Saturday, December 1, 2007
Lies becoming Truth
Page 62 extract from George Orwell's grim satire of 1984, the year in which the world is divided into three great powers, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. They are warring with one another and in each state, four ministries-the Ministry of Peace which deals with war, the Ministry of Love which deals with law and order, the Ministry of Plenty which deals in scarcities and the Ministry of Truth which deals with propaganda. Each agency has absolute powers, under 'The Party'. The Ministry of Love is also the headquarters of the dreaded Thought Police that carries out operations. The authorities keep a check on every action, word, gesture, or thought.
The anti-state hero Winston Smith had just picked up from a drawer a copy of a children's history textbook which he had borrowed from Mrs Parsons, and was beginning to copy a passage into the diary. It was the Party's official version of the history of London, painting a life of untold miseries and subjugation of the working class to capitalists...
How could you tell how much of it was lies? It might be true that the average human being was better off now than he had been before the Revolution. The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different. It struck him that the truly characteristic thing about modern life was not its cruelty and insecurity, but simply its bareness, its dinginess, its listlessness. Life, if you looked about you, bore no resemblance not only to the lies that screamed out of the telescreens, but even to the ideals that the Party was trying to achieve. Great areas of it, even for a Party member, were neutral and non-political, a matter of slogging through dreary jobs, fighting for a place on the Tube, darning a worn-out sock, cadging a saccharine tablet, saving a cigarette end. The ideal set-up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering-a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons-a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting-three hundred million people all with the same face. The reality was decaying, dingy cities where underfed people shuffled to and fro in leaky shoes, in patched-up nineteenth-century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories. He seemed to see a vision of London, vast and ruinous, city of a million dustbins, and mixed up with it a picture of Mrs Parsons, a woman with a lined face and wispy hair, fiddling helplessly with a blocked waste-pipe.
He reached down and scratched his ankle again. Day and night the telescreens bruised your ears with statistics proving that people today had more food, more clothes, better houses, better recreations-that they lived longer, worked shorter hours, were bigger, healthier, stronger, happier, more intelligent, better educated, than the people of fifty years ago. Not a word of it could ever be proved or disproved. The Party claimed, for example, that today 40 per cent of adult proles were literate: before the Revolution, it was said, the number had only been 15 per cent. The Party claimed that the infant mortality rate was now only 160 per thousand. whereas before the Revolution it had been 300-and so it went on. It was like a single equation with two unknowns. It might very well be that literally every word in the history books, even the things that are accepted without question, was pure fantasy. For all he knew there might never have been any such law as the jus primae noctis*, or any such creature as a capitalist, or any such garment as a top hat.
Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth. Just once in his life he had possessed-after the event: that was what counted-concrete, unmistakable evidence of an act of falsification. He had held it in his fingers for as long as thirty seconds...
* The law by which every capitalist had the right to sleep with any woman working in one of his factories.