it? The human capacity for self-delusion apparently has no bounds. Indeed, that is the principal lesson of 1984. I don’t think I understood, back when I first read it, that anyone could be convinced that ‘2+2 = 5’. I knew by then that you could have alternate geometries, simply by changing Euclid’s Parallel Postulate (essentially that the distance between two parallel lines was constant), but I could not imagine that there were alternatives to the arithmetic of whole numbers. It seemed to invalidate the whole premise of the book: not only could a man be tortured into saying anything, but he would ultimately believe what he had known to be a lie. Surely that pushed the tale beyond even science-fictional plausibility.

Alas, George Orwell knew more about the artifices of tyranny than I did. He knew that every man’s apprehension of reality was ultimately fragile, that it could be challenged, knocked apart, and rewritten in a different and ultimately maleable form, one that could be dictated at will by a higher authority, in 1984 by ‘The Party’.

Strange Currents of Thought

Could such a thing happen here? Not obviously, not in a country where the integrity and freedom of the individual citizen are celebrated at its foundation. But as I am only now learning, strange currents of thought have infiltrated themselves into American political discourse, most prominently via the professoriat and their students at the academies of so-called higher learning. First there was a thread of Relativism, which I remember from college days, inspired by ethnology, but harking back to the romanticism of Rousseau and the Noble Savage, which held that no culture’s values were better than anyone else’s—but also, illogically, that our own might be worse.

Relativism has been generalized to a philosophical stance called Postmodernism, which appears to hold that not only are customs or values relative, but there is no objective reality at all. “In the Postmodern world,” writes Nasrullah Mambrol, “there are no originals, only copies; no territories, only maps; no reality, only simulations.” He continues:

Postmodernism, in its denial of an objective truth or reality, forcefully advocates the theory of constructivism—the anti-essentialist argument that everything is ideologically constructed. . .

Constructivism invariably leads to relativism. Our identities are constructed and transformed every moment in relation to our social environment. Therefore there is scope for multiple and diverse identities, multiple truths, moral codes and views of reality.

Since everything is ‘constructed’, the obvious way to understand anything is to view it as a story, a ‘narrative’, an artifact of the imagination, perhaps a collage of linguistic habits, personal circumstance, social relations, or what-have-you; to analyze it is to ‘deconstruct’ it, to take it apart and reveal its components. ‘Deconstruction’ becomes the principle way to analyze any phenomenon, whether in literature or the arts, and on into history, government—maybe even the sciences?

Now can you see what Orwell foretold? If there are only ‘narratives’, and no external reality or truth, then how far are we from the idea that everything is a creation of one’s own mind, or even that you are a creation of my mind? ‘Solipsism’ is an old idea, long bandied about in college dorm bull sessions, but now by some quirk of history seems to have become a dominant mode of thinking in the academies. It’s exactly what Winston Smith is forced to confront by his master inquisitor, O’Brien, whose aim is to deconstruct his subject:

“You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. . .”

Winston of course objects, as most of us would, to such arrant nonsense. But O’Brien is not indulging in philosophical games, and neither, if you look deeply, are the academics in our colleges who seem to be propounding some version of solipsism or idealism. The fallacy in such excursions of thought is the individual mind, or rather, the freedom of the individual mind. So O’Brien toys with Winston by averring that “Power over matter—external reality, as you would call it—is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute. . .” To which Winston objects,

“But how can you control matter?” he burst out. “You don’t even control the climate or the law of gravity. And there are disease, pain, death—“

O’Brien silenced him by a movement of his hand. “We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation—anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wished to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. . .”

Collective Solipsism

There you have it. It is not solipsism but, as O’Brien admits, “Collective solipsism, if you like.” When O’Brien says that “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” he qualifies it:

“Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact you have got to relearn, Winston. . .”

This is is the great advantage of Collective Solipsism, for those looking to guide, to rule, for power over others. Indeed to some degree that has been the modus vivendi of all ideologues, of True Believers, throughout human history, achieved to an intense degree by the Marxist elite of the old Soviet Union, though even there not as fully as The Party of 1984. The aim is always to obliterate an individual’s apprehension of his own reality, his experience, his history, his triumphs and his failings, in favor of a collective ‘narrative’ that supersedes any pretense to individuality. Says O’Brien:

“You know the Party slogan ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Has it ever occurred to you that is is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.

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