Franz Kafka and George Orwell both understood hopelessness, embodied by a monolithic system, and the will to fight against it. That will, at least in their novels, could not survive the relentless assault of hypocrisy and arbitrariness that is the heart of all totalitarian systems.
In Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K, an estranged and self-absorbed citizen, is the victim of anonymous governing forces beyond his control. Deceived by authoritarian power, he is relentlessly harassed for a crime that remains nameless. Finding himself arrested and awaiting trial, K sinks deeper and deeper in this hall of mirrors that his life has become. In Kafka, the institution is a mechanism that obeys its own laws; no one knows now who programmed those laws or when; they have nothing to do with human concerns and are thus unintelligible. Resigned to his fate, though still questioning the situation, Joseph K. does not protest his execution at the end of the book. In following Joseph K.’s struggle toward absolution, the novel presents us with a moving account of what it is to be born naked and defenseless into a completely incomprehensible system.
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the memory hole is the mechanism for the alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts or other records, to give the impression that something never happened. Winston Smith works for The Party’s Ministry of Truth, which systematically re-created all potential historical documents, in effect, re-writing all of history to match the often-changing state propaganda. These changes were complete and undetectable. Winston, like Joseph K, is most definitely estranged from the governing authority, represented by The Party, Ingsoc. In the end, Winston’s brief rebellion against the system is snuffed out by the prospect of being consigned to room 101, which contains each person’s greatest fear. How could the system be certain that Winston truly embraced it after his rebellion? The only way to avoid his own room 101 was by abandoning his beloved, Julia, to her room 101.
Both Kafka and Orwell understood the power of language to enable oppression and create hopelessness. In 1984, the mechanisms used by the Party were “Doublethink” and “Newspeak”. In The Trial, the authorities pleaded ignorance of the charges of the nameless crime while zealously carrying out the orders of a nameless hierarchy. The words they use are cleansed of universal meanings, such as when an official tells K, “it’s true that you’re under arrest but that shouldn’t stop you from doing your job, and there shouldn’t be anything to stop you from carrying on your normal life.”
In the same way, Winston’s bureaucratic persecutor informs him, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
While the Party in 1984 intended to eliminate thought crimes, today we have another Party that is manufacturing thought crimes. Hint: hate speech, hate crimes, political correctness, safe spaces, campus speech codes. Whom is all that stuff associated with? As with Newspeak the immediate goal is to narrow the range of acceptable thoughts. Unlike Ingsoc, we don’t have either the technology or the surveillance–at least I hope not–to completely eliminate thoughtcrime, that is, individualism, so the alternative method, is to create so many more crimes through speech codes that their long term goal–shutting you up–will be realized.