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This article is more than 2 year old.

The enduring significance of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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In his new book, The Ministry of Truth, Dorian Lynskey sets out to provide a biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four: a dredging of Orwell’s life to examine the seeds that flowered in his last work.

The enduring significance of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Seventy years ago this month, the last novel of an ailing author was published, one that was to have an immediate cultural impact. He said of the book that it was not a prophecy, but instead a satire, a parody and a warning. Its unsettling vision of a fascist future was to have an influence that grew with the decades and nowadays, perhaps inevitably, more people have heard of it than have actually read it.
That book, of course, was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it lives on not just as a frightening dystopian vision but also in its specific notions such as Big Brother, thoughtcrime, and doublethink. In the words of Anthony Burgess, whose A Clockwork Orange also portrayed a chilling dystopia, it’s “an apocalyptic codex of our worst fears”.
In his new book, The Ministry of Truth, Dorian Lynskey sets out to provide a biography of Nineteen Eighty-Four: a dredging of Orwell’s life to examine the seeds that flowered in his last work. He also outlines the impact of the novel from 1948 till the present day.
A Spanish Beginning
It all began in Spain. Orwell had gone there in 1936 to join a Republican faction opposed to Franco’s fascist uprising, and this was where he “first became acutely conscious of the ways in which political expediency corrupts moral integrity, language and truth itself”. At that time, the Spanish Civil War was the great leftist cause worth fighting for: adventurers, dreamers, Marxists and more signed up. Journalists and authors went too, including Ernest Hemingway, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Stephen Spender, who later described it as “in part an anarchist’s war, a poet’s war.”
The number of splintered and opposing factions and the actions of Stalinist Russia were to prove corrosive. Lynskey writes that all of this was later fodder for Nineteen Eighty-Four: “the cult of personality; the rewriting of history; the obliteration of freedom of speech; the contempt for objective truth; the echoes of the Spanish Inquisition; the arbitrary arrests, denunciations and forced confessions; above all, the suffocating climate of suspicion, self-censorship and fear.” Some of this, and Orwell’s own naiveté giving way to a form of sagacity, is captured in his Homage to Catalonia.
Lynskey follows the same technique for Orwell’s life after Spain. His days and nights during the London Blitz and in the Home Guard during World War II; his time at the Indian section of the BBC’s Eastern Service; his experiences of literary London and post-war Europe; and the last part of his life in the Scottish island of Jura, where he finally wrote his last novel: all this, and much of Orwell’s writing, are investigated for traces of ideas and influence that would flow into Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In the BBC of those years, for example, Orwell was introduced to “the mechanics of propaganda, bureaucracy, censorship and mass media, informing Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth”. Here, too, is to be found the infamous Room 101, at that time merely one of the rooms that hosted meetings of the Eastern Service. When it comes to Orwell’s other work, to take an example of Lynskey’s link-making, “Animal Farm can be read as a thematic prequel to Nineteen Eighty-Four: first the revolution betrayed, then tyranny triumphant.”
The Ministry of Truth takes a few detours, two of which are to do with other authors: H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Both, in their own idiosyncratic ways, were to influence Nineteen Eighty-Four. With his excursions into scientific utopias, Wells was one of the most influential novelists of his time, and according to Lynskey, “it is no exaggeration to say that the genre of dystopian fiction evolved as it did because so many people wanted to prove H. G. Wells wrong.”
Zamyatin, meanwhile, was a dissident Russian writer whose anti-utopian novel, We, written in 1921, was reviewed by Orwell. “It is not a book of the first order, but it is certainly an unusual one,” he wrote, suggesting that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World “must be partly derived from it.” Huxley denied having read it and paradoxically, it was Nineteen Eighty-Four that was accused of being closely influenced by We.
Lynskey points out, however, that Orwell had already written an outline of his novel months before he read Zamyatin. However, the characters of Julia and O’Brien, as well as Big Brother and the Thought Police, of which there are resonances in Zamyatin’s novel, did come later.
The Life After
The life of Nineteen Eighty-Four after Orwell’s own was over is one of continual and shifting significance. To take just one example: in the Oxford English Dictionary, Newspeak first appeared independently of the novel in 1950; Big Brother and doublethink in 1953; thoughtcrime and unperson in 1954.
The novel’s themes have been alternately cheered and denounced by both left and right. Many warmed to its implied critique of Soviet totalitarianism, and others assumed that Orwell meant to tar all left movements with the same brush. (For the record, Orwell himself claimed that his time in Spain left him convinced that “the destruction of the Soviet myth is essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.”)
There’s hardly a dystopian novel published since Nineteen Eighty-Four that hasn’t been held up to it. These include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and more recently, The Circle, by Dave Eggers. David Bowie, Stevie Wonder and Thom Yorke, among others, have sung about it, and its influence is present in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta – as well in Apple’s most famous TV commercial.
Lest Nineteen Eighty-Four merely morphs into a source of political slurs and cultural fertiliser, it’s important to remember what Orwell himself said of the book shortly after publication, in words as cautionary as any that are in it. “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one,” he asserted. “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
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