biography points out, adding that ‘anti-utopian narratives have the flexibility and portability of myths’. So the antecedents and the offspring of Nineteen Eighty-Four occupy almost as much space in this book as the novel itself. In a wonderfully wide-ranging survey, we travel from Lenin to The Lego Movie, from Jack London to Judge Dredd. What emerges is a recognition that humanity needs the fear of catastrophe as much as it needs the dream of salvation. That used to be the territory of religion, of course, but when Christianity’s influence began to fade, H G Wells and others were ready with scientific and political versions of both.
Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t quite fit into any of these categories, though. One of the reasons for its longevity is that it has virtually nothing to say about science and technology at all, with the result that it hasn’t been dated by inaccurate predictions. It’s not really very concerned with politics in any conventional sense either, certainly much less so than Animal Farm, where the means of production loom large. O’Brien says that the Party ‘is interested solely in power’, and the same is true of the novel. As Lynskey points out, ‘Orwell was more interested in psychology than in systems’, and the psychology of power doesn’t change. Nor does the psychology of terror. The haze of ambiguity that swirls around Airstrip One, where truth, lies and fantasy are indistinguishable, reaches far beyond politics, resonating at a deep human level.
Despite all the dystopian trappings, the central tale is of an individual rebelling against the restrictions of society and being crushed into conformity. The same theme can be found in Orwell’s novels of the 1930s, transformed here by a greater literary craft and by the size of the irresistible machine facing the doomed hero. It’s an elemental fable. Nineteen Eighty-Four articulates the disparity between the sense we have of our own significance and the size of creation as a whole. Or, possibly, it represents the experience of adolescence – which may be why it’s always been popular in the world of rock’n’roll.
Indeed it’s been popular almost everywhere, except in totalitarian circles. Orwell’s work has been claimed by politicians of both the Left and the Right, by socialists,
anarchists and opponents of political correctness, and by corporations and advertisers with whom he would have had no truck. The very diversity is tribute to the potency of the myth. In the process, the man himself has been somewhat lost, elevated to the level of a secular saint who spoke the truth. But even in his lifetime that perception was to be heard: ‘He is transparently honest, incapable of subterfuge, and in early days he would have been canonised – or burnt at the stake!’ reported a BBC superior in the early 1940s. ‘Either fate he would have sustained with stoical courage.’
Lynskey’s is a magnificent piece of work, an informed, intelligent and hugely readable history of past futures as well as a splendid introduction to Orwell. It’s also full of delightful details: the first use of the word ‘Orwellian’ came when Mary McCarthy deployed it to describe the fashion magazine Flair, while the CIA-funded animation of Animal Farm, released in 1954, was promoted in Britain with the tag line ‘Pig Brother is watching you’. To order this book from the Literary Review Bookshop, see page 19.
“Belonging to not belonging is nothing short of neurotic. What can Black philosophers do?”
Lewis R. Gordon A South African Philosopher’s Intellectual and Political Journey
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Literary Review | june 2019 8