Posted by: captainfalcon | April 28, 2010

Treblethink: Orwell Part III

Like George, I was going to post this as a comment in response to Chris’s remark. But it became too long. Commenting on this post, Chris writes:

I think the first quote is very interesting, though I wonder to what extent this has always been the case. Fromm seems to suggest that this is a wholy new thing, brought about by large scale advertising by corporations and propogandizing by ideological governments, all of which are novel creations of the twenty-first century. But it seems to me that man has always subverted the truth to practical concerns. Wasn’t this the case, for example, with the divine right of monarchs?

Orwell anticipates your uncertainty. His whole book is an encomium to history (or, maybe more accurately, to memory). Not primarily to political history – though he agrees that dates and events are important – but to history that captures the “what it’s like” of a period of time: social history, I guess. The point 1984 makes very well is that, while you’re probably right that people have always “subverted truth to practical concerns,” the details matter. The degree of it, and the way it is done, matter.

Orwell does a very good job describing a society that is, socially as well as materially,* far worse than ours is now, while making it plausible that those living in it have, at best, a vague uneasiness (about which they, in turn, are uneasy) about their lot. (“Surely,” they think, “it is as it’s ever been. Yet it seems so wrong.“) You have to read the book to see how he does it, but, just to show he’s onto your concern, here’s a scene 1984 renders plausible:

When Winston woke up the hands of the clock had crept round to nearly nine. He did not stir, because Julia was sleeping with her head in the brook of his arm…A yellow ray from the sinking sun fell across the foot of the bed  and lighted up the fireplace, where the water in the pan was boiling fast. Down in the yard the woman had stopped singing, but the faint shouts of children floated in from the street. He wondered vaguely whether in the abolished past it had been a normal experience to lie in bed like this, in the cool of a summer evening, a man and a woman with no clothes on, making love when they chose, talking of what they chose, not feeling any compulsion to get up, simply lying there and listening to peaceful sounds outside. Surely there could never have been a time when that seemed ordinary.

He also anticipates, and describes unsettlingly, the cyclical conception of history that we’re all periodically in the grips of – the sun also riseth and the sun goeth down and hasteneth back to its place again (or however it runs), so why worry about the details?

In the ramifications of Party doctrine she had not the faintest interest. Whenever he began to talk of the principles of Ingsoc, doublethink, the mutability of the past and the denial of objective reality, and to use Newspeak words, she became bored and confused and said that she never paid any attention to that kind of thing. One knew that it was all rubbish, so why let oneself be worried by it?…Talking to her he realized how easy it was to present an appearance of orthodoxy while having no grasp whatever of what orthodoxy meant. In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane.

Part of your “same-old-shit” cynicism, Chris, is perhaps attributable to an attitude of this sort. (What, by Orwell’s lights, is a faux-savvy attitude.)

Finally, just because I think it’s so cool, here’s Orwell’s characterization of doublethink:

Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. 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 tem 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 into memory again 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 the use of doublethink.

Notice it is different from cognitive dissonance because you know you have two contradictory beliefs. Also, for what it is worth, I don’t think doublethink is just some dystopian contrivance. It is definitely with us, now.

* Update: Though it is probably an open question whether it’s materially worse. You’d have to survey the full expanse of American humanity, not just the slice we’re familiar with, to know for sure.



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  2. […] interesting summation of Orwell’s political philosophy that seems to echo some what we were discussing on the matter: But Orwell was such an odd duck because he was a liberal, left-wing reactionary. He […]

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