Generally, when a literary figure becomes an adjective, it carries a positive connotation. A speech may be Shakespearean or a particularly good quip might be Wildean. There is one adjective, however, that refuses to conform to this rule. That, of course, would be “Orwellian.”
And how we love to call things Orwellian! A quick search of Google News results turns up drones, red light cameras, Obamacare, immigration reform and David Cameron’s position on gay marriage all being described as Orwellian in the past week alone.
Looking at this list, it might jump out at you that not one of these actually made an appearance in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (and when we’re calling things Orwellian, we’re always talking about “Nineteen Eighty-Four”). Of course, what Orwell actually intended long since ceased to be the point. Like all great literature, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” took on a life of its own a long time ago.
I decided recently to pick the novel up for the first time in years and see how well it still reads in 2013. It is actually a very reassuring experience. What is remarkable is not how close we are to totalitarian dystopia, but how much further we’ve gotten since the novel was originally published.
With the notable exception of North Korea, the great Stalinist edifices of the 20th century have come crashing down. Meanwhile, rather than coalescing into three great powers, the world has fragmented into some 200 independent countries. Instead of being forbidden contact with foreigners, the average human now finds it easier to travel to foreign countries and consume foreign media than at any time in human history.
Consider Winston Smith’s job in the novel, to rewrite history in accord with the Party’s current ideological needs. The Internet Age confronts the exact opposite problem: a society where nothing posted online can ever be truly deleted, not one in which we struggle to retain any scrap of the past.
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” is not a warning we should ever forget, but a modern totalitarian state would find it hard to erase the past when the past is busy archiving itself to endure forever.
That is not to say we cannot find plenty of relevance in the novel today. Who having read Orwell can hear terms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “collateral damage” thrown about and not think back to the insidious phrasings of Newspeak?
Or fail to be concerned about efforts to rewrite history textbooks to bring them more in line with modern ideological requirements?
Or not fear the effects of long-term wars in far-off lands while the average citizen goes about their life as if nothing was happening?
Or not wonder if some in the government would enjoy reducing sex to purely a procreative function just as Inner Party does in the novel?
Or not worry about empirical scientific results being twisted and distorted for purely political reasons?
Or not share Winston’s concern about never really being alone when cell phones and computers make us always accessible?
That the world today does not look like Airstrip One should not minimize Orwell in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. As the lines of Robert Conquest’s poem about him read, “Because he taught us what the actual meant/The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly.” It was the work of Orwell and those like him who helped turn the intellectual tide against Stalinism and prevent his own dystopia.
Much of the evil that he warned about is today in retreat. But some will always be with us. Thankfully, we will always have the moral courage and piercing political insights of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to help combat. Those are the qualities, I think, that properly deserve to be called Orwellian.