Reclaiming Orwell

Review: 'The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984' by Dorian Lynskey

A boy reads George Orwell's '1984' / Getty Images

1984 is 70. As much time has now passed since 1984 as passed between that titular year and the book's writing. 1984 has lived a life. And Dorian Lynskey describes that life in his masterly new book The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984.

We now speak Orwell. Specifically, we speak in a language Orwell laid out in his seminal political horror-dystopia-romance-thriller-manifesto. (The book is a mirror of so many things Orwell disagreed with while admiring that it is not easily classified.) Written on the isle of Jura in Scotland in the last years of Orwell’s life, 1984 synthesized the ideas about human nature that had haunted the writer for his whole lifetime. "The phrases and concepts Orwell minted have become essential fixtures of political language, still potent after decades of use and misuse: Newspeak, Big Brother, the Thought Police, Room 101, the Two Minutes Hate, doublethink, unperson, memory hole, telescreen, 2 + 2 = 5, and the Ministry of Truth." He categorized the essential evils worth fighting against as Fascism, Imperialism, and Communism. And he fought against them all quite valiantly. He even took a bullet in the fight against Fascism. Orwell also coined the term Cold War. In short, Orwell gave us the language that determined the prevailing interpretation of the 20th century.

I say we speak Orwell and not "Orwellian" because, as Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out, Orwell and Kafka have been done the unique disservice of having their names adjectivized into words for exactly that which they hated. Orwell is in all kinds of ways tremendously misunderstood, mostly because of 1984. "For any artist, the price of immense popularity is the guarantee that you will be misunderstood," Lynskey writes. The great virtue of The Ministry of Truth is to provide a thoroughly enjoyable restoration of "some balance by explaining what Orwell's book actually is, and how it has shaped the world, in its author's absence, over the past seventy years. … Orwell's intentions, too often distorted and ignored, are well worth revisiting if the book is to be understood as a book and not just a useful cache of memes."

Lynskey nails it.

This biography of a thing is divided into two parts. The first details how Orwell came to write 1984. It describes his life and some of his key influences, including H.G. Wells and We author Yevgeny Zamyatin, a Soviet dissident writer whose magnum opus was a sort of blueprint for 1984, though not as close a guide as those who say Orwell plagiarized it claim. Orwell was a deeply read man of letters, both because he made a substantial chunk of his living reading and reviewing books and because he stayed constantly, almost obsessively abreast of the way literature, language, and politics were developing—driven by a prescient dread that they were heading in a totalitarian direction. This was his overarching fascination. As he said of the rise of Stalin and Hitler: "History stopped." In the 1940s, the end of history meant the installation of dictatorial systems, not their dismantlement.

Orwell has been, in almost every way, vindicated. He has become a sort of saint, despite his lifelong hatred for saint figures. ("Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent," he wrote in his takedown of the mythos surrounding Gandhi.) Everybody wants him, left or right. In his lifetime, this was the opposite of his experience. He had many friends, most of whom were charmed by his pathos and intellect. But factions despised him, and he had plenty of enemies. He was a proud man of disputes who never pulled punches. He knew this was a virtue in himself, but it didn't always seem that way to those around him. His column was described as the only one ever written "by a man who came into the office deliberately every week with the idea of offending as many readers as possible."[Note to editors: hire me to do this.] This was his way of understanding and connecting with people, though. George Woodcock called him "one of those unusual beings who drew closer through disagreement."

One of the enduring questions about Orwell is why everyone seems to want a piece of him, and everyone seems to want to identify with him or claim him for their side. "What would Orwell think about X if he'd lived?" is a veritable parlor game, and one played with a certain marked intensity. We all want the blessing of Saint George. Perhaps this is because, as Daniel Bell's contemporary review of 1984 is quoted, "Orwell, actually, is not writing a tract on politics but a treatise on human nature."

But what exactly was Orwell's view of human nature? Orwell, first, didn't exempt himself from what he thought of the rest of us. He knew himself to be biased and faintly ridiculous, but didn't let that stop him from trying to tell the truth as he understood it. He eschewed thinking conspiratorially but was also deeply pessimistic about where humans would bring themselves when they thought emotionally or in groups, which he thought amounted to the same thing. "Human imbecility," Lynskey quotes Joseph Conrad saying, "is cunning and perfidious." Orwell understood this intuitively.

The basic genius of Orwell's theory of humanity is that he had two theories of it—one for individuals, whom he trusted to be decent, and another for groups, which he knew to be terrifying. This is part of why he is so appealing to the right despite his espoused democratic socialism; he was, emotionally, an individualist. And his only hope depended on individuals to think at least a bit for themselves. "Tolerance and decency are deeply rooted in England, but they are not indestructible, and they have to be kept alive partly by conscious effort," he wrote. He thought politics was a matter of mass human psychology, and it brought out his darkest fears and gloomiest predictions. He thought literature was the hideaway of individual human thought, and it brought out his warmest and most hopeful side, unless he found politics encroaching. But always he mentally maintained the divide.

This dilemmatic stance allowed him to see the future in ways others were not willing to, and to inhabit contradictions that others could only try in vain to resolve. He dripped unique insight about things that might have been obvious to anybody who would look. As a man without a group, he was able to see every group critically. And he found, to paraphrase the president, that there were some very bad people on both sides. He was able to set his whole being against Hitler when that was unfashionable while writing incisively about why Hitler appealed to the German people. He was able to see through Stalin's Western intellectual fans because he knew that lying for a cause is just lying en masse. He was able to see the problems of empire without losing sight of the fact that national sentiment and martial virtues will always be an organizing principle of human politics. These were the wages of his unusual power, as he termed it, of facing unpleasant facts. It was and is a superpower.

"It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism' is almost entirely meaningless," Orwell wrote. Today, by misunderstanding and misuse, "Orwellian" itself is almost entirely meaningless. It can be used for anything, because the popular understanding of the book it evokes is based on cliché rather than thought. 1984 has become a tool of politics rather than an act of literature. In explaining why a book written by a dying man obsessed with the problems of his own time has become timeless by diagnosing the problems of our own, The Ministry of Truth helps reclaim Orwell as a word and a man with some meaning. The writer himself could want no better tribute.

1984 is 70, and two plus two is not five.