The Victory Over Memory

While George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, is not exactly a pleasant book, I find it oddly consoling in a way that I never would have when I first read it over thirty years ago.

Early in the story the main character, Winston Smith, ventures a silent protest against the reign of Big Brother in his diary: “To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone.” This, however, is not the beginning of his transgressions. The mere act of mental rebellion is itself forbidden. It has a name: “thoughtcrime.” Winston reminds himself that “Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever… sooner or later they were bound to get you.” Subtle, even unconscious, displays of nonconformity could be detected by the police or zealous neighbors and co-workers.

What troubles Winston, the quiet dissenter, is what should concern us as well. In less than a generation basic rules of logic and language have been overturned in the pursuit of ideological fantasies. Failure to abide by the new conventions may not, as yet, result in imprisonment; nevertheless, to say things that used to be true and which have suddenly been declared political blasphemy can increasingly result in social ostracism and even termination from employment.

Orwell wrote about the misuse of words in shaping our perception of reality. Like the party leader O’Brien of the novel, the postmodern establishment feels quite comfortable in dictating to us that 2+2=5 is the new normal. The current linguistic gymnastics concerning “gender” and pronouns is a case in point. In 1984 the ruling class developed a new vocabulary called “Newspeak” to obliterate older forms of expression to the point where, in the words of the fanatical lexicographer Symes, thoughtcrime will become impossible “because there will be no words in which to express it.”

“All that was needed,” reflects Winston, “was an unending series of victories over your own memory” of how things were. He notes that his country of Oceania is at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. Only four years prior, the alliances were reversed. Yet officially this is denied. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” Big Brother makes no mistakes, hence the past is constantly being rewritten. “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”  I agree. For this reason Winston’s defiant axiom must also be ours:

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. If that is granted, all else follows.

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