Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Re-reading 1984

Reading 1984 for a second time has been a very powerful experience. When I read it in high school it was a fun intellectual exercise. I was able to intellectualize the emotional power of the book, to separate myself from the story and examine the ideas from a safe distance. I have not enjoyed that luxury this time. It has been terrifying.

When I finished it for the second time, my first thought was that I had done something awful to my students. I pictured them coming back into my class, pale and wide-eyed, overcome by a new perspective on the world that soiled their innocence in some irreversible way. I had, by assigning this book, loosed the shackles and freed them from the cave, but they had not left to see the bright sun. Instead, they’d seen the evil of the chains for the first time, and no amount of human goodness or divine grace would ever erase that knowledge.

Then I shook this off. They might understand it as I had at their age, but the complete horror of it would elude them. I remember going to see Schindler’s List with a group from my high school when I was a kid. Throughout it the students had laughed. I knew they were trying to cope, but I’d despised them for it. Now I understand their youth. They were rejecting the knowledge of the horror of mankind. Bless them for that. My students will do the same. Let them have this instance of doublethink, of knowledge they forget while knowing they are consciously forgetting it until they forget even that. Let them laugh.

But I can’t bear to let them trivialize it. I imagine myself saying, “If this book didn’t affect you in a powerful way, if you didn’t recognize the awful truth of it, then there is something deeply wrong with you.” And they would nod and agree that it was both true and horrifying without the slightest inclination to change their own beliefs or actions. Their experience would be just like my first reading: an intellectual exercise divorced from the emotional experience which simultaneously included a coherent and seemingly complete comprehension of the facts of the book, and a disinclination to internalize the wrong-ness to the extent that it might motivate them to a complete understanding. And I would quickly forget my reverence for their innocence and sneer at their naïveté. Despite their agreement, I would think they were the exact kind of horrible little monsters I’d accused them of being: people who are morally culpable for their unconscious cruelty.

But I know that’s wrong. I know that is hypocritical to a degree I cannot bear. I live in a country that incarcerates people without trial, that tortures people to the point that they lose the sanity necessary to be tried for crimes they may never have committed, that attacks another country that never did it any harm for a host of stated reasons, none of which are true and none of which, even if they were true, would any sane person choose to die for. I live in a country where 76% of the populations call themselves Christians, and everyone has access to scripture, but we willingly doublethink ourselves into believing Jesus would make allowances for our militarism and wealth. I live in a country where the government can dirty the skies and call their actions the “Clean Air Act”, and cut down forests and call it the “Healthy Forrest Initiative”, where they can claim they don’t commit “affronts against human decency” and we know, to the same degree of certainty that we know that they exist at all, that they are lying, but we do nothing.

I buy my fast food. I pay my credit card bills. I pay my taxes. I go to my job and do my work, and that work compels me to read a book like 1984, which shows me, beyond any doubt, that a truly sane person would be running through the streets, screaming at the top of his lungs about the madness all around him. I don’t even see myself as cowardly or lazy or immoral. Through doublethink I forget these rational conclusions and accept the status quo with the kind of mindless, trudging will of a man lost in a desert, stumbling aimlessly towards the hope of water. And I help my students do the same, and my son after them. “Don’t laugh during Schindler’s List,” I say, “but don’t go running screaming through the streets, either. Get a job. Get a mortgage. Pay your taxes. Watch your TV and buy the crap they sell you. Be like me.”

My students’ reaction may indicate that they are deeply wrong, but not as much as their teacher. They still may end up crying foul, saying no, running screaming through the streets some day. But me? Well, I guess I love Big Brother just a little too much.

War is Peace.

Freedom is Slavery.

Ignorance is Strength.

2 + 2 = 5