Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reflections: 1984

I'd wanted to read George Orwell's 1984 for quite a few years now, and despite being familiar with the political and philosophical debates surrounding it, I never expected the book to affect me so deeply. Such is the power and intensity of Orwell's writing in concocting a dismal world of negative Utopia (or dystopia) where the basest and vilest of human nature are brought to their pinnacle and the very essence of humanity is pushed down to the nadir, to be eventually extinguished. For those of us like me, who constantly visualize, hope, and strive for an Utopian world of civilization formed out of love, peace, justice and rationality, this book jarringly dishes the image out and replaces it with a civilization that gets founded on the basis of hatred, dehumanization, greed and lust for power. A world where there is no sense of individuality, rationality or love, where everyone of us is being constantly monitored and watched by the "Big Brother", where every single thought of ours gets inspected by Thought Polices, and every single thought or deed that goes against the philosophy of the party gets severely punished and rectified. The party philosophizes that "Freedom is Slavery", "War is Peace" and "Ignorance is Strength". The totalitarian dictatorship is so extreme that the Party tries to even control and correct the much of an oxymoron it might sound as. For what is Past, but for our collective memory of it and some physical records or documents? How easy is it in principle to alter both - especially in a technologically advanced rule of dictatorship.

I spent a big chunk of the book in plain denial, of the impossibility of us humans to be ever stripped off our basic humane instincts. But towards the end of the book, as the rebellious protagonist was being grilled under torture and was being psychologically manipulated in the worst forms possible, I could see my own thoughts fading, and subsiding, only to be replaced with horror and the desperate need to defend myself... so powerful was the prose in conveying the fragility of our minds and the kinds of manipulations that can scar and alter it forever. The torture was so excruciating that it took me a lot of coaxing and courage to finish the final pages of the book. Orwell masterfully brings out the kinds of psychological manipulations that can unearth some of our worst fears and drive us to insanity and complete dehumanization of ourselves. Willfully at that. This disturbed me so deeply that I was haunted with nightmares that played themselves out of each fear riddled recess. Well, we all know my extent of torture now - just make me read about it and I'm all set to resign and submit. Despite such an intense reaction, to me, the plausibility of dehumanization is still an unabated philosophical debate - I somehow cannot come to terms with the theory that the meaning of humanity and the essence of being a human can be eradicated altogether, forever. Despite the scars, despite searing every little cell in our mind that is responsible for human "virtues", there is just some inexplicable faith that the feelings and the essence will revive. I strongly believe that it is this faith that can keep our civilization in good stead.

Through such manipulations of the human mind, Orwell raises the question of what truth is? How objective is it? Is truth an external objective reality? Does reality exist separate from our understanding and mind, or does it only live internally in our minds? If reality and truth exist only inside our minds, manipulating them and declaring what truth is, should be theoretically plausible. And for a political system that is just hungry for raw power, in order to control reality, the past, and the future, it is a dream come true. This ideology borders on a solipsistic way of thinking about any kind of "knowledge" that exists outside the mind. In this context, Orwell introduces the concept of "Doublethink" - the frame of mind in which we equally and consciously believe in two contradictory beliefs. Getting humans to this state of doublethink is the most dangerous of all, for it reduces us to unfeeling, hypocritical, automatons, incapable of any critical reasoning to prove or disprove our own thoughts.

The book also raises a lot of red flags about our current social and political systems. Although on a basic level, the book extrapolates on the extents of dictatorial rule the world might be in, after Stalin's iron hold over Russia and the Nazi's atrocity during the Second World War, it also questions some of our basic principles on democracy and war. Big Brother's philosophy "War is Peace" seems to resonate (albeit in a convoluted way) with our current policies and justifications for nuclear weapons production. Each country bases its policies on the aggression and perceived threat from some competitive country...if every country lives on such threatened boundaries, to them peace is achieved through War! With the world's super powers proclaiming democracy, doesn't the principle dissolve into nothingness with the irony of constantly preparing for war, in order to maintain peace? Isn't it a form of doublethink?

The rise of such a morbidly ominous civilization is a warning to us. It is shown that such a totalitarian rule came about when humanity was on the verge of achieving Utopia, but we humans lost hope and reverted to the lusty craving for power; gaining power as not a means to anything, but power as an end in itself. The horrifying prospect of us humans being turned into empty, mindless, soulless shells is terrifying. But such a terror is what should propel us into acting and thinking appropriately, so as to avert such a dystopic hell.


Srishti said...

have you read animal farm by him?
its also good... very satirical...your post reminded me of that book. it has almost similar story line... :)

Neeraja said...

Srishti what a surprise! :). Yeah, I wanted to borrow both the books, but Animal Farm is on the waiting list for now :)