"Not long ago I caught myself: it seemed unbelievable to me but, leafing through a book about Hitler, I was moved by some of his photographs; they reminded me of the time of my childhood; I lived through it during the war; several members of my family died in Nazi concentration camps; but what was their death compared to that photograph of Hitler that reminded me of a bygone time in my life, a time that would not return?"
(Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being)
A few loose notes, by no means a demonstration of anything, about Michael Radford's 1984, starring John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton and Richard Burton.
1984 has this capacity to arouse a strange, slightly guilty nostalgia, that of old-fashioned totalitarianism and of the 20th century which was the century of bombings, ruins, uniforms and ration coupons.
A world that we did not know but which was that of our grandparents and great-grandparents. A world we heard about and which we learned to love as children, the last vestiges in our cities, ugly and sad vestiges but full of history and reality, before the great enterprise of transforming the world into a park of attractions and abstractions.
Did my grandfather wear the same overalls as Winston Smith, when he was a tank mechanic in the Wehrmacht, forcibly conscripted at the age of fifteen like thousands of other 'Malgré-Nous' and then sent to fight in Eurasia?
No matter; although he was only a third-rate member of the Party, forced and coerced, he was bound to obedience and faith, or at least to the agreed manifestations of this faith in the Reich and in the unchanging Germanic identity of Alsace and Moselle; for overnight he and his compatriots had awakened not only as Germans, but as Germans from all eternity.
The Reich had finally collapsed, the agony of the USSR had lasted a few more decades, but Big Brother, and on this point the Party does not lie, never dies; he gets younger and changes his face at each end of the cycle. Ever more ferocious; but also ever more refined.
Cosmetic changes in the Party's ideology and praxis have led people to believe that it has been defeated and that its opposite has won; but no, it is still in charge, everywhere and for ever.
Totalitarianism with a boot and moustache will probably never return. It corresponds to a specific era, to the militaristic kitsch of a specific era. The kitsch of our time – femininity, ecology, anti-racism, good feelings on all levels, hygienic obsession – provides it with equally fertile ground, and we can see over the decades, with a clear acceleration since 2020, the morality of tomorrow's Oceania taking shape.
Let's take the example of sex.
1984 is not a romance novel or film. It is not about love broken by history, or about love as the last refuge in an inhuman world.
Winston Smith dreams of sex. For his own pleasure and to defy the Party. Orwell explores in 1984 the hypothesis of sex as a transgressive and liberating force.
Catherine perceives this political dimension of debauchery as much as Winston. And there is no question of love for her either; even if the word is used, it is used lightly and improperly, as a modest or superficially sentimental way of describing their relationship.
"The women of the Party were all alike. Chastity was as deep ingrained in them as Party loyalty. By careful early conditioning, by games and cold water, by the rubbish that was dinned into them at school and in the Spies and the Youth League, by lectures, parades, songs, slogans, and martial music, the natural feeling had been driven out of them. His reason told him that there must be exceptions, but his heart did not believe it. They were all impregnable, as the Party intended that they should be. And what he wanted, more even than to be loved, was to break down that wall of virtue, even if it were only once in his whole life. The sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion. Desire was thoughtcrime. Even to have awakened Katharine, if he could have achieved it, would have been like a seduction, although she was his wife.
– Listen. The more men you've had, the more I love you. Do you understand that?
– Yes, perfectly.
– I hate purity, I hate goodness! I don't want any virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.
– Well then, I ought to suit you, dear. I'm corrupt to the bones.
– You like doing this? I don't mean simply me: I mean the thing in itself?
– I adore it.
That was above all what he wanted to hear. Not merely the love of one person but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces.
The young, strong body, now helpless in sleep, awoke in him a pitying, protecting feeling. But the mindless tenderness that he had felt under the hazel tree, while the thrush was singing, had not quite come back. He pulled the overalls aside and studied her smooth white flank. In the old days, he thought, a man looked at a girl's body and saw that it was desirable, and that was the end of the story. But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.
He loved her and would not betray her; but that was only a fact, known as he knew the rules of arithmetic. He felt no love for her, and he hardly even wondered what was happening to her. He thought oftener of O'Brien, with a flickering hope. O'Brien might know that he had been arrested. The Brotherhood, he had said, never tried to save its members. But there was the razor blade; they would send the razor blade if they could. There would be perhaps five seconds before the guard could rush into the cell. The blade would bite into him with a sort of burning coldness, and even the fingers that held it would be cut to the bone."
Of course, this debauchery will not liberate them in any way and will even accelerate their downfall.
The valorisation of sexuality and hedonism is now an integral part of Oceanian ideology. This is only apparently a flip-flop.
Enthusiastic and loyal Party members, the ultra-majority as in any era, manage by a prodigy of doublethink to debauch themselves as much as they can (be they polyamorous, celibate on the prowl, or incels addicted to online pornography) while perceiving themselves as rebels, resistors to a still-majoritarian and aggressive conservative moral order, aiming to perpetuate marriage and family as a non-negotiable model of life.
Their increasingly open refusal of marriage and procreation, encouraged by the entire press and media ("Should we have fewer children to save the planet?") assures the Party of their loyalty, their dependence, and the fact that they will escape until their death the only threat, a fragile threat, capable of frightening it: the family, the love of a husband for his wife and of parents for their children.
Big Brother did not kill the family by killing sex, but by transforming it into strict entertainment.
The canteen, where Winston Smith first exchanges meaningful glances with Julia, reminds me of the one at the college I attended in my youth. The quality of the food, perhaps... Or perhaps the vague feeling that, despite our young age and schoolboy status, we were on the very edge of having to walk at pace to it. The college in question had been built after the 1870 war and had originally been a barracks. And isn't it true that hospitals, asylums, prisons, barracks and schools are all one thing?
Orwell himself spoke of the influence on him of the old English boarding schools; the world of 1984 seems to be a prison school on a global scale.
"The sufferings of a maladjusted child in a boarding school are perhaps the only equivalent one can find in England of the isolation experienced by a dissident individual in a totalitarian society."
(T. R. Fyvel, George Orwell: a Personal Memoir)
"[Orwell] recalls his memories of the constant serving of sour porridge on unclean plates, the greasy water in the baths, the beds with hard, lumpy mattresses, the stench of sweat in the cloakrooms, the lack of privacy, the rows of filthy cubicles that could not be locked, the constant noise of the flapping cabinet doors, and the tinkling of the chamber pots echoing in the dormitories – when he recalls all this almost obsessively one gets the impression that Orwell has embarked on this description of Saint-Cyprien as a trial run for the sordid world of 1984. "
(Simon Leys, Orwell or the horror of politics)
But if this filth, this discomfort, this sadness, inspires us today with so much nostalgia when we watch the film – or any historical archive – as in our personal memories, it is because it is, in spite of everything, preferable to the "air-conditioned nightmare" that our world has become:
"I felt as if I were walking in the wake of a mad giant who had sown the earth with his hysterical dreams. If only I had seen a horse, or a cow, or even a scrawny goat chewing on cans, what a relief that would have been. But there was nothing to be seen that belonged to the animal, vegetable or human kingdom."
There are no visible animals in the world of 1984 – as gradually as in our own. With the exception of pets, which will eventually disappear as well, our relationships with animals have become essentially imaginary, virtual. And everything will become progressively more virtual and imaginary (and more nightmarish) as humanity migrates, willy-nilly, into the Metaverse.
Of course, yesterday's world was already false, was already the beginning of a Matrix, and has probably been so for centuries, perhaps forever; but on balance, as lies and unreality only ever intensify, yesterday's lying world is preferable and worthy of nostalgia.
"History stopped in 1936. Why did it stop? Because, for the first time, Orwell saw newspaper reports of events at the front that had absolutely no connection with the reality of the facts. And he added: I saw descriptions of great battles where no fighting had taken place, while engagements that had cost hundreds of men their lives were entirely ignored. I saw troops who had fought bravely accused of treachery and cowardice, and others who had never seen fire cheered for their imaginary victories. Worse: I saw [...] zealous intellectuals building a whole superstructure of emotions on events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not according to what had happened, but according to what should have happened, along the various official lines."
(Simon Leys, Orwell or the Horror of Politics)
If history stops because nothing is true anymore and everything can be rewritten, then those who live after 1936, just like those who lived before, become ghosts.
We are caught between two ghosts: the one from the past, and the one we have become and will become more and more every day.
The confessions of all the condemned, on the telescreen, after their passage to the Ministry of Love, constitute, even more than a reminder of the Moscow trials, an anticipation of the Warholian quarter hour. Its totalitarian and punitive version, but one that is in no way different from what we know in our world, in our time, where there is no need to terrorise and torture so that everyone comes before the camera to confess their mediocrity, their turpitudes, their most stupid or most infamous thoughts.