Skip to main content

Orwell, Freud, and 1984

ISSUE:  Autumn 1978

George Orwell and Sigmund Freud seem mutually uncongenial figures in intellectual history. In print Orwell rarely referred to the founder of psychoanalysis. According to his friend Geoffrey Gorer, Orwell regarded psychoanalysis with mild hostility, putting it somewhat on a par with Christian Science. Another friend, Sir Richard Rees, had no recollection of Orwell’s ever once mentioning Freud’s name, and considered this an aspect of Orwell’s “psychological incuriosity.” Orwell’s first wife Eileen had a little training in the academic psychology of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Even though some eminent English intellectuals were psychoanalysts in that period, Orwell evidently had no contact with them nor any interest in their subject. On the other side of the kinship that I should like to explore, Freud in all likelihood never heard of Orwell. Freud’s taste did not include many of the most illustrious 20th-century writers and artists. In his last years Freud liked to relax with a good mystery story and relished in particular Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.Orwell also enjoyed detective stories, and he wrote about some of their implications and source of appeal. His novels that appeared in Freud’s lifetime were narrowly read and artististically not unconventional; it is Orwell’s masterpiece 1984, published in 1949, ten years after Freud’s death, that retains its uncanny, horrifying—and one might say its Freudian—air.

The Freud of history was a bourgeois gentleman. The commercial imagery of his writings reflects the declassed poverty of his youth and the middle-class character of his strivings: Freud wrote in terms of psychological “compensations,” mental “balances,” “investments,” “expenditures,” “depreciation,” “speculators” and “speculations,” “amortization,” “transfer,” “loss,” and even spoke of “leasing” an analytic hour. Freud also was a bit of a snob, excessively admiring the wealth and position of someone like his disciple the Princess George, Marie Bonaparte, who was a direct descendant of Napoleon’s brother Lucien. Orwell on his part made the most strenuous effort to break away from the class system of his society. He even sought to find out what it was like at the utmost bottom of the social pyramid. Going down and out in Paris and London hardly corresponded to either Freud’s ambitions or his conception of himself.

Freud conceived his role as a scientist, and he rarely lost sight of the need to systematize his ideas into a comprehensive framework. Although he might seek newspaper reviews of his books, he disdained writing for the popular press. Once in 1920, as his royalties in the United States began to mount, Freud volunteered through an American nephew, a public relations specialist, to write four articles for a New York magazine. Cosmopolitan then offered $1,000 for the first piece, but rejected Freud’s suggested title, substituting its own topic. Freud was horrified at what he saw as the dictatorship of a crass and uncultivated society and drew back with shock at the venture. As his authorized biographer Ernest Jones commented about Freud’s “stinging” letter of refusal to his relative, some of Freud’s “indignation emanated from feeling a little ashamed of himself at having descended from his usual standards by proposing to earn money through writing popular articles.”

Unlike Freud, Orwell had no medical practice to rely on; he was an immensely hard-working journalist who sometimes had to do hack work. Orwell came to think that it was relatively easy to live by means of journalism although his book royalties, until the end of his life, remained meagre. Orwell once defined a regular book reviewer as anyone who reviews at least one hundred books a year. Orwell’s vision was a sustained one, yet he was not a systematic thinker. Freud and Orwell had their respective missions in life, but Orwell’s had a specifically political aim. As a Socialist, he was committed to class struggle. Even in his most time-bound tracts, Orwell stands out as one of the best representatives of the humane English social tradition.

Freud was reluctant to develop the political and social implications of psychoanalysis and thought that his techniques were scientific and therefore ideologically neutral. Wherever Freud “applied” psychoanalysis to society, he emphasized that his application represented merely his personal views and that others might use psychoanalytic ideas to reach different ethical conclusions. Orwell, however, became convinced that everyone is necessarily a part of social conflict. He thought that political bias is inevitable. Even in aesthetics, Orwell insisted that there can be no such thing as neutrality.

In their practical political judgments Freud and Orwell also differed. From Orwell’s point of view as an opponent of all nationalisms, Freud would at best seem politically naive; at the outset of World War I, he joined the frenzies of enthusiasm toward the Central Powers. Like other Europeans of his day, Freud thought it well that the outbreak of warfare had swept away the artificialities of the old regime. His allegiances as a cosmopolitan soon reasserted themselves, but in his old age Freud supported a clerical and authoritarian government in Austria that put down the Socialists in a civil war. Freud not only could flatter Mussolini by inscribing a copy of Why War? to him but entertained as a hope the mistaken idea that one of his own disciples had direct access to the Italian dictator. Nevertheless, Freud, who rarely even voted, thought of himself as apolitical. As an enemy of Franco’s, Orwell would at least have been pleased that in the 1930’s when Freud was asked for copies of signed manuscripts to be auctioned off in behalf of the cause of the Spanish Republic, he willingly complied.

Although Freud started out as a heretic in terms of established psychology and medical practice, he gained an almost hypnotic effect on his followers and succeeded in establishing an orthodoxy which exerts its power even today, almost 40 years after his death. Freud knew the power of legend, and got his own version of the history of psychoanalysis into books long before anyone else realized that his “movement” was one which would have lasting interest. When potential renegades threatened the purity of Freud’s purposes, he did not hesitate to expel deviators as “heretics.” Orwell was sensitive to the ways in which would-be emancipators ended up by enslaving mankind’s thought. To Orwell, unorthodoxy was a necessary part of intelligent thinking. He admired heretics as those who refused to allow their consciences to be stifled by quietly accepting received wisdom. One of Orwell’s most fundamental convictions was that there were too many 20th-century religions claiming to possess “the truth.” 

Though at first glance Orwell and Freud are quite different, in many ways they are surprisingly similar. As writers, for instance, they both fascinate by being masters of an unpretentious way of expressing themselves. Freud’s visual talents fulfill Orwell’s dictum that “good prose is like a window pane.” (Neither of them was of Lytton Strachey’s persuasion: possessing a superb command of language himself, Strachey nonetheless thought that “literature was . . .a window closed tight against the racket. . . .”) At the outset of their writing careers, both Orwell and Freud lacked sales, but by the end of their lives collected editions of their works had appeared. Orwell’s triumph was a personal one, while Freud depended on the support of disciples. In Freud’s case his lively style can be discerned as early as adolescence; on the other hand Orwell became a conscious artist. To round out the bare bones of a comparison, both of them are known to the world by changed names: Freud gave up Sigismund for Sigmund and, more radically, Orwell had been born Eric Blair.

In their convictions Orwell and Freud had far more in common than one might suppose. Both were superlative rationalists who felt their intelligence oppressed by the weight of human stupidity. Religious belief seemed to them a particularly noxious species of nonsense. Politically, Orwell and Freud shared a suspicion of American power. Although Orwell made much more of his concern at the dangers inherent in machines, in his daily life Freud rarely relied on the use of the telephone; for both of them letter-writing was an art as well as a necessity. Although Freud was far older, born in 1856 instead of 1903, each came to feel that World War I marked a watershed after which the universe was barer and more dilapidated. Freud spent the last 16 years of his life afflicted with sickness and the approach of painful death; 1923, the year he first got cancer, is the single most important demarcation point in his mature writings. The pessimism of 1984, Orwell’s last book, has also often been traced to his intense personal suffering. Both saw themselves as outsiders in their respective societies. Both had a sense of privacy and requested that no official biography be commissioned, though in the end each family decided that the appearance of unauthorized, and supposedly misleading, biographical studies necessitated violating that request. In his lifetime Freud became the leader of a sect, and in death both men have been the centers of cults. Their archives have been jealously guarded, if not sealed, from the public’s inspection.

Orwell and Freud were committed to enlightenment and the destruction of myths. They remained puritanical believers in the power and morality of honesty. Yet both—Orwell politically and Freud scientifically—were capable of deceiving themselves, While defending the cause of enlightenment, they were unable to believe fully in the reality of progress. Both cherished European civilization as a whole, retaining a special affection for England’s heritage of liberties. The world before World War I was the great age of liberal bourgeois culture; but the 20th century undermined the Empires in which Orwell and Freud had been born. The Austro-Hungarian Empire broke apart earlier than the British one, yet a mood of helplessness pervades the work of both writers. In 1984 Britain has been absorbed into the United States to help make up Oceania. Therapeutically, Freud respected and worked with “breakdowns”; and Orwell became convinced that while it was impossible for anyone to win, some kinds of failure were superior to others. Both men accepted the inevitability of suffering.

Orwell’s Socialist commitments were not collectivist but of a liberal kind; Freud had a similar moral disposition. Both Orwell and Freud were acutely sensitive to the threat to privacy posed by the conformist pressures of society. Eccentricity and individualism can be hard to sustain. Orwell’s alternative title for 1984 had been The Last Man in Europe.In the novel “ownlife” is a specially designated crime. Winston Smith’s first seditious act is diary-keeping; he buys a blank book in a junk shop and then a penholder and a bottle of ink. Reading is also solitary and therefore becomes as subversive as writing. Orwell refused to abbreviate the difficult portion of the novel where Winston Smith reads from Emmanuel Goldstein’s book; Orwell had been under pressure to make cuts there from the Book-of-the-Month Club, but he stood his ground and they adopted 1984 anyway.

As prophets, Orwell and Freud shared similar aims. Both demanded the preservation of integrity within one’s soul. Their basic value was the love of liberty. Freud sought to free his patients through unearthing their childhood pasts. By reinterpreting what already exists in our mental lives and through recalling past experiences, the psychoanalyst aims to release the most vivid and genuine responsiveness. But Orwell fears in 1984 that the future holds an opposite promise. As O’Brien, Winston Smith’s inquisitor, predicts: “Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling. Everything will be dead inside you. . . . You will be hollow. We will squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves,”

Above all, the psychologies of Orwell’s 1984 and that of Freud’s system are remarkably similar. Both thinkers have been accused of misanthropy; neither defends hedonism. Both are one-sidedly morbid and characteristically negative. But their pessimistic extremism rests on the skepticism of disappointed idealism; both Orwell and Freud retain a fragmentary hope that psychology can improve mankind’s lot. In a painful autobiographical essay, “Such, Such, Were the Joys,” written in the year he began 1984, Orwell observed that thanks to the spread of psychological knowledge it was now “harder for parents and schoolteachers to indulge their aberrations in the name of discipline.” The problem for Orwell, as for Freud, was how one could ever know what someone else, in this instance a child, might be thinking. Orwell like Freud thought that the key issue was not behavior but inner feelings.

Freud held that an understanding of unconscious motivation was the central contribution of his psychology:

He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore. And thus the task of making conscious the most hidden recesses of the mind is one which it is quite possible to accomplish.

In 1984 Freud’s knowledge of unconscious means of expression is precisely what is to be feared; one might betray oneself through a mere expression in the eyes.”The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide.” Orwell called it the danger of facecrime. Winston reflected: “Your worst enemy was your own nervous system. At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom . . .what was frightening was that the action was quite possibly unconscious.” Wishfully irrational thinking, for Orwell as for Freud, became a menace.

In 1984 the ubiquitious telescreen threatens to invade the mind’s inner self. But despite its constant spying, Winston believes that with planning it is still possible to outwit the authorities. For “with all their cleverness they had never mastered the secret of finding out what another human being was thinking.” Once imprisoned, Winston concedes, the issue would grow more acute. Even then, however, he optimistically hopes that only “facts” would be extracted:

But if the object was not to stay alive but to stay human, what difference did it ultimately make? They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you could not alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could lay bare in the utmost detail everything you had done or saia or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.

Liberalism historically has defended the distinction between a person’s mind and his actions; a division between inner and outer states was also a part of the rise of the theory of religious toleration. Winston is even confident that confession under coercion need be no ultimate threat to human autonomy.”Confession is not betrayal. What you say or do doesn’t matter; only feelings matter.” But one purpose in Orwell’s writing 1984 was to expose the weakness in traditional liberal psychology. Does the existence of subjective feelings over which we have no control, and the play of mystery, reassure or undermine the liberal ideal of self-control? Freud thought that through free associations he could succeed in finding out what another human being is thinking. He too aimed to promote self-mastery. And he saw, as did Orwell, the out-datedness of any image of old-fashioned confession: “In confession the sinner tells what he knows; in analysis the neurotic has to tell more.”

Once Winston gets arrested his previous assumptions undergo almost clinical testing, Freud had thought of psychoanalysis as an educative process; his treatment procedure was designed to combat resistances based on self-deception, “Psychoanalytic treatment,” he once wrote, “may in general be conceived as . . .a re-education in overcoming internal resistances.” Under arrest, however, Winston faces a formidable ordeal which turns out to be brutal: “the task of re-educating himself.”

The demands on Winston are heavier than he, or pre-Freudian psychology, could have expected.”From now onwards he must not only think right; he must feel right, dream right.” It would seem that under extreme stress the ideal distinction between deeds and desires becomes meaningless. O’Brien tells Winston that “the Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about.” Freud had believed that in our unconscious minds there is no difference between wishful ideas and acts; but in 1984 this hypothesis has become a working accusatory political principle, One of the terrors of captivity turns out to be that “in the eyes of the Party there was no distinction between the thought and the deed.”

Thought-crime could come about in sleep-talking or by any other involuntary expression. The Thought Police of 1984 are agents whose task is inner snooping. The telescreen is sensitive enough to pick up heart beats, Once Winston is imprisoned, his dreams, which Freud considered the royal road to the unconscious, are also open to inspection. Unlike an analytic patient, Winston is not cooperating voluntarily. But Orwell described Winston’s earlier diary-keeping as a “therapy” which has not worked. According to the logic of 1984, Winston must now undergo a more drastic treatment.

The psychology which explains O’Brien’s power over Winston is Freudian. According to psychoanalysis, neurosis binds one to the terrors one tries to master. Freud sought to understand self-destructiveness. According to him, what a man most dreads he also longs for; and what someone fears can lead to what he fears coming true. Freud called this “the fatal truth that has laid it down that flight is precisely an instrument that delivers one over to what one is fleeing from.” Winston had written his diary for O’Brien. Later Winston’s panic in recurrent nightmares of rats gives O’Brien the key to understanding his breaking point, the worst thing in the world according to Winston’s psyche. This ultimate horror varies from individual to individual, which accounts for O’Brien’s reference to the unknown terrors of the dreaded Room 101: “Everyone knows what is in Room 101.”

Freud was so preoccupied with the issue of understanding another’s thoughts that in the end he came to believe in telepathy, at least in the form of thought-transference; one of his more committed essays on telepathy was withheld from publication until after his death, Orwell wrote in a letter in 1949: “I can’t get very interested in telepathy unless it could be developed into a reliable method.” Empathy, however, was one of Orwell’s goals: he once objected to orthodox Marxists on the grounds that “possessing a system which appears to explain everything, they never bother to discover what is going on inside other people’s heads.”

If it is possible to make too much of parallels between Orwell and Freud, Winston’s torture by O’Brien is clearly modelled on psychoanalytic treatment. Winston lies flat on his back as O’Brien reads his mind, To O’Brien, Winston is “a difficult case.” Their time together is described as a series of “sessions.” O’Brien’s stated aim is to “cure” Winston, to make him “sane,” As O’Brien explains to Winston: “You are mentally deranged. You suffer from a defective memory. . . . Fortunately it is curable.” Winston seems to have a “disease” which gives him “delusions.” O’Brien is described as having “the air of a doctor, a teacher, even a priest, anxious to explain and persuade rather than to punish.” Orwell is reported by Richard Rees to have made one direct, dismissing reference to psychoanalysis: “A psychoanalyst would have to be cleverer than his patients.” A terrible feature in 1984 is precisely O’Brien’s intelligence: he “knew everything.” To consider Winston’s torture as therapy makes it even more frightening from a libertarian point of view. Even when Winston is shown in a mirror the physical wreck O’Brien has transformed him into, O’Brien insists that it is Winston who has reduced himself to such a state.

The psychoanalyst’s technique of using a couch involves the patient in both social and sensory deprivation. Probably any psychotherapeutic situation, with or without a couch, evokes magical feelings. But in Freud’s system of treatment, the process of overcoming self-deceptions distinctively means the arousal within the patient of resistances against the analyst; analysis then becomes a struggle. The patient makes a contract for what can, given enough sadism in an analyst and passivity in a patient, turn into an inquisition. In 1984 one of the Party’s central aims had been “how to discover, against his will, what another human being is thinking.” In 1984 science has almost ceased to exist; but the scientist of that time is “a mixture of psychologist and inquisitor,” who does research “studying with extraordinary minuteness the meaning of facial expressions, gestures and tones of voice, and testing the truth-producing effects of drugs, shock therapy, hypnosis and physical torture, . . .” O’Brien aims not merely to destroy the Party’s enemies but to change them.

Freud was nai’ve politically, not just in terms of day-to-day world events but about the power elements implicit in his method of treatment. He hoped that his goal of neutrality in the analyst would be enough to protect the patient from undue influence. Orwell however was exquisitely sensitive to power seeking. In 1984 he observes: “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together in new shapes of your own choosing.” In a rare reference to Freud, Orwell in an essay links him with Machiavelli, perhaps not only as a false emancipator. In the therapeutic state there are neither taboos for the individual nor legal restrictions on public authority. As a friend of individualism, Orwell worries in 1984: “ If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?” The last words of 1984 express Orwell’s warning for the future; the struggle is over and Winston has conquered himself: now he loves the mythical dictator, Big Brother.

Freud was a great psychologist of memory. The strength of his approach rests on the way our minds play tricks with us about our past. The distortions and selectivity of memory are, Freud held, the stuff of neurosis. The analyst should aim to correct false recollections and, through reawakening past experiences, to repair psychological damages. At the outset of 1984, Orwell’s protagonist suffers from an unintelligible childhood. Winston makes an effort to recover childhood memories; he wonders whether London has always been the same. As he forces himself to reminisce in diary-writing, new memories arise that clarify the past. At one point Winston tries to get his girl friend Julia to collaborate in retrospection: he encourages her memory to go backwards. Winston feels that his own memory is “not satisfactorily under control,” and therefore he has “furtive” knowledge that others lack. He feels in his bones “some kind of ancestral memory that things had once been different.” The tormenting capacity of memory lends 1984 its nightmarish air.

Winston’s sense of smell in particular evokes the past. In the Spartan world of 1984 fresh coffee succeeds in reminding him of “the half-forgotten world of his childhood.” Chocolate makes him think of something he once did which he would prefer to undo, but which remains inexorably a part of his past. It takes only a whiff of a scent of chocolate to stir up a personal memory that is both “powerful and troubling.” Dreams reawaken when Winston would like to forget. He takes his dreaming seriously as “a continuation of one’s intellectual life . . .in which one becomes aware of facts and ideas which still seem new and valuable after one is awake.” After one such dream, Winston becomes conscious why memories of his mother had been tearing at his heart; a childhood bit of greediness for chocolate on his part had preceded the disappearance of both his mother and his sister.

Winston’s concern with memory is public as well as private. In the course of 1984 he goes down and out, trying to test an old man’s recollections; regretfully he finds only “a rubbish heap of details” instead of a useful historical account. The Proles, who comprise the non-Party 85 percent of the population of Oceania, are no help in resisting tyranny. Winston bitterly comments that “where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory.” Winston’s job as an Outer Party member is in the Records Department, where he specializes in the falsification of written material. History can be manipulated and destroyed, as evidence from the past gets incinerated in “memory holes.” Not only events but people as well can be made to disappear, as they are “vaporized” into oblivion. Winston fears the danger not merely of death but of annihilation. Winston knows that anyone’s existence can be “denied and then forgotten.”

During his captivity, the continuity of Winston’s daily memories is broken. After he and O’Brien have looked at a document incriminating to the official version of the past, Winston reminds O’Brien of what they have just seen; but O’Brien flatly repudiates the memory. After lengthy interrogation and repugnant cruelty, Winston gets physical treatment for his mind. O’Brien administers what is described as “a devastating explosion . . .as though a piece had been taken out of his brain.” Afterwards Winston is still occasionally troubled by “false memories”; but if he recalls anything contrary to the Party’s demands, Winston can now dismiss it as a product of self-deception.

While Freud proposed therapeutically to reconstruct personal history, Orwell feared the artificial destruction of the past. Their shared concern for memory led both to be dubious about the reliability of autobiographies; and their reticence about authorizing biographies of themselves stemmed from a similar historical skepticism. In 1984 bringing history up to date becomes one means of abolishing the past. A frightening Party slogan goes: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The past becomes mutable, and therefore Orwell considers the future “unimaginable.” If the past can be re-written, does it retain any of its traditional reality?

Orwell tended to romanticize the advantages of the past, although his nostalgia is touched with bitterness. In 1984 the further back one goes the more there is of love, freedom, friendship, and loyalty. As Freud had thought that each of his patients carried within him the unconscious truths about himself, Winston proposes that the best books are “those that tell you what you know already,” When Winston and Julia rent a room above the antique store, they try to recapture a lost London: “the room was a world, a pocket of the past where extinct animals could walk.” According to Party teachings, “anything old, or for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect.” The glass paperweight Winston acquires stands for his yearning for the world of the past; the Thought Police are quick to smash it when they arrest him.

Freud was fascinated by the distant past; he collected ancient statuary and likened memories to archeological artifacts. The task of therapy was to loosen ties to the past and by reviving early emotional experiences to free the individual from neurotic bondages. Unlike Orwell’s fearful regret that history has lost its meaning, Freud believed in the permanency of its power: “in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish— . . .everything is somehow preserved and . . .in suitable circumstances. . .it can once more be brought to life.” Freud thought that each of us carries within him a kind of resonance board, so that when we see or experience anything all our past memories give their over-tones to our experience. The past lives in the present through the influence of unconscious forces.”In the unconscious nothing can be brought to an end, nothing is past or forgotten.”

Whatever the differences in their approaches to the past, for Orwell as for Freud childhood is the central, though inaccessible, period in human history. Both believe that a child’s responses and misperceptions are a permanent source of adult anxiety and conflict; and both see childhood as the model of later enslavement and oppression. Although human beings may be peculiarly exploitable because of the inevitability of early dependencies, Freud and Orwell each value retaining the child’s spontaneity and freshness. It is particularly significant for understanding Orwell’s views that in 1984 normal family life has been destroyed. Children are dreadful savages eager to witness the spectacle of public hangings and horrible enough to become spies on the look-out for unorthodox thoughts in the minds of their own parents. When one reads Orwell’s account of the sadism built into his own boarding school experience, a world to him of “force and fraud and secrecy,” it is hard not to see the personal basis on which he later constructed the vision of 1984.

Orwell’s attitudes toward women in 1984 are close to Freud’s, They both, for instance, conceive of mothers in terms of ideally self-sacrificing creatures. More importantly, the character of Julia combines a familiar set of idealized conceptions of femininity, which while they exalt women also denigrate them. Julia is noble and pure; she brings delicacies of food as well as sex. Yet she is incapable of Winston’s intellectual effort; Julia falls asleep while he reads her portions of Goldstein’s book. Orwell comments that “she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life,” and that “the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.” Winston is wary of intimacy, and links sensuality with stupidity; he tells her: “You’re only a rebel from the waist downwards. . . .” Julia does not care much about reading, and her docile work on the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department is a mark of Orwell’s contempt.

Women are the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the staunchest hunters of heresy, and the most credulous believers in slogans. But Julia had hopefully thought that “they can make you say anything—anything— but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you.” Whatever her inadequacies, Winston confides his guilt about his mother to Julia. Instead of emphasizing, as Freud often did, sex’s capacity to enslave, the way passions can be bondage, Orwell saw love as capable of releasing one’s best self. But Freud too could be idealistic about the emotional side of physical love. And just as Freud complained that modern civilization entailed new forms of nervousness, Orwell thought emotions flowed easier and better in the past. When he first sees the spot in the countryside that Julia had chosen for their rendezvous, it reminds Winston of a beautiful landscape he has long dreamt of.

Eroticism is the Party’s enemy. Children are conceived solely for collective purposes. Pleasurable sexuality is a species of rebelliousness: “Desire was thought-crime.” The sexual instinct is to be eradicated, the orgasm abolished. As an animal drive, sexuality constitutes a political act.1984 has an “Anti-Sex League” and its vows of celibacy. Freud had foreseen how “two people in love, by excluding the larger society, incite its wrath.” For Freud, neurotic symptoms could be understood on the model of an already aroused energy, first suppressed and then finding devious expression. In 1984 the energy blocked by privations gets transformed into the hysteria of war fever and leadership worship. Freud and Orwell repudiate any conception of ascetism as an ideal; both think that Christian sainthood is a form of escapism from the difficult demands of love and the pain of preferring some people more than others. And both grew suspicious of humanitarianism as a form of hypocrisy.

Orwell describes the prevalent atmosphere of 1984 as “controlled insanity.” The power of the Party rests on its ability to dissipate discontents by turning them outwards towards Oceania’s rivals, Eastasia and Eurasia. The world Orwell feared in the future was filled with irrational terrors and lunatic misunderstandings. Orwell not only considered Hitler criminally insane but was inclined to the view that it was possible to describe a whole culture as insane. In 1946 Orwell wrote that “political behavior is largely non-rational . . .the world is suffering from some kind of mental disease which must be diagnosed before it can be cured.” Curiously, as skeptical as Orwell was about psychoanalysis, when confronted with Nazis, he chose to join the school of thought that considers anti-Semitism a sickness. After observing some captured Germans in 1945, Orwell fell back on the theory of neurosis; the appropriate remedy, he argued, was not punishment or revenge but some form of psychological treatment for the prisoners of war.

The language and imagery of the psychoanalytic consulting room pervade 1984.Winston fears that he will unwillingly betray his inner conflicts through unconscious symptoms of unorthodoxy. He is a self-deceiver subject to occasional hallucinatory experiences, Orwell describes Winston’s renting a room as a “lunatic” project. Irresistible impulses seize control of Winston; returning to the junk shop for antiques is seen as a form of death wish.

Although Orwell’s vision in 1984 may sound extreme, he had become increasingly preoccupied with the problem of establishing truth and sanity in a universe of lies. Orthodoxy is one technique for maintaining emotional equilibrium, but Orwell rejects the option of securing sanity through lack of understanding. At the same time, Orwell disliked the idea that normality can be established by counting the number of people who share any belief. But if madness is not identical with non-conformity, what is it? Even Freud never went very far in exploring this critical line of thought. Orwell and Freud clung to the notion that there has to be some objective, external standard by which one assesses reality, perhaps because both of them were aware of the extent to which it is possible to delude oneself. Freud had stressed the way in which fantasies can becloud rationality. In 1984, Goldstein, Big Brother, and a host of other features to life may be fictitious, the products of psychological invention; reality may become so elusive as to be defined solely by the intent of the Party.

The 2 percent of the population of Oceania who make up the Inner Party are held together by their common allegiance to a doctrine; the Brotherhood, the supposed forces of opposition, is also built on an indestructible form of ideology. But idealism leads to insanity. For once there are no longer any records that exist outside of human memory, and assuming that memories are mutable, then it becomes impossible to be sure of even the most paltry matter of fact. Orwell’s objections to the way in which orthodox believers hold to the existence of “the truth” stemmed partly from his own uncertainty about how, under modern conditions, reality can ever be securely established. Becoming unbalanced was only one aspect of the problem confronting Orwell; being wrong was another. In the long run, Orwell and Freud were agreed, only the truth can make us free. In 1984 Orwell sardonically proposes warfare as a reliable guide against insanity; illusions are militarily dangerous, and therefore war kept Oceania attached to some semblance of truth.

For Orwell, sanity was part of one’s humanity. “It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.” One gathers from Orwell’s essays that he considered Freud’s distinctive method as suitable mainly for understanding the exceptionally perverse or for treating those chosen spirits in search of salvation, but throughout Orwell’s work he preferred to be concerned with the maintenance of the average person’s ordinary human decency. In 1984 two and two can be made sometimes to add up to five, and that kind of dislocation is only a portion of what the Party can accomplish. In the face of strange events and bizarre theories, Orwell had insisted in 1936 that “it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive.” Freud tended to take for granted a standard of adulthood which worthy people more or less lived up to; both Freud and Orwell disdained the weaknesses of the “riff-raff,” and used “grownupness” as a high form of praise.

One of the triumphs of 1984 is Orwell’s conception of Newspeak, a language invented not to expand but to decrease the scope of human thought. Orwell was convinced that politics and language were intimately connected, and the debasement of human dignity could take place in either of these interrelated spheres. The aim of Newspeak was to render thought-crime logically impossible; by destroying old words and creating new ones, thoughts can be so narrowed that heresy becomes unthinkable. The jargon of modern ideologies, such as nationalism, leads people to repress facts for the sake of consistency of conviction.

Double-think is a Newspeak word for mastering reality by means of controlling memories. In 1984 old-fashioned contradictions become increasingly unsettling as apparent paradoxes dissolve under Newspeak logic. Since there are no laws, nothing can be illegal. The central principles of 1984— war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength—gain an eerie meaning by the end of the novel. Orwell once labelled schizophrenic “the power of holding simultaneously two beliefs which cancel out,” and considered similarly pathological the manner of thinking which ignores “facts which are obvious and unalterable, and which will have to be faced sooner or later.” Double-think is described as the means by which one can hold “two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously,” and accept both of them as true. In this respect double-think is almost a parody of the psychoanalytic ideal of normality—the capacity to endure in the face of ambiguity, frustration, delay. By contrast, 1984 suggests that through neutralizing knowledge and altering the past, it becomes possible to forget that one has forgotten anything.

Moreover, double-think is a concept which might well be applied to features of Freud’s system of thought, which helps explain why Orwell, despite the resemblances between his own psychological beliefs and those of psychoanalysis, held himself aloof from Freudianism. If a former patient symptomatically recovers without the supervision of a psychoanalyst, then the recovery can be dismissed as a defensive “flight into health.” But if a patient deteriorates in the course of treatment, the problem is supposed to lie in the patient’s masochism, and the failure is put under the rubric of “negative therapeutic reaction.” Some psychoanalytic patients have later ended up in psychiatric hospitals, or as suicides, but Freud could regard such outcomes as a tribute to the efficacy of psychoanalysis: the patients’ neuroses had been “cured,” only the success of the treatment had led the way to more primitive means of coping, psychosis, The whole concept of “resistance” in psychoanalysis can be readily abused; Freud’s system had too many formulas that excused both analysts and patients from assuming full responsibility for their actions. In addition, while Freud was alive, he took pains to doctor the history of psychoanalysis to suit his own ideological purposes; and since his death, orthodox followers have continued the falsification of history. To take only one example, all the volumes of Freud’s published correspondence, with one recent exception, have been tendentiously edited.

The psychology of 1984, Orwell’s greatest sustained piece of work, reflects concerns which are present in earlier writings. He once even wrote a novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter,about a case of amnesia in a sexually repressed young woman. Freud himself readily acknowledged that “creative writers are valuable allies and their evidence is to be prized highly, for they are apt to know a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not let us dream.” Although Orwell could not endorse Freud’s psychology, implicitly he came close to several key psychoanalytic tenets.

It need hardly be emphasized that in 1984 Orwell had composed a critique not only of Stalinism but of industrial trends in the rest of the world as well. But Orwell’s famous novel was also published at one of the high points of Freud’s influence, which may help account still further for its immediate success. In that early Cold War period, it was fashionable in the West for intellectuals to turn to individual psychology, and in particular to its depth dimensions, as an explanation and rationalization for their withdrawal from earlier radical social commitments. If human nature were as Orwell and Freud saw it, then little wonder that earlier hopes for change had remained unfulfilled. Whatever their respective politics, intellectually Orwell and Freud were iconoclasts; their differing commitments help explain their particular visions. The extent to which, despite all their differences, Orwell’s psychology reveals similarities to Freud’s, testifies to the pervasive influence of psychoanalysis on 20th-century images of human nature. Comparing these two writers also helps show how Freud’s insights fall within the history of ideas. A passage in Orwell about Jonathan Swift illuminates the power which a certain kind of genius can have:

Swift did not possess ordinary wisdom, but he did possess a terrible intensity of vision, capable of picking out a single hidden truth and then magnifying it and distorting it. The durability of Gulliver’s Travels goes to show that if the force of belief is behind it, a world-view which only just passes the test of sanity is sufficient to produce a great work of art.

Orwell’s1984 as well as Freud’s psychoanalysis illustrate the principle that it is sometimes necessary to disproportion reality in order to heighten our perception of certain aspects of it.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading