14 July 2008

Orwell and Orthodoxy

Having just re-read George Orwell’s 1984, I am reminded that it is perhaps the strongest political novel ever written. And that it is a horrible downer. The vision of the world that Orwell shares with the reader is shaped by forces which have become part of our modern vocabulary: Thought Police, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and Big Brother.

But what Orwell has to say in 1984 about orthodoxy is the most important today. As the main character, Winston Smith, begins to flower into rebellion, he sprouts one of the most memorable lines of the novel: “Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness” (53). But that is just a slogan, really, without explanation.

After meeting his love interest, Julia, Winston dives deeper into what orthodoxy really means, how deep it really goes in a person – perhaps without the person even knowing. Julia is quite the rebel, at least in an outward manner. She does what she ought not do and she says things she ought not say (at least according to the Party). Yet on another level, she is not a rebel. She believes the Party’s lies left and right – who they are at war with, the rightness of political assassination, mutability of the past – and her excuse is that these things just aren’t that important. They are things that always were and always will be. Winston’s inner reply is instructive:
“Talking to her, he realized how easy it was to present an appearance of orthodoxy while having no grasp whatever of what orthodoxy meant. In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening” (156).
For Orwell, simple acts of rebellion do not make a person against the orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a state of mind, not an action of the body. It is all too easy to slip into an easy orthodoxy – to be unquestioning of important aspects of the world or accepting of theses which crush opposing points of view by brute force. That today’s orthodoxy is not enforced by “a boot stamping on a human face – forever” as it is in Winston’s world (267). Today’s orthodoxy is pushed through rhetoric and emotionalism, through images and chants.

The lesson, I believe, is to question ourselves and our beliefs. We ought to notice what is happening. The trick, if there is one, is maintaining clarity in a world designed to bombard us constantly so that we might buy into some thought-pattern or another. Turning them off and tuning them out is important; tearing them down intellectually is, at the risk of being dramatic, a quest.

Work Cited: Orwell, George, 1984, New York: Signet, 1949.

1 comment:

thomas said...

Oh , oh : I want more of this analysis . I was fascinated by Orwell on orthodoxy , and you help me get a bit further into it .

I was reading those passages last week , ( in different parts of Poland ! ) and trying to understand why it was echoing so much about my life, modern times and the operation of power. How people react and treat each orther according to the prevailing ideology etc.

I'd be very interested in further discussion , as the book is for me so brilliant - I think the best read ever .

Colin , Bristol . colincreighton@hotmail.comblz