"All the while that they were talking the half-remembered rhyme kept running through Winston's head: 'Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement's, You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St. Martin's!' It was curious, but when you said it to yourself you had the illusion of actually hearing the bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten. From one ghostly steeple after another he seemed to hear them pealing forth. Yet so far as he could remember he had never in real life heard church bells ringing." (George Orwell, 1984 - p. 88)
The subconscious memory of bells and nursery rhymes and miscellaneous other sounds -- and their subversive impact -- is a leitmotif in Orwell's 1984. You might almost miss it the first several times you read the book, because so much else is happening.
I noticed it only recently, because I was struck by the mention of "oranges and lemons" and I wondered if it somehow explained the origin of the title of my favorite album: Oranges and Lemons by XTC.
The coincidence certainly didn't answer the question on a conscious level, and yet there did seem to be a connection, because of the way the richly layered sonic qualities of the album evoke memories and emotions.
And what about those bells? I had a reminder of the power of the sound of bells -- as well as the sound of trumpets, and of thundering drums, and children's singing - in a magnificent performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem last week in Chicago. The bells ring out during the Sanctus, recalling the dead to memory at the same time that they transcend death in a declaration of "Glory to God in the highest!"
If you were to ask me about bells, I would probably say, like Winston, that I don't have any particular memory of bells. But as the hammer strikes the bells in the percussion section during the War Requiem the memories come back.
With the sound of those bells, I remember other bells; and remembering those other bells, I am back on Main Street in my hometown of Chatham, NJ, again.
Once Winston discovers he has memory, the next question is obvious: "Was he, then, alone in possession of a memory?" (p. 52) It is in his ventures into the precincts of the "proles" that he discovers a whole segment of society drenched in their memories -- an ocean of memories that is simply too extensive to be excised -- but one that is also of questionable import.
The uses of memory in 1984 are unclear -- to Winston, it seems that "[t]hey remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sistern's face, tehe swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago; but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision." (p. 82) Is there any meaning in all those memories? What use are they?
1984 is very much about the control of minds, and of memories, and the possibility of resistance to control and the possibility of enjoying liberty. I think that what Orwell was inviting us to consider is that our subconscious minds really do have the power to guard true memories, and that there are very particular relationships between the raw operation of the senses -- such as hearing -- and the registering of true experience.
So . . . take out your earplugs and listen to the world around you.
And then go home and write down one true thing today.
Try picking up a copy of 1984 . . . . Read the first sentence aloud . . . . What true memories does it bring back to you?
|Ogden Memorial Church - with bell tower (Chatham, NJ)|
(1984 page references are to the 2009 Plume paperback edition.)
(See Long Life, Connected Lives)
(See O Canada! (We'll always have "Expo" . . . . ))
(See Asters for Eva )