Oct 6, 2017
32 Min read time
From invading Afghanistan to dismantling Confederate monuments, George Orwell has been pressed into the service of all sorts of causes. But the real Orwell remains unknown.
This essay is featured in Global Dystopias.
“It was a bright cold day in April,” said Richard Blair, “and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Blair is seventy-three and the son of George Orwell. To witness him stand at a lectern and read the opening line of his father’s great final novel, 1984, is to experience a sense of completion, an equation solved.
We were in Senate House, now part of the University of London, for 1984 Live. For the first time in the United Kingdom, the book was to be read aloud publicly from start to finish. It had been estimated that it would take sixty or so readers—well-known journalists, academics, actors, activists—thirteen hours, that Orwellian number, to get from the bright cold day to the gin-scented tears.
All political moments are Orwellian, but some are more Orwellian than others.
The event was being staged as part of the University College London Festival of Culture and organized by the Orwell Foundation, a charity celebrating the author’s work and values. Its director, Jean Seaton, explained that the idea had come “last summer, just after Brexit, but before Trump. The world felt dark and full of lies. Still does.”
Since then, 1984 has taken on a strange currency; the electric charge of Orwell’s thinking hums and crackles through the culture. In January the novel topped Amazon’s bestseller list, almost seventy years since it was first published in 1949. Demand began to rise, according to Penguin Random House, shortly after Kellyanne Conway used the expression “alternative facts” to defend Sean Spicer’s claim that Donald Trump had attracted the largest audience ever to witness a presidential inauguration, period. By July 2017 sales had doubled over the same period in 2016. Half a million copies were printed in January alone.
All political moments are Orwellian, but some are more Orwellian than others. Reading 1984 “hurts” right now, according to Jean Seaton, but perhaps there is also something soothing in the recognition that the novel’s darkness looks so much like our own. “It feels like 1984 is here in our faces,” she told me.
George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, wrote the novel between the summer of 1946 and the winter of 1948, mostly on the island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, where he had taken a house, moving there from austere post-war London. It tells the story of Winston Smith, a citizen of the state of Oceania, and his attempted rebellion—through sex and love and the written word—against the Party, which observes and controls every aspect of life. The novel has given us familiar concepts such as Big Brother and Room 101. Published in the United Kingdom on June 8, 1949, and five days later in the United States, the reviews at once recognized its significance. Mark Schorer wrote in the New York Times that “no other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness.”
This flesh-and-blood Orwell is not well known. He exists as a set of ideas and moral positions that can be used to shore up one’s own argument.
Orwell grew concerned that the novel was being interpreted across the Atlantic as an anti-communist or anti-left polemic, rather than the warning against totalitarianism that he had intended. True, he said, the name he had given to the political ideology of Oceania was Ingsoc—or English Socialism—but he could easily have chosen something different: “In the USA the phrase ‘Americanism’ or ‘hundred per cent Americanism’ is suitable and . . . as totalitarian as anyone could wish.” One thinks of Trump’s inauguration, Capitol Hill within a belfry of cloud, and the tolling bell of his promise: “America first, America first.”
• • •
I had walked the short distance to Senate House from Euston railway station. Filthy weather, heavy rain, the morning sky a tubercular grey.
Down-and-outs dozed in doorways on Euston Road, nested in flattened boxes, dirty duvets. Old newspapers, spread out upon the cardboard to absorb the rain and cold, were damp and blurred, but some Orwellian headlines were legible: “Terror at London Bridge”; “Massacre in the Market”; “May: Trust Me to Keep You Safe.” Photographs showed armed police in black face masks. Three days before, not far from here, eight people were killed and forty-eight injured in a terrorist attack, the third in Britain in just over two months. The Grenfell Tower fire, taking the lives of up to eighty people in a high-rise apartment block, was eight days away from happening, but would—in its ferocious injustice—bring to mind the title of Orwell’s 1946 essay “How the Poor Die.”
I walked down Gower Street past the red-brick hospital where, on January 21, 1950, Orwell died of a hemorrhage of the left lung, drowning in his own blood. Suddenly, Senate House loomed out of the murk. There could be few more appropriate venues. Orwell took it as his model for the government building where the Party manufactured lies. “The Ministry of Truth,” he wrote, “was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” In fact Senate House is only sixty-four meters high, although this was enough to make it London’s first skyscraper and the tallest secular building in Britain upon its completion in 1936. Evelyn Waugh, in his novel Put Out More Flags (1942), wrote of its “vast bulk . . . insulting the autumnal sky.”
During World War II, Senate House was home to the Ministry of Information, the British government department concerned with propaganda and censorship. Three thousand people worked here, among them Orwell’s first wife, Eileen.
Chancellor’s Hall, a long narrow room on the first floor of the tower, with marble pillars and a walnut floor, was used during the war by the Home Guard volunteer defense force. According to University of London professor Simon Eliot, “We must imagine this room as a cross between an armory and a command post, with machine guns at the windows, at least one pointing east and one pointing west.”
There is a sense of Orwell being saved for a purpose. He had a fond theory—perhaps a kind of prayer—that a writer could not die while he still had a book in him.
During 1984 Live, the windows of Chancellor’s Hall were shuttered, the room lit with cold blue light. The Battle of Britain, the so-called Blitz spirit, seemed a long time ago. Nevertheless, with the terrorism threat level at severe and a general election two days away, there was a mild sense of siege. What, I asked Orwell’s biographer D. J. Taylor, did 1984 have to say to us in this moment? Taylor spoke about the novel’s attack on those who would limit freedom of thought and expression, and noted that it was, today, being read aloud in a city “scared stiff” of terrorists who hold democracy in contempt. “So,” he said, “I would like to think that it is a candle burning on a winter’s night.”
If so, its flame was brightest at 11:00 a.m. precisely. The journalist Arifa Akbar was at the podium, reading from the section of the book in which Winston Smith, lunching in the Ministry of Truth canteen, listens as his colleague Syme describes, cheerfully, the recent execution of some prisoners. “It was a good hanging,” Akbar read. “I think it spoils it when they tie their feet together. I like to see them kicking.” Suddenly, there came an announcement. The minute’s silence, observed nationwide, in memory of the victims of the attack on London Bridge and Borough Market, was to be held here, too.
The lights were dimmed, heads bowed in the smothering hush. This was the only interruption to 1984 during the whole day, and it felt like part of the book’s meaning, a blank page as powerful as anything Orwell had written. Already that morning there had been a reading of the section describing the Two Minutes Hate—a ritualized outpouring of fury at Oceania’s enemies. Here, now, was the opposite: a moment of calm reflection with love at its heart. It felt Orwellian in the less common sense of that word: an assertion of the democratic values championed in his work, and the basic human kindness which many of those who knew him say he embodied in life.
Backstage, in the green room, I fell into conversation with Catherine O’Shaughnessy. Orwell was her uncle and godfather. She lives in Virginia, in a small town forty miles south of Washington, D.C. She had come to Europe to take part in this reading and to visit the restored trenches in Aragon where her uncle had fought—and was shot in the neck—during the Spanish Civil War. She knew the man, she said, not the writer. “I remember holding his hand and looking up at him. He was so tall and thin. He just went up and up and up. As a child, it was very easy to be around him.”
Orwell was six foot three or four (“up and up and up”) with a thirty-seven-inch chest and thirty-three-inch waist. He wore size twelve shoes. His hands were very large with “spatulate” fingers, broad and clublike at the tips, a condition that one close friend regarded as a signifier of his artistic nature, but which can also indicate chronic lung infection. He was gaunt. His eyes were bright blue, and he would look at people in such a direct and penetrating way, a mingled “benevolence and fanaticism,” that they remembered it for years afterward. They remembered, too, a certain “luminosity” that he seemed to have, and which photographs have failed to capture. A number of his friends noted a resemblance to Don Quixote. Others compared him to a figure carved on the front of a Gothic cathedral, or a tortured saint by El Greco. There was a “curiously crucified expression,” a woodcut melancholy, upon his lined face.
Read deep into the letters, the diaries, the books of reminiscence, and one can glimpse the real man now and then. Illustrated gospels. Scenes from the life. Here is Orwell in 1937 reading Shakespeare in the Spanish trenches. There he is a year later, cross-legged in an English hayfield, laughing at caterpillars. Or sitting up in bed in London, reading Animal Farm (1945), then a work-in-progress, to his wife. Or, in 1946, stooping to lift a human skull, some barnacled memento mori, from a beach on Jura; to this favor he would soon come.
Orwell escaped death many times: the sniper’s bullet, the whirlpool, the blood in his lungs. It was the last that got him eventually.
This flesh-and-blood Orwell is not well known. He exists more vividly as a set of ideas and moral positions that can be used to shore up one’s own argument. Being conveniently dead, he has been pressed into the service of various causes, from invading Afghanistan to remaining part of the European Union. Conservative commentators have described as “Orwellian” the removal of Confederate statues from public space, while liberal pundits have suggested that Antifa—which supports taking down the statues—displays a certain comradeship with Orwell in its willingness to take a physical stand against fascism. There is a tendency by both left and right, as the journalist Paul Gray once wrote, “to hold Orwell’s coat while sending his ghost out to battle.”
For the Columbia University historian Simon Schama, who had flown to London from New York, 1984’s continued relevance is illustrated by Orwell’s concept of the Ministries of Truth, Love, and Plenty, all of which are concerned with the precise opposite of what their names indicate. For a parallel, he suggested, one need only look to Trump’s nomination of Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic, to head the Environmental Protection Agency; or his nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary when—as Schama put it—she is the “sworn foe” of public schooling.
“And Trump calling anything he happens to disagree with ‘fake news’ is 1984 to the letter,” he continued. “To take authenticity and evidence and empirically acquired information and stigmatize them as non-truth is just about as Orwellian as you could possibly get.”
Not everyone is convinced. “Trump is a horrible oaf, but he’s not Big Brother,” said the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, a former winner of the Orwell Prize for journalism. We were talking in a small exhibition space just along the corridor from Chancellor’s Hall; a sign next to the door revealed, almost unbelievably, that this was Room 101.
Hitchens considers “daft” anyone who would respond to Trump’s presidency by purchasing 1984. Why? “Well, you tell me why it would be sensible,” he countered. “Donald Trump doesn’t threaten a secret police force or surveillance particularly. He doesn’t have any ambition to wipe out the past, or impose a new language on people, or police their minds. I just don’t see it.”
One could argue that he is trying to change the past by lying about it. “Well, yes, but his lies are all discoverable. . . . If people really think that Donald Trump is the worst menace to freedom of speech and thought, and knowledge of the past, then they have to get out a bit more.”
Of course, even if one does accept the analogy, where does it get us?
I put this question to singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg. “To feel that we’re in control . . . we have to have a way of explaining what’s happening to us,” he replied. “By connecting with Orwell, we realize we’re not the first people to have experienced this situation, and we get some comfort from that. Culture can do that for you.”
• • •
The day was wearing on. The readings continued. The story arced ratwards, deathwards. I took some time out and walked down the street to the special collections department of the university library.
There, Gill Furlong, the archivist, led the way down to the windowless basement. White walls. Silver heating pipes. Bright light. A place where there is no darkness.
The partial manuscript of 1984 is at Brown University, but everything else is here: Orwell’s diaries, notebooks, some letters, ephemera he brought back from the Spanish Civil War. He stares out from the small black-and-white photo on the front of his press card, faintly amused.
Newspeak. The Two Minutes Hate. War Is Peace. Ignorance Is Strength. Freedom Is Slavery.
Furlong has worked with these materials since the seventies as their caretaker and guardian, and has developed a sense of intimacy with the man whose relics these are. “I feel very close,” she said. “I feel sometimes as though he’s standing at my shoulder.”
She placed on the desk a hardback notebook, its cover, worn at the edges, the color of red wine. “This notebook is just iconic, isn’t it?” she said, opening it toward the back. There, on a right-hand page, Orwell had written and underlined, The Last Man in Europe—his original title for 1984.
A list of words and expressions followed, things he intended to bring into the book. Newspeak. The Two Minutes Hate. And the Party slogans: War Is Peace. Ignorance Is Strength. Freedom Is Slavery.
It was quite a thing to see those words written down in black cursive script. It marks the moment when those ideas, so much part of modern political thought, passed from Orwell’s brain to his hand to the page, and from there, eventually, to the world.
The archivist closed the book, fetched another. A green cover, discolored here and there with island-shaped splotches of what looks like rain: Orwell’s diary from April to September 1947.
She turned to the entry for August 19. A page from the mythology of Orwell. He describes a trip by dinghy to the western side of the island of Jura. The sea was calm, the weather fine, and then something happened. Furlong read the words out loud: “On return journey today ran into the whirlpool and were all nearly drowned.”
The Corryvreckan is the third largest whirlpool in the world. Not only water churns here; stories, too—of sea-hags and drowned Viking princes. It lies in the narrow channel between Jura and the neighboring island of Scarba. Sail into it and its true nature becomes clear: it is not one whirlpool but rather a series of areas where the water seethes and waves butt heads like rutting deer. This unchancy place is where Orwell got into trouble.
In the dinghy with him were his niece Lucie and nephew Henry, as well as his son Richard, who was just three years old. Earlier I had asked Richard whether he had any memory of the accident. “Oh, yes,” he had replied. “That’s startlingly crisp in my mind.” He remembers sitting on his father’s knee in the stern, and then the desperate cold of the water.
Orwell had misread the tide tables. He lost control, the outboard motor was torn off the boat, and they were pitched and tossed from one vortex to another. Beside the small uninhabited island of Eilean Mòr, the dinghy overturned. Richard was trapped underneath, but his father pulled him out, and swam with him to the island. After a couple of hours, they were rescued by a passing lobster boat.
‘He arrived at the front door looking very thin and gaunt and worn. I was immediately struck by the very sad face he had. . . . He looked as if he’d been through a great deal.’
Sail past Eilean Mòr—a beautiful striated crag, yellow with lichen and pink with thrift—and one can almost see Orwell marooned there, a slender figure silhouetted against the sun, holding out his clothes to dry as a cormorant holds out its wings.
It is interesting to consider how many times he escaped death: the sniper’s bullet, the whirlpool, the blood in his lungs. It was the last that got him eventually, but he held it off for longer than many expected. There is a sense of Orwell being saved for a purpose. He had a fond theory—perhaps a kind of prayer—that a writer could not die while he still had a book in him.
• • •
Orwell made several trips to and from Jura between 1945 and 1949. The island, part of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, is all mountain and moor and loch. At around thirty miles long and seven wide, it is home to a couple of hundred people outnumbered, thirty to one, by red deer. Orwell called it “an extremely un-getatable place”—still true—and valued it as somewhere he could focus on his novel without the distraction of journalism. He also desired, following the sudden death of his first wife Eileen, to raise their adopted son in a region remote enough to escape the worst of a feared nuclear war. “The only hope,” he wrote, “is to have a home with a few animals in some place not worth a bomb.”
He arrived on Jura for his last stay on July 28, 1948, traveling from Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride, near Glasgow, where he had spent seven months being treated for tuberculosis. Now, returning to the island and still weak, he was determined to finish 1984 before it finished him.
Hairmyres is a short drive from my house, and so on July 28, 2017, I set out to follow in the footsteps of Orwell’s final journey.
The hospital has been rebuilt since his day. The only old part left is the ward where it is thought he was treated. A two-story pavilion, it sits on a hill with long views south. No photographs of Orwell exist from his time at Hairmyres, but in the hospital library, in an unordered file of old black-and-whites, I found an intriguing print. It shows the ward as it would have appeared in the forties, on a steep slope overlooking fields. A patient is sitting out on the veranda, no doubt taking the high clean air into his labored lungs. This man is too far away to identify, but there is something about his height and profile. Would it be going too far to imagine a curiously crucified expression on that face?
Orwell’s medical treatment was unpleasant. In order that it could be rested, his left lung was collapsed by paralyzing the diaphragm and then pumping air into the abdomen through a needle. He was also given streptomycin, an experimental drug unavailable in Britain, which his friend David Astor, the wealthy editor of the Observer, arranged to be imported from the United States. Unfortunately, he developed a severe allergic reaction. His nails and hair began to fall out. He had ulcers in his mouth and throat, blisters on his lips. “At night,” he wrote in his diary, “these burst & bled considerably, so that in the morning my lips were always stuck together with blood & I had to bathe them before I could open my mouth.”
As best he could, he continued to make progress on 1984. The doctors grew used to the strong smell of his hand-rolled cigarettes, and to the sound of his typing in bed. It was the latter that seemed to concern them. His right arm was put in a cast for three months, said to have been done to stop him writing. However, Bruce Dick, the grandson and namesake of the eminent tuberculosis specialist who treated Orwell, told me a family legend which suggests that the author found an unexpected collaborator in his attempts to keep working against medical advice. Dick recalled, “The story my gran used to tell was that she would buy paper for him to type on, and take it to him in the hospital.” It is a delicious thought: the doctor who kept him alive long enough to complete the book; the doctor’s wife who made sure he did not waste the time he was given.
1984 is a death-haunted work. It is sometimes said that the novel killed Orwell.
Orwell had made arrangements for the manuscript of 1984 to be destroyed if unfinished at the time of his death. However, by the summer of 1948 he was well enough to return to Jura. The journey from Glasgow, in those days, took at least seven hours: a train, a bus, two boats, and—at the end of all that—an eight mile walk across the island to Barnhill, the house he had leased.
It is still not an easy thing to get to Jura, but I did it as simply as possible, driving a hundred miles or so to the village of Craobh Haven on the Craignish peninsula, and then hiring a local skipper to make the forty-five minute crossing in his launch, Farsain. The name is Gaelic for “wanderer,” which seemed right for a boat taking us to Orwell’s final home; after all his wanderings—Spain, Burma, the London flophouses and Paris slums—this is where he wished to settle.
We headed southwest, straight into the wind. Waves banged the hull. Jura was a dark hump under a grey mantle. A line of three guillemots, flying ellipses, skimmed the water as we put into Kinuachdrachd Bay.
Barnhill is more or less unchanged since Orwell’s day. A large white farmhouse overlooking the Sound of Jura, it is owned by the same family, the Fletchers, who had rented it to Orwell. Although available as a vacation rental, it remains a private home, a fact which has not deterred Orwell pilgrims, whose devotion carries their feet along the five-mile track from Ardlussa, where the road runs out.
“My parents have come downstairs to find people have made themselves at home in the kitchen, which doesn’t always go down well,” said Rob Fletcher, who was staying for a while with his wife and children and had agreed to show me around.
Rob is thirty-seven, so he never met Orwell, but his grandparents, Margaret and Robin, knew him. Margaret later recalled their first encounter: “He arrived at the front door looking very thin and gaunt and worn. I was immediately struck by the very sad face he had. . . . He looked as if he’d been through a great deal.”
Orwell lived at Barnhill with his son Richard and sister Avril. They were joined by Bill Dunn, a former army officer who had come to Jura to farm, and who later married Avril. The author remains present in the house in the form of photographs. That wry-looking picture from the front of his press card is framed on the mantelpiece in the living room, arranged among other objects as a near–still life: an antler, a round green bottle, a small brass candlestick with a waterfall of wax cascading over the rim. It wants only a skull, perhaps that one Orwell found on the beach, to make this vanitas complete.
Rob asked if I would like to see Orwell’s bedroom, and led the way. It is neither wise nor useful to treat Orwell like a holy martyr, but it was impossible not to pause for a moment at the foot of the staircase, lay one’s palm on the finial of the newel post—worn smooth by many hands—and think, “I am touching a place that he touched.”
He slept and wrote in a room above the kitchen. It has a low ceiling and a washbowl in one corner. A narrow window looks over the water to mainland Scotland. Rain ran down the glass. A buzzard hovered at the bottom of the garden. “I think he had a desk here in the window,” Rob said.
There is nothing in 1984, its torture chambers and fetid rooms, to suggest this view. In any case, when Orwell returned from Hairmyres, he spent most of his time in bed, sitting up to type, coughing blood. Any kind of physical effort, or simply getting cold, made him feel unwell and his temperature would climb to a suggestive figure—101 degrees. So he kept to his bedroom, the door and windows shut, the air perfumed with paraffin from the stove and smoke from his thick black tobacco. He completed the book in November 1948.
“He came down from his room and said, ‘Well, I’ve finished it,’” Dunn recalled in the book Remembering Orwell (published, appropriately enough, in 1984). “And we celebrated by opening the last bottle of wine we had in the place. And Avril said to him, ‘What’s the title, what are you going to call it?’ And he said, ‘I think Nineteen Eighty-Four.’”
Two months later, he left Jura for a sanatorium, never to return.
Orwell did not intend 1984 to be his final book. Nevertheless, it is a death-haunted work. It is sometimes said that the novel killed Orwell. Taylor believes so. Can he detect that in the book? I asked. Is it obviously written by a dying man?
Richard Blair learned of his father's death on the radio. It was announced on the eight o’ clock news on the Home Service.
“That’s interesting,” Taylor replied. “There have been several medics with experience of chronic lung disease, especially TB, who have written about the psychopathology of that novel. I’ve heard it said that there is a kind of hallucinatory quality about some of the book which is characteristic of the tuberculosis sufferer. There is certainly a kind of lurid, end-of-tether quality—some of the terror, Winston Smith and the rats. . . .”
In London, I had asked Richard Blair about his own attitude toward 1984. Did he resent the novel that had orphaned him? He looked startled. “No, never. I was far too young to be aware of what was happening. I knew he was ill, but I didn’t know precisely what it was. I used to ask, when I’d go to see him at the sanatorium, ‘Where does it hurt?’”
Blair was on Jura with his aunt Avril and Dunn when he learned, on the radio, that his father had died. This would have been January 21, 1950. “None of us were prepared. It was the eight o’ clock news on the Home Service. It just said, ‘The death has been announced of George Orwell, author of the dystopian novel 1984.’ I was suddenly confronted with something I didn’t understand. Everyone was in a panic.”
He was five and a half when his father died. He has had to be careful, growing up, that his own memories do not become a palimpsest overlaid by the recollections of others. Blair had pointed to a poster of Orwell advertising 1984 Live. “I see his face every day. Ever since he died, that face has always been around. So I don’t forget.”
It must be strange, though. He is your dad, and then he dies, and suddenly he belongs to the world? Blair nodded at this. “Most people don’t realize, of course, that his name was Eric Blair. So I can stand right up next to him in public and nobody sees me. That suits me fine. I can be right up at the ringside without people knowing who I am.
“George Orwell belongs to other people, but Eric Blair is mine. I tend to refer to him now as Orwell, almost in the third person.”
“And what,” I asked Blair, “did you call him?”
“Daddy,” he replied.
• • •
On February 3 of this year, Christin Evans, the owner of San Francisco’s Booksmith, placed a sign on the counter of her store. “Read up! Fight back!” had been written in red pen next to a drawing of a clenched fist. “A mystery benefactor has bought these copies of 1984 for you if you need one.” Stacked behind this notice were fifty copies of Orwell’s novel. They had soon all gone, and other customers were donating more. It was, Booksmith explained by email, “a quiet form of resistance.”
The original donor is a woman, a linguist, an immigrant to America. She agreed to talk to me on the condition that no more was revealed about her identity. The idea of giving away 1984 came to her about a month after the U.S. election. Trump’s victory, and the rise of “alternative facts” as an everyday concept, had left her feeling powerless and afraid: “I’m not allowed to vote, I’m not an American citizen, so I thought, ‘OK, how can I make an impact?’”
She had first read 1984 in her early teens, and found it taught her to think critically about society. She reread parts of it in the months leading up to the election, and was struck by how it resonated with her newfound fear of expressing political opinions; perhaps she and her family would be asked to leave the country they had made their home.
There are those who would say that comparisons between Oceania and the United States are fanciful and hyperbolic, that things are not that bad and are not going to get that bad. But 1984, according to the donor, is a sort of fairy story. It is a frightening tale of gingerbread houses and dark woods intended to scare readers onto the path of resistance. “I think it tells the story of what can happen if you don’t do anything,” she said. “The moment you give up all your autonomy and agency to the state, you are lost.”
Orwell’s 1984, dark as it is, prefers to regard the human spirit—its capacity to love—as rather a large thing that can endure much.
In an article for TomDispatch, Rebecca Gordon, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco and expert on torture, summarizes the various pieces of “inconvenient” information—on subjects including climate change and the travel ban—that have been removed from federal websites and Trump’s own presidential campaign site since he took office. The present administration, she argues, “seems intent on tossing recent history down the memory hole.” This is a reference to the work of Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, wherein the events of the past, as reported by newspapers and other media, are constantly altered to remain in line with whatever best suits the state’s agenda. The unredacted versions are destroyed—placed in the “memory hole” and burned—and new reports fabricated by expert propagandists. “Who controls the past,” Orwell wrote, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” It is, perhaps, not so different from lying about the size of a crowd, or where Obama was born, or whether Muslims on a rooftop in New Jersey celebrated as the twin towers fell.
According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump made 492 false or misleading claims during his first 100 days in office. Does Gordon really believe that this is a deliberate strategy, that the president is, in her words, “grinding away at American memories” as a means of imposing his narrative and will on the public? “I have to be careful in imputing intentionality to Trump himself,” she replied when I called and asked her this. “But the people who are manipulating him, and are competing with each other to manipulate him, very well understand that it is possible through constant repetition of a big lie to create a reality that is different from what I might call consensus reality.”
I thought of this while watching the president’s speech to supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center on August 22, in the aftermath of Charlottesville. This was his Make American Great Again Rally. He quoted his earlier condemnation of the “egregious display of bigotry, hatred, and violence” that left three dead in the Virginia city, but left out those infamous lines—“on many sides, on many sides”—which seemed to make a moral equivalence between white nationalists and those who had come out to protest them. Just six little words erased from the end of a sentence; it would have been an easy job for even the simplest drone in the Ministry of Truth.
The purpose of this sort of manipulation of reality, in Gordon’s view, is not just to make the American public accept official government lines, but to truly believe them. To illustrate this point, she referred to the torture scene in 1984. Winston is strapped to a machine, some instrument of wrenching torment. His interrogator, O’Brien, holds up four fingers and insists there are five. Every time Winston says otherwise, O’Brien turns a lever that increases the pain surging through his body. This continues until Winston not only agrees there are five fingers, but actually sees them. “In a way,” Gordon reflected, “they are turning up the machine on all of us.”
• • •
In Senate House, 1984 Live was moving toward its end. There was the song of the thrush and the sting of the truncheons. Winston and his lover Julia, imagining themselves safe in their secret room, were about to be arrested by the Thought Police. Meanwhile Winston mused upon Big Brother: “His function is to act as a focusing point for love, fear, and reverence, emotions which are more easily felt towards an individual than towards an organization.”
I heard those words and wondered, “Is that Trump?” Bonnie Greer thought not. The president is not intelligent enough, in her view. Greer, an American playwright and broadcaster who lives in London, first encountered 1984 on television as a child growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the early 1960s. It was a telecast of the 1956 film, starring Edmond O’Brien and Jan Sterling: “Black and white, very bleak, and being a Cold War–baby everything was about the Soviet Union and what they’re going to do to you.”
These days she sees the story differently. Orwell’s novel is “a handbook for now,” she told me, and its central message is, “as young black kids are saying, ‘Stay woke.’ It’s about staying awake, staying rebellious, staying human. We’re in a power struggle to hold on to fact, to say, ‘This is a lie.’ If we keep doing that, we can defeat this.”
Greer had been given a challenge and an honor; she was to read the final part of the book—from the last, sad encounter with Julia to Winston’s final submission. “He had won the victory over himself,” she said, speaking softly, even dreamily into the darkness. “He loved Big Brother.”
It was curious that such a pessimistic book, such a bleak conclusion, did not seem so in that moment. All day this feeling had been growing. Read 1984 alone in your room and it seems like nothing but sorrow. But here, as a communal experience, it felt like something else: defiance. People had come together to read from a book, or else to simply listen to it, and such a thing will not change the world, or a regime, but as an assertion of a certain kind of civilization it is powerful enough.
Curious, too, that the book’s appendix had not been read. This decision was made to save time and for reasons of drama. “The Principles of Newspeak,” with which 1984 concludes, is academic, rather dry. Some have detected in it a note of optimism that is not present in the narrative, but it would certainly have been a flat ending to the day if the event had finished on several pages outlining the form and purpose of Oceania’s official language.
Still, it might have been apt.
The ruling regime of Oceania developed Newspeak to make it impossible to articulate—or even conceive of—ideas that went against the ideology of the state. This would mean that older texts could not be translated if they did not conform to Party orthodoxy. Take the Declaration of Independence, for example: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”; that if government goes against the unalienable rights of the people, then the people can change the government. Such ideas cannot be rendered in Newspeak; there is simply no equivalent vocabulary. The only possibility, Orwell wrote, is to replace Thomas Jefferson’s words with a single expression: crimethink.
We live in days when violence of this sort is being done, by the highest in the land, to our language—Sad! Bad! Fake!—and to the very idea of America. Trump is a reductive force: he wants everything to be as small and mean as his own heart, and he has made a start with words. Orwell’s 1984, dark as it is, prefers to regard the human spirit—its capacity to love—as rather a large thing that can endure much. This is perhaps why the book is finding a place in so many American homes. Yes, it is a warning, just as it was in 1949, but it also offers an example and a glint of light.
If there is hope, it lies in the prose.
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October 06, 2017
32 Min read time