Jul 252011

In a previous post I touched on the difference between fantasizing about a person being in peril of violence and a person actually suffering violence.

This clip above is the 1954 BBC television adaptation of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four.

In the book, Winston is shown the rat cage device, strapped down and then the device is placed on his face. Only then does he crack.

In this production, they don’t even put the device on Winston’s head. O’Brien merely shows the device to Winston and describes how it operates, and this is enough to make Winston crack and say, “Do it to Julia!”

According to Wikipedia, this broadcast inspired considerable discussion about violence in the media, including discussions in Parliament about the BBC pandering to sadistic tastes. Supposedly a woman died from shock watching it.

I found that a little odd is there is relatively little overt violence (at least by the jaundiced standards of 2011). When I first saw this, I thought it was something of a cop-out that they didn’t even show Winston with the device on his face.

On further thought, I reconsidered my opinion.

O’Brien, the Thought Police agent, is playing on Winston’s deep-seated, irrational phobias; it’s implied that the Thought Police have been monitoring and studying Winston for some time and may know him better than he knows himself. The idea of rats attacking him was already in Winston’s mind, and all O’Brien had to do was make it a real possibility to have the desired effect. O’Brien’s not bluffing when he does this, but his point is not to inflict physical or mental anguish; his point is to break Winston’s attachment to Julia.

This is what O’Brien has been working towards, at least since his meeting with Winston and Julia, when he lies to them about joining the “Brotherhood.” Winston’s only real disobedience, and his only real loyalty, is his attachment to Julia. If outward behaviour has been conquered in this dystopian society, the new frontier of “discipline and punish” is the inside of Winston’s head.

If the threat of violence is pervasive and credible, then actual use of violence is secondary. We already know that Winston is severely damaged and lives in constant fear of violence, even though there is very little overt violence in the book until the end. Winston seems to be in a permanent cringe, like a kicked dog. After his capture, Winston is so horrorified at the thought of being hit with a truncheon, that actually being hit is nearly redundant. (Cowards, it is said, die a thousand times.)

I think this goes to a point discussed previously, notably in Sacred Pain, that the individual mind does a lot of interpretation and processing of actual physical sensation. In the holding area, Winston and the other Outer Party members are terrified wretches, almost completely paralyzed, while the proles engage in various forms of symbolic resistance. The threat is the same, but the Outer Party members are trained to fear authority.

O’Brien’s room 101 is a more refined form of this. His goal is to find Winston’s button and push it with a threat. In theory, he doesn’t really need to actually build the rat apparatus. He could just tell Winston about it and get the desired result. However, I think O’Brien might say that it’s the principle of the thing. Winston has to believe the device exists and that O’Brien will use it, beyond any doubt.

So, I think it is a legitimate artistic choice that this film has Winston crack on just seeing the device, instead of being strapped down and having it on his face as in the book and the later film. The filmmakers weren’t necessarily caving in to censorship when they held back.

So, what makes torture is a psychological state.

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