Nineteen Eighty-Four Is Not a Guidebook for the Present Day

Jul 6, 2019 by

A powerful totalitarian state is no longer needed to coerce human beings

By Will Lloyd –

Is there a literary cliché more dull than saying of some old yellowing book that it is ‘as relevant today as it was when it was written’? This month marks the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Journalists on both sides of the Atlantic – to whom Orwell is a holy patron saint – have clacked out lengthy tributes (and entire whole books) to St Orwell’s most famous work.

What, they ask, does Nineteen Eighty-Four mean today? Well my answer, for whatever that’s worth, is: nothing. Nineteen Eighty-Four has nothing new to say to us and we have almost nothing new to say about Nineteen Eighty-Four. Realistically, we have very little left to say about George Orwell too. This is not to debunk him, dethrone him or, God help us, decolonize him.

Orwell the monument will likely be with us for as long as Shakespeare or Milton. The authoritative voice, especially in the essays, is as timeless and quotable as ever. It instantly evokes that composed, largely benevolent, somewhat aggrieved Englishman. Here making tea, there calculating the cost of his books and cigarettes; daydreaming about his ideal pub. Orwell is superbly and straightforwardly sane. Such is the immense influence of his voice that it sometimes seems as if the entire intellectual life of England between 1939 and 1949 was conducted in the brain of this one man.

But the relevance of this monument to the present day? Well, as Robert Musil writes somewhere, there is nothing as invisible as a monument.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was the last novel Orwell wrote before he died. It is both a grim satire of the material conditions of post-Blitz London and an outrageous lampooning of the anti-democratic tendencies of the intellectual left in Britain at that time. It is not a novel remembered for its plot or its characters (though these have been taken apart and put back together again by commentators more times than a filthy engine in a fifth-hand banger), but for its themes, its concepts. Doublethink. Big Brother. Two Minutes Hate. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. Room 101. Thought Crimes and Thought Police to stub them out. Newspeak.

These ideas have been applied to everything and anything, usually under the shade of the adjectival umbrella of ‘Orwellian’. Orwellian simply means bad. A long queue at an airport is Orwellian. China’s social credit system is Orwellian. Kellyanne Conway gassing on cable news, oh yes that too is Orwellian. If this is what makes Nineteen Eighty-Four relevant – as a source of dead fish to lob at whatever we disagree with – rather than considering exactly what it is about the things we disagree with in themselves that is objectionablethen the novel has probably come to obscure more than it reveals. Or to put it a different way, it is a novel with the meaning drained out, leaving behind an empty lake with no fish left in it.

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Source: Nineteen Eighty-Four Is Not a Guidebook for the Present Day – LewRockwell

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