George Orwell is anyone’s to claim: the critic’s most versatile and convenient champion. Orwell! A revolutionary who recanted, satirical or stern, as you may require; an Old Etonian, who ran out of money and lived on the streets for a while; leftist, renegade, humanist, humorist, patriot and traditionalist; defender of precise language; defender of cheap genre fiction. Then there is Orwell, the champion of freedom and enemy of cant, cast in the mold of Swift and Chekhov, who became more relevant than ever when Donald Trump became the US president.
In his very first public statement in January of 2017, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told those assembled that Trump’s had been “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” One had often heard White House press secretaries lie before, and about infinitely worse things. Still, this was an insane and ridiculous whopper, immediately proved false. But White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway went on TV anyhow to defend Spicer in an eye-popping interview with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press. Todd’s voice squeaked with indignation as he called Conway out on that first of so very many whoppers—regarding the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.
“Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” said Conway. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving—our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that.”
Within days, as the phrase “alternative facts” ricocheted around social media, 1984 had rocketed to the top of the best-seller list. The glossary of 1984—“doublethink,” “thoughtcrime” “Newspeak” “2+2=5” and so on—broke out in the public discourse like a rash, alongside a neologism Orwell never heard: “post-truth,” the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries “Word of the Year.” It was striking that that a freaked-out nation would turn instinctively to fiction rather than history in an attempt to grasp what had so suddenly befallen us. But it made sense, too. From that very first day, it was clear that language itself had become a battleground.
I intend no particular comment on the mendacity of the Trump administration. That is scarcely an original point, and it lacks interest from a literary perspective. My focus is the dawn of “alternative facts,” when language, and by extension writing, came under attack in the manner that George Orwell predicted in 1984.
“Using words to cover up lies, however subtly, destroys language,” wrote wrote Masha Gessen in the New York Review a few weeks afterward. The challenge for American media and culture has become, more and more, the preservation of language. There’s a fight on to defend language as a way of understanding, expressing and preserving reality—as a kind of moral commitment, if you like.
1984 is an allegory of Soviet Russia and its failures as a socialist state, dramatizing the full Stalinist horrorshow—police terror, cultural propaganda, educational indoctrination, control of labor, right up to the destruction of family loyalties, carried out by a government that induced children to inform on their parents. But at bottom it’s a story of the government’s exploitation of media, and of language dismantled in order to crush imagination, curiosity and dissent. Richard Rorty wrote in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity that 1984 is a book that sensitizes its readers “to a set of excuses for cruelty… the use of the rhetoric of ‘human equality’ by intellectuals who allied themselves with a spectacularly successful criminal gang.”
1984 is a shouted warning against the evils human beings are capable of inflicting on one another by wrecking language. A shouted warning to us who are now directly facing the evils Orwell foresaw. We are now called on to understand the trajectory of what has taken place over the last three years, or twenty years, or forty years in the West, in the light of this warning, and to change, or perish.
In 1883 the English historian Sir John Seeley wrote that “Politics and history are only different aspects of the same study”; in 1931 Mikhail Pokrovsky, the first Soviet Marxist historian, wrote that “history is politics applied to the past.” Orwell refined this: “Whoever controls the past controls the future.” Tyrants from Augustus to Hitler, or for that matter, Kaczyński or Orbán, have understood that people are far more easily controlled through their minds than by force of arms.
The full context of this reasoning is familiar to students of literature; the frame of reference of an expression, an idea, a memory, is likely more germane to its meaning than the expression itself. To be an effective reader, or citizen, means understanding one’s own frames of reference, the contours and hidden histories in our own minds. Or as Orwell put it, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
If history is the application of politics to the past, then, as 1984 demonstrates with unusual clarity, you might say that literature is the application of history to the future.
The Russian historians Mikhail Heller and Alexandr Nekrich wrote that Orwell was “perhaps the only Western writer who profoundly understood the essence of the Soviet world.” This, though Orwell never traveled to Russia, wasn’t a Communist, and was as English as a plum pudding. The historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote that in the 1980s, Polish and Czech friends would show him their samizdat editions of Animal Farm and 1984 and ask, “‘But how did he do it?’ Who told him that in their communal apartment block ‘the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats’? How did he understand about everything, from the shortage of razor blades to the deep psychology of doublethink? How did he know?”
He knew, in part, because he had eagerly read Evgeny Zamyatin’s We, a Russian science fiction novel written around 1921. We know this because Orwell reviewed We in 1946; over the following two years he would complete the bulk of the manuscript of 1984 on the island of Jura in Scotland. Orwell never lived in a totalitarian society, though he was afraid he could see one coming. But Zamyatin had, and so Orwell was able to flesh out the armature of his own fears with Zamyatin’s lived experience.
Evgeny Zamyatin was born in 1884 in Lebedyan, some two hundred miles south of Moscow. He was an Old Bolshevik who joined the party in 1902; he was jailed by the Czarists in 1905. A naval engineer by trade, he went to England to supervise the construction of Russian icebreakers in 1916, returning just in time for the October Revolution.
Press censorship in Russia began basically the instant after the revolution. By April of 1918 the party had announced its intention to take absolute control of culture, determining both what should and what should not be written about, painted or sung, etc. That didn’t go over so well with artists or writers, at first—“The government is regulating art without knowing what it is,” scoffed the critic Viktor Shklovsky—but a few decades of getting thrown in jail and/or killed would eventually ensure either exile or an outward compliance with state control of the arts among what was left of the Russian intelligentsia.
Zamyatin was an early and vocal opponent of the political constraints on literary artists, one of the first Soviet dissidents, an incalculably brave person. “The only weapon worthy of man—of tomorrow’s man—is the word,” he wrote in 1920. “With the word, the Russian intelligentsia, Russian literature, have fought for decades for the great human tomorrow. And today it is time to raise this weapon once again.” That year, he began writing We.
By 1922 the Bolsheviks had pitched him back into literally the same corridor of the same prison the Czarists had tossed him in in 1905. Zamyatin came by his cynicism by the purest possible means, and he never gave way. With Gorky’s help he was eventually able to leave Russia. He died in exile in France in 1937.
We is the story of D-503, mathematician, engineer and citizen of the Only State of the 26th century, in which individual rights and freedoms have been almost completely eradicated. D-503 is a happy member of this society of bloodless automata, which considers machines to be perfect, way better than people. Pretty soon a lady, I-330, will show D-503 that he is not a machine, and throw his world into turmoil and rebellion. But when the book opens he is utterly untroubled by thoughts of freedom or of love.
“How is it possible,” asks D-503, “that the ancients did not see as plain as day the total absurdity of their literature and poetry? The grand and majestic power of the written word was spent for nothing. It was simply ridiculous. Everyone wrote whatever came to mind.”
D-503 to me is extremely reminiscent of the STEM-obsessed Elon Musk-lovin’ tech bros who’ve never read a novel aside from Atlas Shrugged, and the condescending way they often talk about books and literature. I honestly wish I were exaggerating, because the stifling tech-worshipping atmosphere of We is altogether too familiar to a modern American reader. Anyway: it’s a terrific novel, strangely moving, and really funny in a Kafkaesque way.
I love this passage:
Machines have no imagination. Have you ever seen the face of a pump cylinder break into a distant, foolish, dreamy smile while it works? Have you ever heard of cranes restlessly turning from side to side and sighing at night, during the hours designated for rest?
Unfortunately this book was too prescient for its own good, or anybody’s. “Ten or fifteen years later Zamyatin’s terrible prophecy became a reality,” Heller and Nekrich wrote. “Today it seems like a commonplace, but in 1920 the idea of a “state literature” was an entirely new concept.”
We has a lot of distinguished admirers, among them Noam Chomsky, who found Zamyatin’s book superior to both 1984 and Brave New World, which it also inspired. You can almost hear the competitive spirit in Orwell’s review of We. It’s wonderful. (I hadn’t known, by the way, that Huxley taught Orwell French at Eton—a crazy sidenote.)
Several years after hearing of its existence, I have at last got my hands on a copy of Zamyatin’s We, which is one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age…
The guiding principle of the State is that happiness and freedom are imcompatible. In the Garden of Eden man was happy, but in his folly he demanded freedom and was driven out into the wilderness. Now the Single State has restored his happiness by removing his freedom […]
D-503 is ultimately saved from the consequences of his own folly. The authorities announce that they have discovered the cause of the recent disorders: it is that some human beings suffer from a disease called imagination. The nerve-centre responsible for imagination has now been located, and the disease can be cured by X-ray treatment. D-503 undergoes the operation, after which it is easy for him to do what he has known all along that he ought to do—that is, betray his confederates to the police. With complete equanimity he watches I-330 tortured by means of compressed air under a glass bell.
The classic interpretation of both novels is to look at their protagonists, D-503 and Winston Smith, and see Everyman, just as we would later come to see Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, or Neo in The Matrix. The horror of Zamyatin’s prediction, and Orwell’s, is the realization that through torture or lobotomy or other technological means of force man can be made not only to serve the machines, he can be transformed into a machine himself, stripped not only of freedom but of even the remotest desire for it; the spark of humanity itself can be extinguished in a human being, who can yet be compelled to serve the State in this diminished, lobotomized condition.
That’s how I was taught 1984 in high school, many years ago. But I’ve since come to feel that that reading is a bit off. The real subject of 1984 is O’Brien, the interrogator, the secret member of the Thought Police who entraps Winston Smith and his lover Julia into the Brotherhood, a resistance organization later revealed to be a honeypot for catching and neutralizing dissidents.
In our world, everyone who’s looked into the matter even superficially knows beyond a doubt that torture will eventually either break or kill anyone. This is not a matter for speculation; it’s been proved countless times. In the novel, O’Brien discovers and exploits the thing that will break Winston Smith—the vulnerability that will permanently remove the idea of himself, from himself—likewise with Julia. Their mutually confessed betrayal breaks not only the bond between the lovers, the thing that was theirs alone, separate from the state, but the bonds within themselves, their identities, their conscience. To know yourself as a betrayer, Orwell and Zamyatin both believed, is to lose your sense of yourself as someone worth being.
But the part of ourselves that wishes to choose freely, to love and to be a self, is well known to be vulnerable to physical pain and capable of manipulation. I don’t think any reader of conscience comes away from 1984 or from We thinking less of D-503, or of Julia or of Winston Smith, for having succumbed to physical torture.
But we may think less of O’Brien, the true subject of 1984, when he is revealed as Winston Smith’s betrayer. “Orwell was not the first person to suggest that small gangs of criminals might get control of modern states and, thanks to modern technology, stay in control forever,” Rorty says. “But he was the first to ask how intellectuals in such states might conceive of themselves, once it had become clear that liberal ideals had no relation to a possible human future. O’Brien is his answer to that question.”
O’Brien is portrayed as the simple and inevitable means by which the inhuman system is perpetuated. He is a man who no longer believes in the possibility of a better world, and who is thus irresistibly compelled to reduce others to the same condition. For their own good, as it were.
When the imprisoned Winston Smith cries, “They’ve got you too!” O’Brien replies, “with a mild, almost regretful irony,” “They got me a long time ago.” Various readings of the passage are available, but on balance I think Orwell intends the literal meaning: O’Brien was once in Smith’s position, a rebel who got busted by the Man. Now it is Winston’s turn; Winston will endure a great deal before he succumbs. And the better Winston is, the angrier O’Brien becomes. He tells O’Brien, “I know that you will fail.”
“There is something in the universe—I don’t know, some spirit, some principle—that you will never overcome.”
“Do you believe in God, Winston?”
“Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?”
“I don’t know. The spirit of Man.” […]
“You consider yourself morally superior to us, with our lies and our cruelty?”
“Yes, I consider myself superior.”
If O’Brien acknowledges that anyone is superior to himself, or more free than himself, he will also have to acknowledge that he, O’Brien, is damaged and diminished: not a pragmatist or a realist but a corrupt, ruined man. An admission he will move heaven and earth, torture anyone and ruin anything, to avoid. This is not at all a rare thing in our own world. Such people often call themselves “pragmatists.”
Orwell doesn’t see O’Brien as “seduced by a mistaken theory or blind to the facts,” Rorty observes. “He simply views him as dangerous and possible.”
Dangerous and possible and to this I would add, happening.
It’s easy to see the O’Brien in Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway; I see him too in Tucker Carlson, Bret Stephens and David Frum. I see him in a dozen high-ranking members of Congress, of both parties. I see him in Joe Biden and his supporters.
But institutionalized oppression and blindly self-interested propagandizing are just the beginning. We live in a deeply unequal society in which, this very day, thousands of people are dying for lack of medical attention in the richest society on earth. But that’s just the beginning. We live in a world where billions, trillions of creatures are at the mercy of a powerful cabal that has chosen to continue to extract fossil fuels from the ground at the expense of a habitable planet. But that’s just the beginning; for any human being to exist in these conditions is to accept the untenable.
Orwell showed us, seventy-two years ago, “a globe divided into a rich, free, democratic, selfish and greedy First World; an unchanging Second World run by an impregnable and ruthless Inner Party; and a starving, overpopulated, desperate Third World.” This is simply a description, it is not fiction, it is what has really happened, there is no way around the current circumstances, and as of yet no viable solution presents itself.
Having been born into this world, existing in it, and as a frequent beneficiary of its inequalities and injustices—without thinking, without understanding, I too turned language on its head in the very manner Zamyatin, and later Orwell, would predict so chillingly. I could lament the destruction of the planet while planning a vacation in Italy. Could protest inequality, while still planning to “rise” as high as I could in my own profession. It’s the easiest thing in the world to ignore that you’re saying harmful things, things no sane person could believe; in the event one never understands that one is oneself O’Brien, whose character is the true subject of 1984. My whole adult life has consisted of being appalled at Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face – forever, and then looking down to find that boot at the end of my own leg.
I see the O’Brien in myself. How to fight this?
I believe that people have more meaningful weapons against the O’Brien within than Richard Rorty imagined. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity is (as I understand it) is about the avoidance of any sentimental hogwash about capital-T Truth, particularly with respect to Art and Writers. The provisionality of truth.
Rorty said that Orwell can be seen as saying that it doesn’t matter whether ‘two plus two is four’ is true. “All that matters is that if you do believe it, you can say it without getting hurt. In other words, what matters is your ability to talk to other people about what seems to you true… if we take care of freedom, truth can take care of itself.” Fair enough, but one can’t stop there.
If one person agrees with me that two plus two is four, that is good; if six, and two hundred, and ten thousand people agree with me—and, if we all of us agree that 2+2 doesn’t equal 5—as in for example, no, don’t drink bleach—that is better still. It’s the force of others’ living beliefs joined with one’s own that makes truth true, that gives us strength, and, paradoxically what makes an individual self both possible, and worth being. Hannah Arendt talked about this, too.
If someone wants to see and experience the world as it “really” is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates and links them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another. Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.
The truth is available, to know and to build, but only in connection with others with whom one may consult, as I hope I’m doing here. Individual freedom is valuable as a contribution to the larger project of free individuals joining together. That is: I know I can’t find the truth alone, but maybe together we can find it. In order to do that I have always to be thinking about the O’Brien in my own mind and heart, the voice that tempts me to give way, and to accept injustice as a kind of fate, when it’s not.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” Orwell wrote. The more difficult task is to see what is behind it.
With grateful thanks to Brian Morton and to Sarah Lawrence College, which hosted this essay as a craft talk in April 2020.