“Slavery is freedom. Alone — free — the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.” (“1984”)
The Last Man in Europe (Is not Alone)
Welcome back, my Friends
Having expounded, in the four previous writings, George Orwell’s idea of how writing and thought influence each other, creating that vicious circle which he believed was inexorably leading to the slow decay of our society, and which is initially exposed in a small 1945 pamphlet “Politics and the English Language” and then in his best known novel, “1984”.
The “Imitative Lifeless Style” that we absorb every day from the surrounding world, and which we replicate as two-way radios in daily life, leads us to speak / write worse and worse, which in turn leads us to have thoughts that are increasingly trivial and automatic, until it is not these linguistic prefabs that think for us, leaving our brains in the blissful world of unconsciousness.
As the philosopher Karl Jasper said:
“In the broadest sense, involuntary imitations belong to suggestive phenomena… The individual loses control of himself in the crowd. Not because he gets enthusiastic about himself, but because the crowd infects him, so passions spread; fashions and customs have their origin in this imitation … We judge, evaluate, take a stand, simply resuming, against the will and without knowing it, the judgments and evaluations of others. We have not evaluated, judged, taken a stand by us at all, and yet we have the feeling of taking a personal stand. This adoption of the judgments of others without one’s own judgment is called the suggestion of judgment … But the suggestions can also be intentional” (from “Allgemeine Psychopathologie” [General Psychopathology], 1913)
And after all, what do we primarily use to do all this? Our words and expressions, in short, our language (verbal or not).
Imitation is a human phenomenon, and it is what for a certain part makes us what we are. It cannot be ascribed as a positive or negative itself, but it can take on catastrophic dimensions when it lacks of elaboration, or when it lacks empathy.
The various propaganda posters, taken from four dictatorial regimes of the 20th century, show us the answer to a need that many feel in their life: to be part of something greater than themselves. Each dictatorship primarily aims to constitute a cohesive and obedient group (apparently threatened on all sides, but we will talk about this another time). And what better foundation than a base of people who do not think, using all the same words to “hypnotize” each other, in a trance that has only one Body, because it has only one Voice?
The worst thing is feeling excluded from it, and therefore in return destined for mortality, oblivion. It is no coincidence that one of the provisional titles of “1984” was “The Last Man in Europe“. Language is something we need to connect with the rest of the world, interpret it, make it our own, but it can be used, even involuntarily in the worst case, for the opposite process: it is it which “makes us his”, imposes an interpretation of the world and to ensure that everything that is not “within the parameters” is excluded.
The alienation of the individual is the strongest weapon in the hands of an authoritarian policy, and hitting a wall of “imitations” is as alienating as waking up in a country whose language we don’t know at all. The stronger the misunderstanding becomes, the stronger the loneliness, the exclusion, the sense of no longer being welcome in one’s home. Because speaking that thoughtless imitative language will not be the members of an esoteric sect, but your friends, relatives, parents, neighbors and loved ones.
Always keep this image in mind.
You have to keep it in mind because the only point from which we can start again is ourselves, and, more than others, those who decided that would make words their job.
Orwell, in the ending of “Politics and the English Language”, proposes six rules to follow when writing or composing a speech. But I do not intend to expose them in this paper: it would only result in a long discussion on how much, how, and why they could (or not) fit to our presente situation, and it is not what interests us, nor ultimately what Orwell would have wanted: repeating a series of “commandments” and using them as a sort of guideline for writing is nothing more than trying to escape from an “imitative style” to take refuge within another.
However, there are two specular issues on which, after this long reflection, we can find a starting point: what the defense of language implies and what does not imply and all that follows:
The defense of a language does not imply questions of Archaism and the preservation of obsolete terms and expressions, but rather shuns their use, having exhausted their usefulness in formulating a “contemporary” thought; it has nothing to do with the correct use of grammar and syntax (not that knowing how to make use of faults, but you can write perfectly and still trigger a “negative” imitative process); it has nothing to do with the excessive use of “foreign” terms or with having what is called a “good style of prose”.
Instead, it has to do with something that often escapes us, precisely out of habit and imitation: it is from the meaning that we must start choosing the words, and not the other way around.
We have to start from the base, even when we speak in an abstract way, let’s take it as if we were talking about an object: what are we describing? What are we talking about when we write justice, freedom, democracy, equality, dictatorship, oppression? And if we’re not the ones talking, ask: don’t let an expression or term pass for good, just because we all take it for granted that we all mean the same thing.
From definitions it is more difficult to escape with slogans or long turns of words. Try this experiment with yourself.
The adversaries to be fought are insincerity and the confusion it generates: these are the two elements that lead to the imitative process to take off, and subsequently to perpetuate itself within politics, the media and society as a whole. Altering, or canceling, our thinking, they modify our perception of reality, which however does not stop existing, and sooner or later it will present to us a salty bill from which we will not be able to escape by taking refuge in unconsciousness.
It is a political and social issue that can no longer be ignored. Every day, every hour, every conversation made in this way eats a piece of our freedom of thought, and do not consider yourself too intelligent or cultured not to fall into it: this same text is full, like the previous ones, and as it was in the ‘ 45 “Politics and the English Language” of these structures.
I said that the process of deterioration is reversible, but it will not happen in a year, in a decade and perhaps an entire generation will not be enough: we cannot change things alone and we certainly cannot force others to change suddenly. But we can start with ourselves, with our habits, from writing and speech and with writing and speech. If we do not leave “the Last Man in Europe” alone, he will cease to be such, and to feel irresistibly attracted to an all-encompassing reality in which he can “disappear”.
I would like to conclude the last post of this series with what for me represents the summary, in a few simple and short words of what Orwell wanted to express, and of what I tried to explain to extended, perhaps with non-witty words but I hope the same understandable. A sentence that accompanies me from the days when I was immersed in an already quoted dystopic novel, and that I try to always keep in mind, like a lantern light facing towards the overwhelming darkness outside:
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
(George Orwell, “1984”)