Apr 30, 2012

The Stubborn, Solid Fact of "Truth": 1984 in 2012

I've been reading George Orwell's 1984 again (it's been awhile) and just have to write this post to share some snippets and encourage all of you to pick it up again.

It's so much shorter than War and Peace, so it's not like I have to get all technical on you.

My favorite so far:

"He rolled up the completed bundle of work and slid it into the pneumatic tube.  8 minutes had gone by.  He readjusted his spectacles on his nose, sighed, and drew the next batch of work toward him, with the scrap of paper on top of it.  He flattened it out.  On it was written, in a large unformed handwriting:  


For several second he was too stunned even to throw the incriminating thing into the memory hole.  When he did so, although he knew very well the danger of showing too much interest, he could not resist reading it once again, just to make sure the words were really there."-p. 90

It's really kind of frightening, reading about things like Newspeak- the shortened, shorthand language they use to save time.  Sound familiar?  LOL- ROTFLMAO!   Or the telescreen.  It can see what you're doing and your expression.  It knows a frightening amount about you.  That doesn't sound like facebook does it?  Well, not unless you have video chat and/or Skype.

Thankfully, the book isn't entirely prophetic about our lives.  I don't think we've gone nearly so far towards dehumanizing ourselves as the people in the book do.  But still, the things he predicted in 1949 are shockingly accurate.  Kind of like Jules Verne books.

And the memory hole.  This is where Winston and his peers put all information that has been changed.  So that it will be burned up.  Most of the main character's time is spent re-writing newspapers from the past so that whatever The Party says happened appears to have happened.

This quaint notion of re-writing the newspapers is one of the few ways that 1984 shows its age, actually.  Not to suggest that newspapers are entirely a thing of the past, but the idea of re-printint them to change information because someone might check them.... may be from a bygone era.  An era of microfiche.  Just by changing Google, it seems, a modern Big Brother could pull off this kind of 'didn't the truth used to be'.

But it also brings up one of the most important points of 1984, and a jumping off point that might be worth expanding.  Doublethink is a word Orwell created to describe the way that characters in the book must realize untruth but believe it at the same time.  In the book's Afterword, Erich Fromm reminds readers that it is not simply something from the book.  If you think Stalinist Russia is the only place this has happened, you are quite wrong.

Orwell describes doublethink as:  "The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both...  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...  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"-p.32

And now the idea begins to sting, doesn't it?

The idea of objective truth as something we can tamper with and dare I say 'edit' to suit ourselves is really a thorny subject when we begin to think about it.  As a writer, I want to believe, to be able to, change history to suit myself.  To make it as I remember it being.

Which is fine, as long as I say that's what I'm doing.

But it's when lying becomes more convenient than the actual truth that we get into trouble (I can feel myself starting to tie knots here- sorry- will try to unravel all this in a moment).  Like the characters in the book, we begin to say, 'but didn't he say the opposite just last week' about candidates running for office... we read- or more likely, are exposed to- opinions or views of others that don't feel quite right to us, but we don't feel or forget to, or aren't capable of, checking the actual facts.  Unlike the characters in 1984, we can in fact still fact check things that people tell us (in its most extreme, this involves things like hate groups claiming the holocaust didn't happen, but there are much more subtle changes than that).

And so, eventually, we find ourselves saying along with Julius Caesar, 'What Is truth?'

Does that sound right?  Does anything feel wrong?

Because it was not Caesar that said those words.  It was Pontius Pilate.  It's from John 18:38 in the NIV version of the Bible.

Someone close to me, whose name I won't mention, once referred to the Biblical story of the Golden Fleece to me.  He/She thought they'd made a nice metaphor.

"Are you serious?", I asked.  "You do realize that's not from the Bible, right?".  It's from Jason and the Argonauts, of course.

At least I think so.  I don't feel like researching the reference.


  1. Great one, Rob! Makes me want to pick up 1984 again, for sure.

    1. Yo, thanks G.! Seriously, whoever you are, thank you for reading. Glad you liked it.

  2. I will add that it's a more beautiful book this time around than I remember it being. The scenes where Julia and Winston meet are touching- as is their twisted(even love is a political statement) relationship. Hence my quotation.