Besides additional and notable idiosyncrasies, current President Donald Trump’s tendentious, and typically casual, relationship with the truth gets a lot of attention. Prime are his recent recent claims of massive voter fraud and the unrealized popularity of his swearing in ceremony. Continuing a thread that ran throughout his campaign, Trump’s campaign of deceit is leaving an indelible mark on his tenure. Not by accident, George Orwell‘s classic novel from 1949, titled 1984, last week topped Amazon’s sales list.
It will be worthwhile to revisit this iconic tale, made most famous by a movie of that title, that burst on the large screen in 1956. My acquaintance was through a feature in Life magazine that summarized, with illustrations from the movie. A more recent release came out in the title year and featured John Hurt (recently deceased) and Richard Burton, who died before the film hit the screen. The tie in with the current president is inescapable.
It’s the year 1984 in a dystopian world. It’s Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels gone wild on a planet beset by global and eternal war. The setting is London, but the country is now Oceania, and Oceania is ruled by an enigmatic and oppressive leader known only as Big Brother and seen only on wall-size view screens and prolific wall posters. Truth has ceased to exist. The following images are screen shots from the 1984 production.
There is no news, only propaganda, fed in a 24/7 stream. It’s purpose is absolute control, keeping the teaming masses in perpetual passion for their masters and against foes, real or imaginary. A five-minute hate session opens viewers to this world.
Suzanna Hamilton is Julia. Her passion, we eventually learn, is crafted. She has by some means discerned the truth, that it is all a big lie. You cannot tell it from watching her scream, along with the others, at the images on the big screen.
Winston Smith (John Hurt) works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to kill the truth. He rewrites history. Literally. He reviews publications that no longer reflect the party message, and he rewrites them to conform to the truth of the day. For example:
Winston’s job was to rectify the original figures by making them agree with the later ones. As for the third message, it referred to a very simple error which could be set right in a couple of minutes. As short a time ago as February, the Ministry of Plenty had issued a promise (a ‘categorical pledge’ were the official words) that there would be no reduction of the chocolate ration during 1984. Actually, as Winston was aware, the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty at the end of the present week. All that was needed was to substitute for the original promise a warning that it would probably be necessary to reduce the ration at some time in April.
Orwell, George. 1984 (Kindle Locations 617-621). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Readers of the book, and present day observers who have previously read the book, will find the parallels with the current administration striking if not chilling.
Richard Burton is O’Brien, a party official who oversees Smith’s destruction. It is the job of the rulers to systematically eliminate subjects. The practice of entrapping visible personalities, exposing their offenses against the state, and rendering them unpersons, maintains the level of terror needed to preserve absolute control. Winston is being set up to take the fall for thoughtcrime. One word. Terms like this permeate 1984. It’s called newspeak.
And that hopefully concludes the parallel between 1984 and 2017. To round out the story, Julia contacts Winston and recruits him as her current lover. She has had many. Winston rents a room in a shadowy area in the proletarian section, where the proles live. Interestingly the proles are not subjected to the perpetual hazing inflicted on the bourgeois class.
Here Winston and Julia enjoy their bliss together, waiting for the day when their thoughtcrime will be discovered, and they will be rendered. Winston falsely projects that, when tortured—as tortured as he must eventually be—he will never betray Julia. He will always love her.
From a window in the rented room they observe a prole woman hanging out laundry on a clothes line and singing a tune that has been composed by a state factory. Here is an example from the book:
It was only an ’opeless fancy,
It passed like an Ipril dye,
But a look an’ a word an’ the dreams they stirred
They ’ave stolen my ’eart awye!
Orwell, George. 1984 (Kindle Locations 1985-1987). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Their downfall comes precipitously and without warning. As they watch the woman hanging he laundry:
The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All round the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers, in the streets of Paris and Berlin, in the villages of the endless Russian plain, in the bazaars of China and Japan— everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.
‘We are the dead,’ he said.
‘We are the dead,’ echoed Julia dutifully.
‘You are the dead,’ said an iron voice behind them.
They sprang apart. Winston’s entrails seemed to have turned into ice. He could see the white all round the irises of Julia’s eyes. Her face had turned a milky yellow. The smear of rouge that was still on each cheekbone stood out sharply, almost as though unconnected with the skin beneath.
‘You are the dead,’ repeated the iron voice.
‘It was behind the picture,’ breathed Julia.
‘It was behind the picture,’ said the voice. ‘Remain exactly where you are. Make no movement until you are ordered.’
Orwell, George. 1984 (Kindle Locations 3156-3167). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
The hidden TV camera was behind the picture, which now comes crashing down to reveal the likeness of Big Brother, speaking to them.
Julia is struck down and carried nude from the room. Winston appears before O’Brien and undergoes his torture. Winston has claimed that two plus two must always be four. O’Brien disabuses him of that notion. He holds up four fingers. This was famously pictured in the Life magazine item 60 years ago. Under torture Winston wants so much for two plus two to equal five, as O’Brien insists, that he eventually comes to that belief.
Winston also betrays Julia. The government has obtained a copy of the journal he has been keeping, and they know his secret fear is rats. As a child he observed rats crawling of the body of his dead mother. When his torturers strap a cage containing hungry rats over his face and threaten to turn the loose on him, to eat at his face, perhaps starting with his eyes:
‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!’
Orwell, George. 1984 (Kindle Locations 4077-4078). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Winston’s destruction is complete. He is freed from prison to walk the streets as an unperson. He no longer exists. The Ministry of Truth has expunged all references of his existence. His recorded self-denunciation appears prominently on screens about Oceania. Eventually he will physically cease to exist. He will simply disappear unnoticed by anybody.
But before that:
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.
He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
Orwell, George. 1984 (Kindle Locations 4230-4233). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Of course, this is only a work of fiction. Forget that master Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels made a stab at molding truth over 70 years ago. Forget that the Soviet Union pulled dissenter off the streets and published their self-denunciations. Remember it started with a few lies.