Terrific discussion last night of the final pages of *1984.*

I have not posted for a long time because the book group has been running at best intermittently for a few months, with volunteers regularly (more regularly than usual, that is) turned away at the front desk, men not on the call outs (sometimes all, sometimes some), or arriving with the wrong book for the wrong group. Loss of continuity is demoralizing both personally and intellectually — an unexpected gap of four weeks instead of two of course throws everyone and everything off. But last night I had six men, regulars, all of whom had the book, and had read the book, and had lots of interesting things to say about the final chilling, overwhelming section of the novel. The novel led them to think hard about personhood, and human nature, freedom, and in particular the relationship in the self among the physical, the cognitive, and, the word they chose, the heart. At first some argued that the important differences were between the physical, and the physically manifested outward behavior, and the private, interior, and you could say, true self. The book, you may remember, spends a gruesome amount of time on the tortured realignment of the belief that 2+ 2 = 5. That phase of “treatment,” I mean treatment, requires the belief change to the party line be complete: deep and genuine. And this phase of the treatment works; Winston recovers physically, and gets stronger by the day. And yet he still awaits the shot to the back of the head, unexpected yet long expected. He is released back into the world a pure shell of a reasonably bodily healthy man. But when he contemplates that inevitable death at the hands of Big Brother, he can still say “To die hating them, that was freedom” (p. 281, Signet Classics edition), this, even after he has betrayed his beloved Julia, about whom he now feels less than nothing. But Orwell’s aim is true, and the men all agreed that Winston’s humanity depended on his freedom, and his freedom was not just private, nor was it after all (just) the freedom of thought, and fundamentally cognitive, rather it was the freedom of his heart, known to be lost finally and utterly (in the words of one man) in that final line: “He loved Big Brother.”

Speaking of feelings: the two matters over which feeling ran the highest though were the question raised by the newest member of the group of why, when the party could have exerted total behavioral control over Winston and others like him, they expended so much time and effort to control him, all the way down, so to speak. They could have just killed him (as so many of the great dictators in history have). One answer was that Winston’s treatment was a useful experiment regarding the depth and reach of party control. But the other (not incompatible) one was the self perpetuating intoxicating lure of power, satisfied only with total control of people. A couple of the men read some, er, powerful, passages about power from the book to support their views.

Second, regarding thought control, one man matter-of-factly repeated, no, read (p. 264) O’Brien’s declaration that “Power over matter – external reality, as you would call it – is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute.” We have talked quite a bit in this group over the years about defenses of conceptual and cultural relativism, and sympathetically looked at the case for truth’s dependence on language and conceptual schemes. And you could certainly say that one of Orwell’s aims here is to show a terrifying logical extension the world such a view envisions. A vigorous (an understatement) debate ensued about the metaphysical and epistemological questions of whether or to what extent such control over matter, and over reality, is possible, and if it is, whether social and political abuses like those envisioned by Orwell are inevitable. We’re reading Plato on love next – the books are in their hands – but next up next: Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous.


2 thoughts on “Terrific discussion last night of the final pages of *1984.*

  1. I imagine that teaching in the prison vs. teaching at the college is dramatically different–I wonder if you might reflect on that? And what does it say about teaching philosophy more generally?


    • Going to take up your more pointed questions in a new post, and also let readers (or reader!) know that I’ve written a paper on the more general questions above about what I’ve learned about teaching philosophy at a SLAC and teaching philo generally, which I’ll post here in time (now awaiting news of its status elsewhere).


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