Winston Smith is in prison for committing thoughtcrime. The cell has no windows and is always brightly lit, making him frustrated that he doesn’t know whether it is day or night. He recognizes a co-worker, Ampleforth, who has been ushered into the cell and sees Winston. (italics added for emphasis)
‘Ah, Smith!’ he said. ‘You too!’
‘What are you in for?’
‘To tell you the truth —–‘ He sat down awkwardly on the bench opposite Winston. ‘There is only one offence, is there not?’ he said.
‘And you have committed it?’
‘Apparently I have.’
He put a hand to his forehead and pressed his temples for a moment, as though trying to remember something.
‘These things happen,’ he began vaguely. ‘I have been able to recall one instance — a possible instance. It was an indiscretion, undoubtedly. We were producing a definitive edition of the poems of Kipling. I allowed the word “God” to remain at the end of a line. I could not help it!’ he added almost indignantly, raising his face to look at Winston. ‘It was impossible to change the line. The rhyme was “rod”. Do you realize that there are only twelve rhymes to “rod” in the entire language? For days I had racked my brains. There was no other rhyme.’
The expression on his face changed. The annoyance passed out of it and for a moment he looked almost pleased. A sort of intellectual warmth, the joy of the pedant who has found out some useless fact, shone through the dirt and scrubby hair. ‘Has it ever occurred to you,’ he said, ‘that the whole history of English poetry has been determined by the fact that the English language lacks rhymes?”
No, that particular thought had never occurred to Winston. Nor in the circumstances, did it strike him as very important or interesting.
‘Do you know what time of day it is?’ he said.
Ampleforth looked startled again. ‘I had hardly thought about it. …’
I was impressed by this passage since Ampleforth’s ‘useless fact’ is actually interesting. Poetry is not free expression, and is quite restricted, especially in English. If language was more flexible, the most famous poems very well might have been entirely different. But does that really matter?
This passage gives evidence to what I have been pondering for a while about my chosen education and career path. I get excited about art interpretations, or mystic messages left to be unraveled. I am actually very familiar with the ‘intellectual warmth’ that Orwell refers to, that comes from the joy of discovering a ‘useless fact.’ But what does that really do for the world? It wont stop wars, it wont feed the hungry. But, as Ampleforth’s inability to change the word “God” in a poem, it does preserve culture and human emotion. So does that make it worthwhile? Should I be worrying, instead, about whether it is day or night in a harsh jail cell or, in other words, real problems in real life?