Friday, 28 March 2014

The problem with Room 101, and the (unwitting?) devilry of 1984

**Spoiler alert: This post gives away the climax of the book (and film) 1984.**

Photo by Tom Martin:

What's the worst thing that could happen to you?

Have you thought of something? Good. Hold that thought.

I'm assuming if you've read this far beyond the spoiler alert, you've either read 1984 or never plan to. So:

In 1984, O'Brien says to Winston, who is at O'Brien's mercy in the bowels of the Ministry of Love:

"You asked me once what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world. The worst thing in the world varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal."

And as you'll remember if you've read 1984, the point of preparing The Worst Thing In The World for you is so that The Party can burrow right down to that deepest bit inside you and get you to betray the person you hold most dear in the world by pleading for the thing that is about to be inflicted on you, the thing that is your own personal Worst Thing In The World, to be inflicted on your loved one instead. The point being that thereafter you'll have no more reason - or insufficient self-respect - to resist The Party and their mind control.

My problem with this is as follows: it relies on the person who is being worn down being sufficiently imaginative for their worst fear to be all that bad. I'll expand:

(Actually, let me get something out of the way first: it's no good if the thing you fear most is something happening to your loved ones. If the thing you fear most is your beloved dying, The Party can't get you to betray your beloved by getting you to beg them to kill your beloved's beloved instead of yours, because your beloved's beloved is you (assuming that your love isn't unrequited), and so in betraying your beloved you'd actually be hurting yourself more than your beloved, unless you were absolutely 100% sure that your beloved's worst nightmare was also something terrible happening to her beloved (i.e. you), and nobody ever knows anyone else's mind to that extent (except The Party), and so you'd actually be doing your beloved a favour by betraying them, and so wouldn't actually be betraying them. So things happening to other people are off the table: if that was your Worst Thing In The World then The Party would just use your second Worst Thing instead, okay?)

Now, my worst fears (bearing in mind the above parenthesis) are spiders, followed by heights. And the thing about spiders is that a) they're not actually that scary and b) unless they're from Australia, they're not really capable of doing anything to you. If you were to threaten me with locking me away in a coffin full of spiders, I certainly wouldn't be very happy with you, but I like to think I could withstand your doing it if the alternative was betraying my sweetheart. Hell, the publicity-seeking-missiles that participate in Saturday night gross-out-a-thon I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here do that kind of thing just for cash and the lowest kind of fame every weekend, so I'm sure I could do it in order not to betray myself and the one I love.

Ditto heights: what is The Party going to do, strap me to Felix Baumgartner? I could live with that.
Unfortunately, 1984 itself presents a solution to this problem.

Here's the thing: spiders and heights are the things I'm most phobic about, but I'm not that phobic about them: I can and do overcome them. But there are certain things that are logically or rationally scarier and more unpleasant than spiders and heights, such as being brutally beaten or listening to Heart FM. Many of these I could voluntarily withstand as well - maybe even all of them, except one.

In 1984, the thing that Winston finds most unendurable is rats. Now, you might not find rats so scary. But in 1984, The Party's means of using rats against Winston is to put two big, starving, rotten, crazed, filthy, desperate, squirming, mad-bastard rats in a cage that fits over his head, such that the only way the rats can exit the cage is directly via Winston's face.


So the (unwitting?) devilry of 1984 is that, should any situation such as that described in its very pages ever come about, in which an all-powerful person or group is in a position to learn everyone's innermost thoughts and use them against them, anyone who has read 1984 is going to be unable to resist their tormentor, because they're going to have a vivid picture of this contraption involving starving rats and a metal cage and their head (Room 101 may as well just have been called the Rats Eating Your Face Room), whereas most people who haven't read 1984 are probably just going to have to hold a handful of worms or lick a foot and then be absolutely fine...

Except, of course, for those who've read this blog post.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Book review: Simulations, Jean Baudrillard, 1983

I bought Simulations mainly for its amazing lurid tech-noir cover:

And it's good that I wasn't so bothered about the contents, because the contents are about 80% gibberish, e.g.:

"Everywhere the disposition of force and forcing yield to dispositions of ambiance, with operationalization of the notions of need, perception, desire, etc. Generalized ecology, mystique of the "niche" and of the context, milieu-simulation right up to"Centres of Esthetic and Cultural Re-animation" foreseen in the VIIth plan (why not?) and Centre of Sexual Leisure, constructed in the form of a breast, that will offer a "superior euphoria due to a pulsating ambiance..."

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Book review: Surfing the Zeitgeist, Gilbert Adair (1997)

In reviewing a book of cultural criticism, one aspires to at least equal the incisiveness and brilliance of the book itself. However, none of the items in Surfing the Zeitgeist, if I remember rightly, is anything so lowly as a mere review - they're all broader-reaching essays that comment on some aspect of culture, albeit in doing so they might praise or criticise some work or other.

Hence to equal or even approach the standard of StZ, I would need to scrape from my brain something that could reach beyond the covers of the book itself... And I cannot.

Fortunately, I don't really intend to criticise StZ, and so I have no need to prove myself better than it.

These essays were written between 1995 and 1997, and despite Adair's intention being to surf the zeitgeist, for the most part they've aged well. Few if any of the people of the 90s who are named don't remain immediately recollectable (or even still part of the zeitgeist) today - Arnold Schwarzennegger, Naomi Campbell, Martin Amis, Will Self, Danny Boyle - and many of the people from earlier times remain relevant, although I'm less qualified to judge those references.

Few of the essays struck me as essential, but one - "On actemes" - I was moved to attempt to find online (unsuccessfully) so that I might share it with the wider world. I would be grateful to have read StZ if only for having gained the notion of actemes - I won't steal Adair's thunder by explaining precisely what one is, but I will tease you by proposing a couple of modern candidates (time will tell): Bryan Cranston's goateed face; Chloe Moretz dropping the C-bomb.

However, only a few struck me as being not worthwhile. I said I wasn't going to criticise StZ, but I do have two small complaints, both of which arise from the origins of the essays as newspaper columns. First, as Adair himself acknowledges in - fittingly - one of the least worthwhile essays of the collection, newspaper columnists are under pressure to deliver insight with a regularity we have no right to demand of anyone: "Week after week, month after month, he must come up with a brand new tale to divert the Caliph", and therefore they can't help but fail occasionally. In this particular essay, Adair goes on to talk about ... sweets. In others he discusses the craftsmanship behind sporting equipment and, er, how he came to watch and quite like Groundhog Day.

My second (related) gripe is that newspaper columns are always the same length, and so an idea that might be diverting enough for 400 words has to be wearisomely dragged out for the full thousand or whatever. (See essays on pedantry, pop music, Wallace and Gromit.) Conversely, ideas that might have happily entertained one for a whole book must be lopped off at the knee.

In general I found at least one nugget of nourishment buried in each essay, and more often I found more than that. For a poor capstan-chained Scheherazade of a newspaper columnist, 40-odd nuggets of wisdom across 3 years is really quite impressive.