Perception

Some people read 1984 by George Orwell and find it boring, even so much so that they toss it aside and say, “I don’t get it.” At the risk of being shunned from such company, I’m going to admit I’ve read it.

Twice.

I’d read it again.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to use this post to go on and on explaining every nuance (though there’s not a whole lot of nuance in 1984 – it’s all pretty much in-your-face reality) or every jot and tittle in the book. I wish to share a scene in 1984 which has remained a particular favorite of mine since I first read it some forty years ago.

Our hero, or actually anti-hero – though he does try a bit to be a hero… can he NOT be a hero and that’s why he isn’t? Anyway, for the sake of this blog post, Winston Smith of 1984 is the hero. Our hero has been caught not conforming to the standards of the state (big brother) and finds himself captive on a high cot, a bright light shining in his eyes, and a representative of big brother (O’Brien) before him with a hypodermic needle. As he comes to, memories of his recent torture – beatings from five men with clubs, fists, steal rods, and boots, and also of his subsequent confessions to espionage and other state crimes- flood his thoughts.

There is a dial of pain which goes up to 100 controlled by O’Brien. At level 40, Smith feels his backbone will break under the pressure of it. O’Brien uses the pain to convince our hero to believe what he is told he sees instead of what he actually knows he sees. Alas, our hero becomes an anti-hero.

1984 Turkish edition cover.

The scene:

O’Brien’s manner grew stern again. He laid his hand on the dial.

‘On the contrary,’ he said, ‘you have not controlled it. That is what has brought you here. You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. Only the disciplined mind can see reality, Winston. You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. You also believe that the nature of reality is self-evident. When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone else sees the same thing as you. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. That is the fact that you have got to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane.’

He paused for a few moments, as though to allow what he had been saying to sink in.

‘Do you remember,’ he went on, ‘writing in your diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four”?’

‘Yes,’ said Winston.

O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.

‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’

‘Four.’

‘And if the party says that it is not four but five — then how many?’

‘Four.’

The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.

‘How many fingers, Winston?’

‘Four.’

The needle went up to sixty.

‘How many fingers, Winston?’

‘Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!’

The needle must have risen again, but he did not look at it. The heavy, stern face and the four fingers filled his vision. The fingers stood up before his eyes like pillars, enormous, blurry, and seeming to vibrate, but unmistakably four.

‘How many fingers, Winston?’

‘Four! Stop it, stop it! How can you go on? Four! Four!’

‘How many fingers, Winston?’

‘Five! Five! Five!’

‘No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four. How many fingers, please?’

‘Four! five! Four! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!’

Abruptly he was sitting up with O’Brien’s arm round his shoulders. He had perhaps lost consciousness for a few seconds. The bonds that had held his body down were loosened. He felt very cold, he was shaking uncontrollably, his teeth were chattering, the tears were rolling down his cheeks. For a moment he clung to O’Brien like a baby, curiously comforted by the heavy arm round his shoulders. He had the feeling that O’Brien was his protector, that the pain was something that came from outside, from some other source, and that it was O’Brien who would save him from it.

‘You are a slow learner, Winston,’ said O’Brien gently.

‘How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’

‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.’

He laid Winston down on the bed. The grip of his limbs tightened again, but the pain had ebbed away and the trembling had stopped, leaving him merely weak and cold. O’Brien motioned with his head to the man in the white coat, who had stood immobile throughout the proceedings. The man in the white coat bent down and looked closely into Winston’s eyes, felt his pulse, laid an ear against his chest, tapped here and there, then he nodded to O’Brien.

‘Again,’ said O’Brien.

The pain flowed into Winston’s body. The needle must be at seventy, seventy-five. He had shut his eyes this time. He knew that the fingers were still there, and still four. All that mattered was somehow to stay alive until the spasm was over. He had ceased to notice whether he was crying out or not. The pain lessened again. He opened his eyes. O’Brien had drawn back the lever.

‘How many fingers, Winston?’

‘Four. I suppose there are four. I would see five if I could. I am trying to see five.’

‘Which do you wish: to persuade me that you see five, or really to see them?’

‘Really to see them.’

‘Again,’ said O’Brien.

Perhaps the needle was eighty — ninety. Winston could not intermittently remember why the pain was happening. Behind his screwed-up eyelids a forest of fingers seemed to be moving in a sort of dance, weaving in and out, disappearing behind one another and reappearing again. He was trying to count them, he could not remember why. He knew only that it was impossible to count them, and that this was somehow due to the mysterious identity between five and four. The pain died down again. When he opened his eyes it was to find that he was still seeing the same thing. Innumerable fingers, like moving trees, were still streaming past in either direction, crossing and recrossing. He shut his eyes again.

‘How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know. You will kill me if you do that again. Four, five, six — in all honesty I don’t know.’

‘Better,’ said O’Brien.

A needle slid into Winston’s arm. Almost in the same instant a blissful, healing warmth spread all through his body. The pain was already half-forgotten. He opened his eyes and looked up gratefully at O’Brien. At sight of the heavy, lined face, so ugly and so intelligent, his heart seemed to turn over. If he could have moved he would have stretched out a hand and laid it on O’Brien arm. He had never loved him so deeply as at this moment, and not merely because he had stopped the pain. The old feeling, that it bottom it did not matter whether O’Brien was a friend or an enemy, had come back. O’Brien was a person who could be talked to. Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood. O’Brien had tortured him to the edge of lunacy, and in a little while, it was certain, he would send him to his death. It made no difference. In some sense that went deeper than friendship, they were intimates: somewhere or other, although the actual words might never be spoken, there was a place where they could meet and talk. O’Brien was looking down at him with an expression which suggested that the same thought might be in his own mind. When he spoke it was in an easy, conversational tone.

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