In the past week I have completed another, somewhat desultory reading of Orwell's 1984. I have read this book at least six times, and each time I get something new from it. Besides, I think Orwell is a master of English prose, and I hope to absorb something of his direct, transparent style. If you have not read this book, be forewarned that the following remarks contain spoilers that will muffle its full impact. They are not an essay, but rather a partial sketch of a much longer piece that will take me several weeks to write.
Today the following passage leapt out at me. O'Brien is speaking as he "recruits" Winston and Julia into the Brotherhood, the underground resistance to the Party:
You have imagined, probably, a huge underworld of conspirators, meeting secretly in cellars, scribbling messages on walls, recognizing one another by code words or special movements of the hand. Nothing of the kind exists. The members of the Brotherhood have no way of recognizing one another, and it is impossible for any one member to be aware of the identity of more than a very few others.... [It] is not an organization in the ordinary sense. Nothing holds it together except an idea which is indestructible. You will never have anything to sustain you except the idea. You will get no comradeship and no encouragement. When finally you are caught, you will get no help.... You will have to get used to living without results and without hope. You will work for a while, you will be caught, you will confess, and then you will die. Those are the only results that you will ever see. There is no possibility that any perceptible change will happen within our own lifetime. We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. We cannot act collectively. We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police, there is no other way.
Later on, in the dungeons of the Ministry of Love, he asks his torturer O'Brien if the Brotherhood really exists. "That, Winston, you will never know. If we choose to set you free when we have finished with you, and if you live to be ninety years old, still you will never learn whether the answer to that question is Yes or No. As long as you live, it will be an unsolved riddle in your mind."
I was struck by the similarity to O'Brien's description of the Brotherhood to my own life-work and that of millions like me, silent, hopeless revolutionaries going back to the dawn of civilization. Even though the Brotherhood O'Brien claimed to represent turned out to be a counterfeit, Orwell very significantly left the existence of a genuine Brotherhood an open question. Could it be that O'Brien was describing something real? Real in the milieu of the novel, and real in our world as well?
Could you and I be members of this Brotherhood (and Sisterhood), without even knowing it?
Sometimes I read about someone long-dead, or hear or meet someone still living, who inspires in me the feeling, "This person is my ally." I imagine we are both part of a vast, unconscious sodality, dedicated to a goal so distant and so impossibly beautiful that we cannot describe it, cannot even see it clearly except for a brief glimpse granted only on very rare occasions and purely by grace. Yet even a single brief glimpse is enough to redirect our lives toward its fulfillment, so great is its beauty. Even if we forget what we have seen and deny, with our conscious intellect, its very existence, still its possibility tugs at our lives and draws us into the Brotherhood.
In order to better understand this feeling, let us examine the metaphorical structure of 1984 and decode what Big Brother and the Party represent. I won't claim that the interpretation I will offer is what Orwell intended. Perhaps it was; perhaps it is something he unconsciously channeled into his work; perhaps it is my own fabrication. No matter. I see Big Brother and the Party as representing the age-old program of control; not the temporary ascendancy of any particular political regime, but the ongoing migration of all that is spontaneous, unowned, unregulated, and undefined into the realm of the numbered, the managed, the controlled.
On the psychological level, Big Brother represents the internalization of this Ascent of Civilization. "Big Brother is watching," say the slogans in 1984. Big Brother, the internalized eye of civilization, is watching you, the human being, all the time. Through his agents the Thought Police, he constantly monitors everything you think, say, and do for any deviation from orthodoxy. What is orthodoxy? Orthodoxy means "being good".
Externally, if we don't conform to the program of ascent, the human mastery of the world and its conversion into money and property; if we don't provide service to the Machine in some way, then we suffer the same fate as Winston. Oh, we are not (usually) subjected to physical imprisonment and torture. We are only deprived of freedom and the means to survive. We are subject to spiritual abuse, a relentless interrogation designed to crumble our structures of resistance. Our gifts are rejected, our work seen as valueless and foolish, our lives as a series of naive, foolish blunders. The world deems us incompetent, insane, or irresponsible for our refusal to go along with a program we know intuitively is wrong.
We know it intuitively, but most of us have difficulty articulating it in a way that is persuasive to ourselves, let alone others. Under interrogation, Winston was frustrated at every turn by O'Brien's superior intellect, which demolished his every argument with ease. Look at the forces arrayed against you. All those brilliant minds: scientists, doctors, entire think tanks, analysts, psychologists, writers, and all the rich and powerful who would either directly with their words label you a malcontent, or indirectly by their participation imply it. Who are you to think that you are right and they are wrong?
Let us assume that everything that O'Brien said about the Brotherhood were true. You are a member solely by virtue of your subscription to an "idea which is indestructible." The idea is freedom, truth, and love. I call it "the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible." People have been working for it for millennia, without hope and without seeing any perceptible change except for the worse. Yet their work was not without effect. It created a swelling undercurrent that is emerging in our time to overthrow the Party and usher in the More Beautiful World. O'Brien's description has been true for millennia but it is not true now, because now IS the future, now IS "a thousand years". The thankless efforts of the Brotherhood are bearing fruit in our time.