BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In chapter one of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as Winston Smith concludes the first, most fateful entry in his secret journal, he acknowledges the dreadful consequences that his thoughtcrime will surely bring:
Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed–would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper–the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. . . . You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.
Before I get to my main theme of solidarity, I’d like to take a moment to draw out how succintly Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare mirrors religion, especially the born-again variety of Christianity prevalent in our society. Man is fallen, goes the born-again script. Even before he steps into the human drama, he is marked guilty of a crime that corrupts his every action. A human signals his inherent fallenness by refusing to admit guilt–“hardening his heart against the Lord,” and that sort of thing. This is the crime that “contain[s] all others in itself,” as Orwell put it.
Remember Jimmy Carter and his 1976 admission that he had “lusted in his heart” for women other than Rosalynn? He was pleading guilty to thoughtcrime. And if Carter could lust in private, couldn’t he be guilty of any other sin in the confines of his secret self? Can’t we all?
Anyone who has ever answered an altar call–or perhaps anyone who has sincerely confessed to a priest–knows the crime of which she is unburdening herself when she comes to kneel in the forgiving presence of the Lord: it is the crime of having an ordinary human life, replete with private thoughts.
It is easy to accuse Christopher Hitchens of overstating the case against religion (that it “poisons everything“), but Hitchens knew the same horrifying truth that Orwell reveals in the passage above. Any religion that denies people the right to privacy even inside the 1200-odd centimeters³ of their own brains is a totalitarian regime. Worse, people seem to want this kind of setup. At the root of our religious motives lies the abject desire to be overseen by secret police and to surrender ourselves to the very dictator who gave us a diseased version of privacy in the first place.
At the risk of losing my thread, I must also point out that this pusillanimous desire to be ruled in one’s innermost self is closely connected to the religious idea that the world we inhabit is a mere vale of tears, something to be got past–and got rid of–en route to our celestial destinies. A world that ensconces unworthy, second-rate selves is itself unworthy and second rate. The all-too-common religious attitude that welcomes fire and deluge is an outgrowth of this sickly world view.
Anyone who exudes an angelic assurance that the only life worth having is the one beyond the grave fundamentally devalues this life and is living in bad faith all the time.
This world, they believe, is only a fraudulent version of the “proper” world to come. Correspondingly, we are only fraudulent versions of persons. We don’t count. This attitude, I believe, is an outrage. Don’t let the religious come at you with their obsequious-sounding offers of succor and grace. Their story–a revenge fantasy–is essentially that there was once a conspiracy to ruin humanity and it worked. They, however, can sell you a path to higher consciousness about this conspiracy. You can even rise to master it, but by abasing yourself before a dictator who condmened you to wretchedness before you were born. No mainstream religions are really much better than Scientology in this regard. They all ask you to start by hating yourself.
If there is anything worse than accepting that you should hate yourelf, it is the logical corrolary that your fellows, all seven billion of them, are also worthy of self-hatred. An outlook as monstrous as this calls for solidarity in opposition. Humans must find a way to stand up to the idea that an illiterate shaman can cast us out of our tribe.
Back, now, to the action of 1984‘s first chapter. This passage continues the one started above dealing with throughtcrime. It is Orwell’s depiction of what it is like to be cast out of Oceania’s leading tribe of Ingsoc, or English Socialism:
It was always at night–the arrests invariably happened at night. The sudden jerk out of sleep, the rough hand shaking your shoulder, the lights glaring in your eyes, the ring of hard faces round the bed. In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.
Well, if literature has ever envisioned the Biblical idea of being blotted out of the Book of Life (Ex. 31:33; Ps. 69:27) more vividly, I have not yet read it. It is not enough for the fallen to be cast out and condemned. They must be annihilated–made never to have existed. Why? Because they demonstrated in their heresy that there was another way to think, and that heresy will emerge again if it lingers in the record of the dead. The established powers cannot suffer the prospect that thoughts other than their own exist–or ever existed.
Everyone is in a predicament. It is a deeply human task to describe what your predicament is. Your situation–or at least your understanding of it–tells “how life has happened to you” (to jump a few years ahead of Orwell and put Vonnegut’s loopy spin on things). As Winston sits down to write, he asks himself who his intended audience is. For whom is he describing what life has done to him?
For the future, for the unborn. . . . For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him. How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.
This, by the way, is Orwell speaking directly to the reader. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write” Orwell indicates one of his main motives is the desire to have concrete facts put down on the historical record. He wants the world of the future to know that he was in a particular kind of predicament. He wants the world to know that he was an individual. In turn, Orwell understood his individuality as a reflection of the uniqueness of every other soul in the world.
This generosity of outlook is the cardinal opposite of the authoritarian (and religious) imperative to impose conformity and, in so doing, to kill individual conscience.
Everyone in the world is a guardian of that 1200 odd centimeters³ at the core of their existence. This space must remain sacrosanct. But the abject desire to have this space policed keeps cropping up, just like Camus’s Plague. Keep a journal if the idea appeals to you at all. It will help set a watch against the plague’s recurrence. It will describe your predicament, and it will tell the unborn world of the future that you believed in the uniquness of everyone else’s predicament. The dedication page of all our journals says, in some way, “To my comrades, who are not like me.”