Did Orwell realise quite what he had done in Nineteen Eighty-Four? His post-publication glosses on its meaning reveal either blankness or bad faith even about its contemporary political implications. He insisted, for example, that his ‘recent novel [was] NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter)’. (1) He may well not have intended it but that is what it can reasonably be taken to be.
Warburg saw this immediately he had read the manuscript, and predicted that Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘[was] worth a cool million votes to the Conservative Party’;(2) the literary editor of the Evening Standard ‘sarcastically prescribed it as “required reading” for Labour Party M. P. s’,(3) and, in the US, the Washington branch of the John Birch Society ‘adopted “1984” as the last four digits of its telephone number’. (4) Moreover, Churchill had made the ‘inseparably interwoven’ relation between socialism and totalitarianism a plank in his 1945 election campaign(5) (and was not the protagonist of Nineteen Eighty-Four called Winston?
If, ten years earlier, an Orwell had written a futuristic fantasy in which Big Brother had had Hitler’s features rather than Stalin’s, would not the Left, whatever the writer’s proclaimed political sympathies, have welcomed it as showing how capitalism, by its very nature, led to totalitarian fascism? With Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is particularly necessary to trust the tale and not the teller, but even this has its pitfalls. Interpretations of the novel already exist which blatantly ignore the intentions of the author by reinterpreting its manifest content without any obvious justification.
But all existing interpretations of Nineteen Eighty-Four are unsatisfactory in one regard or another. For many years Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘served as a sort of an ideological super-weapon in the Cold War’,(6) was used along with Animal Farm as propaganda in the Western occupied zones of Germany, which it was ‘feared … might be invaded by Soviet troops’,(7) and was later also made use of by West Germany as ‘warning . . . about what a future under Stalin might be like’. )
There is much in the novel, of course, which allowed it to be interpreted as an attack on Soviet Communism and its allegedly aggressive intentions. Nonetheless, such an interpretation does not quite fit: Ingsoc has been established in Oceania by internal revolution and not by military invasion or external pressure. The model is Trotsky rather than Stalin. With the slackening of the Cold War, there were attempts, notably by Orwell’s first biographer, Bernard Crick, to claim that Nineteen Eighty-Four was directed as much at the West as at the East. )
But whatever minor swipes at the West Nineteen Eighty-Four could be said to be taking (the regime’s encouragement of pornography and gambling among the working-class for example), such an interpretation, at any rate on a literal level, is perverse – a perverseness exemplified by Crick’s extraordinary claim that in the terrible last paragraph of the novel the ‘two gin-scented tears’ which trickled down the sides of Winston’s nose represents ‘comic distancing’. 0) Beside these divergent political interpretations, there were others which sought to interpret Nineteen Eighty-Four non-politically as either a study of the mental illness of the protagonist or a psychological document revealing the obsessions of the author. The mental illness reading logically involves the reinterpretation of what seem to be objective characteristics of a totalitarian society as items in a subjective phantasmagoria.
Nobody takes this the whole way, but in arguing in these pages that Winston is ‘a text-book schizophrenic’, Robert Currie has shown the extreme lengths to which critics of this persuasion are prepared to go. (11) Those who interpret Nineteen Eighty-Four as the product of the author’s own neuroses, as in Anthony West’s celebrated claim that Oceania was merely Orwell’s prep school St. Cyprian’s writ large,(12) are on firmer ground in that such a view does not involve standing the novel on its head.
Even so, it does not explain why the novel has been so enduringly successful and why ‘dissident intellectuals’ (in Eastern Europe) were ‘”amazed” that the writer who never lived in Russia should understand the system so well’. (13) To those who knew nothing of St. Cyprian’s and the details of his life, it seemed that Orwell was writing about a real and familiar world, not about himself. The work has received such divergent and apparently contradictory interpretations that something more than a simple determination to trust the tale is required.
Any fresh interpretation must not only be able to account in principle for the existence of such divergent readings but offer to transcend them. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell depicts a society which, strictly speaking, can never exist because its rulers have the kind of powers traditionally attributed to demons: the closed immobility of the society depends, that is, on its rulers having access to resources which human beings, however wicked and however ordinarily powerful, cannot command.
Some subliminal awareness of this is behind the claims both of those who read it politically and those who read it psychologically. For the first, who do not allow themselves to realise that a line has been crossed, that awareness is precipitated as exaggeration of the possible, and Nineteen Eighty-Four interpreted as a satire. (14) For the second, who sense that impossibilities are involved, it is registered as a need to see the book as really about the delusions and phobias of the unbalanced, whether character or author, for phobias frequently embrace the impossible.
Nineteen Eighty-Four has successfully recreated the idea of hell and endowed it with an immediacy and significance which Milton and Dante (whose Divine Comedy Orwell was reading in the last year of his life) can no longer command. Though for us, unlike Dante and Milton, hell and its demons are a fable, Nineteen Eighty-Four, by transcending the limitations of the cultural and political context of its immediate origin, provides an objective correlative of this century’s ‘return to what our nineteenth-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism’. 5)
Millions of human beings have been the trapped and helpless victims of the pitiless, relentless and yet frequently insouciant cruelty of their fellows: on the ground or from the air. Fiends could scarcely have had more immediate power or behaved worse. In Nineteen Eighty-Four variations of the same inhuman civilization are represented as global (though their ideological bases are not necessarily the same) and the cruelty manifested by O’Brien has historical precedent.
His resemblance to an Inquisitor has been frequently remarked (though his electrical assaults on Winston’s brain are those of modern psychiatry) and the torture in Room 101 stretches from Imperial China to the late twentieth century where torture victims can be ‘exposed to the gnawing of rats through a tube inserted up the anus or vagina’. (16) That in Nineteen Eighty-Four the regime is in some sense Satanic has, of course, been widely perceived.
O’Brien has been compared to Mephistopheles the celebrant in his flat of a kind of Black Mass with wine, wafer and ritual. However, such parallels are clearly regarded as metaphorical. Alone among the interpreters of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the millennial fundamentalists have realised that actual demonic powers are involved. (17) For them Nineteen Eighty-Four is a depiction of the reign of Antichrist foretold in the First and Second Epistle of Peter and in Revelation, 13.
I am not claiming that Orwell consciously set out to give the regime demonic powers: indeed, part of the effect of the novel may well depend on neither author nor reader allowing themselves to be explicitly aware of it. Orwell may have been in unconscious collusion with the details of his own fiction as readers of the torture scenes have sometimes uneasily suspected. Anthony West’s approach to the novel reminds us how much of Orwell went into it: not only St.
Cyprian’s, but his sadism, his imperial guilt, his sexual encounters (some of them clearly sordid), his fear of atomic war, his Cold War hysteria,(18) and his experience of Communist tactics in Spain and of censorship at the BBC; his revulsion at rats;(19) his previous support for non-democratic socialist revolution;(20) his war-time suppression of his own previous anti-war position;(21) his support for the bombing of German cities,(22) his terminal illness, his pastoral nostalgia – the list could be extended.
And yet, by transformation, transference, and substitution all these disparate experiences not only help to form a coherent whole but give to the novel a complex resonance unique both in Orwell’s own fiction and in Utopian or Distopian literature generally. Such complexity of origin, particularly if it involves elements of emotional collusion, does not make for clear awareness of exactly what one is doing. Orwell may have believed the novel’s official position, that what the regime knows about Winston and Julia is merely the result of a combination of an extraordinarily effective system of surveillance and matching technology.
Since, however, the whole of the action of Nineteen Eighty-Four is focalised through Winston Smith even this lacks final endorsement by an impartial narrator. He knew that . . . the Thought Police had watched him like a beetle under a magnifying glass. There was no physical act, no word spoken aloud, that they had not noticed, no train of thought that they had not been able to infer. (p. 289) The use of ‘infer’ keeps this within the limits of the humanly possible: the regime ‘”can’t get inside you”‘ (p. 174).
But when Julia and Winston made love in the clearing, they had specifically noted that the surrounding ash saplings were not ‘big enough to hide a mike in’ (p. 125). How then did the regime know what they said and did there? Because the aptly named Thought Police can ‘get inside you’. They can know what you are thinking – and dreaming; they have telepathic powers including the power of suggestion, and they can know the future. With such powers at their command no one can stand against them and no one ever does (‘Nobody ever escaped detection, and nobody ever failed to confess’, p. 7).
Individually, the rulers may die but the regime’s immortality is symbolised by the mysterious figure of Big Brother (who provides the frisson of the diabolically numinous). ‘”Of course not”‘ (p. 272) is O’Brien’s answer to Winston’s question as to whether Big Brother would ever die. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a hell without a countervailing heaven: the reign of Antichrist for ever, not as a preliminary to the New Jerusalem. There are no angels, only devils. That the regime is Satanic emerges in O’Brien’s revelation of its objectives.
They are not what Winston expected: ‘He knew in advance what O’Brien would say. That the Party did not seek power for its own ends, but only for the good of the majority’, (p. 274). But O’Brien does not say this at all: the explicit aim of the regime is to have power to cause pain and suffering for their own sake. ‘”If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever”‘ (p. 280). That has the authentic Satanic ring: ‘Evil be thou my Good’? Winston’s expectations were nevertheless reasonable.
All merely human regimes, however ruthless and wicked, always claim that their goal is some collective good. That was as true of Hitler as it was of Stalin. Significantly, the brainwashed Winston during his course of ‘re-education’, writes on his slate: ‘GOD IS POWER’ (p. 290), the only strictly theological proposition in the novel. Antichrist indeed! There are two crucial pieces of evidence that the regime commands the power to match its aims. The first exhibits its powers of telepathic suggestion.
In the torture sequence, O’Brien tells Winston, ‘”For seven years I have watched over you”‘ (p. 6). Seven years before(24) Winston ‘had dreamed that he was walking through a pitch-dark room. And someone sitting to one side of him had said as he passed ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness’. . .. It was O’Brien who had spoken to him out of the dark’ (p. 27). When at O’Brien’s flat Winston refers to the words of the prophecy, O’Brien behaves ‘as though he had recognised the allusion’ (p. 185) – the prophecy being a typical example of the way, as Macbeth complains, ‘these juggling fiends . . . palter with us in a double sense’.
For Winston ‘The place where there is no darkness was the imagined future, which one would never see, but which, by foreknowledge, one could mystically share in’ (p. 107); what O’Brien is really referring to is the perpetually illuminated cells of the Ministry of Love. O’Brien’s ultimate power, the power to break Winston, depends on his direct access to levels of Winston’s mind which he himself cannot reach. Winston has a recurring nightmare: ‘It was always very much the same.
He was standing in front of a wall of darkness, and on the other side of it there was something unendurable, something too dreadful to be faced. . He always woke up without discovering what it was;’ (p. 151). O’Brien not only knows about Winston’s dream, but also knows what Winston is repressing. ‘Do you remember,’ said O’Brien, ‘the moment of panic that used to occur in your dreams? . . . There was something terrible on the other side of the wall. You knew that you knew what it was, but you dared not drag it into the open. It was the rats that were on the other side of the wall. ‘ (p. 297) It is this knowledge that he uses to destroy Winston in Room 101.
Julia has apparently succumbed in the same way: 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” . . . ‘ (p. 305) The regime clearly has ultimate power over everyone because of its direct knowledge of inner weakness. Once it has been conceded that the regime is shown as commanding special powers, the landscape of Nineteen Eighty-Four significantly alters and the cliches of conventional exposition need considerable revision.
Take, for example, the well-known motif of the paperweight as expounded in a handbook on the novel aimed at Open University students: ‘It is the paperweight, especially old and beautiful, that symbolises not just the past but the difference of the past, and by implication a past that was not only different but better and inviolable’. (25) This reading fails to account for the significance of the fact that Winston lights upon the paperweight in Mr. Charrington’s shop, that it is Mr. Charrington who talks it up – ‘”It is a beautiful thing . . . But there’s not many that’d say so nowadays”‘ (p. ) – and that it is Mr. Charrington who offers to sell it.
Charrington turns out to be a member of the Thought Police, and there hangs about him the suggestion of a shape-shifting demon, who changes from the vaguely affable and bumbling old man of sixty-three to one who . . . was not the same person any longer. His body had straightened, and seemed to have grown bigger. His face had undergone only tiny changes that had nevertheless worked a complete transformation. The black eyebrows were less bushy, the wrinkles were gone, the whole lines of the face seemed to have altered; even the nose seemed shorter.
It was the alert cold face of a man of about five-and-thirty. (pp. 233-234) The text may try to convey the impression that there is nothing here which is beyond the normal process of disguise but some details call this into question: ‘His body . . . seemed to have grown bigger . . . the nose seemed shorter’. What commentators never seem to take into account is the evidence that Charrington knew that Winston was coming before Winston himself did. Winston buys the ‘peculiarly beautiful book’ with ‘the smooth creamy paper’, which is to serve as his diary, from what he thinks is ‘a frowzy little junk-shop in a slummy quarter of the town’.
Having seen it ‘lying in the window’, he had been ‘stricken immediately by an overwhelming desire to possess it’ (p. 8). This clearly implies that the secret police had already set up and stocked the fake junkshop knowing that Winston would visit it, and would see its obviously carefully chosen wares as embodying a reality and values rooted in the past which he would regard as inimical to the very regime which established it to have exactly that appeal to him.
The paperweight, the engraving of St. Clement Danes (behind which there lurks a telescreen), the bric-a-brac of the shop, and the persona of the shopkeeper himself, ‘another extinct animal’, have all been carefully chosen in advance. It is Mr. Charrington who introduces Winston to ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (though he pretends to remember only the first line and part of the second) which stimulates Winston to imagine the bells of a lost London: ‘From one ghostly steeple after another he seemed to hear them pealing forth’ (p. 103).
In O’Brien’s flat, Winston associates the ‘dark-red liquid’ which is to be used in the Black Mass with ‘the glass paperweight of Mr. Charrington’s half-remembered rhyme’ as belonging ‘to a vanished, romantic past’ (p. 178). Moreover, O’Brien can quote the whole of the nursery rhyme stanza (p. 186). Most significantly of all, at the very time when Winston believes Julia to bean enemy, a room has already been prepared for their liaison, with its mahogany double bed, its gate-leg table, its old-fashioned twelve hour clock (which is to help to betray Winston and Julia) and its concealed telescreen.
It is Mr. Charrington who draws the room to Winston’s attention (‘”There’s another room upstairs”‘, p. 100). Although the regime can command supernatural powers, there is still a measure of uncertainty as to how far at any other stage Winston and Julia are being manipulated. It is this very uncertainty which gives the novel some of its terrible power. I am never quite sure how far Winston has any freedom at all (and this is, I think, felt even by those readers who do not allow themselves to be conscious that diabolic powers are involved).
The Golden Country motif, for instance, is not so clear a case as Mr. Charrington’s shop, but there are certain features which point to the collusion of the regime in its creation. Winston has another dream of a landscape that ‘recurred so often . . . that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world’ (pp. 32-33), but after he becomes aware of Julia for the first time it has a new element: The girl with dark hair was coming towards him across the field.
With what seemed a single movement she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. . With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm. (p. 33) This dream of Julia in the Golden Country occurs at a time when Winston believes that she is an ultra-orthodox party member who is probably spying on him to betray him to the very regime which her dream image appeared with a gesture to annihilate.
This discrepancy, though improbable, is not psychologically impossible since Winston’s underlying awareness of Julia’s attitude to him and the Party could be different from the conclusions of his conscious mind. The most significant thing about Winston’s dream, however, is that it is predictive: at his first and only open air tryst with Julia, Winston experiences ‘a curious, slow shock of recognition’ when he sees the spot to which Julia had taken him. ‘He knew it by sight’ (p. 129).
Moreover, he correctly predicts that close by would be a stream with green pools where dace were swimming. As Winston says: ‘It’s the Golden Country – almost’. And Julia behaves ‘almost’ as in his dream: ‘She flung [her clothes] aside . . . with the same magnificent gesture by which a whole civilisation seemed to be annihilated’ (p. 131). The repetition of ‘almost’ might be regarded as an attempt to claim that there is nothing here but the workings of the (very) long arm of coincidence, but the most likely explanation is that the dream of the Golden Country is sent by the regime itself.
Not only do they know in advance of Winston’s affair with Julia, but they know where it is to receive its first consummation and the challenge to the regime it will represent for him. But it is this very regime which again has provided Winston with the illusion of an effective alternative reality and an alternative value system to itself, so that the discovery that there are none will be all the more terrible. The two ‘almosts’ are, moreover, significant signs of the demonic, for fiends could not predict the future with absolute accuracy.
Significantly, the Golden Country motif only recurs after Winston is in the Ministry of Love and it, or landscapes associated with it, now include representatives of the regime (‘He was in the Golden Country, or he was sitting among enormous, glorious, sunlit ruins, with his mother, with Julia, with O’Brien’, p. 288), or are contained within an enormously expanded Ministry of Love (‘He was rolling down a mighty corridor, a kilometre wide, full of glorious golden light, p. 255). But at one point the Golden Country recurs almost in its original form:
He was not any longer in the narrow white corridors of the Ministry of Love, he was in the enormous sunlit passage, a kilometre wide, down which he had seemed to walk in the delirium induced by drugs. He was in the Golden Country, following the foot-track across the old rabbit-cropped pasture. He could feel the short springy turf under his feet and the gentle sunshine on his face. At the edge of the field were the elm trees, faintly stirring, and somewhere beyond that was the stream where the dace lay in the green pools under the willows.
Suddenly he started up with a shock of horror. The sweat broke out on his backbone. He had heard himself cry aloud: ‘Julia! Julia! Julia, my love! Julia! ‘ For a moment he had had an overwhelming hallucination of her presence. She had seemed to be not merely with him, but inside him. It was as though she had got onto the texture of his skin. In that moment he had loved her far more than he had ever done when they were together and free. Also he knew that somewhere or other she was still alive and needed his help. p. 292-293)
Winston’s calling out gives O’Brien the opportunity to take him into Room 101. His is not, I think, a spontaneous dream and reaction (one may notice ‘the enormous sunlit passage a kilometre wide’, which is clearly associated with the Ministry of Love, and his horror at calling out). The regime wanted Winston to have the illusion of complete union with the beloved which is the supreme goal of romantic love in order that he may be made to destroy it.
Ambiguities in her presentation suggest that, though subjectively Julia is committed to Winston, yet objectively she is an agent of entrapment, a means by which Winston may be encouraged to glimpse the possibility of a different more human world so that it can be sadistically snatched away from him and lead to his destruction. So marked are these ambiguities that they have prompted Robert Currie to maintain that Julia really could be an agent of the Thought Police(26) (and, certainly, a first-time reader might well suspect up to the end of Part 2, that she is going to be unmasked as one).
At first, Winston suspects her, but her ‘I love you’ note rightly convinces him otherwise. Nonetheless, O’Brien accosts Winston and gives him his address ‘almost at the spot where Julia has slipped the note into his hand’ (p. 164), while she frightens Winston by her inexplicable appearance in the vicinity of Charrington’s shop (p. 104). Moreover, if Charrington supplies the first one-and-a-half lines of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ and O’Brien finally completes the stanza, it is Julia who provides the ending: ‘Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head’ (p. 3) which Charrington, in his true identity of Thought Policeman, mockingly repeats (p. 231).
Winston’s second intimate meeting with Julia is also associated with the nursery rhyme, being in ‘the belfry of a ruinous church’ (p. 134). And it is Julia who tries to give Winston the information about the behaviour of rats (p. 151) which O’Brien is to threaten him with in Room 101. Even more suggestive of the probability that the regime is using her for its own purposes is the way she appears to bear a charmed life.
Though ‘The unforgivable crime was promiscuity between Party members’ (p. 68) she has been indulging in such unforgivable conduct since she was sixteen, and it is obviously inconceivable that this would not have been known to the regime. What to Winston was ‘the Golden Country almost’ appears to have been a customary rendezvous for her (‘”I’ve been here before”‘ p. 125). Julia appears to have no trouble in obtaining Party luxuries – real chocolate, real coffee, real sugar, real tea, as well as a loaf of bread and a pot of jam – which minister to Winston’s sense of nostalgia.
And, equally mysteriously, she manages to obtain cosmetics, scent, a frock, silk stockings, and high-heeled shoes. More problematic is the extent to which Winston is programmed to believe that the Proles represent a hope for the future. It is certainly the burden of the book, and, though Winston does not have the opportunity to read so far, ‘he knew that that must be Goldstein’s final message.
The future belonged to the proles’ (p. 229). O’Brien, who has actually written the book, knows that Winston ‘”foresaw . . . what it would say”‘ (p. 4). (Naturally, he has direct knowledge of how much Winston had actually read. ) O’Brien has thus set a trap for Winston, for as he says, ‘”The proletarians will never revolt, not in a thousand years or a million . . . The Rule of the Party is for ever”‘ (p. 274). In view of the demonic powers available to the Party he must be right. The point about hell is that it is ‘for ever’. There is also evidence of a more direct interference. The proletarian woman hanging out the washed diapers becomes for Winston a symbol of the future:
The mystical reverence that he felt for her was somehow mixed up with the aspect of the pale, cloudless sky, stretching away behind the chimney pots into interminable distances. . . . And the people under the sky were also very much the same – everywhere, all over the world, hundreds of thousands of millions of people, just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same – people who had never learned to think but who were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. . 229)
That there is something false and illusory about such euphoria is due not only to its general vagueness but to Winston’s gross overestimate of the population of the world, ‘hundreds of thousands of millions of people’, and to the fact that the ‘pale cloudless sky’ is not as he thinks the sky of evening but that of morning (an inversion of the usual symbolism). Even more to the point, however, the woman is singing in the yard behind Charrington’s shop, the very yard in which the thugs of the regime are to plant their ladders, and the song she sings is mechanically produced prolefeed.
Almost immediately after this ‘vision’ the regime strikes, having ensured that Winston and Julia will oversleep and will misjudge the time because they have been provided with a twelve-hour clock (such are the uses of nostalgia). As before, Winston is lifted up so that he may be thrown down the harder. But depicting the regime as having demonic powers is not enough: a demonic mode of consciousness has also to be created which can make credible O’Brien’s statement of its nihilistic aims.
This Orwell succeeds in doing through the concept of doublethink: ‘the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’ (p. 223). This is a key feature of Oceanic society but the sort practised by O’Brien and the Inner Party is so different in degree as to involve a difference in kind. Outside the Inner party doublethink is merely an extreme form of the phenomenon known to psychologists as cognitive dissonance.
The Victorian murderer, Dr. Pritchard, who wrote in his diary ‘Died here at 1 a. m. Mary Jane, my own beloved wife'(27) a few hours after poisoning her, shows to what lengths cognitive dissonance can be taken even in a domestic context. Nor is it uncommon in the public and political world. ‘Peace is our Profession’, the legend inscribed over the entrances of US bomber bases in Britain in the Fifties and Sixties, is unnervingly close to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s ‘War is Peace’, while ‘Freedom is Slavery’ could be a sardonic summing up of the contradictory beliefs of a Simon Legree who venerated the Declaration of Independence while simultaneously believing that it was right to treat black citizens as chattels.
Outside the Inner Party, doublethink is not even consistent. If one has no serious interest in politics, which is true not only of the Proles but of a member of the Outer Party like Julia, then one does not live at the level at which doublethink really operates. Julia’s public life is, indeed, one long pretence and ‘during the two minutes Hate her great difficulty was to avoid bursting out laughing’ (p. 160).
But even an apparently cheerfully orthodox nullity like Parsons can’t control his deeper awareness and is arrested for saying ‘Down with Big Brother’ (p. 5) in his sleep. Similarly, if all the members of the Outer Party had really believed that Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia, would they have spontaneously returned to their desks at the Ministry of Truth (p. 184)? They knew that an enormous job of falsification lay ahead. With O’Brien it is, however, different. With him Orwell has to convince us of the existence of a state of mind which in human terms is inconceivable since it involves not only logical contradiction but the potentiality of infinite regress.
As the book demonstrates, O’Brien has the ability to analyse how the regime functions, including the place in it of perpetual warfare and doublethink, in a way that is objectively true O’Brien indeed admits that ‘Goldstein’s’ account is true ‘”as a description”‘ (p. 246) – while at the same time believing that what he has shown to be true is false, even though the true account had shown not only the falsity of the false account but its social function.
That this involves the potentiality of infinite regress can be shown by reducing the particulars of what is involved to abstract variables: (a) O’Brien, the Inner Party member, knows that x is not y, but knowing that x is not y, he believes all the more certainly that x is y (O’Brien knows). (b) ‘Goldstein’ (i. e. O’Brien) knows that O’Brien, the Inner Party member, knows that x is not y, but knowing that x is not y, he believes all the more certainly that x is y (O’Brien knows that O’Brien knows). This is Orwell at his most brilliant.
O’Brien’s position is thus compatible with the traditional idea of Satan as both supremely intelligent (Winston is in awe of O’Brien’s superior intellect and believes that his mind contains his own, p. 268), and completely alienated both from the good and from truth and reality, which, since he can appear as an angel of light, he can nonetheless comprehend. The self-consciously lucid and regressive contradictions of diabolic consciousness are impossible for ordinary human beings to combat, as Winston finds.
Nonetheless, the novel makes such a diabolic consciousness credible by relating it to the historically familiar. The Inquisition, evoked in the torture and interrogation scenes, believed in effect that the truth could be defined socially – as being what a human organisation said it was, and so confused received opinion with fact. When this was carried to the point, as with Galileo, that correct fact was treated as false opinion which had to be ‘corrected’ by adherence to an incorrect fact which was itself merely a false opinion, one is getting reasonably close to O’Brien. Indeed when the latter say