The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984
“For as Lynskey charts the admittedly astonishing reception of a narrative so adaptable as to be embraced by the Black Panthers and to be approved by the John Birch Society both, one wonders if the message Orwell warned us against remains recognizable.”
Seven decades after this dystopian novel appeared, this survey examines the impacts of George Orwell's “epochal and cultural event.” This phrase epitomizes the approach Dorian Lynskey takes in this account of that book's roots in utopian and dystopian literature by William Morris, Edward Bellamy, H. G. Wells, and Yevgeny Zamyatin. This grounds his discussion in its forebears and situates Orwell's take within literary genres.
Within Orwell's own milieu, Lynskey nestles the work in its pre-and post-war climate, full of spies, statecraft, diplomacy, and murder. Its orientation within not only totalitarian and socialist but capitalist and superpower upheaval will be familiar to many who have admired the story.
What may enchant today's audiences rests in the contemporary reactions to the cautionary tale: from the iconoclastic Macintosh commercial in, of course, that titular year, to the themes that David Bowie drew upon for his LP Diamond Dogs, from the revelations of Edward Snowden to the success of latter-day spins into Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, V for Vendetta, and Children of Men spanning film and print.
When fiction makes its way into the vernacular as shorthand slang, what may have began as Orwell's hurried attempt to get his ideas down amid ill-health and impending death winds up enduring in a manner that its awkward author might have marveled at. The “Oceania 2.0” concluding chapter compresses the aftermath far too tightly. This could have revealed much more about 1984 since 1948, as so much of what Lynskey spends the bulk of this content upon is not news to those already in the know.
This all adds up, therefore, to a useful, if unsurprising, presentation of the popular contexts within which Winston Smith's tragic struggle against Oceania and Big Brother and whomever his regime happens that day to be fighting. It should invite those curious about the contexts to learn more, but specialists and scholars may not be as enticed.
What could have enriched this study? Many remember, naturally, the powerful evocations of Room 101, the “two-minute hate” rallies, the telescreen, and the calisthenics and pink slime to which Smith and his fellow proles are resigned as the clock strikes 13. A few illustrations show the endurance of Orwellian images in his life and in films and on covers, although black and white does no justice to the splendid epitome of pulp marketing in the sexy siren space-age Signet Classics vintage paperback.
What has been less analyzed in the novel's aftermath remains Orwell's triple division of the geopolitical reality into an East Asian, a Eurasian, and a Anglo-American trans-oceanic (im)balance of power that keeps realigning itself so as to perpetuate world trade, world terror, and world-wide production. The sections that to many a high-school student might seem the dullest may, in re-reading by a mature mind, seem the most prescient. O'Brien's perorations remain oddly compelling, and his analyses worth pondering for anyone who watches the news on screen today, agape at what faraway border or obscure coast will suddenly vault into soundbites and into tweets.
For contemporaries in the post-industrial realm where capitalist hegemony appears to have supplanted the collective competitors which in Orwell's time appeared very much to have been contenders for domination of the world in a very uncertain predicament, the doubt persists, if not what Orwell foresaw. When the contenders against Capital have been brought over to its dark side, and when the cynical application of idealism and pragmatism that enslaved hundreds of millions in the name of the people's republics has faded into consumer-driven markets and self-branding sold to us as “opportunities for personal growth,” what message does 1984 retain of relevance?
For as Lynskey charts the admittedly astonishing reception of a narrative so adaptable as to be embraced by the Black Panthers and to be approved by the John Birch Society both, one wonders if the message Orwell warned us against remains recognizable?
Having surrendered control of the big screen to the corporate masters, today's proles content themselves with staring at small ones, which rather than one-way mirrors allowing the Man to spy upon us, become telescreens through which we can broadcast ourselves back at the powers that be, who invite and expect our fealty in return for rides shared, friends liked, texts transmitted, cat photos compiled, and bosses and underlings coordinating their next small step toward their own world, not to dominate it so much as submit to its panoramic gaze and its never-closed eyes, akin to the nightmarish vision of another Englishman writing his own mythological allegory at this point the last century. J. R. R. Tolkien escapes the scope of Lynskey, never being cited in his 300+ pages, but the mark of Sauron sears itself on our consciousness today and our dreams at night as much as Big Brother's stern face has for the past 70 years.