In which I analyse what it means to be sane in the context of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984.
In my last post, we talked about the theme of humanity as explored in 1984. Today, we are going to talk about another intriguing theme: “Sanity is not statistical,” that is, the idea that you don’t have to be in the majority to be sane.
“The solid world exists”
In the Party, reality is a very malleable thing. All evidence of an event is tracked down and erased, everyone believes it did not happen, and it did not happen. two plus two can equal five if the Party says it does. O’Brien says that if he wished to, he could float up off the floor like a soap bubble.
Before Winston is changed, his concept of reality is a lot more solid and based on what he can see with his eyes.
The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold onto that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center.
This is how you most likely think of reality. We rely heavily on what we see. (Think on such expressions as “I’ll believe it when I see it,” or “I saw it with my own two eyes!” or “Seeing is believing.”) It seems logical to trust what we see. Unless we are under the influence of something or what we have seen is particularly unusual, we don’t think to question what we see. But in Winston’s world, this belief in a solid reality is insanity.
Minority of One
Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.
This immediately made me remember a case study I read in DSM-IV Case Book. It was about a mother whose unusual beliefs regarding medical treatment almost resulted in the death of her baby. (This particular study is found on pages 10-13, in case anyone would like to look it up.) I remember reading the case study and thinking that this woman definitely suffered from psychosis. Her belief that the doctors were trying to poison her child by giving it iron immediately made me jump to the conclusion that she was having delusions of persecution. The discussion box at the end of the study really stuck with me and made me think. It concluded that it is unclear whether or not this woman should receive a diagnosis at all. The reason being that, while she was influenced by non-traditional views, some of her views were shared by a vocal minority. She had arrived at her beliefs through talking to friends and reading pamphlets. So the issue here is where is the line drawn between identification with a subculture that holds unconventional views, and an actual delusion? Does the fact that your view is only shared by a minority automatically make it delusional? What an intriguing issue, and definitely one that is relevant in the context of 1984.
The fact is that usually the majority view is held for a reason, and certainly the discussion of that case study wasn’t suggesting that the woman’s views were scientifically sound. But the point is that being in a minority does not in and of itself make your view wrong. You could be simply ahead of your times.
At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; today, to believe that the past is unalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him; the horror was that he might also be wrong.
The issue, then, is not how many people share you view, but whether it is true.
Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.
This quote is interesting because it raises another question. Is it possible for the whole world to embrace delusional views, leaving only one person stubbornly clinging to the truth, and thereby to sanity?
Can the Majority Be Wrong?
The Party encourages people to delude themselves, first into believing that something that is true isn’t, and then into forgetting the process of making themselves believe that, so that the end result is that the person believes that he has always believed that and it has always been true.
…it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.
Just because everyone in the Party practises this does not make it sane. I think it’s interesting when Winston reflects on what O’Brien said about floating off the floor like a soap bubble:
Winston worked it out. “If he thinks he floats off the floor, and I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.” Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of the water, the thought burst into his mind: “It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.”
The fact that a hallucination is shared doesn’t make it any more real.
I think it’s also interesting to note the Two Minutes Hate near the beginning of the book. All of these people shouting and throwing things and reacting in a generally savage manner to what they see on the screen is a little frightening to read about.
In a lucid moment, Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair.
(Bold letters mine.) I like this sentence because it shows how Winston is swept along in this without even having a choice. The phrase “in a lucid moment” is interesting because it implies that Winston is not lucid during the Two Minutes Hate, and neither is anyone else. They’re all just following the same deluded mob-spirit.
This majority is made up of lunatics.
“the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself.”
Even though Winston knows these things about reality to be true, he finds it hard to hold to these ideas when faced with O’Brien’s twisted logic. Because O’Brien is so intelligent, it’s hard to refute the things he says, or even to believe he’s wrong.
What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?
When someone who is intellectually superior to yourself holds a view, no matter how nonsensical that view, you can’t help but question. This person is smarter than you, so how could they be the one who is wrong?
There was no idea that he had ever had, or could have, that O’Brien had not long ago known, examined, and rejected. His mind contained Winston’s mind. But in that case, how could it be true that O’Brien was mad? It must be he, Winston, who was mad.
Just because someone is intelligent doesn’t mean they can’t also be delusional. O’Brien’s ideas about reality existing only in the human mind are obviously untrue. We know they are untrue, and Winston knows they are untrue. But they are hard to refute when he speaks so authoritatively and makes arguments that almost make sense.
That’s why an intelligent lunatic is such a frightening idea.
What Does It All Matter?
We have now examined two themes from 1984. Both are intriguing themes that give us a lot to think about. But there’s another question we can raise: where does the ending of the novel fit in, if at all, in our discussion of these particular themes? That is, does it make a difference that Winston is unable to stay human or hold onto his sanity? Does it change what we take away from the book? I have some ideas, but I would much rather hear your thoughts on the matter.