Nineteen Eighty-Four. Written and directed by Michael Radfort. Starring John Hurt, Richard Burton, Suzanna Hamilton
Despite the fact that I had read Orwell’s darkly prophetic book numerous times prior to seeing the film Nineteen Eighty-Four (written and directed by Michael Radford, in 1984), I still count the opening scene of the movie the most horrifying sight this horror fan has ever seen: because I saw Ourselves as the monster on the television screen. I had never felt such despair in all my life.
The film commences in an auditorium which is resounding with the bloodlustful screams of people enthusiastically responding to the indoctrination to which they are being subjected, at an event called the Two Minutes Hate. This daily pep-rally, war-drum pounding brainwashing session pulverizes thousands of individual human minds into raw sludge and remakes them into identical, interchangeable parts, by passing them through the hellish engines of hatred and fear, as animal entrails through a meat grinder. One can set the volume on mute and still be appalled.
In this infamous scene, most of the people in the auditorium have willingly handed over their individual beliefs and aspirations, in exchange for the protection offered by Big Brother (Oceania is engaged in a perpetual war with somebody or other, from which people always need protecting), chanting, “Traitor! Traitor!” whenever cued. Their responses are monitored by the Thought Police, who are scattered about the arena. The majority in the crowd seem to prefer base slavery to risking their individual narratives in a world which has ever been hostile and dangerous (at any rate, they must appear to love their slavery, as they are being watched). Some do resist, trying to maintain their hold on their own thoughts and feelings – these heroic types are subjected to torture and re-education, a la Stalin and Mao, their minds are ground into malleable mush, and they, too, are remolded into interchangeable parts.
Big Brother employs an arsenal of techniques to exterminate individual thought. For instance, History is continuously being re-written in Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the Ministry of Truth (this is the job of the protagonist), and evidence of a different past is incinerated in a “Memory Hole” furnace to prevent fact-checking. (Historical revision has long been a favorite tool of totalitarian societies, and one which is being increasingly used in our time, as a means of allowing the expression of once-disenfranchised voices; while the motive may be good, there is danger in pretending that the past has never happened, or in pretending that it happened differently. At this point, there is no longer any concept of Truth.)
On another front, a forward-thinking committee of the Ingsoc party is studying how to wipe out orgasm, which is dangerous to the state (in Nineteen Eighty-Four, babies are made by artificial insemination), for orgasm encourages the bonding between sex partners and their offspring (families). One or two people who are alone together may conceive ideas as well as babies, and ideas are the greatest threat to a totalitarian state. Today, we are being dunned with propaganda like “We are all in this together,” a different way of destroying the concepts of self and of individualism. We have been involuntarily drafted into Big Brother’s social army, instead of freely choosing the groups of which we would like to be members.
Everywhere one goes in Oceania, telescreens are showing war footage and mug shots of enemies of the state, and blaring the slogans of Big Brother. It is difficult for a person even to think when being dunned repeatedly by the same propaganda. Submission of the individual will, desire, thought, belief, and enterprise to the corporate whole – that is the message droned over and over again — as in our time we are constantly bombarded with “Mask Up,” “Wash Your Hands,” and “Social Distancing.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the speakers drone on and on (and on and on. . .) enumerating production figures for the war effort from the omnipresent loudspeakers, while in 2021 we constantly hear of the latest number of virus cases.
In 2021, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, only one opinion is presented in mainstream media. Other opinions, when mentioned in passing, are ridiculed, and those who express those views are labelled as enemies of the state. As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, divergent beliefs today are labeled “thoughtcrimes.” The most frightening aspect of the current situation is the one-sidedness of the news. To my recollection, in my time, the press has never before feared a fracas, or been faced with such a dearth of conflicting opinions on any other topic. In fact, in order to increase their ratings, the press has typically tended to set people of opposing views (i.e. traditional family values v. reproductive rights) in an arena and let them have at it. We are in danger of losing our humanity, of becoming organisms which lack rational thought and free will — if we surrender our selves to the rule of the group.
What makes the human being a marvelous entity is that which sets each one of us apart from the others. How you differ from me is your glory, and the glory of our species. I love X and you hate it — how utterly fantastic! We can craft arguments and present them to one another, and be endlessly fascinated by how others’ minds work differently from our own.
Many people behave as if no one ever sickened or died before 2019, and no one will ever sicken or die after the virus has become old news. But the truth is our days are numbered. We get only one chance to live our lives. We have a very long time to be dead. Are there any among us who cling to their own ideas about how they would like to spend the last year of their lives? Some people want, above all, to accomplish the items on their bucket lists; others prefer to spend their last days with their loved ones, rather than cowering in solitary confinement awaiting the Reaper.
What signifies a few more hours on this earth, if one cannot Be?
Citizens in a free county ought to embrace our difference, rejoice that we are not all left or right, and that both left and right are composed of an infinite array of differing opinions. The glory of the human animal is in the fact that one person is not the same as another. Think how amazing it is that one friend is Christian and another atheist — how many awesome conversations lie ahead among us. Like snowflakes, no two people are alike. That is cause for wonder. Like snowflakes, our existence is fleeting, too.
We must not allow others to think for us, for our thoughts are our selves. To permit others to reduce us to interchangeable parts in a social machine, whose ideas come down from the leader at the top (whether politician, religious leader, doctor, or social media maven), is self-murder. We must resist those who use hate and fear to goad us into relinquishing our free will. Freedom and joy can be found only by disagreeing. Our lives should be lived on our own terms and according to our own values and beliefs.
Carpe diem! – There may be no tomorrow. Let’s be adventurous, and make ourselves into ourselves. Let’s refuse to be ground into a common paste — to be vaporized into “Unpersons.” Let’s take the chances that we choose to take, risk our safety when it is worth our while. Else, the human spirit is crushed.
Be. Before you cease to be.
Katherine Kerestman holds a B.A. degree from John Carroll University and a Master of Arts degree from Case Western Reserve University. She loves to travel, especially to destinations with literary and macabre associations, including Transylvania, Whitby, Salem, and Stonehenge. She has joined her literary, historical and macabre proclivities together into her first non-fiction title, Creepy Cat’s Macabre Travels.