Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Lloyd Sealy Library

Lloyd Sealy Library

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four

By Jeffrey Kroessler

A face and the words big brother is watching you

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” I somehow thought this was a Buddhist tenet. How remarkable that a little research can set you straight.

That assumes, of course, that one can trust what one finds, that the research trek has lit upon a reliable source. One is always aware that information may be inaccurate. I know, because one of the entries I rewrote for the second edition of The Encyclopedia of New York City contains a whopper. But that was unintentional. It was only because I never saw the final version before the volume went to the printer.  But what if the source had intentionally promulgated false information? What if the motives of the writer were impure?

This is where I enter George Orwell’s dystopian world of 1984. I have read this book many times. The first time was when I was twelve; I’d heard it was a dirty book. I never did find the dirty parts, unless one recognizes that the entire novel is dirty. I guess that is why it has been banned in various places since it was published. Like Heraclitus stepping into the river, I found a different book each time I entered it – as a middle school student, a graduate student studying

Soviet history, an English teacher, and as a librarian. It is about totalitarianism; the fate of the individual; geopolitics; surveillance. 

As a librarian, I see 1984 as a book about information. Winston Smith toils in the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to manufacture lies. He rewrites the past so it conforms always to truths accepted in the present, and that troubled him, even as he diligently performed his tasks. “If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened,” he mused, “that, surely was more terrifying than mere torture and death?” How lonely to understand that if all records told the same tale, and if everyone else accepted that story without question, “then the lie passed into history and became truth.” That was the real horror. Once Winston saw a scrap of evidence proving that the party’s official narrative was untrue. “It exists,” he exclaims when his interrogator, O’Brien, briefly shows it to him. “No,” said O’Brien as he tossed it into the memory hole. “It does not exist. It never existed.”    

In our current climate we call this “fake news.” I struggle over the veracity of what I find online. Some twenty-somethings do nothing of the sort. They assume that nothing they find there is to be trusted. In this they are like Winston’s young lover, Julia, who said matter-of-factly that she thought the missiles falling on London from time to time were fired by their own government.

During Banned Books Week we installed a small exhibit in our library to mark the 70th anniversary of its publication, complete with a “Big Brother is Watching You” poster. Librarians are in the business of vetting information sources and pointing our patrons to reliable sources. This function is more crucial than it has ever been before, because the truth has never been more slippery. In China today, the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 never happened.

 


More from the Fall 2019 newsletter

Posted: 
December 10, 2019