Monday, 11 June 2018

Grim Secrets of Room 101 . . . Is it Time to Uncover the Origin of Orwell’s Worst Fears in Nineteen Eighty-Four?

‘In your case,’ said O’Brien, ‘the worst thing
in the world happens to be rats.’ 
[Winston Smith’s] bowels seemed to 
turn to water. ‘You can’t do that!’ he 
cried out in a high cracked voice.

From time to time I like to assume the mask of a literary sleuthhound even though I am far from claiming the mantle of an academic or of a pundit. I defer to those who are the genuine article. Especially Hungarian polyglots.

As polyglot and polymath George Tabori once boasted, ‘Only a Hungarian (or a Pole [a reference to Conrad?] ) would have the arrogance to write in English . . .’

So I revere the literary works of Hungarians Tabori and Arthur Koestler, despite my inbred assumptions due to that venerable English adage which warns us that Hungarians are the only people who can enter a revolving door behind you and come out of it in front.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
written for the screen and directed by Michael Radford,
starring John Hurt as Winston Smith.

Communazi totalitarianism . . . forever stamping on a human face.

One can assume that the ideological battleground that has been Hungary over the last hundred years – lurching from imperial crownland to Nazi puppet state to Soviet satellite and thence to a national-conservative autocracy – was bound to make the Hungarian intelligentsia exceptionally quick on their feet.

Such nimble footwork in contriving to keep one step ahead of the fraudulent dogmas of Communazi totalitarianism also explains the fascination the Brothers Tabori (George Tabori and his older brother, Paul Tabori) and Koestler held for George Orwell – they moved in the same orbit and, as members of a London-based anti-fascist commentariat, theirs was a common crusade.  

But my contention is that the significant inspiriter of Orwell in his vision of the sadistic torments inflicted in Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) rather than Koestler (Darkness at Noon /otherwise Sonnenfinsternis, 1940), as often claimed, was in fact George Tabori and his Beneath the Stone the Scorpion, 1945 (otherwise Das Opfer / The Victim).

George Orwell and George Tabori 
regularly broadcast for the BBC during WW2.
(Tabori portrait by Werner Bethsold.) 

Orwell’s nightmarish dystopia prefigured by a 1947 political pamphleteer.

Though it’s true that the archives of the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin (the repository of George Tabori’s papers) contain no evidence of the Tabori-Orwell connection, by contrast, in support of my theory, we can see that Orwell’s collection of political pamphlets (catalogued as one of the last tasks performed by his secretary, Siriol Hugh Jones) contains a January 1947 pamphlet edited by George Tabori, Hungary Today: a Review of Hungarian Life and Letters; published by the Hungarian Club, 33 Pembridge Square, London W.2. (Shelfmark 1899, British Library).

Orwell’s pamphlets collection was of immense importance to him as a private data-bank in his pursuit of his journalistic career. He declared himself a pamphleteer, regarding the pamphlet as a powerful literary and political device for influencing social change. Indeed, Nineteen Eighty-Four was viewed by many critics as a satirical ‘broadside’ against inexorable oligarchical rule in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s polemical writings. (George Orwell edited and wrote the introduction to volume I of British Pamphleteers, 1948.)

So, for Orwell, the pamphlet was one of the most active forms of provocative writing by ideologues from his turbulent times and, to judge from the contents of George Tabori’s pamphlet, published in the year of Orwell’s first drafting of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ‘classic ideological battle-lines drawn’ across post-war Hungary, described by Tabori, shaped the nightmarish dystopia of totalitarianism prophesied by England’s maverick polemicist, whose cautionary fable was soon to send shockwaves across the world to challenge the beliefs of all political classes, west and east. 

As I hope to demonstrate, the resemblances between Orwell’s novel and the Hungarian Tabori brothers’ writings are uncanny in the observable concordance, in each case, of predictions that foretell the ruthlessness of an envisioned totalitarian regime, relentless in its attempt – regardless of the sacrifice of life, truth and freedom – to eliminate the forces of reaction from all agencies of political life. 

In essence, Tabori’s smudged, multi-graphed, typewritten pamphlet presciently warns his troubled country: ‘What are “facts”? Where does documentation end and propaganda begin?’

The Tabori Connection: Book plate in first edition
of Orwell’s Coming Up for Air from the library of 
the Hungarian émigré and author Paul Tabori
(George’s brother). The book contains a folded letter,
‘Dear Mr Tabori’, dated June 6th 1947 from the Isle
of Jura. The letter  refers to the Communist putsch
‘tightening their grip’ in Hungary and the 
resultant censorship.

1947: A mirror of a hierarchical surveillance society?

Let us look at the correlations within George Tabori’s pamphlet that suggest that Orwell saw vividly a post-war Hungary (1946-1947) as a microcosm of the hierarchical surveillance society he conceived would be the fate of Great Britain (Airstrip One) in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

So where are the coinciding points in Hungary Today [HT] that tell of political machinations that seem to have been absorbed and transmuted into the sinister intrigues of Nineteen Eighty-Four [N-E-Fby a writer possessed by the zeitgeist of January 1947?

Airstrip One: Here is an extract from a news item from page 18 [HT], entitled Reaction Strikes: Anti-Republican Conspiracy. On January 4th 1947, the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior announced: ‘State security organisations in recent weeks discovered a dangerous and wide-spread anti-republican conspiracy. The leaders of this fascist plot and its members who have been arrested . . . prepared the ground for the assumption of power by force and hoped to stage an armed military coup d’état . . . the conspiracy was directed by a “Committee of Seven” . . . Each member had clearly defined duties. . . . The special task of the military leaders was to give armed support to a so-called “Counter-Government” and put it in power . . . Since the end of 1945 this committee met secretly each week . . . To carry out special military tasks the Committee had several aircraft at their disposal. These were kept in parts ready for assembly.’  
[cf. N-E-FIn the vast laboratories of the Ministry of Peace . . . teams of experts are indefatigably at work . . . Some are concerned simply with planning the logistics of future wars . . . or . . .  strive to produce a vehicle that shall bore its way under the soil like a submarine under the water, or an aeroplane as independent of its base as a sailing-ship . . .’

The Inner Party (whose scapegoat is The Brotherhood, the Enemy of the People):  From page 18 [HT]: ‘To organise the the underground armed forces  the “Committee of Seven” established a so-called “Underground High Command” . . . The “Underground High Command” assumed this final form in the autumn of 1946 and issued its first communique on 1st October 1946.’ 
[cf. N-E-F‘A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State. The Brotherhood, its name was supposed to be.’

The Outer Party: From page 20 [HT]: ‘. . . a class of hangers-on who had lost most of their land and flocked to the towns to make up the civil service and the army. Their dread of becoming declassé and their snobbishness prevented them from forming a stable middle-class and many of them embraced Nazism with nauseating haste . . . Apart from a small Marxist vanguard, Hungarian writers still seem to be dazed, gripped by nostalgia for the past and an almost apocalyptic dread of the future. Their predicament cannot be divorced from the general sense of shame and disintegration that characterises the bourgeoisie . . . Nostalgic attachment to the past, irrationalism, indifference, escapism and pessimism are the main . . . critique . . . particular to Central Europe and due to lack of democratic development . . .’  
[cf. N-E-F‘But there were also times when they had the illusion not only of safety but of permanence. So long as they were actually in this room, they both felt, no harm could come to them . . . the room itself was sanctuary. It was as when Winston had gazed into the heart of the paperweight, with the feeling that it would be possible to get inside that glassy world, and that once inside it time could be arrested. Often they gave themselves up to daydreams of escape.’

The Proles: From page 20 [HT]: ‘For a long time the two progressive trends, urban and peasant, were sharply divided. The urban intelligentsia was mainly liberal, dreaming of a society on the Western pattern, it alienated itself from both the industrial workers, whom it despised, and the peasantry, whom it suspected of Fascist leanings. The peasant-intelligentsia . . . perform an important task by exploring and cataloguing the misery and sloth of the “romantic” peasant . . . a new appropriate scale of aesthetic values . . . opens the way for a sort of literary Front Populaire.”  
[cf. N-E-F‘And the Ministry [of Truth] had not only to supply the multifarious needs of the party, but also to repeat the whole operation at a lower level for the benefit of the proletariat. There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes*, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator.’ 

The impenetrability of ‘Deep Continent’ party-politicking. 

Well, the passages cited above are just mere glimpses of the complex ideological struggle for hearts and minds overwhelming Hungary during the agitations for reform driven by the [HT‘Left Wing Bloc’ in the period of raging inflation that defined 1946, when [HT‘. . . the cashiers and book-keepers in Hungary lost even the help of the adding machine because they did not have enough noughts.’

The impenetrability of postwar politics in Mitteleuropa when viewed by Little Englanders was borne in on me one day when the head of production for UK 20th Century Fox, Sandy Lieberson, told me that certain subject matter for movies (interwar political assassination , for example, such as the case of Walther Rathenau, or a revival of the Bergfilm genre) was classified as ‘Deep Continent’ drama— and definitely unsuitable for populist movie-making for the English-speaking world.

So it strikes me now that Orwell in setting his Nineteen Eighty-Four in an entirely English locale – in all its recognisable drabness and mundanity – very cleverly overcame the problem of ideological exegesis of his dystopian tract for unsophisticated English readers, an exegesis that included rendering much of his text in the guise of a blood and thunder penny dreadful . . . not to say, five-cent novelette, in the opinion of some critics.

The cage was nearer; it was closing in.

Which brings me to those contemporary critics of the Room 101 torture scenes who sought to write them off as ‘melodramatic’ and ‘schoolboyish’, because, far from being the oft-quoted sublimated sadism of prep school locker-room bullies (viz. Orwell’s years as pupil at St. Cyprian’s and, later, Eton), the origins of the specific torture of Winston Smith can be be found in the literary works of George Tabori and Arthur Conan Doyle, two authors evidently admired by Orwell . . . at least, that is my private reading of the following cases of inventive torture calculatedly devised by two fictionists to assault the reader’s senses . . . and the likely precursors of the horrific instrument of Winston Smith’s agonising and conclusive indoctrination.
O’Brien picked up the cage  . . . ‘You understand the construction of this cage. The mask will fit over your head, leaving no exit. When I press this other lever, the door of the cage will slide up. These starving brutes will shoot out of it like bullets. Have you ever seen a rat leap through the air? They will leap on to your face and bore straight into it. Sometimes they attack the eyes first. Sometimes they burrow through the cheeks and devour the tongue.’  . . .  The cage was nearer; it was closing in . . . ‘It was a common punishment in Imperial China,’ said O’Brien as didactically as ever.

He uncovered the cage. ‘It's an old Turkish custom, half-forgotten
for a long period of softness and degeneration.’ 

And so to Tabori’s Beneath the Stone the Scorpion, 1945. Plot: An English captain is captured by the German occupiers during World War II near a Slovenian village. Wehrmacht Major von Borst interrogates him to elicit his true intentions in a unresolved game of verbal jousting . . . unresolved, that is, until sadistic Intelligence Officer Hirtenberg arrives from HQ, ‘carrying ‘a small wooden cage  . . . by an iron handle’. His methods of interrogation are, as he explains to von Borst, decidedly more persuasive. The narrator is von Borst:
‘Meet Tomashek,’ he said affectionately, and uncovered the cage, ‘the cat. Tomashek is a great friend of mine although we only met a few days ago. He is one of our most able agents, in a way, Tomashek.’ He smiled proudly like a father and I leaned forward and looked at a huge, ugly tom-cat, obviously asleep. He had a long, powerful body with dark stripes and tufty, rough hair. While I was inspecting him, wondering what kind of a joke it was, the cat suddenly woke. He did not stretch or stir, just spun around in fury and hit out with his claws and emitted a queer, hoarse cry. I never heard a cat crying like that. It was almost human. He had large grey eyes that shone in wrath and a large, dripping mouth . . . ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Hirtenberg said . . . ‘Tomashek,’ explained Hirtenberg apologetically, ‘has a split personality. He is mad.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Quite mad. I mean, he is rabid . . . Tomashek helps us to make people talk,’ he added, a bit too dramatically . . . ‘It’s an old Turkish custom . . . half-forgotten for a long period of softness and degeneration. The Turks used cats widely as means of persuasion. The practice was to tie up the prisoner and then place a rabid cat in his trousers . . . It takes about an hour or so I’m told,’ he said, ‘until they work themselves to about the stomach. If they get entangled in the bowels it takes longer. They usually reappear near the navel.’ He stopped and I looked at the cat. I knew Hirtenberg was watching me. I felt slight nausea. ‘Have you made use of Tomashek before?’ I asked casually. ‘No,’ he said. ‘But I will to-morrow.’
And here are our very own, very British, home-grown torments, whose extreme ingenuity we proudly owe to Arthur Conan Doyle, a writer who outrivals de Sade. (Oh. And let’s not forget that super-decadent fin de siècle title of his, A Study in Scarlet.) 
So strange was the scene before them that for an instant all three stood motionless with horror and surprise . . . It was a great vaulted chamber, brightly lit by many torches. At the farther end roared a great fire. In front of it three naked men were chained to posts in such a way that flinch as they might they could never get beyond the range of its scorching heat. Yet they were so far from it that no actual burn would be inflicted if they could but keep turning and shifting so as continually to present some fresh portion of their flesh to the flames. Hence they danced and whirled in front of the fire, tossing ceaselessly this way and that within the compass of their chains, wearied to death, their protruding tongues cracked and blackened with thirst, but unable for one instant to rest from their writhings and contortions. Even stranger was the sight at each side of the room, whence came that chorus of groans which had first struck upon the ears of Nigel and his companions. A line of great hogsheads were placed alongside the walls, and within each sat a man, his head protruding from the top. As they moved within there was a constant splashing and washing of water. The white wan faces all turned together as the door flew open, and a cry of amazement and of hope took the place of those long-drawn moans of despair. [They are rescued.] A few strong blows struck off the irons and freed the three dancers before the fire. With a husky croak of joy, they rushed across to their comrades’ water-barrels, plunged their heads in like horses, and drank and drank and drank. Then in turn the poor shivering wretches were taken out of the barrels, their skins bleached and wrinkled with long soaking . . .                                                                                                                                                                                  Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1905-1906)

The Science of Fear.

I append this quotation merely to point out that continental fictionists do not have an exclusive monopoly on the creative torture of characters in search of retribution.  As Conan Doyle and his disciple, George Orwell, demonstrate, we British can make quite a good fist of it. And, surely, the greatest tribute to Orwell’s grip on the Science of Fear is to learn that the German Democratic Republic’s much-dreaded Stasi chief Erich Mielke (the GDR’s soi-disant O’Brien) managed to renumber the offices in his secret service headquarters. ‘His office was on the second floor, so all the office numbers started with “2”. Orwell was banned in the GDR, but he would have had access to it. Because he so wanted the room number to be 101, he had the entire first floor renamed the mezzanine, and so his office was Room 101.’ (Stasiland by Anna Funder, 2002.)

Laughter in the Dark.

A cannot leave this page on such a grim note. Let us hear again from our Hungarian friends as they emerge from the whirring revolving doors of the Communazi Statehouse that has ruled the minds of their compatriots these past seventy years. These are the émigrés who in their exile pilloried the ‘The Maniac’ and ‘The Devil of the Crooked Cross’.

Look. They’re being watched by an undercover agent, but undeterred they can still spare us a moment for a couple of quick-fire gags. Does it matter whether their targets are the Soviets or the Nazis . . . they are Big Brother by any other name.
A poor old Russian man enters his local police station and timidly complains to the policeman. ‘A Swiss soldier has stolen my Russian wrist-watch!’ The policeman shakes his fist in rage at the old man. ‘Grandfather. Please speak good sense! A Swiss soldier steals a Russian wrist-watch?  Surely you mean a Russian soldier has stolen your Swiss wrist-watch!’  The old man grins slyly.  ‘You said it, not me.’ 
And, finally, the elusive ‘Eureka Moment’ we’ve so very often conjectured must have occurred:
Have you heard the one about the absentminded German professor, a former student of Nietzsche, who set about his breakfast one morning with the aim to boil an egg. So he takes his wristwatch and drops it into the boiling water, holding, instead of the watch, the egg in his hand – the egg he wanted to boil. And the watch is boiled to pieces while the egg remains as raw as before. Whereupon the professor invents his Theory of the Master Race.
What time is it? Correct. The clocks are striking thirteen.

About George Tabori.

George Tabori, veteran dramatist, Brecht expert and author of The Brecht File, was intimately familiar with the theme of The Victim which foreshadows many of the moral ambiguities found in Jorge Luis BorgesDeutsches Requiem. Tabori was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1914. His father died in Auschwitz in 1944, but his mother and his brother Paul Tabori (writer and psychical researcher), managed to escape the Nazis. During the 1930s Tabori worked as a journalist. Exiled from his homeland by the Nazis, Tabori eventually landed in America and made his way to Hollywood, where he came into contact with the European exile community. He met and worked with some of the most prominent anti-fascist artists, including Heinrich and Thomas Mann. He developed film scripts for Alfred Hitchcock (I Confess, 1953) and Joseph Losey, among others – and he met Bertolt Brecht on three occasions. 

*About Paul Tabori

As to Prolekult, I can’t resist adding Paul Tabori’s very amusing account of his days in Hungary as a hack ‘galley slave’ for a publisher who believed ‘that the drabber and more humdrum human existence is, the greater the thirst for romance and escapist thrill. [He] pandered almost exclusively to the cultural needs of domestic servants: cooks, chambermaids, waitresses, charwomen — all of whom were underpaid and overworked in my country. He published fiction in instalments for them . . . he believed in wish-dreams and their vicarious fulfilment in print . . . And the standard opening, for some curious and inexplicable reason, ran something like this: “My mother was an honest washerwoman, my father a handsome sailor whom a storm swept from the deck one night in the Atlantic.” . . . We must have killings and elopings and swoonings and guilty secrets.’
Private Gallery by Paul Tabori, 1944.
(Illustrated by Biro, a fellow Budapestian in exile.)

From Paul Tabori’s Private Gallery (1944) illustrated by Biro:
‘Suicide was not punished by the country’s laws; anybody could
take his or her life — because the country was poor and lives
were worth practically nothing. The bridges over the Danube
were patrolled . . . to fish out the unfortunate divers . . . the country
had the unenviable record of possessing almost the highest
suicide rate in Europe.” [Today, the statistics for Europe appear to
be unchanged from 1944: according to WHO, Hungary follows
Lithuania and Russia in the suicide rate recorded per 100,000
inhabitants. Lithuania (28.2), Russia (19.5), Hungary third (19.1).]

For the Godfather at the Birth of Winston Smith, see Year Zero, a Thing with One Face:

For German literary antisemitism in 1944, see also

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)

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