Doublethink: Thinking Twice about Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

Alfie Robinson 25 August 2019
Image Credit: pixabay

Nineteen Eighty- Four is the second most boring book I have ever read, after J. R. R. Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring. Oceania, its fictive land, is obviously a dictatorship. But a dictatorship must be run with the consent of its people. The people of 1984 do not consent: the people of 1984 are brutalised into compliance. At every corner of its narrative a reader is fed a diet of hackneyed imagery; of a bleakness so pure and so homogeneous that its whole conceit is unbelievable. Believing a story requires more than Capitalising Letters of Made-Up Institutions, it requires a connection at an emotional and intellectual level.

Orwell’s book has no sense of humour. Any contention that its essentially tragic form has no place for jokes betrays a misunderstanding of the actual work of emotions. Range is quite essential for any care to register on an audience. Pathos is not achieved by a repeated slap in the face with the wet fish of unfortunate events.

Examples of the hardships that plague Oceania are catalogued in 1984. What unites them all is the singular predictability with which they are described. The stew, for it must be stew (and the canteen is ‘deep underground’, by the way, which multiplies bleakness by at least twenty percent), that workers eat has ‘a sour metallic smell […] a filthy liquid mess that had the appearance of vomit’. This kind of imagery would be forgivable it not for the fact that it is extended across the whole narrative, indiscriminately.

I am reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ remarks on visiting North Korea: totalitarianism makes you think in cliched ways; it forces you to cover the same ground over and over, detailing its repetitive misery. To defend 1984 in this way would be a fallacy. Hitchens’ words are a description of reality. Orwell’s novel is a work of literature, of artifice. It has a responsibility therefore to be engaging: its content can be monotonous, but its form must not be. And the sedative effect of this book is the result of Orwell’s lack of imagination; it is not a deliberate mannerism. Even when Orwell attempts to illustrate a beautiful scene, he resorts to trite imagery and off-the-peg symbolism: ‘The air seemed to kiss one’s skin. It was the second of May […] the sweetness of the air and the greenness of the leaves daunted him.’ Throughout 1984, the narrative is plotted along obvious seasonal lines: high-points are literally summer; its dour conclusion is a ‘vile, biting day in March.’

Orwell might be forgiven for a limited palette of images: perhaps the aridness of totalitarian Newspeak is supposed to take over the whole book. But the main character is framed from the start as a (reasonably consistent) rebel, capable of self-awareness of his predicament and the effects of Big Brother. The narration, which effectively doubles for his thoughts, shows no such self-awareness of the limitedness of his experiences. Its expression is downright myopic. What is more, Newspeak emphatically does not equal, explain, or justify literary cliché. ‘Doubleplusgood’ is not the same literary straitjacket as soft skin, burning sunsets, or sweet fragrances.

Orwell is in his element when he is allowed to reflect logically on the operation of a dictatorship. There are moments in the narrative where a level-headedness overtakes the immersiveness: he invites almost journalistic reflection. I would suggest he was a better journalist and theorist than novelist. Take the following passage:

“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 them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it […].”

This is a beautiful passage. It is a description of the terror of untruth, and with each paradox it makes the point of how thoroughly, perfectly it can be eradicated by an act of wilful delirium: doublethink. This passage is excellent ammunition to call out deliberate or reckless lies, to call out contradiction. And it is a lesson which needs to be learned. In postmodern theory, I have read the words ‘a logic of noncontradiction’ – to repeat, ‘a logic’. The author was arguing that non-contradiction was just one ‘flavour’ of logic; that it was somehow optional.

As Orwell points out, this recklessness comes with a necessary consequence: ‘to repudiate morality while laying claim to it’. Like everything else, morality rests on logic: if we believe one action is wrong, we cannot believe that an equivalent action is at the same time right. Evil relies on contradictory logic. The Soviet Union and the United States were both engaged in this kind of thinking: they both called each other imperialists, whilst fighting proxy wars on a grand scale. The fact that it was only evil for the other power in question was because of the desire to keep acting in the same way.

Doublethink is also the conceptual apparatus that actively enables such actions to keep happening. Presumably doublethink is also involved outside of dictatorships: it happens every time we ‘know that eating meat is bad’ whilst tucking into a steak. Today we call the experience of doublethink ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Yet this makes my point. The finest moments of the novel are when it is at its most distinctly sober, argumentative, non-literary. It makes the point of how inappropriate such statements are when expressed in novel form. But this is not enough. I want to demonstrate that Orwell’s novel is, on its own terms, quite inept.

The key instance of this ineptitude is in Orwell’s amazingly ham-fisted characterisation. At one point, the protagonist Winston admits quickly to Julia that ‘I wanted to rape you and then murder you afterwards’. Julia makes no direct response to this remark. It seems to have absolutely no consequence for their relationship. What amount of the book’s ‘context’ could excuse this painful blunder of writing, let alone ethics? We are supposed to care about both these characters.

And as if this wasn’t enough, we also have Julia’s astonishingly callous remark: ‘she had had her first love-affair when she was sixteen, with a Party member of sixty who later committed suicide to avoid arrest, ‘And a good job too’, said Julia, ‘otherwise they’d have had my name out of him when he confessed’.’ A remarkably machiavellian piece of pragmatism given Orwell also informs the reader about their mutual ‘animal instinct’, their ‘simple undifferentiated desire’. The ‘heroes’ of this story are callous, shallow, and seemingly lacking any special motivation to bring down the Party. Orwell merely insists their dissidence from the first pages of the book. In the end, I couldn’t wait for the thumbscrews to tighten on these empty characters.

Another example: there is the case of O’Brien. O’Brien provides the crux for a painfully obvious narrative twist. More directly, O’Brien is supposed to act as a red herring, falsely gaining our trust. A task which Orwell completely bungles: ‘a wave of admiration, almost worship, flowed from Winston towards O’Brien […]. When you looked at O’Brien’s powerful shoulders and his blunt-featured face, so ugly and yet so civilized, it was impossible to believe he could be defeated.’ The superlative description lingers for far too long; the whiff of pantomime ‘fishiness’ becomes overpowering.

Nineteen Eighty-Four’s overriding impressions are thinness and simplicity. The book’s political notions are governed by about three or four ideas: the assault on truth, terror, the hierarchy of society. Each one is exposed very early in the narrative and relentlessly pursued until the end. Often the author will introduce an idea in expository dialogue, only to reiterate exactly the same sentiments in a following descriptive paragraph.

‘The Party’ is basically Stalinism on steroids, with better methods of torture and better methods of manipulation. Its ideas could be contained in about fifty pages. The deepest problem is that the book is so intent on detailing the preservation of power through violent means, but barely considers its inception. A few mentions of a chaotic war is all. Therefore it can only be said to amount to the statement ‘totalitarianism is bad’. For the majority of homo sapiens this is fairly obvious. What is actually important is to see totalitarianism coming, without the benefit of hindsight – that is, when it may in fact look desirable. This is why 1984 is inferior to Brave New World: no-one could ever imagine consenting to its governance; but everyone has to think twice about Huxley’s benevolent dictatorship.

Near the end, Winston tells us: ‘the best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.’ Speak for yourself, Orwell.