Orwell’s 1984 no longer reads like fiction. It’s the nightmare reality of our times.
By Robert Bridge
Abridged by Lasha Darkmoon
with added pictures and captions, video,
and an editorial endnote on ‘The Rat Torture’.
“He discovered that while he sat helplessly musing he had also been writing…. And it was no longer the same cramped, awkward handwriting as before. His pen had slid voluptuously over the smooth paper, printing in large neat capitals — DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER.” — George Orwell, 1984, Ch. 1
70 years ago, the British writer George Orwell captured the essence of technology in its ability to shape our destinies in his seminal work, Nineteen Eighty-four . The tragedy of our times is that we have failed to heed his warning. No matter how many times I read 1984, the feeling of total helplessness and despair that weaves itself throughout Orwell’s masterpiece never fails to take me by surprise.
Although usually referred to as a ‘dystopian futuristic novel’, it is actually a horror story on a scale far greater than anything that has emerged from the minds of prolific writers like Stephen King or Dean Koontz. The reason is simple. The nightmare world that the protagonist Winston Smith inhabits, a place called Oceania, is all too easily imaginable. Man, as opposed to some imaginary clown or demon, is the evil monster.
In the very first pages of the book, Orwell demonstrates an uncanny ability to foresee future trends in technology. Describing the protagonist Winston Smith’s frugal London flat, he mentions an instrument called a ‘telescreen’, which sounds strikingly similar to the handheld ‘smartphone’ that is enthusiastically used by billions of people around the world today.
Orwell describes the ubiquitous device as an “oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror” affixed to the wall that “could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.” Sound familiar? It is through this gadget that the rulers of Oceania are able to monitor the actions of its citizens every minute of every day.
At the same time, the denizens of 1984 were never allowed to forget they were living in a totalitarian surveillance state, under the control of the much-feared Thought Police. Massive posters with the slogan ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ were as prevalent as our modern-day advertising billboards. Today, however, such polite warnings about surveillance would seem redundant, as reports of unauthorized spying still get the occasional lazy nod in the media now and then.
In fact, just in time for 1984’s anniversary, it has been reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) has once again been illicitly collecting records on telephone calls and text messages placed by US citizens.
Another method of control alluded to in 1984 fell under a system of speech known as ‘Newspeak’, which attempted to reduce the language to ‘doublethink’, with the ulterior motive of controlling ideas and thoughts. For example, the term ‘joycamp’, a truncated term every bit as euphemistic as the ‘PATRIOT Act’, was used to describe a forced labor camp, whereas a ‘doubleplusgood duckspeaker’ was used to praise an orator who ‘quacked’ correctly with regards to the political situation.
Another Newspeak term, known as ‘facecrime’, provides yet another striking parallel to our modern situation. Defined as “to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offense.” It would be difficult for the modern reader to hear the term ‘facecrime’ and not connect it with ‘Facebook’, the social media platform that regularly censors content creators for expressing thoughts it finds ‘hateful’ or inappropriate. What social media users need is an Orwellian lesson in ‘crimestop’, which Orwell defined as “the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought.” Those so-called unacceptable ‘dangerous thoughts’ were determined not by the will of the people, of course, but by their rulers.
And yes, it gets worse.
Just this week, Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘private company’ agreed to give French authorities the“identification data” of Facebook users suspected of spreading ‘hate speech’ on the platform, in what would be an unprecedented move on the part of Silicon Valley.
Another modern phenomenon that would be right at home in Orwell’s Oceania is the obsession with political correctness, which is defined as “the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” But since so many people today identify with some marginalized group, this has made the intelligent discussion of controversial ideas – not least of all on US college campuses, of all places – exceedingly difficult, if not downright dangerous. Orwell must be looking down on all of this madness with much surprise, since he provided the world with the best possible warning to prevent it.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
— Opening sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four
For anyone who entertains expectations for a happy ending in 1984, be prepared for serious disappointment. Although Winston Smith manages to finally experience love, his brief romance—like a delicate flower that was able to take root amid a field of asphalt—is crushed by the authorities with shocking brutality. Not satisfied with merely destroying the relationship, however, Smith is forced to betray his ‘Julia’ after undergoing the worst imaginable torture at the ‘Ministry of Love’.
ENDNOTE BY LASHA DARKMOON
The writer is referring to the famous “rat torture“. The protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, is terrified by rats. Arrested by the authorities, Winston is dragged off to Room 101 in the Ministry of Love for “reprogramming”. A cage filled with giant rats is placed over his head. There is a screen separating the rats on one side of the cage from Winston’s face on the other side. When the screen is lifted, the famished rats will fling themselves at Winston’s face and start eating it—their only source of food—in a frantic attempt to escape their cage.
It is up to Winston to cooperate with Big Brother by betraying the secrets of his nearest and dearest, by acting as an informant and name and shame as many others as possible, including the innocent, and by admitting that even lies are true if Big Brother says they are, e.g. that 2 + 2 = 5. Failure to cooperate with Big Brother will mean the lifting of the screen, with the rats being let loose to carry out their dental demolition of the human face—a torture so inconceivably cruel that it didn’t even occur to Dante when imagining the tortures of hell in his Inferno.
The rat torture in Orwell’s novel is a variation of the rat torture used in the Soviet Union in Stalin’s reign of terror, applied by the Bolshevik dictator’s hired Chinese torturers against the Russian people, mostly Christian clergy and dissidents. (Scroll down to picture featuring the rat torture here: The Crimes of the Bolsheviks.)
Winston breaks down and begs for mercy when threatened with the rat torture fang frenzy , betraying his true love by saying “Let it be Julia — not me!” This is the sign that he has been finally broken. Dehumanized completely. Little better now than a human vegetable, a zombified Hollow Man. When he sees Julia next, he knows from the look in her eyes that she knows he has betrayed her. And that she, too, has betrayed him.
In the words of T.S. Eliot: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
In Orwell’s own memorable words—in the final paragraph of his great book—Winston Smith looks up into Big Brother’s face with the fatuous entrancement of a man who has learned the hard way that two plus two does indeed equal five — if Big Brother says it does.
“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
For the reader’s convenience, here is a chart outlining the social structure in the Orwellian dystopia. It is pretty much the social structure we have today in our so-called “real world”.
We are the “proles”, roughly 85 per cent of the population: a demoralized and wretched ragbag of economic serfs, brainwashed into believing we live in a democracy. At the top of the pyramid are the richest and most powerful men in the world, aided and abetted by an elite oligarchy who implement their every wish — and who are suitably rewarded for their cruelty by enjoying all the emoluments of oppression. The Utopia of the rich is the planned dystopia of the poor. This is the hell world of tyrannical master and submissive slave, of predator and prey, and of big dog eating small dog on an eternal treadmill of pain. [LD]