Orwell's Windowpane

"The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it."

 - often misattributed to George Orwell

Since the publication of 1984, politicos and pundits of all stripes have been eager to claim Orwell as 'one of us.' During the Cold War, conservatives hailed him as a visionary who understood the threat Soviet communism posed to western democracy, while leftists claimed that, were he still alive, he would have vehemently opposed the Vietnam War. In the 1984 election, Reagan claimed that 'big government' was no different from Big Brother, and today, one finds liberals comparing NSA surveillance to life on Landing Strip One. 

Though there may be little consensus across various political camps with regards to the substance of Orwell’s message, it seems everyone can agree that Orwell was 'right.' As the late Christopher Hitchens writes in his book Why Orwell Matters, "Orwell’s posthumous standing as a representative of truth-telling, objectivity and verification continues to keep his ideas in play." Everyone knows that Orwell was against lies and doublethink and for truth — and who isn't in favor of truth?

Although 1984 is his most celebrated work, Orwell's reputation for truthfulness might be traced to his seminal 1945 essay "Politics and the English Language." With its prescriptive dos and don’ts of ‘good writing,’ it is the sort of essay professors are fond of handing out in freshman writing seminars and high school English classes: Orwell begins by raging against the pollution of English by "dying metaphors" and "meaningless words," and then goes on to offer a list of rules for clear writing as a palliative. 

But Orwell is not your garden-variety prescriptivist. Rather, his concern over language usage derives from his concern for the post-war political milieu, as he writes, "the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language." Orwell rails against the deceitful role that language often plays within the realm of violence and war — the linguistic rationale that turns the burning of a village or countryside into a “pacification,” the displacement of innocent thousands into the “rectification of frontiers.” Indeed, for Orwell, language is often used to conceal meaning when it should be used to illuminate it. In a widely-quoted passage, he writes: 

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. […] Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

It is easy to see how our common cultural image of Orwell, patron saint of truth, emerges from this argument. Surely no one would disagree that by describing events with the clearest language possible, we can make better and more informed assessments in both politics and life. Moreover, we can see why this more or less indisputable point — the importance of protecting truth from institutional spin and control — makes various partisan groups so eager to claim Orwell as one of their own.

Yet, I would like to suggest that, in spite of Orwell’s truth most of us may hold in the decades since his passing, Orwell was deeply ambivalent about the possibility of preserving truth and language. His ambivalence is most evident in 1984, and it is due to this ambivalence that the novel is so easily taken up by such divergent ideologies. Some read the novel in the same manner I have discussed above; they see the Orwell of the 1945 essay — a champion of absolute truth. This view can be drawn from the first part of the book; for example, in the way Winston Smith addresses his diary "To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free […] to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone.” Anticipating a time when “truth” exists suggests the eventuality of a reality that could be considered “objective”. 

However, by the latter part of the novel, when Smith has been imprisoned in the Ministry of Love, neither he nor Orwell seem so optimistic. The very fact that O'Brien is able to push Smith into doublethink, that he is able to make him say '2 + 2 = 5' with utter conviction, demonstrates the extent to which Big Brother may freely mold the certainty of reality as we know it, and thus its triumph over history, over language, over truth.

And yet there is, perhaps, one other reason one might persist in identifying Orwell as a realist of sorts. As Thomas Pynchon observes in a Preface (originally published as "The Road to 1984" in The Guardian), the book itself invites this reading, insofar as it features an appendix, "The Principles of Newspeak," which is “written consistently in the past tense, as if to suggest some later piece of history, post-1984, in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past — as if in some way the anonymous author of this piece is by now free to discuss, critically and objectively, the political system of which Newspeak was, in its time, the essence.”

But this poses the question of how order has been restored, for nowhere in the novel does Orwell suggest how Big Brother might be overcome. It is as if he has created a monster that, after being released, cannot be restrained. As Smith muses to himself after his imprisonment, "It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a ’real’ world where ’real’ things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds?"

If 'objective reality' is to be safeguarded against Newspeak and doublethink, then perhaps the program put forward in "Politics" might point the way. In that essay, Orwell writes, "If thought corrupts language, then language can also corrupt thought." His concern is essentially communicative in nature — that is, how to translate thought into language without losing something along the way. In pursuit of this goal, Orwell suggests that it is "Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations." 

And yet, if this is Orwell's solution, then it seems like one would have to permanently defer the use of language in order to preserve purity of thought. Although Orwell wanted language to be "an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought", it is apparent that he may have also suspected the opposite to be the case—that just as Big Brother frees man by enslaving him, language only serves thought to the extent it contains it.