George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (or)
The Pragmatics of Mutual (Mis)understanding
Mansour Khelifa, University of Sousse
We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.
Occupying a central position in the political inner debate of Winston Smith, the main character in Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the following statement/promise/threat: “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness” (25). This cryptic illocutionary speech act is initially heard by Winston in a dream, then is distinctly associated with, and equivocally reiterated, later on in the novel, by O’Brien who embodies, at the same time, the main character’s ideological mentor, intellectual tormentor and physical torturer.
As the story unfolds, the initially promising trope, “the place where there is no darkness,” becomes more and more of a sibylline utterance representing a locus of (mis)understanding and a space of radical misreading. The representation of this place is stripped of its dream-like, metaphorical significance and reveals a dark, deictic and literal meaning. “[T]he place where there is no darkness” turns out the infamous Room 101, which is precisely the opposite of what it initially passes for, that is, a ‘utopian’ space of enlightenment. On the contrary, Room 101 is a ‘dystopian’ place, in the novel, where the light is deliberately never switched off as a torture inflicted upon political dissidents like Winston Smith. Likewise, the story line seems to operate a series of ironical degradations such as utopia becoming dystopia; metaphor dwindling into synecdoche; and euphemism signalling a glaring “statement” (25) charged with a sense of utter (mis)understanding, foreboding and warning, culminating in the irreversible destruction of the main character. Winston’s revolutionary dream of a better world turns into a horrible nightmare full of equivocation and despair. The mutual (mis)understanding between Winston and O’Brien leads to complete brainwash and emasculation of the former. Winston’s political resistance to, and hate of, Big Brother’s regime are annihilated, his dream is shattered. The story ends with Winston being ultimately defeated, ironically depicted as follows: “[h]e had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother” (297); whereas at the beginning of the narrative he has emphatically written in his secret diary in distinct capital letters: “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” (18).
In a self-appointed totalitarian system of government supported by the arbitrary ideology of “Newspeak, doublethink, [and] the mutability of the past” (26), truth must deliberately and consensually be travestied and prevaricated. Everybody knows all about the manipulation of information, about the political one-way-one-party propaganda and about the rewriting of history, but everyone must pretend/admit that this is the normal course of things–the status quo of the pragmatics/politics of a consensual quid pro quo situation. A frustrating situation of self-deception is accepted by all. When a relative, a friend or an acquaintance is “vaporised,” people never talk. “Winston” the narrator says “did not know why Withers had been disgraced. Perhaps it was for corruption or incompetence. Perhaps Big Brother was merely getting rid of a too-popular subordinate […] Or perhaps–what was likeliest of all–the thing had simply happened because purges and vaporizations were a necessary part of the mechanics of government” (45).
Winston Smith, the most ideologically-conscious character in the novel must put up with a major paradox in his life. He is well aware of the systematic and systemic prevarication of truth in the Ministry of Truth where he works. He seems to execrate this state of affairs, but cannot evade the unbearable dilemma caused by his ab/normal duty as a civil servant in the pay of O’Brien and of “Minitrue,” where he participates in fabricating lies and in forging facts. Julia, Winston’s girlfriend, too, is aware of a huge deception deliberately staged by the State. For instance, she is intimately convinced that the state of permanent war waged by Oceania against other nations is sheer government propaganda and tactic intended to divert and thwart any form of domestic dissent. In spite of her being so convinced, she actively participates in public gatherings during the “Two Minutes Hate” and pours forth all kinds of frenzied abuse at the picture of the “renegade” Goldstein, shown on a giant screen.
Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four represents a radical critique of all extreme sorts of ‘isms’ especially totalitarianism (Nazism, Fascism, Socialism, etc.) and is a satirical pronouncement against State capitalism and monopoly. Orwell seems to say that orthodoxy and official arbitrariness entertained by the rulers and imposed upon the ruled represent a perverse play at mutual (mis)understanding and are sheer insanity. Orwell warns from the outset of the novel that orthodoxy, taken to extremes, turns into pathology. Winston Smith seems to be extremely sensitive and anxious all the time as if he is persecuted by some invisible adversary. Sometimes he is depicted deeply absorbed in his memories of the past because he distrusts the present and apprehends the future. An overall dispiriting mood of arbitrariness, of deliberate (mis)understanding and of cruel persecution abounds in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
As an unremitting, political writer, novelist and essayist, Orwell has developed a keen sense of satirical fiction blending together an idiosyncratic poetics of his own and a refined art of political pamphleteering. Throughout his prolific experience as a novelist and critic, he has committed himself to derisively denouncing ideological dogma and totalitarian imposture. Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four count among his best politically-oriented fiction which purports to dismantle and lay bare the very mechanics of totalitarianism–a system that is primarily based upon a deliberately-construed strategy of muted/mutual (mis)understanding. The silent majority, in such stories, has come to accept and internalise the hegemonic diktat of the perversely de-liberalised tenet of laissez-faire, laissez-passer, without opposing any significant resistance.
Nothing in the totalitarian state can be immune to change, manipulation and forgery, or can escape the Thought Police’s vigil. “Big Brother Is Watching You” (2), the poster says. His government, to borrow Edward Said’s phrase about anthropocentric Europocentrism, is at the same time “the spectator, the judge and jury, of every facet” (qtd. in Lodge 308) of the individual’s behaviour. People must adapt and conform to constant arbitrary changes and in the end swallow up every falsehood made up by the totalitarian state’s propagandists and opportunist sycophants. Any vague hint of resistance is nipped in the bud.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four there is even a whole string of official terms in “Newspeak” language that refer to the subject of political cleansing: dissidents become “unpersons” after they are arrested by the Thought Police; they literally and physically vanish out of sight and from all records. Political purges, whether individual or collective, are called “vaporizations” and a physically-disposed-of person is simply “vaporized” in the formal jargon of “Minitrue.” New words are invented to designate new suspected offences such as “facecrime” (62) or “thoughtcrime” (19) or “sexcrime.” The Thought Police and the telescreen by means of which the privacy of the individual is constantly violated, are everywhere and extremely vigilant in recording and studying every hint and sign: “You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized […] Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer […] though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing” (3).
The tragedy of Winston Smith evolves around his numb understanding of what is going on in Oceania and his utter inadequacy with the ambient intellectual, political and social state of affairs there. What troubles him, at one stage of the story, is his own prescience that he understands “how” but he does not understand “why” (80), which all the more pains him and challenges his native intellectual curiosity. He keeps wondering “whether he himself was a lunatic” and that “[p]erhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one” (80). Lunacy perhaps is a form of radical (mis)understanding leading to a stubborn estrangement of the other. Winston sensibly ponders that “[a]t one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; today, to believe that the past is unalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him; the horror was that he might also be wrong” (80). Winston finds himself pitted against a dilemma, an inextricable emotional and philosophical stalemate. His alienating failure to understand the “why” of totalitarian will-to-power, in fact, will cost him his dignity, his integrity and his sanity as a human being born to be free. After having desperately clung on to “solid” reality, repeating to himself that “[t]ruisms are true […] Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center” (81), Winston writes, in his diary, in a helpless attempt to preserve his mental sanity “[f]reedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows” (81). Winston’s struggle leads to nowhere; he ends up in fetters, literally and metaphorically, forced to proclaim his insufferable love for his own tormentors, after having been brutalised and submitted to the inevitable horror of indoctrination and brainwashing, in Room 101.
As stated earlier, the whole novel seems to be built upon the pragmatics of a muted/mutual (mis)understanding opposing state to society, ruler to ruled, inner party to outer party, individual to community, child to parent, private self to public self, etc. An overall state of schizophrenia prevails in Oceania. The underlying rhetoric of misconception upon which the whole narrative seems to hinge is ultimately embodied by the self-deluding-double-entendre relationship between Winston and O’Brien, founded on the trivial evidence of exchanged glances during the Two Minutes Hate: “Momentarily he caught O’Brien’s eye. O’Brien had stood up […] But there was a fraction of a second when their eyes met, and for as long as it took to happen Winston knew–yes, he knew! –that O’Brien was thinking the same thing as himself” (17). Then, their relationship develops around the radically misinterpreted statement “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness” (25).
Ironically enough, while seeking relief for his excruciating inner debate about, and desperate contention with, totalitarian politics, Winston Smith turns to his unsuspected torturer for salvation; that is to the dramatically controversial and tragically misleading figure of O’Brien “who answers his questions about the principles of society [… and], who both enlightens and dooms him” (Valerie Meyers 117). In a long speech, O’Brien explains to Winston how hazardous the joining of the underground revolutionary organisation called the Brotherhood can be: “You understand,” he said, “that you will be fighting in the dark. You will always be in the dark” (174) and he adds: “When you are finally caught, you will confess […] By that time I may be dead, or I shall have become a different person with a different face” (175). The irony of this (mis)understood lie lies in O’Brien’s deliberately misleading role and flawed identity, which Winston can hardly suspect, at this stage of the story. In other words, the situation seems to be darkly overshadowed by dramatic/tragic irony, since, in part three of the novel, O’Brien is revealed as a Thought Police top officer.