Daniel J. Vitkus
Both Orwell and Kesey present the nature of truth as something that is distorted by those in power. Truth, in metaphysics and the philosophy of language is defined as the property of sentences, assertions, beliefs, thoughts, or propositions that are said, in ordinary discourse, to agree with the facts or to state what is the case. Truth is the aim of belief. This idea permeates both novels as truth is questionable to both protagonists. Orwell presents this in a wide society and Kesey presents this in the microcosm of the psychiatric ward.
Truth is merely a picture painted by our cognitive processes and, particularly with technological advancements; it is entirely possible to distort this perception of truth for a whole society. This is presented in a myriad of ways, one being O’Brien who presents many philosophical viewpoints throughout the novel, especially to Winston. He makes the seemingly absurd claim to Winston that “It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party,”and when reading the novel, it becomes apparent that this is a not so ridiculous statement to make. Evidently, all ‘truth’ that the characters of the novel believe they know is based on what is acquired from around them. The idea of solipsism permeates the novel as, ultimately, the truth is what the party wishes it to be. O’Brien believes reality is created by power and those in power determine the truth, he explains to Winston using the metaphor, ‘we control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull.’So, with reference to the initial quote, it seems entirely possible that truth for society is simply what is perceived- or what higher powers want them to perceive. Many critics have asserted that 1984 is one of Orwell’s best-crafted novels and remains one of the most powerful warnings ever issued against the dangers of a totalitarian society. In Spain, Germany, and the Soviet Union, Orwell had witnessed the danger of absolute political authority in an age of advanced technology and the telescreen, which is arguably one of the main methods of deception of truth, was terrifyingly possible at this time and for the reader, creates an immense fear and a harsh reality check as, particularly in modern society, technology is ubiquitous and pervades our everyday lives which, as shown through the utilisation of the telescreen, opens up the possibility of an easily established totalitarian regime. Orwell, when reviewing his reasons for formulating his novel stated that "two and two could become five if the furher wished it,”and this idea is clearly evident in the entirety of the novel as Winston initially rejects this idea and, until the party intervenes, believes an objective truth beyond human consciousness and the party exists- for him two plus two equals four. However, he eventually becomes oblivious to the party’s manipulation, or perhaps just accepts the parties new ‘truths’ because it is evidently easier to comply than to doubt the information you receive. However, a critical interpretation slightly less convincingly argues that ‘He wants the freedom to believe that two plus two equals four, that the past is fixed, and that love is private,’ suggesting that perhaps Winston is not interested in discovering the truth but sets out to acquire his free will by keeping the idea of truth to himself. Personally, I find this interpretation to be less accurate than the initial one as it seems that, throughout the novel, Winton aims more to maintain truth than he does his autonomy, he is willing to comply to the party’s desires and obtain his views privately so perhaps he is in-fact attempting to possess truth, not to make it known that he possesses it. Interestingly, Kesey seems to take a relatively similar approach in his novel, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Many of the patients seem to have some variation of distorted truth and whether this is at the cause of their own mental health or the institution is certainly questionable. Chief claims that the metaphorical fog that surrounds him constantly is “made” by nurse Ratched. He is schizophrenic and see’s things that aren't there, the fog is in the mind and perhaps, similarly to 1984, the ‘fog,’ induced by nurse Ratched is to stop the patients from seeing anything real it hinders the truth and the men hide behind it to remain comfortable. Kesey's novel contains, in its description of the Combine, a powerful critique of American society and of the function of madness in that society. Through the conflict between Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the novel explores the themes of individuality and rebellion against conformity, ideas that were widely discussed at a time when the United States was committed to opposing communism and totalitarian regimes around the world. This metaphor poses the question to the reader that perhaps what they believe and what is ‘true’ may not necessarily be as it seems. If regimes gain the power needed, the truth can be clouded, much like the fog experienced by the chief, without any realisation by any one person.
Additionally, the nature of truth is apparent through the way that all alternative viewpoints to those enforced by higher powers are viewed as transgressions; truth is just a viewpoint held by those in power. If no one challenges what they see or what they are told, then the past fades and this new perception becomes the truth. This is portrayed in 1984 as Winston and Julia challenge the truth and are viewed then as ‘insane’ and in need of treatment and only through this treatment do they accept the party. Winston refused to believe the oxymoron ‘freedom is slavery’ or the paradoxical claim that ‘2+2=5’because he knew it wasn’t ‘true’ but when such excessive torture and force were exerted, he was rid of his rationality and no longer doubted his perception. His obligation was his acceptance of the ‘truth’ the party provided. It is not in either Winston or McMurphy’s nature to accept social strictures and, this ultimately allows them to see past the party’s distorted truth but, with great power, both protagonists eventually, whether voluntary or involuntary, developed a sense of scotosis in which it becomes apparent that it is easier not the question reality and to uphold an intellectual blindness. However, a critical interpretation by Carr rejects this idea as he states that ‘the human mind can apprehend some truths therefore can have knowledge of some things that can’t be manipulated’ this idea rings true as, despite the indoctrination, characters like Orwell and Julia or McMurphy, were certainly capable of maintaining their perception of truth despite the feeding of false information and methods of control. The very fact that rebellion against the truth they received, suggests that they actually poses the knowledge but simply do not have the power to express this doubt of the knowledge they receive. Perhaps the past does not fade, it is merely hidden by the fear of rebellion and threats of torture. The objective truth may lie within us innately but is unable to be communicated. Throughout Kesey’s novel, the patients of the ward receive information only from Nurse Ratched, and without access to the outside world, they are forced to accept this. Arguably, the psychiatric ward presents a visual representation of sense experience in comparison to reality. Perhaps no objective truth exists but, truth is merely what you happen to perceive in the situation you’re in at any given time. This is expressed even to the extent that ‘treatment’ is utilised by Nurse Ratched but, when truly analysing the character it becomes apparent that this is not to benefit the patients but to benefit herself, to control the truth is to have ultimate power and when this is challenged, it must be treated. It seems in the novel that mental illness is simply a deficiency of compliance, when McMurphy challenged Nurse Ratched’s truth, he reveals an illness in Nurse Ratched as presented by the critical interpretation from Daniel J. Vitkus “If society itself is crazy, false, unjust-then the voice of madness becomes the voice of sanity” . She is addicted to power and this is disguised by the methods she uses to distort the reality the patients receive; this critic accurately defines how the microcosm is functioning as the nurse’s sanity becomes questionable to the reader but never doubted by the characters because the truth is greatly dismantled. Much like 1984, truth is as Nurse Ratched wishes it to be and she uses her authority and treatment to do so.
Arguably, the most extreme distortion of truth could be the narrative from both Chief Bromden and Winston Smith. Both narrators seem to be unreliable and in providing a recollection of events, we come to realise they may have never occurred, or at least not in the extreme nature they describe. From the beginning of the novel, Chief states that, “it is the truth even if it didn’t happen,”and this immediately creates an uneasiness for the reader as the extent to which his story is reality is certainly questionable. This raises the philosophical argument that we don’t actually have universal knowledge, many prepositions and ideas may not be objectively true and so, Chief’s account of what has occurred in his life may be, with emotions and opinions, the truth to him but, universally, may not be accepted.Additionally, Winston seems to posses this same lack of reliability as he makes the broad claim that he is the only being with his free will and autonomy and hold resentment for the entirety of the party, Orwell is asking a lot of his audience to believe that only one man, albeit one whose job is altering history and therefore one who is acutely aware of the truth, thinks that nothing is wrong with Big Brother