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“Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree”… I Forgot My History

“Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree”… I Forgot My History

“‘Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s!’… ‘You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin’s’… I wonder what a lemon was.” (G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four) 

It is strange for any of us who live in relatively free societies to picture oppression. It is probably why most of us have an insatiable desire for dystopian television productions. The hair raising, mind and heart stimulating stories take us to a place with which we are not familiar, a place which makes us wonder “what would I do in this situation?”. Many of us are quick to point out that we would always do the right thing. But, just as one can watch surfing on TV, believe it to be fun, and then hate its difficulty when they try it out themselves, TV productions, or even books, do not really test our stamina and mettle. Spectatorship is a sport filled with experts and critics, after all.

In the TV series “The Man in the High Castle”, the Nazi party, which had at this point taken over most of the US, was working on a new initiative dubbed “Jahr Null” or year zero. Jahr Null was meant to delete all remnants of American history from before the time of the Nazi takeover. That way, Americans would have no fallback on their own history, no notion of their own identity, true worth or faults. Starting in year zero, everything was going to be in existence only for the party. As the anti- hero of the show, Oberstgruppenführer Smith (portrayed impeccably by Rufus Sewell) watches a presentation on the party strategy to implement this plan, he tries not to give away his heavy heart and feelings of trapped hopelessness under a tyrannical system, as he listens to the reasons why the symbol of individual freedom, the Statue of Liberty, must go. Images of the Abraham Lincoln statue being torn down and smashed are played and many arguments are given for the importance of erasing history. Nothing old must endure. The new must take over. The new is the present and the future, and by erasing the past, it recreates and controls it. There is no room for “good old days” nostalgia. The present reality, that which is dictated by the party, must be the only one in existence.

Many writers have been inspired by the possibility of a dystopian future, much like the visions of celebrated writers such as Orwell or Huxley and taken such messages to new mediums. For instance, in the acclaimed graphic novel, “Transmetropolitan”, by Warren Ellis, the futuristic, anarchic and hedonistic city has lost the objective concept of history, lives only in the now and can only refer to events in the past by distance from the present. Watching such events unfold on the screen, everyone understands the message. Erasing history is a good strategy for people and governments who want to stay in power for a long time and who only care about controlling and oppressing others. Watching this in a movie, reading this in a book, the situation is pretty clear. And yet, when it comes to reality, things are not always so obvious, and people’s actions are not always put into perspective.

The saying “make Orwell fiction again” has been circulating on the internet this past year. Of course, if one has not read his work and paid attention to events worldwide this year, it would probably not seem familiar in any way. But the truth is that Orwell was never fiction but rather observation. 

“He who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” (G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four) 

Wars, massacres, genocides, slavery, oppression, all the evils of mankind must be known to people always so that such horrors are not repeated. The same way we teach our kids how not to burn themselves on the stove and how to stay away from drugs and violence, learning about such things is the only way to formulate good prevention tactics. After all, the only sure way to make the same mistake twice is to forget the first one. That is why, from an evolutionary perspective, memory serves a survival role. From a moral perspective, memory is duty.

In one of the most elucidating descriptions of what stands to be lost once things are forgotten, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four features a dialogue about what the world will look like in a distant future, after the dictionary has been purged of all unnecessary words, which did not meet the party line. “Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?” Presumably, soon people would be limited to functional literacy, being educated only insofar as it is necessary to perform their assigned role. And what would the distant future of such a society look like? Will individuals eventually revert to primitive grunting, as the abolition of the word and its force to create and stimulate thinking finally comes to pass? Propagandists have always understood the power of words and concepts, and that of their absence. They have hijacked meanings of words and rewritten their scope many times. It is no different today during the “do not offend” movement and chaotic mob outbursts. In the days of Google Ngram, one can trace the spread and the frequency in the use of certain words and concepts, and notice how some concepts are never picked up and used widely in media and books, while others experience an explosion that is more related to intentional manipulation rather than any naturally occurring cultural process.

Surely, care must be taken by all that the tinder of scheming for control is not ignited into a blazing oppressive future along “party lines”. 

“Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me; there lie they and here lie we, under the spreading chestnut tree.” (G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four) 

History has hurt many people, but just as not dealing with a personal past trauma one is bound to be ruled by it, forgetting history is bound to lead to a terrifying future of repeats. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston sells his love and his very self under the coercion of the party. So, “under the spreading chestnut tree”, (in this case a café but also) a symbol of the party and its false values, as well as an image of a site where rebels might meet, he stops existing for anything else other than Big Brother. This is a tragic surrender. However, human history is full of stories of manipulation, coercion and suffering even greater than Orwell’s book depicts. One can only hope that we do not allow a new such tree of despair to grow, and that if it does, we can hold our own under its shade. Nowadays, the seed of a similar tree takes many forms, including erasing, rewriting or willfully ignoring history. This is eerily similar to most literary works we have come to know and respect as tales of caution. Let it not be said of us that we went against the lessons of the past and the urgings of those who had the ability to see the future for what it might become. Let it not be said of us that when our time came (again), under a new chestnut tree, we forgot our history and let humanity’s demons run amok once more. 

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