Inextinguishable: An Optimist Reads 1984 and Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 both depict a future devoid of thought, but not awareness. The protagonists, Guy Montag and Winston, are interchangeable in their demeanor, so I don’t need to specify which belongs to which novel. Both recognize that something isn’t quite right in the worlds they live in, with Winston referring to an ancestral memory that is his only hint into the way things once were. Guy Montag questions whether books were always burned, and thanks to his boss, Captain Beatty, he learns that in fact, no, books were not always burned. Books asked questions that could never be answered; they encouraged dissent by always challenging present ideas, ideas held sacred, and so books were deemed dangerous—not only dangerous, but unnecessary. 1984’s world also roots out dissenters, purging anti-Party terrorists for the continuation and assurance of party purity. Rather than burn the past, though, like in Fahrenheit 451, 1984 preserves the existence of the past, but with heavy alterations, edits, and revisions—this is no past at all, Winston observes.

Both Winston and Guy reach a point of intolerable existence, and each engages in an act of dangerous, almost-assuredly deadly, rebellion. Winston begins writing in a diary; Guy saves books from burning. Both think for themselves and neither cares for the consequences of their actions. The Party fails and the firemen fail to maintain control over these two individuals. But there remain similarities in the way control is established in both universes. The home is invaded by overt surveillance, in the telescreens of 1984 and the inspections of Fahrenheit 451. Sex is made to lose its pleasure—Winston’s wife refers to it simply as a commitment to the Party, revealing the extent to which the sexual act is reduced in 1984. As a quick aside, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged depict sexual scenes similar to Winston’s coupling with Julia, an inner-Party member he meets who holds the same contempt for the Party as he, in that the fierceness of Roark’s and Dagny’s love affairs are also powerful events and acts of rebellion against the system they try to withstand, and, ultimately, topple. Winston revels in the knowledge of Julia’s sexual partners: “Scores of times she had done it; he wished it had been hundreds—thousands. Anything that hinted at corruption always filled him with a wild hope. Who knew? Perhaps the Party was rotten under the surface, its cult of strenuousness and self-denial simply a sham concealing iniquity” (Orwell 125). Guy’s wife, like Winston’s wife, lay immobile whenever sex took place, which devolved the sexual act to its biological necessity, that of procreation, not the demonstration of love, or even lust, pleasurable to both parties—the wives never derived any pleasure from it. Julia does, though. This following exchange involves Winston and Julia, with Winston speaking first:

“’Listen. The more men you’ve had, the more I love you. Do you understand that?’
‘Yes, perfectly.’
‘I hate purity, I hate goodness. I don’t want any virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.’
‘Well then, I ought to suit you, dear. I’m corrupt to the bones.’
‘You like doing this? I don’t mean simply me; I mean the thing in itself?’
‘I adore it.’” (Orwell 125).

Puritans prevail in the future, it seems. But not completely.

The discrediting of intellectuals occurs in Fahrenheit 451, while the discrediting of information occurs in 1984. Intellectuals and information don’t fare well in either universe, of course, but the prominence with which each is referenced varies by the universe. Intellectualism exists in 1984, but only if it’s for the benefit of the Party. Science and history are halted, and each is allowed to proceed only when it benefits the Party’s goal, which is revealed to be the complete control and exercise of power. There is a limit to the level of intellectuality, as evidenced by Syme’s disappearance and that of a playwright. Even Party faithful members aren’t safe, as they are also purged to maintain an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Fahrenheit 451’s universe discredits intellectualism and information by focusing on the existence of opposing viewpoints. Captain Beatty explains that books, when pitted one against the other, contradict to the point of obsolescence. Better to have one answer, or in 1984’s universe, one verb—one Party.

Fahrenheit 451 manages to maintain its universe through the effective distracting of the populace. Guy’s wife, Mildred Montag, spends her days alternating from program to program, with a projector-like setup on three of her four walls; she asks Guy when they’ll have enough money to fill the fourth wall with a screen. 1984 maintains order by the careful control of all media, and the people’s acceptance of it depends on their short memories, their inability to verify anything they saw before, since everything is continuously edited, and on doublethink, which is defined thusly:

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them…The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt…To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary.”

For the lies to continue, all that needs to continue are the lies. If they are believed to be true, then lies are simultaneously incriminating and comforting, for to admit one’s gullibility incriminates and discomforts everyone else if they don’t follow the admission; the atmosphere of fear in both of these books means that the will to express incredulity over what one is forced to swallow has been successfully stamped out, as Guy and Winston are intellectual minorities.

1984 and Fahrenheit 451 share another similarity, one that makes me suspect they really are taking place at the same time, in the same future, albeit in different locations. In both stories, war rages and no one seems to care. Bombs intermittently drop in the far-off distance, or within the city itself. I could place Winston in his native Oceania while it bombs Guy’s Eastasia or Eurasia, it doesn’t matter, since the societies of both books are different enough to warrant being located in separate places, but warmongering enough to have them at odds with one another, and also power-hungry enough to recognize when they must not destroy one another in order to maintain control of their own populace. 1984 explains that territories any bigger than those contained between the three supranational entities—Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia—would be impossible to maintain control over. Both societies are also characterized by anti-intellectualism and both go about confusing their citizens in different ways, but with the same aim: to keep them ignorant, distracted, and compliant.

A lot is said of the prophetic power of these books, especially 1984. The signs of their fulfillment are clear enough:

  1. Look for the denunciation of experts and intellectuals, as inept and charlatans. The fervor of the negative insinuations will throb like Winston’s inflamed varicose ulcer. Climate scientists, as we all know, are just trying to push a political agenda. “Politicized science” was popular, recently.
  2. Look for doublethink, the blithe acceptance of falsehoods for the sake of pushing an agenda. One moment no answer is available, and in the next, there is one answer that just might work. One moment we have the #neverTrump movement, and the next, one of its prominent members is having dinner with him—better luck next time, Mitt Romney! Or to keep it bipartisan, career politicians in the Democratic Party calling for the need to Drain the Swamp and ignoring the fact that the hashtag emerged against career politicians like themselves.
  3. Look for crimestop, “the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought.” We’re going to have a big wall, and the biggest military, and cut the deficit. How can that happen unless…no! We’ll find a way!
  4. Look for a country constantly at war and which doesn’t care that it’s always at war. Bombs fell from the sky in these books, but we know bombs can be delivered in other ways, don’t we? Suicide bombers, shootings in the name of a cause—worse, shootings in the name of no cause—and action is considered impossible, unpatriotic, and restrictive.
  5. Look for purges, the silencing of dissenting voices, or the strengthening of favored voices. Nice news does exist now, after all. CNN won’t cover some things FOX News will, and vice-versa.
  6. Look for the banning of books, or their censoring, disguised as the need to protect people from dangerous ideas.

Both these books serve as warnings. Both depict humanity as driven to a docile, distracted state where they care more for trivialities than the news and events that affect their lives, and which, little by little, alter it. Because the change is so gradual, no one realizes how much they’ve come to accept over the years, until they consider all of it unchangeable. Fahrenheit 451 achieves its goals through distractions and 1984 achieves it through fear. Man’s attention in both cases is kept from the governing powers and focused, instead, on the next TV show, or the next war—never on the rulers that never change. These aren’t tales that prescribe the overthrow of the government as the solution to all our problems. History shows us rulers come and go. But some rulers are better than others, so one things that Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 warn against is the relentless pursuit of power, a power completely consolidated and unchecked; in other words, the rulers who will stop at nothing, who will begin with division and human denigration, to achieve their goals for nobody’s benefit but themselves.

We are better equipped for the future because we have authors who thought about this downward path and pursued it to the last period in their books. We can never be as helpless as the people they described for as long as these books exist, and the ideas inside them. 1984 warns against books, songs, and plays continuing to exist, but with their content unrecognizable from its original script. Hold that human decency, the desire for love, and the need for contact, are objective truths, not subjective ones limited to a culture, region, or religion. That, I believe, is how you remain free.

Both books rely upon the inextinguishable human spirit to move their stories forward; indeed, the story wouldn’t be possible without it. Despite all the best attempts of the aggressors, the human spirit perseveres, no matter how dimly. Guy’s end is unmistakably happier than Winston’s, but in Winston’s universe, one controlled by the Party, the reality is one of a collective against another collective: The Party vs. The Human Spirit. Winston falls prey to the Party’s methods, but because they continue to employ such methods, and continue to seek out detractors, it is their Will against the Will of The Human Spirit. Considering that The Human Spirit exists to face down struggles, endure difficulties, and ultimately find the means to triumph, it is the one that will always prevail. We need only make its light brighter.

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