The Grammatical Fiction

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2005

The Grammatical Fiction: Totalism, Solipsism, and the Dispensing of Existence in Modern Literature

K. Gordon Neufeld


Two well-known literary novels of the twentieth century captured the essence of life under a totalitarian regime: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In this study I will examine other fictional literary works of high quality that capture the same or similar experiences of members of totalist groups. This study does not pretend to be all-inclusive, and merely includes works that came to my attention that are of particular interest or artistic merit. Only works in English or English translation are considered. By comparing Koestler’s and Orwell’s novels to One Man’s Bible by Gao Xinjiang, Three Continents by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital, and Heavenly Deception by Maggie Brooks, similarities are demonstrated among the totalitarian leaders presented in the first three books and the cult leaders depicted in the latter three. At the end of the essay, I explore these themes with reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A list of alternative titles of interest is included following the bibliography.

In Arthur Koestler’s classic novel Darkness at Noon, the prisoner N. S. Rubashov, once a highly placed Soviet official and well-respected revolutionary, finds himself imprisoned at the hands of the man he thinks of as Number One—Josef Stalin, though the latter is never named. Through a carefully staged indoctrination process using two different inquisitors, Rubashov, knowing that his execution will soon follow, is finally induced to sign a confession to crimes of which he is largely innocent. He comes to believe that confessing is the right thing to do for the Party and his country, which he believes is more important than his mere self—in other words, more important than the first person singular he once derided as a “grammatical fiction.”

During the final days of his imprisonment following his confession, Rubashov realizes that he has been relieved of his group identity, and all that now remains to him is his barely acknowledged individual self. Koestler writes:

He was a man who had lost his shadow, released from every bond. He had followed every thought to its last conclusion and acted in accordance with it to the very end; the hours which remained to him belonged to that silent partner, whose realm started just where logical thought ended. He had christened it the ‘grammatical fiction’ with that shamefacedness about the first person singular which the Party had inculcated in its disciples. (Koestler, p. 201)

When Rubashov was still a rising star in the Party, he liked to dismiss the idea that the individual self exists as an entity apart from the Party or Number One, viewing the self as nothing more than an artificial convention of language. To Rubashov, only the Party (at that point totally controlled by Number One) and its historical destiny truly exist. It is from this attitude that the totalist trait known as “dispensing of existence,” as described by Robert J. Lifton in his 1961 study, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, derives its justification. Of that trait, Lifton wrote: “Existence comes to depend upon creed (I believe, therefore I am), upon submission (I obey, therefore I am) and beyond these, upon a sense of total merger with the ideological movement” (Lifton, 1989, p. 434). Although Rubashov is still alive (albeit not for long) when he muses disparagingly about the “grammatical fiction,” he has effectively already ceased to exist, even in his own mind.

In another classic novel, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, who has been arrested for “thoughtcrimes” against the state of Oceania and against the Party headed by Big Brother, is ultimately coerced into accepting that there can be no reality other than the one currently prescribed by the Party. At one point before his ultimate conversion, Smith insists that the past is an objective reality whose existence is validated through memory. He pleads to the inquisitor O’Brien, “It is outside oneself. How can you control memory? You have not controlled mine!” To which O’Brien replies,

On the contrary, you have not controlled it. … You are here because you have failed in humility, in self-discipline. You would not make the act of submission which is the price of sanity. You preferred to be a lunatic, a minority of one. (Orwell, p. 214)

Thus, O’Brien is in effect asserting that any failure of a person’s perceived reality to conform to the reality endorsed by the Party is nothing more than a moral failure, a mere lack of self-discipline.

Both Koestler’s and Orwell’s novels were first published in the 1940s, when two horrifying totalitarian regimes—those of Hitler and Stalin—bestrode the world. Darkness at Noon and Nineteen Eighty-Four are perhaps the best novels in English or English translation to capture what it is like to live under totalism, and to give insight into the inherently twisted logic that makes totalism possible. Totalism aspires to nothing less than to recreate the world in its own image. Whenever perceived reality differs from the prescribed view, it is the perceiver who must surely be at fault. In his study of brainwashing in China, Lifton calls this process of denial “doctrine over person” (Lifton, 1989, p. 430).

In my search for high-quality literary novels that describe life under a totalitarian regime, I was unable to find anything in English that treats life under the Nazi regime from the standpoint of a participant or an enfranchised citizen. Of course, there are probably memoirs that treat this topic, but for the purposes of my study, I have confined my search to works of fiction.

I did, however, come across an excellent novel that describes the life of citizens in China during the Great Cultural Revolution—Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible. This novel, by the Nobel Prize-winning author of Soul Mountain, captures with great beauty and sadness the insanity that convulsed a whole nation during those few years.

One Man’s Bible opens with a famous artist, formerly from China but now living in the West, looking out from his hotel room in Hong Kong, where he is staying with his German lover, Marguerite. He is stirred to remember the tumultuous years he endured before he escaped to the West, and the novel flips back and forth between those memories and his present life. Gao uses the third person to recount his character’s memories of the past; but, in an unusual stylistic twist, he uses the second person when describing the character’s present. During his reveries, the protagonist remembers times when he was able to escape being imprisoned or killed only by participating in the swirling tides of violent reform. Musing on it now, he declares, “The justice you seek is this joker, and you slaughter for this joker. So you must shout this joker’s slogans and, losing your own voice, learn to parrot words; hence you are recreated, your memories erased” (Gao, p. 168). Later, the protagonist imagines himself addressing Mao in his bathrobe, saying,

You really lived fully as a human being, and it must be admitted that you possessed individuality, that you really were a Superman. You succeeded in dominating China, and your ghost still hovered over more than one billion Chinese. Your influence was so powerful that it spread to all parts of the world, and it was pointless to deny this.

What he wanted to tell Mao was, ‘You made every single person speak your words.’” (Gao, pp. 404405)

This latter passage reveals the essence of totalism: The totalist leader is the Superman, and he alone is permitted to possess individuality. In the totalist world, only the leader truly exists; everyone else, to the extent that he or she is a less-than-perfect reflection of the totalist leader, is in danger of being relegated to nonexistence. The life of a totalist leader may thus be likened to that of a person who lives in a Hall of Mirrors; wherever he looks, he demands to see his own reflection staring back. His goal is to recreate the world in his own image, and he can brook no deviance.

The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (1989), defines solipsism as “the view or theory that self is the only object of real knowledge or the only thing really existent.” A totalist leader is an example of solipsism personified, for his goal is to render all the world into the image of the only thing he trusts—himself. As far as he is concerned, nothing else exists.

Luckily, leaders of religious cults are not in positions of absolute power comparable to those commanded by Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, though this is not due to any lack of ambition. The ideological claims of Jim Jones, Herf Applewhite, or Shoko Asahara are no less extreme than those made by Gao’s Superman, Orwell’s Big Brother, or Koestler’s Number One. All ultimately demonstrated through their actions that, as far as they were concerned, only their own existence mattered; if they themselves must pass away, then so must those who recreated themselves in their image; and as for those who stood against them, they could be dispensed with if necessary.

In his 1999 study of the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinri Kyo and comparable cult phenomenon, Destroying the Word to Save It, Lifton returns to his concept of the “dispensing of existence,” and comments:

Finally, in their most draconian manifestation, totalistic environments tend to press toward the dispensing of existence, an absolute division between those who have a right to exist and those who possess no such right. That division can remain merely judgmental or ideological, but it can also become murderous, as in Aum, which rendered such a “dispensation” altruistic by offering a “higher existence” to those it killed. Aum ultimately became convinced that no one outside the cult had the right to exist because all others, unrelated as they were to the guru, remained hopelessly defiled. (Lifton, 1999, p. 26)

In my search for literary works that depict totalist leaders in a context other than that of a totalitarian regime, I found a handful of novels that possess literary merit, which I will discuss here.

The first novel I would like to examine is Three Continents, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, first published in 1987. Three Continents is the story of a pair of twins, Michael and Harriet Wishwell, raised in a wealthy and influential East Coast American family, who are drawn into an Eastern religious cult led by an eccentric triad of characters: an elderly Indian gentleman, known as the Rawul; his consort, known as the Rani; and their adopted son, called Crishi. As the novel progresses, the twins move first to England, and then to India, and Harriet recounts the twins’ slow but inexorable loss of their independent identities, as Crishi—who turns out to be the real leader of the cult—marries Harriet and sets his sights unabashedly on claiming the Wishwell family fortune. Eventually, he succeeds by arranging the death of the ever-faithful Michael; and he even manages to get Michael’s grieving sister to attest to the validity of Michael’s forged suicide note—even though it deeds their entire inheritance over to Crishi. Jhabvala’s novel is brilliant in the way it shows how a pair of idealistic young people can be manipulated through a subtle and slow process into supporting a militaristic and materialistic cult—the very opposite of their original ideals—and it is very disturbing because it ends with Harriet completely losing everything she once valued, including her own identity.

Another novel that deserves high praise for its literary quality is Janette Turner Hospital’s Oyster. This is a complex and beautiful novel by an author who, in my opinion, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, or other contemporary literary stars. In Oyster, Hospital strikes an artful balance between suspense on the one hand and emotional power and intellectual depth on the other. Oyster, set in the Australian outback, in a remote corner of Queensland, describes a small town called Outer Maroo that has a terrible secret. All the inhabitants of Outer Maroo hope to remain lost in obscurity, with their town permanently missing from the maps of the area. Yet inevitably, they cannot remain lost forever, and an American woman and an Australian man, the first seeking a missing stepdaughter, the second a missing son, arrive simultaneously in the town, where they believe their missing children may be found. And suddenly the residents’ terrible memories are exposed.

A few years earlier, a man who called himself Oyster had come to the area, had set up an opal mine, and had begun to attract a large following among young people who were drawn to his teachings and his community. Oyster speaks darkly of the coming millennium, but, in the end, decides not to wait for the end to overtake them, but chooses to precipitate it himself. He becomes, to borrow Lifton’s term from his 1999 study, a “world-ending guru,” but the only world he ends is that of himself and his followers. The American woman and the Australian man are left with nothing more than a blackened mineshaft to scrape at abstractedly, while they remember their lost stepdaughter and son.

Another novel of particular merit and relevance is Maggie Brooks’ Heavenly Deception. This novel, based upon Brooks’ own real experiences attending workshops sponsored by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church in England, describes a young woman named Carmen who initially agrees to attend a Unification Church workshop only because she wants to find out if it might be the same group her sister joined. Her sister had suddenly disappeared, leaving only a note that ended cryptically, “ITPN, Lucy.” Carmen soon realizes that she has indeed found the right group, but at first finds no trace of Lucy. She becomes caught up in the extraordinarily well-calibrated manipulations of a Unification Church workshop, in which she is alternatively praised and berated, until by degrees she feels she must go along with their increasingly extreme teachings; otherwise, she will appear closed-minded and hard-hearted. By the time she finally does meet up with Lucy, Carmen is completely trapped herself. The novel contains little external action; it is all internal, as it recounts Carmen’s losing battle to retain her own individuality and viewpoint against the relentless assault mounted by the Unification Church teachers and members. I myself was drawn into the Unification Church in 1976 through a workshop program very similar to the one Brooks describes, and I can attest to the accuracy of her descriptions, which differ from my own experience in only a few minor details.

The particular value of the Brooks novel is that it demonstrates that the dispensing of existence need not be confined to a decision of life or death. It also refers to a much more subtle internal death, in which individuals remain physically alive, while all that makes them individual—all that distinguishes them from the cult leader and his solipsistic universe—has nearly passed away. Brooks notes at one point:

She suddenly had a wild idea that the old Gary, the one that he had been before the Family, was sending out weak and plaintive signals, telling her that he was reachable, pleading with her to batter down the implacable new Gary that contained him as though he was not trapped inside there of his own free will but bottled up like a genie. Perhaps if she found Lucy, she would find that Lucy, too, had been shrunk and reduced and packaged inside a brand new Lucy, empty except for a small frightened voice saying ‘Look at me’, ‘Find me’. But Gary didn’t have parents, Gary didn’t have a brother who had cared enough to come looking. Suddenly she felt that their conversation was not about a depth of feeling or affection that might or might not exist between them but about something far more serious. She didn’t know what a soul was, but it seemed to her that Gary had lost one, and that some little part of him was mourning and demanding recognition of its passing. (Brooks, p. 131)

This passage speaks at once of the submergence of the individual self in the solipsistic universe of the totalist leader, and the ever-persistent voice of that submerged self, which never ceases clamoring to be remembered. Followers of totalist groups are almost always ashamed of the persistent voice of their own individuality, believing it to be a link to Satan or sinfulness, but it never ceases crying out for acknowledgment. And it is this fact that gives humanity hope that it will ultimately resist the claims of solipsistic leaders of totalist groups.

The final novel I am going to look at is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is usually interpreted as an indictment of colonialism. In that famous novella, Marlowe, an English seaman, is engaged by a Belgian company to take a steamboat up river to the heart of the Congolese jungle. The man he has been sent to search for has a reputation that reaches far and wide; his name is Kurtz, and he arrived in the Congo several years previous with the intention not only of securing ivory for his corporate masters, but of civilizing the African people in the process. But something has gone horribly wrong. By the time Marlowe eventually meets up with Kurtz, the latter lies seriously ill, and the local people defend him with the awe and superstition of a god. Around his cabin is a fence upon which have been placed the skulls of his enemies. When Marlowe discovers and reads Kurtz’ written thesis, which expounds how he hoped to civilize the Africans, he finds at the end—obviously scrawled in Kurtz’ hand much later than the rest—the words “Exterminate all the brutes!” (Conrad, p. 51) Here is the crudest possible expression of dispensing of existence. Yet Marlowe continues to be impressed by the charismatic power of Kurtz, insisting that he is a “remarkable man.” And as Marlowe leaves the inner station with the seriously ill Kurtz, taking him for the slow voyage downriver, he remains loyal in his determination to carry out the wishes of the dying man. Of Kurtz’ hubris, Marlowe observes,

He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air. (Conrad, p. 67).

Yet perhaps at the very end Kurtz does finally realize the sheer absurdity and solipsism of his position, for in his dying words he cries out a judgment upon himself and what he has done. Waking briefly from fevered dreams, Kurtz gasps out the words for which this character is best remembered: “The horror! The horror!”


Nonfiction Works

Lifton, Robert J. Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999.

Lifton, Robert J. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989. First published in 1961.


Brooks, Maggie. Heavenly Deception. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1985.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1963. First published in 1902.

Gao Xinjiang. One Man’s Bible. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999. Translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee.

Hospital, Janette Turner. Oyster. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1997.

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. Three Continents. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987.

Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon. New York: Bantam Books, 1968. Translated by Daphne Hardy. First published in 1941.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Penguin Books, 1949.

Alternative Literary Works of Interest

Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eyes. This novel provides a good example of what is sometimes called a “one-on-one cult”; that is, an abusive or manipulative personal relationship.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. This famous dystopian novel, which was consciously modeled after Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, imagines what might happen if a Taliban-style religious fundamentalist regime took over America. It is, therefore, a novel about both a totalitarian regime and a religious cult at the same time.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Though this novel is primarily about race relations in America in the first half of the twentieth century, as told from the point of view of a young African American, it is also a fine study of the narrator’s journey into, and out of, a Marxist political cult known as The Brotherhood.

Lurie, Alison. Imaginary Friends. This satirical novel describes how two sociology professors, one a highly respected academic of an old school, and the other a young academic eager to please his mentor, attempt to study a small town cult that believes it is communicating with aliens through telepathy. The older professor ends up becoming one of the group’s leaders. While very comic, this novel is also very clever in showing how even a sophisticated individual can get swept up in a cult.

King, Laurie. A Darker Place. This is a reasonably competent thriller novel involving an academic who agrees to go undercover into a cult with branches in Sedona (Arizona) and in England. Though not a truly literary work, it does have some merit; for example, in the way it makes clever use of alchemy as controlling metaphor.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. This is Orwell’s other famous novel that examines tyranny and the propaganda that is employed to justify tyranny, although in this novel the tyranny occurs in the context of an imaginary farm where the animals have overthrown the farmer.

Rachlin, Nahid. Foreigner. This well-written novel describes how a thoroughly Americanized woman of Iranian background and with a promising academic career is forced to stay in her homeland for much longer than she originally planned. The longer she stays in Iran, the more she finds herself transforming into the traditional sort of woman that she is expected to be in that country: domestic, unacademic, retiring.

Spinrad, Norman. Mind Games. This novel, by a writer known for his science-fiction works, is not a “sci-fi” novel, although it has some of the atmosphere of one. A man gets entangled with a cult that is intent on luring Hollywood celebrities and ends up meeting the cult leader himself, a man of overwhelming charisma. He quickly realizes he is in over his head, and he can extricate himself only by cutting what amounts to a “deal with the devil.” Though the group makes a modest pretense of not being based on Scientology, it is clear that the Church of Scientology was the model for the cult in this story. The book suffers, however, from shallow characterizations and a merely competent literary style.