Thursday, 4 June 2009

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, but instead he describes it in entirely oldthink terms: reducing the range of thought. As an Outer Party intellectual he should know that expressing truth can only be done with lies. Syme could have been promoted to the Inner Party, had they wished it; but instead, his open use of oldthink suggests that he is merely a cynic, and a genuine oldthinker. Remember that the greatest fanatics are the Inner Party members.

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, although one might question why such an intelligent character is not. It might be that Syme is not quite cynical enough, though his language does suggest it.

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.

While we are on this subject, we could read Parsons as a sort of obverse of Syme. His devotion to Ingsoc is clear, his energies are directed solely towards it. He is a stereotype (more properly a comic stereotype) of the stupid fat man, whereas Syme is thin, weedly, and wiry. Parsons, unlike Syme, who is vaguely solitary (although he does hang around with slightly undesirable elements) has a traditional family. Syme disappears while Parsons is seen in the cellars of the Ministry of Love, before a rapid despatch to Room 101. Parsons will presumably either be re-arrested later, or his strength and stupidity will be put to use in a labour camp. The problem for Parsons is that he has clearly spent his entire sublimating his hatred for Ingsoc into love of it. His rebellion runs deeper than Winston’s because it manifests itself when his conscious mind is not available. Indeed, one could speculate that Parsons has shut down his conscious mind to be rid of it – this of course would be an extreme example of crimestop. “It’s just a matter of reality control,” says Syme. Parsons will probably be rapidly re-arrested and executed, because his story is more fun than Winston’s. Winston was never really a Party man, while if someone as clearly devoted as Parsons could be a thought criminal, well....The Inner Party would love that, and the Outer Party would be terrified. Parsons is also the way that Orwell demonstrates the control of the family: his children are ideologically aggressive, suspicious and most of all, love only the Party. Mrs Parsons is a sort of standing satire – as it does not seem right to Winston to call her “comrade” because she is the last old style “wife and mother” – a type that would be more recognisable to Orwell’s intended audience than to us.

But that is by the by. Syme and Parsons are opposites and complements, in their intelligences and apparent devotion to Ingsoc. Typically enough, Syme’s crimethink is suggested, or implied, by a subtlety of depiction that matches his fluidity of mind (his discussion of the project in Oldspeak terms – see The Disappearance of Syme), while Parson’s crime is the cry of the idiot who does not know how to articulate his feelings: in his sleep, he simply shouts “Down with Big Brother”. Incidentally, one would have thought that Mrs Parsons would have noticed this....Can’t be long before she is arrested too.

Winston sees Ampleforth arrested, Syme disappearing, Parsons arrested: with Julia, that means that almost everyone he has a conversation with during Parts One and Two is arrested (except Mrs Parsons). The thought occurs: are these people really arrested for their own thoughtcrimes, or are they all, like Syme, meant as amusing ways of making Winston even more afraid of the power and ruthlessness of the Party?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. The proof I have now could make someone wind up in jail!