Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Disappearance of Syme

This is an interesting moment in the book. Winston foresees it over lunch in the cafeteria - demonstrating a stronger grasp of the principles of Ingsoc than O Brien gives him credit for - but the lingering question is: why does this lover of Ingsoc disappear?

Winston's fear was that he was "too intelligent" - meaning that he understood what he was doing with the Newspeak dictionary, and why, but also that he spoke too clearly about the aim of the project: to narrow the range of thought by narrowing the range of vocabulary. Syme obviously thought - if he did at all - that his obvious goodthinking and his clear bellyfeeling of Ingsoc would keep him safe.

This is where he went wrong. He failed to exercise doublethink appropriately. In his conversations with Winston he should have made it clear that the aim of the reduction in words was to expand the range of goodthinkful ideas and to enable fuller discussion of the principles of Ingsoc.

It kind of begs the question whether, in this case, it was necessary to have "the heretic here at our mercy", in the words of O Brien. What possible kind of re-education could Syme have needed? Apart from the obvious training in doublethink, it seems more likely to me that Syme, not in fact being guilty of an incorrect thought, would simply have been shot, no questions asked.

Could it be, however, that a clear understanding of the true principles of Ingsoc does itself constitute crimethink - when voiced by a member of the Outer Party? If this knowledge spread, then discontent and rebellion could follow throughout the Outer Party, leaving O Brien and his mates (of whom there are few) could be overthrown. The Party is a hierarchy, designed to freeze history with one group permanently in control - the Inner Party. Syme is not of the Inner Party.

Most likely, the understanding of Ingsoc is crimethink when not tagged on to doublethink. Without that the danger of falling into contempt for BB is great. O Brien, being a fanatic, is in no danger at all: his doublethink strategies are excellent. Even here, though, O Brien is as clear as possible to Winston: "The object of power is power." O Brien seems to be able to face and discuss the evil at the heart of Ingsoc, and recognise it as evil, and know that he wants evil. Syme does not recognise that you need to hold this knowledge of evil and also to know it as good at the same time, in order to be truly goodthinkful. His words leave too much open to interpretation, too much that could make a Party member wonder or worry...

On the other hand, we know that Syme frequented the Chestnut Tree Cafe, and that he was too open in his conversations. It is possible that in fact, despite his instinctive goodthinking, he knew he was in danger and killed himself (as Winston knows that many disappearances are suicides).

In the main, however, the disappearance of Syme provides Winston (and the reader) with proof of the evil of Ingsoc; they even murder their own faithful. There were always excuses for the purges of the Soviets - that they needed to secure the revolution - but if you murder your own, you do that in a display of power only. I wonder in fact if it was meant to be another part of the game O Brien was playing with Winston: that Syme's death was nothing to do with Syme, or little to do with him, and everything to do with the thought-criminal, Winston? Clearly when he first speaks to Winston he mentions it deliberately, even teasingly.

The Inner Party like playing games with humanity. That is what they mean by pure power, which is their sole motivation. The games are fun, exciting, rewarding, like hunting. But instead of just killing, first you turn the quarry into whatever you want it to be.

Syme is not really a quarry: more of a diversion. He stands for the wholly contingent nature of humanity and life under Ingsoc. He doesn't even get to stay on the chess team.

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