Privacy and the Decent Society: Keeping a Journal


In this series I am analyzing the first chapter of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four through the lens of Avishai Margalit’s idea of an indecent society. An indecent society, Margalit writes, is one in which institutions humiliate individuals.

Winston Smith is on lunch break in his dingy flat. Before he seeks the refuge of a small alcove just out of view of the telescreen, he looks out the window and takes in the horizon. Much of London has not yet been repaired from the bomb damage of World War 2. The cityscape that has survived is pitifully neglected: much of it consists of “rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with balks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard, their roofs with corrugated iron . . . .”

In the midst of this ruin, we encounter the next object in chapter one whose purpose is to deny the people of Oceania any measure of privacy. It is the Ministry of Truth headquarters, Winston’s workplace. Orwell writes of it, “It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” That’s tall.

Let me remind you that Chicago’s Hancock Building, at just over 300 meters high, dwarfs even the midrise office buildings around it. Were it surrounded only by one-story housing stock, like the crumbling London homes Orwell describes, the Hancock Building would dominate its environment to a stupefying degree.

There are four 300-meter pyramids in Orwell’s London, which house the government’s main ministries. The last time I read 1984, I could not leave Orwell’s description of the Minitru pyramid behind without calling to mind the skyline of Astana, Kazakhstan’s rather zany capital. Dreamed up by a dictator, Astana looks like this:


One of the city’s many baubles is a glittering white pyramid, not 300 meters tall, but imposing nonetheless. Here is a picture:

astana pyramid

I see these images of Astana as reminders that authoritarians do not bother hiding their intentions. They still seek  to humilate the masses by overawing them with the physical apparatus of power (not to mention with the unaccountable expenditure of lots of money, but that’s another story). Despite the publication of Orwell’s greatest novels exposing authoritarianism; despite the publication of The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz; despite the publication of practically everything by Solzhenitsyn, true authoritarians still feel no need to change their stripes. It doesn’t matter to them that their game has been given away.

The point of authoritarian architecture is to remind the individual that s/he could achieve no private life even if she wished for one. The state’s power to plan, spend, build and organize–and, of course, monitor and intervene–will always overmatch the individual’s power to cultivate a private conscience. The authoritarian city is merely the tasteless outward sign of a more dreadful institutional imperative within. Every physcial implement an authoritarian regime builds is ultimately identifiable with the boot Winston sees stamping on the human face forever.

Even in the presence of such hideous strength, though, Winston insists on rebelling. A private conscience is germinating inside him, and it demands to seek the light of day. It will be called to life. We do not yet know what Winston understands about the impulse to think and write. This is how the urge is allowed to express itself early in chapter one:

For some reason the telescreen in the living room was in an unusal position. Instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, it was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove in which winston was now sitting, and which, when the flats were built, had probably been intended to hold bookshelves. By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was abe to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went. . . . It was partly the unusual geography of the room that had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.

The thing Winston does in his hiding place will ultimately bring about his death, but he can’t restrain himself. He had recently purchased a simple but graceful diary, of “creamy white paper” so beautiful it “deserved to be written on . . . .”

Orwell hardly ever insinuates anything of the sensual in his writing (Winston’s upcoming love scenes with Julia hardly rank among Orwell’s best stuff), so it is remarkable that he relates Winston’s sybarritic bond with the notebook so naturally. In the store where Winston spied the book, Orwell says he was “stricken immediately by an overwhelming desire to possess it.” Possess it? Such words bring to mind what David felt when he saw Bathsheba, not what most of us feel when we see a Moleskine.

Well, the actuation of our sensual desire is the heart of our private life, is it not? There is a close connection, I believe, between Winston’s Dionysian “strickenness” with the beautiful journal and his Apollonian compulsion to write out plain truths. They suggest the two halves of his innermost self.

When it comes time to put those plain truths down on paper, though, Winston delays. He writes out the date but can go no further. Is he straining under the burden of what he is about to confess? It might be ordinary witer’s block (already!). On the rare occasion when Orwell is funny, he is only coolly so. This may be his writerly idea of an inside joke.

winston writing
Winston begins his diary (Image: tumblr)

But after pouring out an initial passage of junk, Winston encounters a crystallized moment starting to emerge. He recalls the Two Minutes Hate–when all rise and clamorously denounce Oceania’s enemies– conducted the day before in his office. He homes in on its operative effect:

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.

Winston’s very first exercise in journaling takes him straight to the heart of Oceania’s worst offense against humanity. Any bully or sadist can compel a victim under torture to say or do things against their conscience or principles. A truly monstrous thing, though, is to manipulate an individual’s fears into a genuine feeling of mob mentality. This is a self-immolation of privacy.

Even as the Allies were winning Wold War 2 in Europe, Orwell pereived that the things that gave the United States and its closest European friends a decisive advantage could easily be maintained under conditions of peace–if that peace were seen as constantly under threat. And one such thing was the genuine conviction among the Allies’ societies that they were on the right side of history. If you could just constantly inculcate or regenerate that attitude, Orwell saw, you could harness an unassailable mass support of state priorities. The factories and bureaucracies would never stop humming.

At the end of World War 2, much of the world was understandably fixated on the horrible power of the atomic bomb to erase entire cities from the map. Orwell spied something much more insidious–the power of mass culture and mass communication to erase the individual mind from the collective will. It is Winston’s perception of this threat to human diginity that dooms him to be pursued and killed by the state. The wages of sin are death, after all, and he has committed thoughtcrime.


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