Handfuls of Dust and Splinters of Bone, Part 3
Part 3: The Revolutionary Brotherhood
The origin of the process by which we do evil in the name of good is revealed in O'Brien's faux-recruitment of Winston and his lover Julia into the Brotherhood, the underground resistance to the Party. I will quote from it at length, because many people wonder if, perhaps, there might not be a secret Brotherhood of the Light, a countervailing force to the evil cabal that seemingly rules this earth. Is there another power, even a greater power, that will depose Evil and make sure All is Well? Guardian races? Benevolent ETs? It is a powerful mythological theme indeed. What psychological wellspring does it draw on? And if it exists, what is the nature of this league of the light? We'll start with O'Brien's description:
You have imagined, probably, a huge underworld of conspirators, meeting secretly in cellars, scribbling messages on walls, recognizing one another by code words or special movements of the hand. Nothing of the kind exists. The members of the Brotherhood have no way of recognizing one another, and it is impossible for any one member to be aware of the identity of more than a very few others.... [It] is not an organization in the ordinary sense. Nothing holds it together except an idea which is indestructible. You will never have anything to sustain you except the idea. You will get no comradeship and no encouragement. When finally you are caught, you will get no help.... You will have to get used to living without results and without hope. You will work for a while, you will be caught, you will confess, and then you will die. Those are the only results that you will ever see. There is no possibility that any perceptible change will happen within our own lifetime. We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. We cannot act collectively. We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police, there is no other way.
Not very comforting, is it? I was struck by the similarity to O'Brien's description of the Brotherhood to my own life-work and that of millions like me, silent, hopeless idealists going back to the dawn of civilization. Even though O’Brien was entrapping the lovers and the Brotherhood he claimed to represent was a counterfeit, Orwell explicitly left the existence of a genuine Brotherhood an open question. When Winston asks O'Brien if the Brotherhood really exists, he replies, "That, Winston, you will never know. If we choose to set you free when we have finished with you, and if you live to be ninety years old, still you will never learn whether the answer to that question is Yes or No. As long as you live, it will be an unsolved riddle in your mind."
Could it be that O'Brien was describing something real? Real in the milieu of the novel, and real in our world as well? Could it be that, in the guise of a counterfeit, Orwell is smuggling in a description of the true revolution and the way to achieve it?
Could you and I be members of this Brotherhood and Sisterhood, without even knowing it? Extending the area of sanity little by little, seeing no results in our own lifetimes, but instead, in a world that appears to be spiraling further into darkness; spreading a secret thread of knowledge across the generations towards a far-away future, sustained not by results but only by an idea.
Sometimes I read something by someone long-dead, or hear or meet someone still living, who inspires in me the feeling, "This person is my ally." I imagine we are part of a vast, unconscious sodality, dedicated to a goal so distant and so impossibly beautiful that we cannot describe it, cannot even see it clearly except for a brief glimpse granted only on very rare occasions by grace. Yet even a single brief glimpse is enough to redirect our lives toward its fulfillment, so great is its beauty. Even if we forget what we have seen and deny, with our conscious intellect, its very existence, still its possibility tugs at our lives and draws us into the Brotherhood. That is the “idea which is indestructible.”
And what is the consequence of resisting, of seeking a goal at odds with that of the Party? If we don't conform to the program of ascent, the human mastery of the world and its conversion into money and property; if we don't provide service to the Machine in some way, then we suffer the same fate as Winston. Oh, we are not (usually) subjected to physical imprisonment and torture. We are only deprived of freedom and the means to survive. We are subject to spiritual abuse, a relentless interrogation designed to crumble our structures of resistance. Our gifts are rejected, our dreams ridiculed, our work seen as valueless and foolish, our lives as a series of naive, vain blunders. The world deems us incompetent, insane, or irresponsible for our refusal to go along with a program we know intuitively is wrong.
We know it intuitively, but most of us have difficulty articulating it in a way that is persuasive to ourselves, let alone others. Under interrogation, Winston is frustrated at every turn by O'Brien's superior intellect, which demolishes his every argument with ease. Look at the forces arrayed against you. All those brilliant minds: scientists, doctors, entire think tanks, analysts, psychologists, writers, and all the rich and powerful who would either directly with their words label you a malcontent, or indirectly by their participation imply it. Who are you to think that you are right and they are wrong?
I am simplifying the issue to illuminate a point. In our world, the “Party” (the system and its ideologies) is not fully in control, and the fortunate among us find economically rewarding work that to varying degrees contributes to a more beautiful world. Yet even with such professions, we encounter demands to compromise our integrity, with rewards for capitulating to those demands, and penalties for resisting.
In one scene, Winston admits that he still thinks he is right and the Party wrong. He cannot bear to believe that evil will triumph. "In the end they will beat you,” he says. “Sooner or later they will see you for what you are, and then they will tear you to pieces." O'Brien asks what evidence he has for this, what principle. He says, "The spirit of Man."
"And you consider yourself a man?"
"If you are a man, Winston, you are the last man. Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors. Do you understand that you are alone?"
Have you heard that voice before? Have you ever thought that you are the only sane human in an insane world? Have you questioned, as O'Brien does Winston, whether you might actually be insane, and the Party right after all? I think most rebels harbor an internal O'Brien, an inner tormentor and interrogator who doesn't merely want you to submit. It wants you to convert, heart and soul. "We will make you ours," says O'Brien.
Next, O'Brien forces Winston to look at himself in a mirror. His body is a wreck: teeth falling out, covered in filth and running sores, spine curved and chest hollow. He is emaciated and decrepit, utterly pitiable. Many people who write to me, people who have resisted full participation in the Party's program of control, are in a like state, figuratively speaking. They are broke, they are depressed, they are unemployed, they live without the respect and rewards of the system. O'Brien's logic bears down upon all of us who reject the Program: Look where your resistance has brought you. Look what you have done to yourself.
"You did it!" sobbed Winston. "You reduced me to this state."
"No, Winston, you reduced yourself to it. This is what you accepted when you set yourself up against the Party."
That logic says, "If you are right and the whole world is wrong, then why are you in such a pitiable state?" The proof is in the results. Here are the results of your refusal to participate: poverty, obscurity, disrespect, abuse. And over there are the results of participation: Look at someone successful, his comfortable house and bank account, his boat, his waterfront vacation home, his well-respected position, his degrees, his invitations and honors. Who is right and who is wrong? On a deep biological level, this logic is quite compelling. Orwell wrote from experience. He knew what degradation and torture can do to the human spirit, how an innocent person can be made to grovel in shame, made to believe he is guilty. The abuse we receive from the system we refuse to join has the same effect. We suspect, "Something is wrong with me. Who am I to think I am right and all the well-coiffed, well-respected, intelligent, powerful, successful people are not?"
"We will make you ours." Through years of conditioning and indoctrination, rewards for compliance and punishment for resistance, eventually many of us are broken. Some are broken early; they are the good little boys and girls who do as they're told and buy into the values of the system. I remember how close I came to breaking. I remember how I came to think that the kids who broke the rules at school were bad. I remember the shame I associated with an after-school detention. I remember thinking that good kids do their homework, get good grades, and do as teacher says. The just rewards of being good would be a prestigious, secure place in society. The equally just consequences of being bad would be poverty, prison, or some other unpleasant end. The world worked essentially as it should. Good is good, bad is bad; the good get rewarded and the bad get punished.
At one point in 1984, Winston is surprised to encounter his colleague, a cheerfully orthodox man named Parsons, in jail. Parsons has been reported to the authorities by his children for thoughtcrime. Winston asks him if he is guilty. “Or course,” he says. “You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?”
Alongside my acceptance of the authoritarian order, I carried with me a secret sense of outrage. Something in me rejoiced when the bad kids got away with something. I had fantasies of the school burning down, of some terrible and liberating cataclysm that would end the world as I knew it. (Does that sound familiar to you? Could the aficionados of climate catastrophe, near-term extinction, 2012 mythologies, peak oil, financial meltdown and the like be expressing the same unconscious wish?)
By high school, I could no longer bring myself to participate fully, no longer bring myself to try hard to be a success. I fought against my own rebelliousness, and usually was shamed into making at least half an effort. But always my rebelliousness was sufficiently strong that I never pursued the program of success with much persistence or enthusiasm. My resistance was unconscious. I thought I was simply lazy or unlucky or insufficiently talented, or that my impulses were out of control. Today when I see people like that, I feel glad that they are not completely broken yet, that they still have some life in them. To be completely broken is not only to submit to it, but to identify with it fully, to love it, and to perpetrate it upon the next generation. “We will make you ours.”
In the real world, there are varying degrees of refusal and thus varying degrees of punishment. Orwell distilled the essence of the phenomenon, illuminating it by describing its extreme idealization. In the real world, to some extent, everyone rebels in one way or another. Everyone directs at least some of their life force away from the domination of life and world. We harbor a secret doubt. Most people rebel unconsciously, for example through addiction, self-destructive habits, procrastination, and self-sabotage. Some people lash out, knowing not the true source of their rage. Some adopt Julia's strategy, "accepting the Party as something unalterable, like the sky, not rebelling against its authority but simply evading it." As for Julia, this strategy works only temporarily. It is impossible to insulate ourselves from the wrongness in the world, because we are the world and the world is us. Eventually its tyranny ousts us from our private sanctuary, and we are forced to face it.
What would assuage the feeling of aloneness that O'Brien named and that Winston lived with for so many years? We seek out the Brotherhood not only to topple the Party: We seek it out because we are lonely and unsure in our secret rebellion. We want kindred spirits who will validate it. People speak of wanting to find their community, their tribe, where they will feel at home. There are plenty of groups on the Internet and off it where people essentially get together to assure themselves that they are right. They troll the Web for news and articles and opinions that confirm, "You are not crazy. The world is."
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