All Commentary
Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Doubleplus Unromantic

Actor Kristen Stewart, best known for her work in the Twilight movies, recently agreed to star in a romantic remake of the 1956 film version of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, 1984. US Magazine quoted Stewart as saying, “It's a love story of epic, epic, epic proportion . . . I'm scared.”

The Internet appears to be scared, too, as Facebook, Twitter, the science fiction site, and nearly every other news and social media outlet exploded with gobsmacked perplexity at the notion of looking at 1984 and focusing on the romance—if there is any.

And while I want to be clear that I think the movie is liable to be about as closely related to Orwell’s 1984 as Twilight is to Dracula, I do think that the Internet might be overreacting just a bit here. Orwell’s novel is certainly not a love story. But neither is it completely unconcerned with questions of love and intimacy. One of the crucial aspects of Orwell’s dystopia is the way that the totalitarian State has corrupted everything—even love and sex, the most basic of human desires.

Orwell’s novel, among all the other things it does well, presents us with a picture of the ways in which tyranny consciously destroys human sympathy and the ways in which that sympathy—if revivified—can be used as a weapon to fight against it.

The totalitarian government of 1984 takes every possible measure to destroy a person’s ability to see others as potentially sympathy-worthy individuals: the required party uniforms, the use of numbers along with (and one suspects often instead of) names, the strict schedules kept by party members, the exercise and other functions performed as groups—think of Winston performing his morning exercises with the “30 to 40 group” and being expected to adhere to a minimum standard of fitness for that group—regardless of any particulars of his individual medical condition. Equally, the Party works through such forces as the Junior Anti-Sex League to eliminate the concept of the individual by discouraging marriage and eroticism—intimate relationships that encourage us to view others as unique and special, that help us practice the kind of sympathy Adam Smith described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Quite early in the novel it becomes clear that Winston, for reasons he cannot articulate, is struggling to connect with and understand others. His illicit diary is evidence of that desire. In his first entry, lost for something to write about, Winston begins “writing in sheer panic” an account of a trip to the movies that includes “shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank.”

Our glimpse of Winston’s diary horrifies us with its brutality. The film’s audience is “much amused” by the image of the fat man. Numerous 21st-century directors have proven that there’s comedy gold in fat men doing stuff. But Winston’s description of the man’s floundering—which begins as darkly comic—rapidly begins to sicken even the most sophisticatedly ironic modern reader as we hear the audience shouting with laughter while the man is repeatedly shot, then drowns. Then we hear the grisly delight that Winston takes in the death of a child, and the “wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air.” And the only person who objects is a prole about whom “nobody cares,” least of all Winston.

Winston’s ability to sympathize, in other words, is as corrupt as the language he uses to express it. The primary goal of Newspeak, the government-created language of 1984, is to make it impossible to think anything unorthodox. Orwell writes, “The special function of certain Newspeak words, of which oldthink was one, was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them. . . . All words grouping themselves round the concepts of liberty and equality, for instance, were contained in the single word crimethink, while all words grouping themselves around the concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink. Greater precision would have been dangerous.” If there is no word for something, if we cannot think about something, the thing no longer exists.

Another primary feature of Newspeak is the interchangeability of parts of speech. “Any word in the language (in principle this applied even to very abstract words such as if or when) could be used either as verb, noun, adjective, or adverb. . . . The word thought, for example, did not exist in Newspeak. Its place was taken by think which did duty for both noun and verb. There was . . . no such word as cut, its meaning being sufficiently covered by the noun-verb knife.” Most famously, of course, and probably familiar even to those who haven’t read the novel, is the way that Newspeak “negatives” a word by prefixing it with “un” as in “ungood” and strengthens it by adding “plus” or “doubleplus.” This allows, as Orwell notes, for the “enormous diminution” of vocabulary.

The endless destruction of words, and the complete interchangeability of the words that remain, mirrors the endless destruction of individuals—both physically and as a concept of “the individual”—and the compete interchangeability of both people and ideas under the principles of Ingsoc. In Winston’s world, people disappear as silently as words do:

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.

Love Will Tear Us Apart

Amid all of this violence, destruction, and inhumanity, Winston somehow finds Julia. It begins with glances that—lacking sympathy—he cannot understand or interpret: “She was looking at him in a sidelong way, but with curious intensity. The instant that she caught his eye she looked away again. . . . Why was she watching him? Why did she keep following him about?” When she arranges to pass him a note by feigning a fall, though, Winston suddenly discovers a reawakening of his ability to feel for others:

A curious emotion stirred in Winston’s heart. In front of him was an enemy who was trying to kill him; in front of him, also, was a human creature, in pain and perhaps with a broken bone. Already he had instinctively moved forward to help her. In the moment when he had seen her fall on the bandaged arm, it had been as though he felt the pain in his own body.

The springs of sympathy have begun to work in Winston, and soon he is unable to do anything other than imagine Julia’s circumstances and feelings.

I realize that for the less romantic among us this can all sound a little trivial, a little high school. But it is important to realize three things if you are inclined to feel that way. First, Orwell does not think so. He describes the moment when Julia first strips naked for Winston as “that same magnificent gesture by which a whole civilization seemed to be annihilated.” Second, Winston and Julia do not think so. “Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.” Lastly, the Party does not think so. The lengths to which they have gone to eliminate personal connections have already been outlined.

When we reach the end of the novel and Winston is hauled off to The Ministry of Love to be tortured for his rebellion, it is his fidelity to Julia that—for a time—protects him. When O’Brien (Big Brother) confronts him with his post-torture ruin: “You have rolled on the floor in your own blood and vomit. You have whimpered for mercy . . . Can you think of a single degradation that has not happened to you?” Winston is able to answer, “I have not betrayed Julia.” Orwell amplifies, “He had not stopped loving her; his feeling toward her had remained the same.” And that unshakeable sympathy, that human bond that transcends the artificially created bond with the State, is why, to preserve itself, the Party must destroy both Winston and Julia.

Because if Hayek is right and society is the order that emerges from small interactions and relationships, a government that wants to create and control an order of its own must kill those interactions. It must confront Winston with his worst nightmare: confinement in a cage full of starving rats who will “leap onto your face and bore straight into it.” They must bring him to the final tragedy in this book full of tragedy: the moment when Winston “suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment—one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over, ‘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!”

And with that, the Party has won.

In Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless, Havel details the soul-destroying aspects of living in totalitarian and post-totalitarian societies. “People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.”

This question of Havel’s, of whether a given system makes it possible to live “like a human being,” is one of crucial importance for classical liberals. A lot of us don’t have much faith in the efficacy or morality of political processes, or in our ability to turn those processes to our own ends in order to create the change we desire. In the absence of that kind of faith, what is left is faith in each other. Winston and Julia pathetically, fumblingly, hope for that. The emptiness of their attempt at love is a tragic sign of the efficacy of the State’s attempt to destroy human connection. And their final betrayal of one another is the State’s triumph.

Becoming a Person

It is worth noting that another film adaptation of a popular book makes a similar point about the importance of human connection as part of the fight against a totalitarian State. In Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen struggles again and again with her inability to sympathize with other people and, thus, her inability to understand their strategies and motivations. When Peeta Mellark is chosen as the other tribute for the Hunger Games, she remembers very clearly the time that he saved her from starvation by leaving her some partially burnt bread that he was supposed to throw away from his parents’ bakery. But she is entirely unable to understand why he would have done it. “It must have been an accident . . . He didn’t even know me. Still, just throwing me the bread was an enormous kindness that would have surely resulted in a beating if discovered. I couldn’t explain his actions.”

Later, she is similarly unable to understand or explain the motives behind those who come to wish her farewell when she heads off to participate in the Games. Peeta’s motives become increasingly mysterious and problematic for Katniss when she realizes that Peeta’s affability and charm are dangers to her. “All of a sudden I think, it’s because he’s being kind. Just as he was kind to give me the bread. The idea pulls me up short. A kind Peeta Mellark is far more dangerous to me than an unkind one. Kind people have a way of working their way inside me and rooting there. And I can’t let Peeta do this. Not where we’re going.” Katniss dismisses her nascent feelings of sympathy for Peeta because of her immediate need to survive the Hunger Games, which will require that she be prepared to kill him if necessary.

As Katniss experiences the tragedies of the arena, however, she develops an increased ability to sympathize, which she describes as “something [that] happened when I was holding Rue’s hand, watching the life drain out of her.” When Thresh, Rue’s fellow tribute from District 11, is about to kill Katniss he stops and lets her go, “for the little girl.” While Katniss could not understand why Peeta gave her the bread, she is immediately able to understand this: “I do understand. About owing. About hating it. I understand if Thresh wins he’ll have to go back and face a district that has already broken all the rules to thank me, and he is breaking the rules to thank me too.” Katniss’s world is growing. Her circle of sympathy is expanding. She is becoming a person who connects with others.

Even Katniss’s nifty final trick with the nightlock—a masterstroke of desperate strategy that requires her to understand Peeta well enough to predict his actions and to be able to do the same for the game-runners, the President of Panem, and Panem’s general populace—is the result of her increasing ability to sympathize. Katniss’s growing sympathies save her life.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Kristen Stewart. A film that would reduce either 1984 or The Hunger Games to nothing but an “epic, epic, epic love story” would be a huge mistake, of course, and a disservice to the literature that inspired it. But love, sympathy, and human affection are significant parts of these fictions, and they may well be keys that will help to release real humans from an overreaching, totalizing government.