Monday, August 25, 2008

The Brotherhood

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.


At August 28, 2008 at 4:03 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brave New World's Room 101

Rx for rats in a bottle.

John Breeding for freedom, truth and love.


At August 29, 2008 at 1:55 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest -- sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest -- are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second." -- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

At September 19, 2008 at 11:38 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought of posting this under the Herbs heading, but then decided it was more appropriate here. Even Western medicine is not impervious to progress and enlightenment. James Gordon, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, has written Unstuck -- Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression. In the book, he explores Eastern and Western spiritual traditions in finding ways beyond depression and Dark Nights of the Soul. He even says he works with Chinese herbs and prescribes antidepressants only as a last resort. I couldn't help wondering what David Foster Wallace's life might have been like if he had known of such alternatives to antidepressants and had had a compassionate practitioner skilled in such healing arts. One article reported he had taken antidepressants for twenty years and had undergone electroshock "treatment" last summer. I hope he finds respite and renewal in the hereafter, and soul healing that eludes so many in the HERE and NOW when darkness leads to despair.

Here is an interesting podcast with James Gordon, MD:


Ursus Maritimus

At October 13, 2008 at 5:20 PM , Anonymous Andre ( said...

We don't know if the time is now or not. We can, however, act as if it is (or not). And thus make it so.

Believing that we are powerless is just that, a belief. The only thing that makes money more important than people, relationships, honoring each other and our environment is our belief that it is so.

We can not eat money, can not buy happiness, love, friendship. The money system just crashed and is being reloaded, at the expense of the only real resource in that system: our time/life/effort energy.

Obviously this structure works for the money manipulators but not quite for the rest of us.

Now, in the middle of all this, what are we doing?

At October 16, 2008 at 7:17 PM , Blogger Mike Brady said...

I see it as the illusion of free will – that even if we know a thing is futile and has already been weighed and measured, we act blindly, as if we make a difference. By the act of rolling the dice in a game we know is fixed, we change the game – even if we know this could not possibly be true.
If you feel this way, nothing matters but the truth of it, and at the core of our understanding you find you are the way you are and do the things you do, because in the end, as we carve our names among the dead with words, that’s all that matters.
Of course, schizophrenics are just as sure of this as I am, but that’s different?

At October 22, 2008 at 12:04 AM , Blogger Matthew Shultz said...

I've read 1984 a few times myself. First I thought he was talking about Stalinist Russia. Then I thought he was talking about postwar Britain. A friend of mine (who turned out to be schizophrenic) used to rave about how we were living in 1984 ... I told him he was crazy, of course. Well, who's crazy now?

I've often wondered if schizophrenics don't have a firmer grasp on reality than we credit them with.

At November 13, 2008 at 1:07 PM , Anonymous winston said...

In fact, the Orwellian state and "Big Brother" represents a rejection of western liberal civilization, and its core tenets. This is the central feature of totalitarian systems, and Orwell spent his life trying to point this out. Your analysis does a disservice to Orwell, in that you extend the analysis far past the intended point. The tyrannies and totalizing systems Orwell decried do not emerge from western civilization: they grow out of resistance to it. In a great many ways you may never quite grasp (though I hope you do), you're closer to Big Brother than you think. Stop looking outside your philosophy for clues to interpreting Orwell. There is no mystery to his style or his message. For you, his writings are a mirror. If you can glean this, and take it to heart, you may at last understand what George Orwell is trying to tell you. The thought path you are on leads to the "Orwellian" state. On this, old George was unequivocal.

At December 8, 2008 at 6:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is beautiful:)
Thank you.
dennis gaudet

At January 17, 2009 at 6:27 PM , Anonymous Stevie Stonehenge said...

Thank you, Charles, for this wonderfully reflective and thought provoking piece. I agree that Big Brother and the Party represent the Program of Control in general, and yes, we DO have a choice. We can allow our souls to be crushed in despair, or we can focus our attention on creating The More Beautiful World in the endless stream of singular moments of our lives. The vision I hold for humanity is breathtaking; it thrills me to see you share it. Being a part of its creation, even in the most simple of ways, is what inspires me to take the next breath, and the next, and the next.

An ally in the Brotherhood,
Stevie Stonehenge

At June 10, 2009 at 4:57 PM , Blogger Publius said...

Well said.
Anon 1:07's comment made my skin crawl... I could tell within a few sentences that a rigid ideologue was writing. Here's a screamer:
"The tyrannies and totalizing systems Orwell decried do not emerge from western civilization: they grow out of resistance to it."

Wow! Western Civilization is synonymous with freedom. What a howler - as if totalitarianism itself wasn't a product of Westeran thought and Platonism gone to its logical conclusion: the perfect form, the perfectly structured, all-controlling state.

Keep up the good work, Charles... I only discovered your writings recently. I'm glad I did.

At May 2, 2010 at 8:23 PM , Anonymous Giveadont said...

I haven't read 1984 since I was a teenager just out of High School (back when I had my more secular-humanist, postmodern liberal attitudes). I'm 22 now.
However this entry, Charles, has helped me really notice something about people's perceptions of "wrong" and "bad" - and my own aswell - that I hadn't really thought about too in-depth before.

I still have yet to be fully able to articulate them, though, haha.

At January 20, 2011 at 2:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Winston is right, and I echo his sentiment. I think that it is unfortunate that you seek to twist the very simple message in Orwell's books to promote a state he warned against. What happens if humanity ascends as you predict? I'm sure that you and your ilk, as early members of the sodality (interesting choice of words by the way), will see yourselves as more equal than everyone else.


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