Friday, June 12, 2009

1984 in 2009

By David Pryce-Jones
Friday, June 12, 2009

Sixty years ago, George Orwell published 1984, and I can think of no work of fiction in the past century with a comparable influence right across the world. Plenty of writers had already warned about the twin horrors of Nazism and Communism, and many of them had first-hand experience of these totalitarianisms. Orwell was telling a story about what it would be like to live in such a nightmare society. From the novel's opening sentence in which the clocks are striking thirteen, the reader finds himself in the grip of an imagination so true and so detailed that it has far more power than any political tract could have.

At that time editor of the Times Literary Supplement, my father had received a proof copy of the book. I remember the well-known critic Raymond Mortimer coming to the house to say how important this book was and to ask how the TLS was going to review it. Overhearing the excitement, I managed to get my hands on this proof but could read only a little before I had to return to school. When I then asked for 1984 in the school library, the librarian, a desiccated figure by the name of Mr. Cattley, said it was “filth,” and reported me. My 12-year-old self was scared, but “You must forgive Mr. Cattley,” said the master in charge, “he is a very simple soul.” (Incidentally, Orwell had been a scholar at the school and another of the masters had been his contemporary. This man was bald, with a strange blotch or even growth on his scalp, rumoured to have been caused by Orwell pouring chemicals on him in the laboratory. We used to pester him, “Please sir, tell us what Orwell was like, was he good at science?”)

The love-making of Julia and Winston, it is true, stands out as pure escapism from everything around, so appealing (and thus upsetting to poor Mr. Cattley) because it is the one remaining individual experience. Privacy allows them to be happy and free at least temporarily from state control — which is why it cannot be tolerated and the supervising tele-screens and the Junior Spies are ubiquitous. Winston is always searching for other things that might free him, for instance, nursery songs or well-made artifacts from the past. The really frightening element in 1984 is the manipulation of the past, the whole social record, even language itself, so that truth and reality become irrecoverable and Big Brother can make of them what he likes. A Western historian at a conference, so the story goes, once said that the future is unpredictable, to which a Soviet historian replied that for him the past was unpredictable.

The Left has tried, and still does spasmodically, to pretend that the novel is not really anti-Soviet. But 1984's Big Brother is undoubtedly Stalin, and the figure of Goldstein is Trotsky. Orwell had lived through such murderous events as the Communists turning on the Trotskyists and anarchists in the Spanish civil war, and the Hitler-Stalin pact. It is particularly penetrating to have invented the phrase of the Two Minute Hate to describe the totalitarian mechanism for falsifying public opinion to suit the ends of power. Two Minute Hates occur all the time. Just look at the way the Left switched from supporting Israel to lambasting it, or how the Shah's pro-American Iran converted overnight into Khomeini's anti-American Iran.

To travel in old days in Soviet Russia and the Soviet bloc was to find oneself deep in 1984. The hopelessness of daily life was exactly as Orwell had captured it. How sinister it was too, how thoroughly Orwellian. Everyone was against everyone else; under the all-encompassing propaganda about progressiveness there was no communal or social spirit, only the Party. One of the compulsory Intourist or KGB guides once told me proudly that she had renounced her mother for failing to be a Communist. “Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.” Orwell's imagination had been exactly right.

Orwell agonized over the writing of the book, and he was anyhow stricken with the tuberculosis that killed him six months after publication. Drugs to cure the disease had just become available in the United States, and had Orwell been a different character he might have procured them but seems instead to have thought this would be exercizing privilege. At that time, France and Italy appeared likely to go Communist, and in both countries extremists in the Party were ready for a coup. The Soviets occupied East Germany, were isolating West Germany, provoking the Berlin airlift, and opening the whole German future to doubt. The fact that the worst did not happen does not detract from Orwell's vision. 1984, it seems to me, had the effect of saving the English-speaking intelligentsia from the Communist snares and delusions rampant on the continent of Europe, and any future totalitarian society will be obliged to ban it just as the Soviet Union did. That’s an immortal achievement.

06/12 12:00 PM

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