Shortly after the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump and his counsellor’s invocation of “alternative facts,” anxious readers, bracing themselves for the worst, propelled George Orwell’s 1984 back to the top of the best-seller lists. Published in 1949, under the shadow of Hitler and Stalin, the novel projects a nightmare vision of a future in which truth has been eclipsed. Its inventive vocabulary of state power and deception — Big Brother, Hate Week, Newspeak, doublethink, the Thought Police — clearly resonated with the despair of present-day Americans. As does the very term “Orwellian,” used increasingly to describe any number of troubling developments: from Trump’s habitual lying to the toxic politicisation of the news media; from the expansion of campus speech codes to Silicon Valley’s hijacking of our data and attention (the citizens of 1984 are monitored continuously by “telescreens”).
Orwell’s novel is the subject of Dorian Lynskey’s wide-ranging and sharply written new study, The Ministry of Truth. Lynskey, a British journalist and music critic, believes that 1984 — one of the 20th century’s most examined artefacts — is actually “more known about than truly known” and sets out to reground it in Orwell’s personal and literary development. This is just as well, since Orwell, ever suspicious of armchair intellectualism, made a practice of writing directly from experience, to the point of plunging himself into many of the crises of his day.
In 1936, he joined a coalition of left-wing forces opposing Franco in Spain. Intending to fight fascism, Orwell discovered its diabolical twin, Soviet communism, and became, in Lynskey’s words, acutely aware of how “political expediency corrupts moral integrity, language and truth itself.” He left Spain a committed anti-communist — and lifelong adversary of Stalin’s defenders — and spent the World War II years back home in England. In 1946, Orwell moved to the island of Jura, where, at the age of 45, he completed 1984 shortly before succumbing to tuberculosis.
Lynskey focuses much of his book on the origins and the afterlife of 1984. He devotes several early chapters to the rise of utopian and dystopian fiction, told through compressed portraits of figures like H G Wells (who “loomed over Orwell’s childhood like a planet”) and Yevgeny Zamyatin, the author of We — a sort of precursor to “1984.” And he documents the various political and cultural responses to the novel, which was a sensation from its first publication.
1984 has inspired writers, artists and other creative types, from Margaret Atwood to David Bowie to Steve Jobs, whose commercial introducing Apple’s Macintosh computer famously paid homage to the novel. Its political fate, however, has been somewhat cloudier. What Orwell observed of Dickens, that he is “one of those writers who are well worth stealing,” has proved no less true of Orwell himself. Socialists, libertarians, liberals and conservatives alike have vied to remake him in their own image and claim his authority.
Lynskey largely refrains from participating in the quarrel over Orwell’s and his novel’s true teachings and rightful heirs. If anything, The Ministry of Truth can seem too remote at times from its subject matter.
Nor does Lynskey illuminate the literary or intellectual qualities that distinguish Orwell’s novel from its many predecessors and descendants in the dystopian genre. In short, while we learn a great deal about the evolution and influence of 1984 as a cultural phenomenon, we sometimes lose sight, in the thick of Lynskey’s historicising, of the novel’s intrinsic virtues — of what makes it distinctive and accounts for its terror and fascination in the first place.
Lynskey is surely right, however, to note that the meaning of Orwell’s novel has shifted over the decades along with the preoccupations of its readers; and that in our low, dishonest moment, it is “most of all a defence of truth.” Reflecting back on the Spanish Civil War and the falsification of its record, Orwell worried that the “very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” Yet he never seems to have resigned himself completely to hopelessness.
Winston Smith, the doomed protagonist of 1984, inhabits a world in which individuality has been made almost obsolete, history is daily rewritten and reality is fabricated according to the whims of the state. Winston attempts, despairingly and bravely, to rediscover what life was like before the rise of Big Brother. He is shocked that his lover, Julia, is indifferent to the state’s assault on truth — the unreality of the present is all she has known and all she believes ever was or will be. Her complacency is the counterpart to Winston’s energising despair. In this way, 1984 elevates despair into a sort of necessary condition of truth-seeking. It is here if nowhere else, Orwell suggests, that hope for humanity may lie.
©2019 The New York Times News Service
THE MINISTRY OF TRUTH
The Biography of
George Orwell’s “1984”
Doubleday; $28.95; 355 pages