Orwell’s Warning

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on this day in 1949. Although the novel was an immediate, international bestseller, Orwell believed that some had misinterpreted his aim, taking the novel as a criticism of the current British Labour Party, or of contemporary socialism in general. To correct this view he issued a post-publication press release: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.” The quotation was soon given the status of a last statement or deathbed appeal, given that Orwell was hospitalized at the time and dead six months later.

A week after publication, Orwell wrote to Julian Symons to thank him for his “brilliant as well as generous review” in the Times Literary Supplement. Symons had traced connections between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Orwell’s first book, Burmese Days, finding a career-long preference for “the novel of ideas,” those ideas usually political ones. Symons also pointed out that “doublethink,” cornerstone of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Newspeak, had been  “a familiar feature of political and social life in more than one country for a quarter of a century”:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink. 

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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