Two strange events took place in November 2016; Donald J Trump was inaugurated as the 48th President of the United States of America, and George Orwell's dystopian classic, 1984, suddenly became a best seller again. To the futile mind, this little patch of information may bring about the manifestation of a generic confusion that exists between causation and correlation. Could event A be the cause of event B, or vice versa? Or are they simultaneous chance occurrences? The choice is for the reader to make, but for all intents and purposes, British critic Dorian Lynskey's The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984 (Pan Macmillan, 2019) may provide a helping hand to the investigation.
Lynskey's book provides the reader with fascinating insights into the lead up to 1984; starting from George Orwell's personal experiences fighting as a cabo for the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War, documented in Homage to Catalonia (1938), to his visiting coal miners in North Western England as documented in Road to Wigan Pier (1937), and his first book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), where he writes about his life as a casual labourer in the kitchens of Paris—all of which combined laid down the foundations for his later, more extravagant successes with Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). According to Lynskey, 1984 was the summation of all of Orwell's entire body of experiences and is a key to understanding the machinations of our current world structure.
Orwell wrote the novel while fighting tuberculosis. However, Lynskey successfully traces the sources of 1984 to Orwell's time fighting in Spain. George Orwell experienced that, although he was fighting for the Socialists, there existed an inherent disdain and partisanship between the different "types" of Socialists. He himself barely survived the wrath of the Stalinists, since he was part of the Trotskyist section, whom the Stalinists considered to be rogue in nature. But perhaps Orwell's most significant and insightful commentaries on the build of a dystopian nomenclature can be found in Road to Wigan Pier. Lynskey sheds light on Orwell's distaste towards Socialists in the novel; he observed that Socialists were more interested in hating their own socio-economic and political class, than empathising with the poor.
Lynskey brilliantly elaborates on these ponderings in his analysis of 1984's afterlife. Right after the release of the book, Conservative Americans declared it to be an attack not just on Soviet Russia, but the general Left. To refute this prevailing sentiment, Orwell had to respond by stating that the novel wasn't aimed at any particular form of government but rather, was a satirical jest aimed at the collectivist, totalitarian ideologies that were taking roots among the intellectuals in post-WWII west: "The moral of the story to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is simple: don't let it happen. It depends on you."
Critics of 1984 would point to the numerous predictions which Orwell supposedly got wrong. The Soviet Union has collapsed, technology has liberated us, and things have generally turned out to be good. They also point to the fact that the underlying existentialist tone of the book is that of a dying man, unable to understand the crux of his failed romance with Socialism.
But Lynskey identifies and elaborates that Orwell never intended the book to be a prediction; he purposed it a warning. He explains that the novel wasn't a result of a dying man harbouring bitterness (Orwell was a successful free-lance journalist, and spent a significant portion of his youth with the Socialist movement), but rather a Game-Theoretic au-revoir—a theme Orwell incorporated in novel through a not-so-subtle exhibition of "The Prisoner's Dilemma" in the final chapter(s).
The post-WWII era saw the rise and flourishing of the Theatre of the Absurd legion. Inspired by a covenant of existential philosophy coupled with post-modernism, the genre exploded within the intellectuals, and filled in a void left in the morality of a war-torn Europe. It was of no surprise then that those who championed the genre—eminent philosophers and writers such as Sartre et al—promptly and generously took into arms the Socialist ideology that was being smuggled out of the Communist Bloc. What could be a more apt and profound substitute to the damaged moral compass of a war ravaged continent, than a system radiating Justice, Equity, and Equality?
George Orwell took notice of these changing tides; his own experiences of fighting in the Spanish Civil war gave him a unique insight into the unscrupulousness of Socialism. "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." His observations were so staggering the left-leaning media houses made it incredibly difficult for Orwell to publish either the Animal Farm or 1984 (the latter taking almost five years to write and go to print). These two novels, collectively, were Orwell's warning to the thirsty intellectuals of western society.
Lynskey, however, acknowledges that we do not currently live in a totalitarian system: "By definition, a country in which you are free to read 1984 is not the country described in 1984." But such can only be assumed for a handful of nations. Lynskey's account of the influence 1984 brandished in our daily lives is vivid. The novel has inspired movies, television shows, a ballet, and even managed to add new terms to our vocabulary: "Big Brother" is no longer a fictitious character, it has manifested into reality. If any one particular lesson were to be taken out of 1984 (and Ministry of Truth), it is that it doesn't take long or much effort to deprive individuals of their autonomy.
Dorian Lynskey's Ministry of Truth is nothing short of a brilliant read, especially for Orwellian classicists. He brings to light much of the tiny details which harbour great probability for the reader to ignore, but at an increment provide excellent insight into this fascinating book and its writer, who have both commanded, and will likely continue to command, our fascination, inspiration, curiosity, and imagination.
SM Shafqat Shafiq is a contributor to Daily Star Books.