"How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?"
Winston thought. "By making him suffer," he said.
"Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy--everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always--do not forget this, Winston--always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever." (Signet, pp. 219-220)
* * *
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a horror story, a frightening and depressing look into human nature and human history, a projection into the future of everything that a sad and damaged man near the end of his life had seen and had come to understand about his fellow human beings. It may be off in its particulars, but Orwell's vision of the future was not meant to be a prediction but an extrapolation, in other words, a work akin to science fiction, if it is not in fact a work in that genre. The particulars don't matter so much as the main thrust of the book, which is, I think, summarized in this quote from Winston Smith's tormenter, O'Brien. It's a long quote. Some of its points might be dulled a little by being knocked around in such a long, dense paragraph. But I wanted to give it in its entirety, better for the immersion, better, too, for an effect that threatens to overwhelm the reader before reaching its famous and despairing conclusion:
"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face--forever."
If you take it as a piece, you might think that O'Brien's plan has not actually been brought about in the real world. Maybe we don't have anything to worry about after all. But individual sentences and phrases might just as easily appear today in an op-ed or piece of reporting, in an interview, video, meme, policy statement, or social media posting:
"Obedience is not enough. [. . .] Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation."
"[Our civilization] is founded upon hatred."
"In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy--everything."
"We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman."
"There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party."
"There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy."
"There will be no art, no literature, no science."
"There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness."
"Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless."
That trampling on a helpless "enemy"--a woman, a child, an elderly person, a man in a wheelchair, a person who has been knocked senseless, a weak and defenseless person alone against a howling, rabid, demon-possessed mob--is going on every day and every night in our streets. I suggested the other day that O'Brien's ways may have been rendered obsolete by more efficient and insidious methods that revolutionaries began to develop in the 1950s. (That is, after the death of Stalin in 1953; Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud by Herbert Marcuse, a seminal work, or the seminal work of New Left and critical theory claptrap, was published two years later.) But maybe not. If you're attempting to exercise or seize power, violence and a mindless surrender to a hate-filled mass or mob can still go a long way.
* * *
As an artist, I notice and am repulsed by the idea that there will be--and so often is in our world--no distinction made between beauty and ugliness. We are told and expected to believe and affirm--to shout out--that ugly things are beautiful and that beauty is relative, oppressive, obsolete, or just plain nonexistent. These are the ideas, I think: That the world is an ugly place. People are ugly, too, and ought to be hated. We as individuals ought to hate ourselves, too, and make ourselves ugly. There is no fixed and unchanging principle of beauty, certainly not of love. To believe in or appreciate beauty is delusional, even dangerous. We will have instead a society founded upon hatred, an anarchic, nihilistic, hate-filled world in which nothing must be created and everything must be destroyed.
These are visions for our present and future.
Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley