Handfuls of Dust and Splinters of Bone, Part 6
The finale: Love and Sanity
Love and Sanity
In this essay I have described how membership in the Brotherhood requires more than adopting the belief that you are acting for the greater good. That belief is in fact a liability. By that criterion, Heinrich Himmler and Joe McCarthy and almost every tyrant who ever lived was in the Brotherhood, along with the neighborhood busybody, the Stasi informer, and the vice-principal of your high school. You can calculate your carbon footprint right now, multiply it by your voting history, add in your arguments that your job is really making the world a better place, or at least not doing too much damage, and cancel out any transgression against the greater good with the thought that, after all, one must make a living. The result is your goodness quotient. Such rationalizations can, with the help of doublethink, justify any act. Because doublethink erases its own footprints, it is hard to know how much any of us does it.
How then do we establish our membership in the Brotherhood / Sisterhood of a true revolution that is not a mere shifting of roles and enemies? The answer in 1984 lies at the heart of the novel’s conception of betrayal.
Maybe the most painful scene in the book happens after Winston’s release from Ministry of Love, when Julia and Winston encounter each other on the street. Each has, under torture, betrayed the other. Orwell sets the scene masterfully:
Actually it was by chance that they had met. It was in the Park, on a vile, biting day in March, when the earth was like iron and all the grass seemed dead and there was not a bud anywhere except a few crocuses which had pushed themselves up to be dismembered by the wind.
That doesn’t portend well, does it. The dialog is no less bleak:
'I betrayed you,' she said baldly.
'I betrayed you,' he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
'Sometimes,' she said, 'they threaten you with something -- something you can't stand up to, can't even think about. And then you say, "Don't do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to So-and-so." And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn't really mean it. But that isn't true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there's no other way of saving yourself, and you're quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don't give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.'
'All you care about is yourself,' he echoed.
'And after that, you don't feel the same towards the other person any longer.'
'No,' he said, 'you don't feel the same.'
O'Brien says that the Russian Communists and German Nazis failed because it was enough for their victims to confess, conform, and obey. The Party, he says, wants people to be pure in thought, not just word and deed. It is not enough to obey Big Brother. It is not enough to conform in every outward manifestation. One must love Big Brother. Before his final betrayal of Julia, Winston harbored a secret resistance. "In his mind he had surrendered, but he hoped to keep the inner heart inviolate." Winston's failure came down to this. His failure was not in being caught, not in confessing, not in betraying his friends, not in capitulating intellectually. None of that mattered, and O'Brien knew it. If he had gone to his grave with even the most secret, unspoken kernel of integrity in his heart, then the eventual downfall of the Party would have been assured.
The violation of the sanctum of his inner heart came through his betrayal of Julia when confronted with his nightmare in Room 101, the Worst Thing in the World. O'Brien described it as something that one is physiologically incapable of resisting. "Courage and cowardice are not involved. If you are falling from a height it is not cowardly to clutch at a rope. If you have come up from deep water it is not cowardly to fill your lungs with air. It is merely an instinct which cannot be disobeyed."
I think this is an extraordinary and unsupportable claim, the only chink in the book’s armor of despair. “Do it to her, not to me,” cried Winston. The claim is that faced with the worst thing in the world, we will always betray what we love the most. It is the claim that fear is greater than love. It is the claim that we are the helpless puppets of irresistible biological forces. Yet there are times when someone will not clutch at the rope, not take that breath, not interpose another person between himself and the Worst Thing in the World.
Such acts of extreme courage and heroism are rare and, fortunately, we are rarely called upon to take them. Orwell, however, is distilling a choice we face all the time when the urging of the heart runs up against the fear, “What about me? What's going to happen to me?” All of us face, in a dilute form, the Worst Thing in the World. Often, we experience it as a kind of inchoate dread, a fear that has no name, for when we are asked, “What are you really afraid of?” we can produce no good answer. For some of us, the Worst Thing in the World is to be embarrassed in public, or for a certain person to reject us. I have known people to live in misery for decades rather than risk such an event. And then, one day, we unconsciously engineer a situation where we must face that fear, or we consciously decide it is time, and we discover it wasn't the worst thing after all. Its identity changes as we overcome one monster after another to proceed further down the revolutionary path. Orwell thought that every man and woman is broken by it. Everything else in his thought follows naturally from that. If fear is indeed greater than love, the world of 1984 is a certainty. If we always choose our personal comfort, safety, or survival over doing what we know in our heart is right, then there is no hope for our world.
Equally, there is no hope for our world if we deny the heart's knowing and give primacy instead to an ideal, an organization, or a principle. To do so enacts a core ideology of the Party that controls our world. Based on this ideology, people debate endlessly about one “ism” after another. No matter how vociferous their disagreements, they share an agreement that is even more fundamental: that we must reason out the correct answer, persuade others of it, and choose our actions based on it. It is related to the ideology of reductionistic science, that says if we can reason out a theory from first principles, we will be able to understand and control everything. Once we are convinced that we know what Good is, whether it is the dictatorship of the proletariat, or racial purity, or reducing CO2 emissions, or saving the whales, we become as gods, self-righteously deaf to the real voice of God speaking through our hearts.
Winston's ultimate capitulation was simply an extension of his answers to O'Brien's questions as he was being recruited: “You are prepared to commit murder? To commit acts of sabotage that may kill hundreds of innocent people?...” Already, he had betrayed his heart. Already he had joined the Party in spirit, steeling himself to commit evil for the sake of an ideal.
Here, then, we have the kernel of the solution to our problem of how to fight the Party without fighting; that is, how to fight the manifestation of evil in the world without fighting. The kernel of the solution is to keep your inner heart inviolate. I do not suggest this as a substitute for action; on the contrary, courageous actions flow from it (and from nowhere else). But no matter what those actions are, even if they involve violence, you'll never do them in the spirit of fighting evil, or indeed for the sake of any abstract principle. To do that is to attempt to lead the heart with the mind, to make the servant into the master. By themselves, abstract principles turn us first into cowards and then into monsters. We become heartless. Whether on the political or the personal level it is the same.
Orwell describes what happens to us when we succumb to the program of the Party to turn us into it:
Things will happen to you from which you could not recover, if you lived a thousand years. Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.
Perhaps you know someone like that; perhaps you have even been there yourself. It is indeed as Orwell describes: “Everything will be dead inside of you.” To betray the heart causes an internal separation, a split in the self, and the evil that has been invented to threaten us becomes a reality. The soulless gaze of certain public figures hints at what has happened. As Orwell suggests, this split is even more profound than the abdication of sanity that is doublethink. What doublethink does on the level of mind, betrayal of love does on the level of soul.
“Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity.” Such a condition is crucial to the maintenance of power. Fascism depends on a divided, mutually suspicious population willing to spy on one another, betray one another, and most simply and most importantly, stand by passively when one person or group suffers persecution because after all, it isn’t happening to me. I will quote Martin Niemöller’s famous poem on the topic, even though it has become nearly a cliché, because it illustrates something more than an ethical principle
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It isn’t only fear or blindness that keeps people passive as the police haul their fellows off to the camps. It is the result of the shutdown of empathy, of friendship, of courage, of all the things emptied from the Party member. “You will be hollow.”
Any time we cast another human or group of humans into a subhuman category, we become capable of standing by as they are silenced, persecuted, oppressed, or slaughtered. Love withers, and in its place sprouts the false love for an idea, a figurehead, the Dear Leader, the Party.
Orwell has distilled the process by which this happens into a single calamitous betrayal, but in real life the process is gradual. With each betrayal of the heart, something dies a little more within us. With each choice away from love, another power enters.
Please do not think that there are two classes of people in this world, those who have betrayed the heart and those who have not. Nearly all of us live a unique permutation of fidelity and betrayal. To the extent we betray ourselves (for to betray the heart is to betray the self) we live in exactly the state Orwell described. We feel dead inside. To the extent we are loyal to our hearts, we gain compassion, joy, and courage, even if the acts our hearts call from us are invisible to all the world, even if they seem quite futile to the rational mind, even if they are to care for a dying person who will soon be dead anyway, or to rescue a bird, or to read a book to a child you'll never see again, each tugs on the universe and through mysterious pathways draws in a more beautiful world. Each such choice invites others to join in kind. That is how the invisible brotherhood grows. No act is wasted. Your heart knows that everything matters. Religious mystics phrase this understanding as, “God sees everything.” We have substituted Big Brother instead as the ceaseless watcher, installing a new god, a controlling god, judging and punishing, hating and avenging, a slavedriver against whom we eternally rebel and suffer judgment anew. The Revolution replaces this false god with a true. God is love. The Revolution is indestructible. No power, not even the power of the Party, can defeat it. Its victory is certain, as long as we agree it is so with all our hearts.
There is a countervailing power after all, enlivening each of us and alive within each of us, members all of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of love.
The Party maintains its rule through endless war, endless hate, endless pursuit of power. We join it when we wage war for the sake of peace, when we hate for the sake of love, when we seek power for the greater good. If we succeed in overthrowing the Party by those means, we become the Party. Yet there is a way to end the rule of the Party. It is not to overthrow it; it is to infiltrate it and change its DNA. We do that through a different sort of power than O’Brian defined. Whereas for the Party power is the power to make someone suffer, for the Revolution it is the power to invite people into their truth, love, courage, and purpose. It works through the mirror image of doublethink. Whereas doublethink separates story from truth, its mirror image aligns story with truth. We seek to hold a good and true story about our fellows. When we hold it strongly, it becomes an invitation, a receptacle for the invited one to inhabit. It says, “I know you, brother. I know who you really are. I know why you are really here. I know you as someone who loves life. I know you as someone capable of courage. I know you as someone who can serve what he loves, even in the face of the Worst Thing in the World.” The fellowship of the Brotherhood comes down to that. That is the idea of sanity—to hold the truth of who we really are. The Party’s view of the human being is not the truth; it is in fact the biggest lie ever told. We are not craven, self-interested separate individuals whose wills must therefore be dominated and subsumed into a greater mass in the interest of progress. That possibility is there, yes, and the Party narrates it into being. But another possibility exists within the human being as well, and the Brotherhood narrates it too into being by holding it in truth. That possibility is that who we are is love, here to give our gifts to something greater than ourselves. The Brotherhood that holds this truth is indeed a fellowship, because first and foremost we hold it for each other. To the extent that we hold it, we are brothers and sisters of the Revolution. The Reunion. The Return.
As we hold sanity for each other, the true story of who we are and why we are here, we learn to hold it for all, even for the targets of the Two Minute Hate whom we are asked to hate in the name of love. We may still do battle with them, but it won’t be because we’ve consigned them to the ranks of the irredeemable. Always, we will welcome their change of heart. We will even go so far as to expect it. Because one aspect of the good and true story we hold is that one day, all of us will return. This revolution can succeed only when everyone has joined it. The ranks of the Brotherhood will one day include everyone.
Yes, it may indeed take as long as Orwell suggests for this to happen. I am not so naive as to think that our elites, so intoxicated with power, so cynical, so practiced in doublethink, so inured to the suffering of the world, are on the verge of a change of heart. Actually, let me take that back. I am so naive as to think that. Who am I, to consign a human being to perdition? Who am I to believe anyone irredeemable? The Party believes everyone, at base, irredeemable—because faced with Room 101, their betrayal of what they love is certain. The Brotherhood holds the opposite view: that each human soul, eventually, will return to its divine nature: love. We hold open that possibility, naively if need be, for everyone. Even if it happens not in our lifetimes, not in ten thousand years, still we hold it open. We hold it open for each person and, therefore, hold it open for all people, foreseeing a future built on a new story of the human being. Only if we give up on it does that possibility vanish. Maybe indeed we will participate in such a future only as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. The timeline does not much matter; our work is the same.
Looking at the machinations of power today, it appears that we are very very far from the Revolution of Love I have described. Yet maybe we are closer than it seems. Awakenings are happening, invisible to us. The Inner Party is full of incipient defectors. A new and ancient consciousness is seeping up through the earth. Perhaps the long, lonely work of our ancestors, whose dust and bones became the earth, and whose tears watered it, is reaching fruition in our time.
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