When Donald Trump took his oath of office as US President in January 2017, his press secretary claimed the crowd present was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration. Later, when challenged on what plainly seemed to be a lie, she described her statement as ‘alternative facts’.
Over the next 4 days, sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four rocketed by 10,000 per cent and made it the number one best-seller in the US.
As this book states in the introduction:
Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the book we turn to when truth is mutilated, language is distorted, power is abused…
Few novels have been so politically and culturally influential. The common usage of phrases such as Big Brother, the Thought Police, Room 101, doublethink are just one aspect of the book’s enduring impact. As a writer, Orwell was
…clear-sighted enough to identify these evils and sufficiently talented enough to present them in a form of a novel.
The Ministry of Truth is Dorian Lynskey’s brilliant ‘biography’ of the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. The first half of the book charts the journey of Orwell’s thinking and how the themes and threads in his other novels and essays were drawn together in what was his final book.
He emphasises how Orwell’s experiences of fighting in the Spanish Civil War particularly increased his hatred of totalitarianism and developed his concern for basic truth. He detested the lies and propaganda which polluted all accounts of what really happened in Spain. He injected a ‘new commitment to accuracy as a moral virtue’ into his writing from then on.
Orwell’s fear that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four…He always tried to tell the truth, and admired anyone who did likewise.
Reception and impact
The second half of the book tells the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s reception and its impact over the last 70 years.
Lynskey skilfully weaves together the social, cultural and political impact of the book. He explores its influence on authors such as Margaret Atwood, artists like as David Bowie and the many TV, cinematic and theatrical interpretations.
He analyses the widely-varying ways the book has been used politically, where both left and right wing have used the book to promote their cause. In the US, many conservative readers saw him simply as an anti-communist and completely ignored Orwell’s strong socialist commitments. The CIA saw the book’s message as so helpful that it funded the first screen adaptation. As Lynskey puts it:
For any artist, the price of immense popularity is the guarantee you will be misunderstood…the meaning of a work of art is never limited to its creator’s intentions…
This book avoids any canonisation of Orwell as ‘Saint George’ and refers to his tendencies to be ‘rash, hyperbolic, irritable, blinkered and perverse’. But he gives this great summary of Orwell’s enduring appeal:
We value him despite his flaws because he was right about the defining questions of fascism, communism, imperialism and racism at a time when so many people who should have known better didn’t.
I was first drawn to reading Orwell after my experiences of studying social work and in engaging in student activism in my early 20s. The intensity of the political correctness deeply concerned me. Although it was in a relatively inconsequential student context, I saw the anti-democratic tendencies of left-wing activists who shut down legitimate debate and accused those who disagreed of ‘oppressive behaviour’.
I remember one candidate who stood for in the Student Union elections have his nomination form ripped down because he stated that he ‘believed in family values’. The powers that be upheld the complaint and his form had to be amended. Although we did not use the phrase, I now recognise it as ‘cultural Marxism’.
As one of my other favourite authors, Lesslie Newbigin, puts it:
Those who identify themselves as representatives of the ‘oppressed’ are in a position to combine unlimited self-righteousness in respect of themselves with unlimited moral indignation in respect of their opponents.
Just a brief review of my facebook feed affirms these tendencies. And it is this self-righteousness that Orwell is so good at puncturing.
We live in a world deeply affected by untruth, tribalism, group-think and stifling conformity. The internet has exacerbated most of these tendencies.
In our workplaces, communities, schools, universities, relationships, politics and churches there is a urgent need for people who are willing to challenge group orthodoxy. We need greater moral courage and a stronger commitment to truth.
The Ministry of Truth is a brilliant book which illuminates the thinking and legacy of Orwell’s great novel. But what is the key lesson Nineteen Eighty-Four teaches us? Lynskey answers this with a quote from Orwell him himself:
“The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one. Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”
Buy The Ministry of Truth: a biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey (Picador, 2019)