How George Orwell Made 1984
‘The Ministry Of Truth,’ a Definitive, if Very English, Biography of Modernity’s Most Prophetic Book
It’s hard to remember that people saw George Orwell’s dystopian masterwork 1984 as something of a dud when, in the actual year 1984, they decided that the novel didn’t predict contemporary times at all. The global economy was in an upswing. Threats of totalitarianism had largely regressed from the western world. Van Halen had a hit with its guitarist wunderkind playing keyboards. Freedom rang supreme. That Orwell fella was clearly out to lunch.
Few living in 2019 can argue that we haven’t taken a step or two toward a more Orwellian world. Doublethink as fake news or “alternative facts,” Thought Police as the Internet, Big Brother as Facebook and Alexa. Thankfully, it took roughly 30 years longer than Orwell’s famous title anticipated to inch back in the wrong direction. I managed to get about half a life in there before things started to turn sour.
The Ministry Of Truth
In The Ministry of Truth, his 2019 chronicling of all things 1984, author Dorian Lynskey shows how Orwell intended to protect us from the complex and insidious threats of totalitarianism, whenever and in whatever form they might take. Lynskey quotes Orwell’s written response to an American who thought Orwell’s novel might be a tract against groups like unions: “Orwell responded that  was ‘NOT intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labor Party (of which I am a supporter)’ but a warning that ‘totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.’”
For decades, the example set by 1984 helped serve as an effective bulwark against the threats of the next Hitler or Stalin. Branding something “Orwellian” often had enough rhetorical firepower to make any fringe movement slither back under whatever ideological rock from which it had emerged. Nobody wanted anything to do with being Orwellian, kind of like being a Jill Stein supporter today.
Finished Just In Time
As Lynskey chronicles, Orwell almost didn’t finish 1984. He suffered from tuberculosis for much of his life, and he smoked like nobody’s business. So by the end of World War II, the author was struggling with his lungs right along with beating his novel into shape. Lynskey writes, “What Orwell really hated about his illness was its effect on his brain. He could think, talk and read normally, but whenever he tried to translate his thoughts to paper, the language was stale, his arguments inchoate.”
Having just re-read 1984, which is as fully realized as any novel you can name, it’s hard to believe Orwell felt his faculties were off. Maybe the money from his previous worldwide smash Animal Farm, which came out in 1945, made the rest of his circumstances stable enough to deal with a few moments of cloudiness. On some level, the guy clearly needed to finish 1984 before succumbing to his health. He completed it in December 1948, published it in June 1949, and died in January 1950. He was 46.
One word of warning about Lynskey’s title, which describes itself as “The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984”: the book’s scope is hardly exhaustive. As one example, before reading it in college, I best knew the novel as the title of Van Halen’s sixth studio album. Lynskey is a British author writing about a famous British novelist and icon, so he emphasizes David Bowie’s somewhat vague connection to the book at the expense of any international tie. No crime in that, but American readers shouldn’t be surprised if the author’s historical guideposts associated with the novel aren’t their own.
Will we get through the rest of our lives without totalitarianism becoming the rule of the day? Probably. But the alternative somehow doesn’t seem impossible now. Fortunately, we’ve put into place the tools to survive these times—better ideas, better ways to communicate them, voting booths. No one is overtly preventing anyone from searching out the best ideological stances against our current (or ever-present) authoritarian threats. Lynskey writes, “By definition, a country in which you are free to read Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the country described in Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
The people of Orwell’s Oceania don’t avoid counterrevolutionary thought because it’s boring. They avoid it because if the state catches you entertaining it, they vaporize you. A few Russian reporters aside, we’re not there yet. Enough people are still choosing not to concern themselves with the western world’s pivot toward demagoguery. Of course, if someone has never read 1984—much less learned the basics of 20th century history—why would they care if a demagogue seems more alluring than another politician? Lynskey’s book serves as a reminder of how much a great work can do to buttress a society against evil. I’d take another one right about now.
(Doubleday, June 4, 2019)