Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Winston and the Old Man

*Nineteen Eighty Four related vignette*

Although the narrator and Winston both seem to imply that his visit to the proletarian quarter and the strange beer-shop was wasted, the reason is not because the old man is talking nonsense: it is because the variations of ideological truth under the Party and the exigencies of Ingsoc have left Winston without any clear way to understand. Hence the conversation becomes a synecdoche for the entire theme of the novel: how, denuded of truth, an individual's links to the world around them collapse.

In particular, the old man refers to hearing a powerful speaker denouncing the Labour Party as "lackeys of the bourgeoisie! Flunkies of the ruling class!" This indication of radicalism, which would have told an educated Winston that the left was being assaulted from its fringes before the Revolution, bypasses Winston's sense altogether. In fact he knows nothing of the Labour Party at all (he is even vague as to whether Airstrip One was ever known as anything else: he thinks it might have been called England or Britain). As an aside, I wonder whether the speaker was one of the three bastards in the post below.

The old man then gives Winston, under heavy guidance, a narrative that chimes in almost exactly with the teachings of the Party: "They liked you to touch your cap to 'em". He talks about being insulted and threatened by exactly one of the ruling classes the Party complains about in its history books ("The chief of all the capitalists was called the King, and..."). It is at the point at which the old man is developing this narrative to a peak that the narrator says: "A sense of helplessness took hold of Winston." - which is odd, because the old man is making sense. It isn't what Winston wants to hear, and he isn't interested in the old man's life, just the past, the pure past.

Of course this is the problem. There is no such thing. The past - at least the kind Winston wants to know, human experience - is indeed filtered through minds, and can be located there and there only. To this extent the Party is right, and with Winston being a child of the Party, albeit a rebellious one, he has no time for or patience with the stories of people's lives (he tells Julia a lot more about his than he asks of hers).

Winston's failure to understand therefore has the fingerprints of the Party all over it, and strongly suggests that even in his act of crimethink he still belongs to them. Worse, you could argue that his failure is because he is hearing what the Party tells him anyway - and thereby opening up an even more pessimistic reading of the book than most of us already have.

At precisely this point of despair, he makes one last ditch attempt. But without any confidence, and phrasing it like a bureaucrat, indeed, like O Brien might do later on, "Perhaps I have not made myself clear. What I wanted to know was this", Winston loses the old man completely and he utterly fails to answer the question.

The fault is not the old man's, nor his mind; but the cracked, desiccated mind of Winston Smith.

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