“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.”—Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
“Here is a study in pessimism unrelieved, except by the thought that, if a man can conceive Nineteen Eighty-Four, he can also will to avoid it. ” – Fredric Warburg, George Orwell’s publisher.
It was 60 years ago this month that Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, first found its way into the hands of British readers. In the intervening decades, the novel has taken on inestimable cultural significance and its author has increasingly come to be viewed as a secular prophet.
Nevertheless, a recent poll conducted by the organizers of World Book Day found that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the novel Britons most frequently lie about having read. Orwell’s previous effort, Animal Farm is perhaps more widely consumed. It’s shorter, for one, and it’s often assigned to children who enjoy Orwell’s storytelling, despite being far too young to appreciate the novel’s political implications.
However, I don’t think Britons lie about having read Nineteen Eighty-Four because they find Orwell’s prose indigestible. Instead, I believe Nineteen Eighty-Four tops that list because, in a culture that has largely turned away from reading fiction as a leisure activity, it remains one of the few volumes that’s still widely viewed as indispensable.
At the same time, the book is incredibly easy to fake having read. People who have never held a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four are nevertheless often familiar with its plot and themes, for living in the English-speaking world means you inhabit a culture from which Orwell’s influence is nearly inextricable. Big Brother. Thought Police. Doublethink. Newspeak. The neologisms that populate Orwell’s novel are now a pervasive part of our contemporary political discourse.
Like Animal Farm, though to a lesser extent, Nineteen Eighty-Four operates largely as an allegory detailing the evils of Stalinist Russia. Inspired by novels like Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell conjured a futuristic police state that harrowingly evoked the Soviet regime’s brutality. Everything from the revolution’s nascence, to the purges, to the most storied intra-Party squabbles finds its analogue in Orwell’s pages.
But while Animal Farm takes a macro approach to the Russian Revolution and its attendant ironies, focused as it is largely on characters representing Marx, Stalin, and Trotsky, Nineteen Eighty-Four examines the costs of totalitarianism through a far more intimate lens. Through his protagonist Winston Smith, a low-level Party member who rebels against the dictatorial Big Brother in his innermost thoughts, Orwell forces his readers to appreciate in intimate detail the brutalizing effects of totalitarianism on the human psyche. Where Animal Farm is merely dispiriting, Nineteen Eighty-Four is outright horrific.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was the culmination of a life’s work, and Orwell struggled to finish the novel as he was dying of tuberculosis. Within it one finds the blossoming of incipient roots that date back to his finest essays. I don’t believe Orwell is the 20th Century’s best writer, though he may well be the most important. Likewise, I don’t think that Nineteen Eighty-Four is the century’s best novel, but in many ways it is the definitive one. The study of literature offers many rewards, but the singular benefits of carefully reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and the essays that preceded it are so important to maintaining a healthy political culture that they warrant particular attention.
All Art Is Propaganda
I submit that a careful, thorough reading of Orwell, of which Nineteen Eighty-Four must certainly be a part, goes beyond making one a better reader, which exposure to any great writing can accomplish, and helps forge better citizens. I can almost feel your eyes rolling, but bear with me. This function is not aesthetic, but pedagogic.
As consoling as it would be to think so, I don’t kid myself that there is causation or even correlation linking a refined aesthetic sense to morality. Exposure to great art will not make you a better person, at least not in any moral sense, and anyone who argues otherwise needs to be reacquainted with Humbert Humbert, not to mention Hermann Goering. Hitler may have committed genocide because he was a failed painter, but not in the way The Reader would have you believe. What Orwell’s writing in general, and Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular, can accomplish is to equip its readers with the intellectual apparatus necessary to see through the routine mendacity and stupefying barrage of euphemism that plagues contemporary political life.
I realize that this may seem a bit utopian. Citizens are, of course, people, and the day-to-day chore of being a person, even a materially comfortable person, relatively speaking (and if you’re reading this, you’re certainly that) can at times feel unendurable. At the end of a long day of repetitive, mind-numbing labour, working up the energy to stay informed about political events can require an almost heroic effort. To analyze these events critically is all the more difficult. But if we accept Alexis de Tocqueville’s claim that citizens of a democracy get the government they deserve, critical engagement with politics is the most important way in which citizens earn better governance.
“Above a quite low level,” Orwell once wrote, “literature is an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience.” The experiences Orwell records, whether in his novels or non-fiction, offer his readers the collective insights of one of the English language’s greatest and most rigorous thinkers. Six decades after his death, it’s clear that his words are of lasting relevance.
Similar Sets of Facts
Orwell stands as one of the 20th century’s foremost chroniclers of evils perpetrated in the name of Communism. This understandably appeals to conservatives. Still, when members of the American Right cite Orwell in support of their arguments, it can be difficult to imagine they’ve seriously read him. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, a quotation from one of Orwell’s best essays, “Notes on Nationalism”, was widely circulated among American conservatives. The excerpt reads,
The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of the western countries.
Admiration for Orwell is so widespread that simply having him on your side can grant a veneer of seriousness to your arguments. I happen to think the above quotation is mostly correct, so long as one remembers that Orwell’s central admonition is directed at a minority of pacifists, and that he was referring to a particular historical moment.
Of course, that didn’t keep some Republicans from using Orwell’s words as a cudgel against anyone who opposed Operation Enduring Freedom. If these commentators had bothered to read the entire essay, they might not have been so confident that Orwell was on their side. Rather than the endorsement the above quotation may suggest, the essay is a sustained attack on nationalism. Consider these words:
All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.
Reinhold Niebuhr, who the current US President has cited as one of his favourite philosophers, echoed these sentiments in The Irony of American History seven years later:
Our unenviable position is made the more difficult because the heat of the battle gives us neither the leisure nor the inclination to detect the irony in our own history or to profit from the discovery of the double irony between ourselves and our foe. If only we could fully understand that the evils against which we contend are frequently the fruit of illusions which are similar to our own ...