Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Magnificent Genius

GAWWWWD but Orwell was a genius!

Sometimes I forget.

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, 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. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”


I remember when I first read 1984. I was fifteen and had asked my father (perhaps one of the last complete conversations I ever had with my gamete donor, now that I think of it) if it was good. He said, "It's painful, but good for you. A bit like going to the dentist".

"His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved using doublethink.

I read it, and, having been raised on cheap trashy sci-fi and fantasy kid-lit, my fifteen year-old brain was only interested in plot and story, which I found highly unsatisfactory. But despite the total lack of romance, even the anti-romance of it, even on this simplistic, comic booky, soap opera level it was riveting, with characters you liked in spite of not wanting to. I recall perfectly that when I had stayed up to two am reading the last bit, when I got to the end, where Winston loves Big Brother, I was so mad, I flung the book across my room and wrote an outraged diary entry about it.

It was not for years afterward that I began to understand the incredible prescience of Orwell's ideas about where Things were going. A friend put me on to his essays, particularly Politics and the English Language. I moved on to Burmese Days, which made me loathe not the English Raj (which I suppose was the purpose) but their corrupt and amoral Asiatic subjects (just a born reactionary I guess).

Being, ultimately, just a girl, I cried when the elephant was shot. The mental picture of the huge placid beast yanking up tufts of grass, banging them on its knees to get the soil off, then stuffing them in its mouth, somehow arouses an almost maternal response.

How a man of this kind of intelligence could have remained a socialist, even after having fought with them in the Spanish Civil War, remains a mystery to me. Perhaps it is one of those cases of the darkening of the intellect brought on by Original Sin.

Here's a low-key quiz for a warm sunny Saturday:

1) How many Orwell books have you read?

2) Which ones do you remember best?

3) Which ones haven't you read, but have either actively lied about reading, or passively allowed people to assume you've read?

4) Which ones made you think differently about the world?