Sunday, September 30, 2007

1984

"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 not recover. Something was killed in your breast; burnt out, cauterized out.

~1984 by George Orwell, page 239

The first time I read 1984, I learned that not even the mind is inviolate. The cruel torture practiced upon Winston had nothing to do with his physical self but his mental anguish at having betrayed Julia. O'Brien was a sadistic bastard who succeeded in breaking Winston and Julia, rendering them so harmless that they could see one another and feel no desire. Under the spreading chestnut tree/ I sold you and you sold me. There is a point of no return, a realization about one's true nature that cannot be undone. There is a sickened sense of disgust, of hatred for oneself, of weakness and the realization that one is truly broken. The first time I read 1984, I was in eighth grade and I was Winston.

I reread 1984 over Sukkot. This time, I focused upon the methods used in order to create this ugly society in which power is desired only for the sake of power, torture for the pleasure of torture. I had not paid enough attention to them the first time. Ingsoc is a study in diabolical genius.

"He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past."

That's brilliant. He who controls the present is able to have anything printable edited and ensure that the only official versions of these documents are the edited and corrected versions; he is simultaneously able to destroy any variants. Hence the past as it actually occurred never happened, because the texts don't allow it to have happened. If the only texts in existence are modified texts but they depict a different past, then the first past never happened.

But what about people? Don't they remember a different version of events, a different past? But no! Hence the constant references to solipsism. The only thing that matters is what one thinks has happened; that is the past. So if the past only exists in texts and in the minds of people, and the texts are reformatted to tell a different story (and no variants exist) and the minds are structured to allow for the process of doublethink, there is no past in terms of there having been real events outside oneself that happened in a certain way. Not if one believes that everything happens within the mind.

Or as Winston thinks to himself:
    Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. "If I wished," O'Brien had said, "I could float off this floor like a soap bubble." Winston worked it out. "If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens." Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind: "It doesn't really happen. We image it. It is hallucination." He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a "real" world where "real" things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens. (229)

Now, how brilliant and disturbing is that?

There's a beautiful conversation on page 205.
    O'Brien smiled faintly. "You are no metaphysician, Winston ", he said. " Until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?"
    " No."
    " Then where does the past exist, if at all ? "
    " In records. It is written down."
    " In records. And - ?
    " In the mind. In human memories. "
    " In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?"
It seems to me that there are several different kinds of beliefs. In The Emperor's New Clothes, nobody sees the clothes that the emperor is wearing. They therefore believe he has clothes despite their inability to see them, because they assume they are simply not worthy/ not fit for their jobs. But according to the philosophy espoused in 1984, with the proper guidance and urging, assuming these people really believed they were fit for their jobs, they would all see the Emperor's clothes, as would the Emperor himself, and therefore the emperor really would be wearing clothes in terms of their reality.

It's a very disturbing thought to consider that the mind has the power to create reality. Of course, this only works in a very controlled subtext, where every single person's mind is dominated and in accord with one another; in other words, when every person has mastered doublethink.
    Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows that he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. Doublethink lies at the very heart of Ingsoc, since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, and to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies - all this is indispensably necessary. (176-177)
All this suggests that people are only as free as the information that reaches them. No wonder, then, that we live in an age of information saturation! The Internet is a blessed invention because it will hopefully always allow for freedom of the press. The fact that I needn't only rely upon the official media but can also benefit from live accounts from bloggers or other freelance writers is quite comforting. Of course, each person has their own bias, but that is still far better than a society where all the documents could be tampered with and replaced, where the past truly didn't exist on paper!

It would be nice if the Asch conformity experiments supported the doublethink point- that is, that after enough people claim one line is shorter than the other, the subject actually sees it as being that way. And guess what? Recent research says that may be the case. See this New York Times article, "What Other People Say May Change What You See."

Blakeslee concludes the article by writing, "If other people's views can actually affect how someone perceives the external world, then truth itself is called into question."

Welcome to the Orwellian world.

15 comments:

Daniel said...

The Internet is a blessed invention because it will hopefully always allow for freedom of the press.

Unfortunately, this is wildly optimistic. In countries like Iran and China, the government is able to restrict which websites people can access. In countries like North Korea (perhaps the most Orwellian state on the planet), most people simply don't have access to the internet.

And, of course, the freedom of the press doesn't necessarily make the truth easy to get to.

Have you read any of Orwell's non-fiction? My copy of his selected Essays is falling to pieces from overuse. A lot of them deal with the same issues as Nineteen Eighty-Four, but I prefer the essays. They are more wide-ranging, benefit from being able to talk openly about real politics, and are wittier. He has some interesting analyses of the political subtexts underlying various pieces of 'high' and 'low' art too.

haKiruv said...

My view is that my perception of the world will always be distorted do to my very being and is always subjective. True objective reality is not comprehendable.

You guys might like this post I wrote on the subject.

In short, we're already living in an Orwellian world, created by ourselves, caused by our own limited nature.

When I was little, I remembered wondering to myself if my life was all a big test. Nothing was real. It was just me and God and everything is just a figment of my imagination, created for me. How would I know otherwise? :-)

Erachet said...

I didn't have a chance to read this whole post, but I just have to say, 1984 is one of my favorite books (granted, my list of favorite books is quite long, but still). I absolutely LOVED it when we read it in high school. I thought it was so brilliant. I especially think the concept of Doublethink is so genius, because it's so, so true. People do it all the time.

Anonymous said...

For people like daniel and others in his condition, and those still undiagnosed with this or its related conditions, there is a cure: PAXIL

Daniel said...

Anonymous,

I presume you followed from my comment here to my blog. While I make no attempt to hide my mental health problems, this comment would be more appropriate on my blog than here (unless paxil can stop my copy of Orwell's Essays falling apart).

While your comment is meant well, I have a long and unsuccessful history with medication, and I rely on my psychiatrist alone for prescription.

Anonymous said...

I could not find an easy way put it on your blog. I don't believe in psychology or psychiatry. Any family doctor can prescribe it.
Anxiety and/or OCD is a slow drip, depression is the big puddle on the floor. Depression is only a symptom. Medications don't work without a positive attitude and a willingness to get better. These are not mental illnesses but quite common problems that result from the dysfunctionality and pressures of modern society. Judaism adds more layers of problems and burdens our minds with things that are really not important. I find that the best remedy is just to let go and move on. It was meant in good spirit and not as a stigma.
Best of luck and will be praying for you and all who suffer needlessly.

e-kvetcher said...

Hakiruv,

You're a solipsist?

haKiruv said...

e-kvetcher:

It's close, but I wouldn't call myself solipsist. Have you asked me that before? Solipsism seems like a paradox, because it's assuming your mind exists.

Rather, I'd say that I believe I and others exist at a certain level, but that we don't have an absolute existence. For instance, on a sub atomic level, we are nullified.

Also, I think knowledge isn't so much absolute, but rather a process. A process of sequencing and induction. For instance we take our senses as axiomatic. We see and smell a flower. It smells like a rose, looks like a rose, it must be a rose. We take our senses as axioms and gain information by the process of inducing knowledge, which is why I believe we all live by faith.

In other words, reality is real enough for me to call it reality even though I don't have absolute knowledge of it. If you ever come across a solipsist, ask him to give you his wallet. After all, to him it doesn't really exist. :-P

Anonymous(11:06pm):

I agree with your point about depression being a symptom. However, I totally disagree with the comment, "Judaism adds more layers of problems and burdens our minds with things that are really not important."

Some people's hurtles are another's champions.

A lot of deep things I've learned in life that helped me change my outlook were only expressed by practitioners of Judaism, particularly Chasidic writings. Like you said yourself, it's the outlook that matters.

I find people that suffer from anxiety are very caring people, which is why they worry so much. They care about others...they care about if they're doing the right things...etc. Caring Perfectionists perhaps?

RoehEsHanolad said...

Chana,

True that the internet can be a tool used to fight the rewriting of history, but more diabolically, the internet will allow for precisely that frightening scenario decribed by Orwell.

As long as we still have books, the rewriting of history is a most difficult task. As soon as books become a thing of the past, and all learing is from electronic media, history will be subject to the whims and bias of webmasters and wikipedia.

Daniel said...

Anonymous,

I don't believe in psychology or psychiatry. Any family doctor can prescribe it.

A psychiatrist (unlike a psychologist or a psychotherapist) is simply a doctor who specialises in mental illness, usually treating it with medication. In my experience, family doctors are unwilling to prescribe anti-depressants without a referral to a psychiatrist and/or counselling or psychotherapy of some kind (that may be something to do with the unique health care system in the UK).

Unfortunately, there is no wonder-drug that can cure all depressive illnesses. Most anti-depressants work for around 60-70% of sufferers. I have tried six (at least) medications and combinations of medications without success; this is very rare, statistically speaking, but it still happens.

Depression is only a symptom. Medications don't work without a positive attitude and a willingness to get better. These are not mental illnesses but quite common problems that result from the dysfunctionality and pressures of modern society... I find that the best remedy is just to let go and move on.

After nearly five years of depression, I am very willing to get better. Unfortunately, it just isn't that simple. A positive attitude has very little to do with it. Aside from the fact that depression, by its very nature, destroys a person's positive attitude, depression is the result of more complex problems.

You are right to see depression as a symptom, but you are wrong to blame modern society. While diagnoses of depression have increased in recent years, it is likely that much of this is due to better diagnostic methods and a reduction in the stigma surrounding mental illness. It is certainly clear that depression and manic depression (given various names) have been around for centuries, and that sufferers are often high-achieving, creative, positive people when not depressed.

Depression is more usually a symptom of problems in a person's own life/psyche. Medication without any exploration of these problems is just papering over the cracks; it isn't a long-term solution, and often not even a short-term solution. A combination of medication and counselling/therapy of some kind is the most medically-effective method of treating depression and preventing relapse.

Despite the stereotype, therapy does not usually involve years of expensive navel-gazing; in most cases, the problems can be identified in a few weeks. Yes, some people can identify the problems without outside help (which I presume is what you mean by "let go and move on"), but in many cases they are deep-rooted problems that can not be resolved without the advice of a dispassionate outsider, not directly connected to the patient and problems.

This is because people often don't notice the problems in their own lives or don't think they can be resolved. This starts as a survival mechanism (although even then, it ignores the real nature of the problem), but it later becomes a cause of dysfunction (an extreme example: an abused child comes to blame herself for the abuse, or to assume that such abuse is normal; as an adult, she is drawn to emotionally or physically abusive 'friends' and partners, on the assumption that that is normal behaviour).

The more severe and untreatable the depression, the more likely it is that it can not be treated without such external help.

Judaism adds more layers of problems and burdens our minds with things that are really not important.

Yes and no. My experience is that sometimes it is a burden, sometimes it can be a great help in focusing on what is important and providing a framework for coping. I'm not going into that here, as there is a lot more on this subject on my blog.

Best of luck and will be praying for you and all who suffer needlessly.

Thank you.

Scraps said...

Whoever said that getting into someone else's mind must be done as insidiously as in 1984? Parents do it to their children all the time, teachers to their students, peers to peers. When you hear enough times, from enough people, that you are crazy or lazy or bad or irresponsible or stupid or any other negative label, it sinks in. It sticks in your mind, and it is very difficult indeed to get it out.

haKiruv said...

RoehEsHanolad said...
Chana,

True that the internet can be a tool used to fight the rewriting of history, but more diabolically, the internet will allow for precisely that frightening scenario decribed by Orwell.

As long as we still have books, the rewriting of history is a most difficult task. As soon as books become a thing of the past, and all learing is from electronic media, history will be subject to the whims and bias of webmasters and wikipedia.


I really don't think it'll be that different. It's merely the speed at which history is being (re-)written. Eventually, I believe the system will crash, since the speed itself will become a liability. The same thing goes for the economics of globalization.

haKiruv said...

Scraps:

That's pretty good insight. I think it wasn't until I was 22 when I laid my foot down and told my family to the tone of "hey, I'm not as extroverted as my brother, I'm more introverted, and that's OK!" and the like. I think parents can be the worst. :-D You have to stick up for yourself, but it took me a while to have confidence in who I was as a person. Being such a unique person, it was hard for me. I still second guess myself.

Scraps said...

Hakiruv, how do you think I figured it out? I have some first-hand experience in that department myself...

blbdaily said...

One of the least recognized elements of 1984 is the point that a functioning yetzer hara is (surprisingly!) crucial to the functioning of a healthy society (and obviously of a healthy person too). Orwell was simply ingenious for realizing this!

I don't think the fact that another's perception can color our own perception is necessarily disturbing, or terrifying or even particularly new. That ability lies in the very nature of relationships and it is what gives relationships their power: the ability to let someone else inside our mind in a very profound way.

The ability to influence another's perception of reality goes all the way back in Torah to Bereishis, Gan Eden and the mission of the Serpent. The roots of this issue are very deep and are fundamental to our existence as humans, and our experience of the world every day.