YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 27, 2012

Melville, Orwell, Doublethink

 This is my second major Orwell blog: see http://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/ for the first one.

During my recent forays into the changing interpretations of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), I was surprised to learn that Orwell had read passages from Herman Melville’s White-Jacket (1850) while broadcasting on the BBC during the early years of WW2. Specifically, he excerpted a gory description of a naval doctor performing an unnecessary and fatal amputation on a wounded U.S. sailor. Elsewhere in White-Jacket, HM had sharply and vividly written about “flogging through the fleet,” a practice that he abhorred, possibly because he had been caned as a child by his own father. Indeed, Roy Porter sent me an ad from a British newspaper offering White-Jacket as sadomasochistic porn. (On the dynamics of sadomasochism see http://clarespark.com/2009/09/21/managerial-psychiatry-jung-murray-and-sadomasochism-2/.)

Though at least one Orwell biographer (Jeffrey Meyers) has emphasized GO’s masochism, I have not found a source yet that relates where the conception of Doublethink originated. Did Orwell know about “cognitive dissonance” from experience, or reading, or had he read Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), where Melville not only describes his mother’s frequent mixed messages, but invents “Plinlimmon’s Pamphlet” that praises “virtuous expediency” as the best morality attainable on this deceptive earth. My book on the Melville Revival (Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival)  is nearly entirely devoted to this theme of the double bind/cognitive dissonance/virtuous expediency, all of which signify what Orwell chose to call Doublethink.

Here are the double binds that I suggest were made apparent in Melville’s novels, and then may have driven his academic revivers in the 20th century into all manner of psychogenic symptoms and illnesses. (It is my contention that Melville readers who wished to advance in academe had to suppress the evidence before them in order to please the reigning ideology in the universities that employed them, so many derided Melville/Ahab as crazy, while defending Plinlimmon’s sensible philosophy, that they attributed to their “moderate” Melville/Ishmael .) But first take Doublethink in Pierre.

  1. There is no conflict between “truth” and Order. Mary Glendinning, Pierre’s mother in the novel, wants her son “just emerging from his teens” to grow into a manly individual, but not such an individual that he disobeys her choice  in choosing his future wife, who will also be perfectly obedient to her wishes.
  2. Pierre is expected to revere his dear perfect (Christian) father, but he must not be so good a Christian as to rescue from near-beggary his “natural” half-sister Isabel.
  3. Pierre reads the double bind, jilts his mother-chosen fiancée, runs off with Isabel, and mother dies of insanity. This book will not end well. (See Pierre’s scolding mother in this hard to find set of illustrations by Maurice Sendak, for a truncated edition of Pierre. http://yankeedoodlesoc.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/pierre3.jpg.)

In the much quoted Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick, the abolitionist preacher speaks of snatching the truth even if it lies hidden under the skirts of judges and Senators. It is unclear here whether “truth” signifies the truth of Christ, or of the truth as defined by lawyers (or today, scientists). But it is a fact that during Captain Ahab’s speech on “the quarter-deck”, he declares that “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Since Ahab is widely described as a blasphemer, I suspect that it is empirical truth that the relatively powerless see, and which is denied by their superiors, that Melville meant to call out. Which links him now to Orwell’s famous “dystopia.”

For Winston Smith works in “the Ministry of Truth” where he rewrites history to suit the propaganda requirements of Big Brother and the Inner Party. Recall Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), where he denounces journalists for taking the Soviet line that all anarchists and Trotskyists were in league with Franco’s fascists. John Dos Passos, in Century’s Ebb, remembered Orwell as an individualist striking out at those man-made institutions that forced him to lie for the sake of Order. Compare Dos’s elevation of Orwell as truth-seeker to the trendier line that Orwell, like Melville, was a premature anti-imperialist, and for that alone we honor his life and work. [Added 11-10-12: )”If one thinks of the artist as…an autonomous individual who owes nothing to society, then the golden age of the artist was the age of capitalism. He had then escaped the patron and had not yet been captured by the bureaucrat…. Yet it remains true that capitalism, which in many ways was kind to the artist and to the intellectual generally, is doomed and is not worth saving anyway. So you arrive at these two antithetical facts: (1) Society cannot be arranged for the benefit of artists; (2) without artists civilisation perishes. I have not yet seen this dilemma solved (there must be a solution), and it is not often that it is honestly discussed.” (George Orwell, in TRIBUNE, 1944). Quoted by Arthur M. Eckstein, “George Orwell’s Second Thoughts on Capitalism,” The Revised Orwell, ed. Jonathan Rose (Michigan State UP, 1992), p.204.

Another double bind that is especially relevant today:  There is no conflict between national identity and international identity. Hence, the United Nations is our best bet to avoid wars of the catastrophic magnitude of the world wars of the 20th century, or to halt “voter suppression” on November 6, 2012. Such are the psychic requirements of political correctness, the term itself an example of Doublethink, for facts (correctness) are non-partisan. Melville’s takedown of “virtuous expediency” is more to the point.

For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2012/10/14/reality-and-the-left/. For “political correctness” as decorum, an idea passed out by liberal elites, see http://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/, especially the suggestion by Christopher Edley, whose career has been remarkable.

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6 Comments »

  1. […] was a fierce opponent of what we now call “Doublethink,” hypocrisy, and lying in general. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/10/27/melville-orwell-doublethink/. For most Anglo-American critics, Orwell is a good “Socialist,” a “decent” fellow who […]

    Pingback by Orwell, superpatriots, and the election « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — November 13, 2012 @ 6:36 pm | Reply

  2. Not to nitpick, but Mapple talks about plucking sin from beneath the robes of senators and judges; not finding truth.

    (Or does the one imply the other?)

    Comment by Patrick R — October 30, 2012 @ 7:57 pm | Reply

    • I make the link between Father Mapple’s sermon and Ahab’s quarter-deck speech, understanding that Ahab’s “truth” may be Protestant truth that frowns on slavery. (Or, if you look at Melville’s annotations to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book 9, you will see that Ahab is looking behind the veil of government/family secrecy.) If you read The Confidence-Man, you will see how Melville often brings his troupe of characters onto the stage seriatum. But that was a good comment, Patrick, and deserved a reply, even if I am wrong.

      Comment by clarespark — October 30, 2012 @ 8:04 pm | Reply


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