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An Enduring Vision of Tyranny

October 18, 2019  | 

The year 1984 came and went a generation ago, and the clocks did not strike 13. Big Brother’s face doesn’t stare down at us from giant posters. Masked police do not apprehend citizens guilty of thoughtcrime. England hasn’t been renamed Airstrip One, and Party slogans like “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery” and “Ignorance Is Strength” are not plastered on the walls. It would seem that the terrifying vision of George Orwell’s iconic novel remains a fiction, safely shelved between “Brave New World” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Yet Orwell never intended “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to be a prophecy. What he conceived was a satire. As the writer Martin Amis once said, “Novels don’t care whether they come true or not.” Orwell died in 1950, the year after “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was published, but he left us with a few remarks about his intentions. “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive,” he wrote, but “that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences.”

These lines sound almost valedictory, yet Orwell habitually downplayed his achievements, including his last and greatest novel. “I ballsed it up rather,” he confided to a friend after a desperate sprint to get the words onto paper. Orwell drafted “Nineteen Eighty-Four” while ignoring fatal symptoms of tuberculosis on the Isle of Jura in the Scottish Hebrides. His diaries from those years describe simple rustic pleasures like the number of eggs produced by the hens as well as more ominous hints of the illness that would kill him at age 46.

But how safe are we from Orwell’s vision after all? You could ask a resident of North Korea—not that he or she could safely reply. Closer to home, whether we live in an Orwellian nightmare has always been a question of ideology. What exactly is an alternative fact? Does the NSA’s surveillance state keep us safe from harm or mirror the telescreens and Thought Police? When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspended Parliament, was he subverting democracy or enforcing the will of the people? 

These are not rhetorical questions. Orwell, who had firm views on lies, privacy and England, not to mention a fighting way with a pen, would have had a few things to say on all three topics. Yet the practice of claiming “St. George” to support one’s argument has always been a dubious business. To drape one’s position in Orwell’s moral authority—or to crow about his predictions that didn’t come true—is to miss his broader value as a fearless thinker whose ideas remain vital and raw. 

On the 70th anniversary of the publication of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” two books by British critics document the novel’s sources and celebrate its enduring impact. Dorian Lynskey’s “The Ministry of Truth” is best described as a literary bibliography. Mr. Lynskey, a London-based writer on music, film and politics, spends the majority of his book tracing the novel’s antecedents, from the dystopian novels of H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy, to its legacy in the music of David Bowie and in films like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men.” “Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the book we turn to,” Mr. Lynskey writes, “when truth is mutilated, language is distorted, power is abused, and we want to know how bad things can get.”

D.J. Taylor’s “On Nineteen Eighty-Four” is the brisker and more focused volume, and a better choice for those wishing to read about Orwell’s novel rather than around it. Mr. Taylor, a novelist, critic and biographer, more ably balances the cultural footprint of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” with the story of its writing. The definitive account of Orwell’s life—his work as an imperial policeman in Burma; time spent tramping among the poor; the death of his idealism as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War; and his late-blooming literary success—is that of Bernard Crick (1980). But Mr. Taylor here covers the highlights, giving both an overview of Orwell’s career and a survey of his greatest literary achievement.

The Tehran Conference of 1943 supplied the germ of an idea for “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Here were Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin beginning to divide up the world into postwar spheres of influence. In Orwell’s imagination these three zones became Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. His notebooks show that he built the novel around political themes rather than characters or story lines. Leader-worship, the death of objective truth, the falsification of records and a utilitarian compressed language called Newspeak: all appeared as the foundations of a world characterized by propaganda and fear.

Orwell used his newspaper columns to flesh out the ideas that his novel—tentatively titled “The Last Man in Europe”—would explore. In one article, writes Mr. Taylor, Orwell suggested that “totalitarianism’s most terrifying quality is not only that it instigates atrocities, but that it seeks to control ‘the concept of objective truth’ and thereby manipulates both past and future.” This theme would take form in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” when Oceania periodically shifted from fighting one of its two enemies to fighting the other. Past alliances and rivalries instantly disappeared: “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”

Different political movements have claimed Orwell according to their needs. During the Cold War, the right championed him for his opposition to communism. More recently, amid protests of the invasion of Iraq, the permanent-war aspect of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” resonated. Today the book’s depiction of an assault on facts has shaken readers, as has its portrayal of the mob as a tool of demagoguery. Mr. Lynskey draws a parallel between chants of “Lock her up!” and the Two Minutes Hate, a mandatory gathering of Party members that, Orwell writes, channels “a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.” 

These are powerful echoes. But Orwell has an even broader value, which transcends any given political crisis. George Orwell possessed three signal virtues, each of them rare and almost unheard of in concert. They are judgment, courage and clarity. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in “Why Orwell Matters,” Orwell’s judgment was right on the great political questions of the 20th century: imperialism, fascism and communism. He had the courage to say so, even when it meant breaking with his countrymen (imperialism) and his comrades (communism). And Orwell had the talent to make his arguments in prose as clear as a windowpane, with his biases and flaws on display for all to judge.

Messrs. Lynskey and Taylor perform a service by keeping Orwell in our field of vision not merely as a shorthand or an adjective but as a thinker whose currency is principle rather than doctrine. He chose decency over partisan dogma. He made a habit of facing unpleasant facts. And if he abhorred one thing above all others in public life or in literature, it was lies. These two books are valuable in their own right, but their greatest service may be to send readers back to the source material. Not that Orwell needs a publicist. “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is said to have sold 40 million copies.

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