Feeling, Knowing, and 1984

This is roughly what I said at the September 19th Faculty of Public Affairs Panel on George Orwell’s 1984. I have written about my long and winding path towards finally reading the book elsewhere. Yes, I have finally finished reading the book, we had  great panel discussion, and below you will find what I said (minus the on the spot-improvisations).

I am grateful for the opportunity to re-read the book 1984 and to discuss it. But my excitement is mixed with other feelings about the book. While reading the book I was wondering why the FPA, apparently “we”, has or have chosen this book as the inaugural FPA Reads Book.

The book is important, without doubt. It reflects the political dreams, nightmares and ideologies of the first half of the 20th century, and it has decisively shaped how the West talked about the East, and talked down to the East, in the second half of the 20th century. During the Cold War, 1984 was largely available to people who enjoyed political freedoms. In the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, copies of the book circulated underground, but they were dangerous possessions. I knew someone who went to prison for reading this book in East Germany in the 1950s. Everyone in my family who had grown up in East Germany read the book only after 1989. The book not only reflected, but also shaped political discourse.

When I read the book, I was transported back to East Germany, but not in a way you might expect. Remember that I was told to read the book. I felt I was expected to like the book, to find it enlightening, thought-provoking, and interesting. And well, I really did not. The language seems stilted and cumbersome, the characters flat, and the plot predictable: guy who thinks he is rebellious will meet girl, and they will not live happily ever after. The book will have a love story and torture, probably in this order. Reading 1984 made me feel the same boredom and dread that all these lessons on Leninism and the Party as the Vanguard of the Working Class inspired in me long time ago. Back then, I felt unable to raise my hand and ask: Why are we doing this, and doesn’t every one else want to go home, too? Grown-ups deal with this problem differently; in the novel Victory Gin does the job. When I read the book, I really wanted some. But instead of staying silent or deadening ourselves against the world, let’s actually talk about the book, and let’s not pretend to adore it simply because it’s important.

Since I’m the only woman on the panel, I feel responsible for bringing up emotions. So let me talk about my feelings about the book and why I think that this book is incredibly limited: it asks us to identify with a protagonist whose repertoire of rebellion is to treasure everything the state dismisses. Critical thinking, however, is something else. First of all, I should summarize the book as I understood it.

In part one, we meet Winston Smith. He’s not well. He has a boring and weird job, the food is bad, the weather is bad, but at least there is plenty of gin. This raises the question whether his complaints have anything to do with authoritarianism at all: since he’s in London, UK, it’s only fair to expect bad weather and boiled cabbage. So maybe authoritarianism isn’t such a bad idea, as long as it’s done in a place with warm beaches and great food? Just ask people in Singapore. We later learn that shortages are deliberate, but we’re still not sure where the bad weather comes from. It seems unfair to blame the drizzle on the political regime.

Winston dislikes women, with the notable exception of his mother. He hates his wife for two reasons: First, she is stupid and emotionally attached to the Party, not to him. Second, she didn’t enjoy sex with him, which is something for which she, and no one and nothing else must be blamed. She viewed sex as an obligation: moreover, an obligation not to her husband, but to the party. Clearly, that’s an abomination. Winston more generally hates other women because they’re fanatical, attractive, and unavailable to him. When one woman confesses she loves him, out of nowhere, she immediately becomes the center of his life.

Part 1 of 1984 tells us everything about that dreadful place and the political system. Since we are getting bored by the political science lecture cloaked as a novel, Orwell ushers in a romance, and that’s part two. This works well with the gin we’ve had to make it through part one. It produces warm, fuzzy feelings that won’t last. In part two we also learn that sex is rebellion, and that women have minds devoted to more private matters such as family and black markets, while men obsess about the big picture of politics.

Winston and Julia meet the one underground organization that might or might not exist. They read parts of a book, reprinted for our enjoyment. The supposed manifesto of the opposition turns out to be a pretty good explanation of what was going on in the world. Here’s we are also reminded that Orwell was a socialist in mourning. He says, via Goldstein, “if human equality is to be forever averted … then the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity” (246). Here, when Orwell can sneak in fictional non-fiction, he’s really quite good. Otherwise, as a fiction writer, he has to rely on tired plots and a vocabulary that feels as limited and limiting as newspaeak.

We know at that point that the “guy meets girl” story can’t go well. We’ve been told all the time that they won’t live happily ever after. Part three of the book has us witness how the state can turn humans into non-humans. But we can’t have that without the pornography of violence.

What exactly am I complaining about? The issue is not just that this is what it looks like when a non-fiction writer trying his hand at a novel. There’s a conventional, cheesy, gendered plotline. The problem is rather that the readers are invited to identify with the protagonist Winston Smith, who happily joins an organization that’s as charming as al Qaeda. What Smith is doing – and what many people in authoritarian societies do – is to hold on to a truth that is the opposite of what the state is doing. If sex is frowned upon, it becomes exciting. If he is supposed to love Big Brother, he’s trying his best to hate him. “To die hating them, that was freedom,” as Orwell put it. 1984 is a book that allows us to feel, by proxy, the self-righteousness of the opposition that believes to own the truth, which is incidentally exactly the opposite of what the state does and says.

This portrayal of rebellion is both frustrating and, sadly, convincing. We’ve been there. We need to go somewhere else.

Up until 1989, no one in my family (except my uncle) believed the East German state media when they talked about how great East Germany was. We saw the evidence with our own eyes, and we discussed it around kitchen tables. Knowledge is socially made, not only by the Party, but also by those who doubt it. The problem is that because the media was lying about everything we knew, we also didn’t believe anything they said about things we didn’t know, such as the cold, exploitative features of capitalism. We didn’t believe that capitalism sorts people into classes and blatantly disregards the dignity and rights of workers – until we were subjected to it.

We all need to recognize that to hate when you’re told to love is not freedom, it is binding yourself to the same powers that you want to break free from. Critical thinking looks differently.

To be “unorthodox” in a way going beyond 1984 can mean to find truth in statements from people you completely disagree with: for example that when the Party claims that it that it owns the past by altering and obliterating it, it might be on to something. There might be old photographs and letters, but, as historians know too well, we keep making and remaking the stories to make sense of the past.

Freedom means thinking and feeling for yourself, but this can only be done in the company of other people. We construct the language to make sense of the world around us. Together, we inquire, ask questions, make claims, judge other people’s arguments. Thinking can be solitary in the moment, but it needs social foundations. We produce knowledges, we keep debating them, and they shapes what we do.  This means that we should fight for conditions in which we can all participate in education, discussions, and other forms of knowledge production.

Critical thinking requires not only that we question the knowledge that comes with sanctioned by state power or corporate power, but also that we withstand the temptation to simply believe the opposite of what we are told. This was a hard lesson for those of us who grew up East of the Iron Curtain. But the temptation to think in stark contrasts and to believe in a truth uncorrupted by power is in no way a problem limited to those who lived under authoritarianism. For example, the idea that social equality is a bad thing because the Soviet Union was for it – and you know how that ended – is still quite widespread in North America. If we want to free ourselves from the Cold War (finally!) and from the world that Orwell was having nightmares about, it’s time to become comfortable with complexities and nuances.