Sunday, June 17, 2007

Thoughtcrime: 1984

As you may have guessed from the title, this post is about Orwell's book, 1984. I've just crossed it off my summer reading list, which consists of books that I feel like I should have already read but I haven't yet. Overall impression: I loved it. It really lives up to its legacy as a wonderful, thought provoking, and utterly disturbing piece of literature. It's not one I would read again, precisely because it was entirely to creepy for me, though I guess that's a big part of its charm as well. I feel like it did a good job of grounding my Utopian-like fantasies about what sort of society is actually achievable. Though, to be fair, I plan on reading More's Utopia next for the sake of balance. Seriously though, 1984 is a masterpiece, and I am ill-qualified to say much about it here, though I will venture to share the parts that impressed me the most.

Doublethink: "to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them..."

When this concept is first introduced, I dismissed it. No one could actually, would actually, think that way. Right? To my philosophy trained mind, the worst heresy you can commit is to purposefully ignore logic. But as the book progressed, it occurred to me that its not only the Party members in 1984 who do this sort of thing. We are just as guilty. Honestly, there must be dozens of times when I've knowingly believed two contradictory things and merely refused to reconcile them, all the while telling myself that they are not mutually exclusive. Some out there may think my belief that God and science aren't mutually exclusive would fall under this category, but that's not what I'm think of here (obviously). Consider this two thoughts: 1) I give my life over to God and 2) I must act in my own interest. Both daily thoughts, both require a certain set of actions, both are mutually exclusive. It's entirely too easy to believe them both (at whatever level of consciousness) and never allow yourself to consider that you can't have both. The whole, no one can serve two masters command, is never taken seriously is it? The same sort of thing happens to everyone (albeit with different subjects). So that's a bit frightening. I am willfully illogical on a daily basis. Wonderful.

"Orthodoxy means not thinking --not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."

Like in the Golden Compass, its a terrible waste when people go through life unconsciousness. We don't even know we do it, but we do. Get up, go to class, try to stay awake, eat, read, watch tv, go to bed, repeat. Not hard to go through the motions. What about stopping to think about why we do what we do, and think about what we should actually be doing, instead of just absently doing it??

"The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two makes four?...If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable --what then?"

1984 seemed to come down pretty hard on idealism, as it should. I know its frustrating to not be able to prove that the computer I am typing on exists in a reality outside of my senses, but let's be serious. I know that makes me a bad philosopher, but I can't believe it. I suppose it could be true, even if what I believe about God is right it could be true, but really? I used to think in class that someone should have punched Berkeley in the face and then asked if he thought her fist was a construction of his sensory experience. But honestly, the book is more condemning of our attempts to water down epistemology. Truth has become so subjective these days, that its not far from the truth promoted in the book. Truth is what we make it, says the party leaders. The past, well that only exists in our memories and records, so again we make that what we want as well. There's even a part where O'Brien (the Kurtz of 1984) convinces the protagonist that if he believes he is levitating, and if the protagonist believes he is levitating, then he is levitating. It's not that idealism is bad, per se, but you see how it can be dangerous. If reality is only what exists in our consciousness, and if the government controls our consciousness, well you understand.

"But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable."

Only you can't protect even that, which is precisely why the book creeps me out. If society can break you, emotionally, then you've lost the only true blessing we were ever given. If God wanted mindless zombies, He would have created them. But what if we turn each other into them?? Honestly, we're not far away from that...

"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power..."

And, Machiavelli has nothing on these guys. At least they're honest? Scary, but I don't think these power-mongers are very different from their real life counterparts...

So what did I learn? Think, think, think. Your humanity depends on it. Your integrity depends on it. Society depends on it. Passively accept nothing, guard your heart, and don't be quick to trust human establishments, of any kind. That's all for now. I promise to have a non-about-a-book-I-just-read post soon...really...

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