Tuesday, December 9, 2008

1984: Was Orwell Intentionally Copying the Christian Dark Ages?

Europe shouldn't regard its castles as anything to be proud of. The age of castles - the Dark Ages - is not otherwise considered a particularly proud time for Europe. Why not? The castle is a structure developing during a failed and stagnant phase of civilization. As far as I'm concerned, from Constantine forward, European culture was in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, and didn't emerge until at least Petrarch's letter to his friend about climbing Mt. Ventoux in 1336, and probably not fully until John Locke's writings over three centuries after that.

What do I mean by this? Here's a thought experiment. Imagine you went back in time to the third century A.D. and had an hour to describe European history through A.D. 2008 to a Roman statesman - in other words, a tale that would be to him a science fiction-like account extending seventeen centuries into the future. Keep in mind, this man would have been living in a country that stretched from Britain to Tunisia to (at times) Armenia, defending trade lines and uniting disparate peoples in an exchange of culture and ideas. The Roman government may not have been known for its kindness, though it must be said that in those days it was not even close to the worst; and at the very least, the literate states of classical antiquity concerned themselves with material reality, unlike their successors. Consequently your Roman statesman could only be horrified at the post-apocalyptic tale you would in that hour tell him: of coming social disintegration, of sectarian wars, of his nation contracting into isolated island-cities huddled behind high walls of piled stone, and the fortresses in which their clan-leaders hid (castles). From his perspective, knights would seem like Mad Max, and medieval Paris like Thunderdome. Your Roman would shake his head at the broken trade ties between Europe and the rest of the world, at the lack of technological growth and learning, and at the scribes copying by rote a few permitted texts, and only those few permitted texts, in the darkness of a willful ignorance and barbarism that would last a thousand years.

Viewed in this light, medieval sword and sorcery novels lose a bit of their charm. In fact it's not a fantasy novel but a dystopian work, or rather the dystopian work, that paints a very similar grim picture for our future. Orwell's 1984 contains so many clear parallels to post-Roman Europe that I often debate with myself whether Orwell deliberately planted them, or if they're necessary correlates of any argument-from-authority-based "civilization" that follows the collapse of a rational one - like medieval Christian Europe, and like Orwell was criticizing in Stalin's USSR. In brief the similarities are:

Rewriting history - Perhaps the most famous correlate. Protagonist Winston Smith worked at the Ministry of Truth, where his work included doctoring production quotas in magazines. When these quotas were not met by the State, the Ministry demanded that the old copies be returned for destruction, leaving no record of the missed production targets; no evidence of the State's fallibility could be permitted to persist. Similarly all pre-revolutionary works were destroyed, with retention of any old publications a capital offense - it was reading a planted ersatz counterrevolutionary booklet that tripped up Smith. The early church (in the form of Eusebius, Jerome and others) made a concerted effort to burn the works of pre-Christian philosophers and poets like Lucretius and Epicurus that differed materially from Church doctrine, and smear their characters where their effacement from history could not be assured. It's amazing that today we still have anything by them, although Epicurus is still regarded as synonymous with hedonism when in fact he was a thoughtful materialist with a teaching academy whose worldview many regard as astonishingly modern. This history-deleting behavior was often repeated later by the Catholic Church, perhaps most tragically in the colonial period, in Diego de Landa's intentional destruction of almost all pre-contact Mayan literature.

Sexual repression - I don't need to elaborate the Church's restrictions in this regard, but in 1984 the State had come to consider as a perversion sex for anything but reproduction, ultimately aiming to abolish sexual pleasure altogether.

Purges - Perhaps the most frightening thing about Orwell's book is the tone of unending nightmarish paranoia he captures, that the secret police could be coming for you at any moment to drag you off to a fate literally worse than death, for any whim of the Inner Party. Orwell had closely followed Stalin's constant post-Trotsky purges. Medieval Europe was a similar nightmare of witch trials, claimed possessions and heresies, instigated every time there was an eclipse, a disease outbreak, or a neighbor with a vendetta.

Thoughtcrime - In 1984, even considering an act against the State was treason. An aspect of Christianity much enjoyed by atheists is the inane non-consequentialist insistence that even a thought about a sin is itself a sin.

Dismantling individual reason - In 1984 there were signs saying things like "WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY" plastered all over London. Combined with the antagonist-torturer's insistence that 2+2=5, this conveys a sense of helpless incomprehension and of the impossibility of independent reason. Church writings and sermons (even today) are jam-packed not only with incomprehensible non sequiturs but with warnings not to fall into the sin of pride, one sure path to which is trying to figure things out on your own.

Doublethink - described in 1984 as the survival skill (in that world) of cognitive compartmentalization; holding two directly conflicting ideas by keeping them separate. This was most useful in facilitating hypocrisy, that is, attacking an "enemy" argument while simultaneously maintaining near-identical ones and being genuinely unable to see the conflict. Middle Age writing about the Saracens is filled with arguments that could have been made just as easily against Christianity if the names were switched.

Domination of the arts and expression - in 1984, there was no such thing as a work of art not having to do with the State or Big Brother. Search if you will from A.D. 500 to 1300 for secular-themed works of art in Europe; you'll be looking for a while. This is why Carmina Burana is said to be "profane" - all it's about is eating, drinking and springtime, but it's not about Christ, which is apparently all it took to get the equivalent of a medieval X-rating.

Power for its own sake - At the end of the novel, the antagonist O'Brien explains to Smith that there was no underlying ideology of the Party other than obtaining and solidifying its hold on power, for power's sake. In this, he explained, the Party was superior to the Nazi or Soviet Communist parties, which had underlying ideological content polluting the naked lust for power; this Party was a pure, self-justifying argument from authority, with no claims to material betterment of the world. In the same way, as atheists, we realize there's no real philosophical content in religion - it's all hot air and mouth noises - so there must be something else beyond the apparent content of the words and texts. And that something during the Dark Ages was a naked and self-justifying lust for power for its own sake, without bothering to claim material betterment in the world, and all the more dangerous because it's not explicitly stated.

Enforced ignorance of the outside world - In 1984 the deliberate mutation of English called Newspeak had versions, one of which was restricted to scientists and which contained technical terms so they could continue military advances for Oceania. Publications reported only what the State wished and needless to say nothing that the public didn't need to know, and the public was only too happy to forget what it had seen and heard. To take only one example in medieval history, the nebula of 1054 (which we now call the Crab Nebula) was outshone only by the moon, and probably visible during the day for over 2 years. It was reported in the works of Chinese and Arabic astronomers but, oddly, nowhere in the work of their contemporaries in Europe, probably for fear of the implications of a change in the heavens (if Heaven was perfect, how could it change?) It must have been a strange time indeed, with monks all over Europe pretending that they saw nothing unusual.

A thousand year reign - This is the period of the Party's rule mentioned in 1984. Counting from Constantine to Petrarch, there was indeed a thousand-year Dark Age in Europe (or if you count from Odoacer to the Florentine Renaissance).

Retardation or reversal of technological progress (except military and institutional) - In Winston Smith's homeland of Airstrip One, there were chronic shortages of everything from razors to food, and the only technology that seemed to work was the spyscreen-cum-television mandatory in every apartment, along with seemingly anachronistic advanced military technology (like the sonic rocket that falls on London during his stroll). Similarly, the Dark Ages did see several new technologies introduced in European combat (like chain mail), but most innovations were introduced from the Middle East or China, and Europe had to make do with whatever it got its hands on.

Shifting alliances even while claiming ideological purity - Smith mentions that Oceania is fighting Eurasia, and according to the State always had been; yet as a professional propagandist he remembers that Eastasia used to be the enemy. This could be obscured because of the State's control of truth, and indeed must be obscured because claims of ideological purity are difficult to maintain if the archenemy suddenly becomes an ally. In the same way, not even forty years after excommunicating each other's high priests, Rome and Constantinople were ostensibly cooperating to fight the Saracens "occupying" the Holy Land. This didn't stop Western Europeans from sacking the very city they were supposed to be protecting and cooperating with, supposedly on a holy mission from God.

The first possibility I mentioned - that the parallels in 1984 to Europe's Christian Dark Age are intentional - can be either a result of Orwell's intentions, or Stalin, whose tyranny Orwell was rendering in fiction. All these things happened not only in 1984 but Stalin's USSR as well; it's possible that the ex-priest was himself reading up on Torquemada, and it's definite that Stalin's secret police literally took tools direct from the czar's own collection. Theists delight in pointing out that both Orwell's vision as well as some of the worst states in human history (like North Korea and Stalin's USSR) enforce atheism on their populations, but that only serves to highlight the most meaningful observation: whether these nightmares come true in a theocracy or an ideological dictatorship, they both stem from unbridled and unquestioned arguments from authority, and exactly the same patterns of terror appear. Can this be a coincidence? Or is it that religion and totalitarian ideology are really the same phenomenon with different wrapping?

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