1984 as Doublethink
It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. 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?
I know we’re supposed to be terrified by this but I actually see the beauty of that. It is true that you cannot (and shouldn’t, politically speaking) impose a designed language on the public but the idea of a modernistic, minimalistic reduction towards a less redundant and more modular language is appealing to me at least as a theoretical exercise. Apparently Orwell was also ambivalent about it: in a series of broadcasts to India that he produced from 1942 to 1944, he chose to use Basic English, an English-based controlled language (a simplified subset of English) created by Charles Kay Ogden in 1930, which would later be his inspiration for Newspeak in 1984. [There are in fact many constructed languages, Volapük being the cutest in my opinion.] I can feel that when he wrote the above passage for the lexicographer Syme, some part of him was still strongly empathizing with the character and seeing “the beauty of that”.
I would argue that Orwell’s ambivalence manifests itself throughout the book: even though he depicts with Oceania an extreme and horrible form of modernity, he actually takes the side of rational modernist thinking versus what could be called postmodernism – interestingly, represented also by the Party – on important crossroads, through the protagonist Winston’s thoughts:
In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. (…) Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. (…) His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the Earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote:
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
If you’re not convinced that this passage relates to the modernism-postmodernism duality, here are O’Brien’s (a member of the Inner Party) words to Winston:
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 else 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. 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 the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. (…) You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature. (…) Before man there was nothing. After man, if he could come to an end, there would be nothing. Outside man there is nothing.
You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.
The resemblance of these sentences to postmodernist-poststructuralist thinking is striking, especially because these schools of thought weren’t around when the book was written; O’Brien dubs it “collective solipsism” in his dialogue with Winston. (The word postmodern was in use at that time, albeit only within the context of art/architecture in a much narrower sense.) Of course these ideas have their ancestors in the history of philosophy, but it is Orwell’s genius that he presented a staggering discussion of them with a novel written in 1948 in such a way that it nearly encapsulates the intellectual climate of the second half of the century. What is more intriguing to me is that he has managed to describe in a convincing way an oppressive regime that is both modernist and postmodernist to the core at the same time.
When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the Earth goes round the Sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?
The concept of doublethink itself (the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct), by the way, is one of the key features of postmodernist literature, both as a characteristic of it and as a cherished quality in other things.
So, on one hand Orwell criticizes modernism through a caricature (a full-scale minimalization and modularization of language, strict standardization of the living spaces and of people, total disconnection from the past, etc.) while on the other he defends, through Winston, modernist thinking against the postmodernist ideas of the Party. Was he exercising doublethink himself when he wrote the book? Maybe he was just lucky enough to live in a period when thinking outside the modern-postmodern paradigm was still the natural thing to do. Or maybe he was deliberately rejecting modernism and postmodernism, hoping for a third alternative – or indeed having no hope for humanity whatsoever.
In any case, I do believe that Orwell was expressing his own thoughts when he wrote these lines for Winston:
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.
Leave a Comment
Join the conversation.