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The Orwellian World
By Michael Shelden
It was George Orwell’s hope that his creation would blend into the cultural consciousness of society. He once remarked to a friend that a good song can take on a life of its own after the composer has come and gone. The words may change, the composer may be forgotten, and the tune may be adapted for different purposes, but it continues to live. “It struck me,” he said, “that an idea is very like a tune in this way, that it goes through the ages remaining the same in itself but getting into such very different company.”
Big Brother fits that scenario perfectly. Though the name is widely known, many are only dimly aware of its origin or have no clue at all. Some even think the name comes from the title of a popular television series about spying on roommates.
The original title of Orwell’s novel was “The Last Man in Europe.” The idea was that the battle against a regime infested with lies would never be lost if at least one brave soul refused to surrender the truth. The hero of the book, Winston Smith, is that last man. Watching his grim struggle allows us to wonder how long we might hold out against such tyranny and to question why any society would have relinquished so much power in the first place.
It was only as he was finishing the book that Orwell changed the title. In part he was playing a little digital game of his own, reversing the last two digits of 1948—when much of the book was written—to come up with “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” There was never any intention to make the year essential to the story; he was even willing to let the American publishers use a different title, though it didn’t prove necessary.
So when the real year arrived, the fuss made over it missed the point. For Orwell, 1984 was simply a date far removed from him when the world might come undone if it didn’t heed his warnings. It was a symbolic point in time that could stand as a historical warning long after its actual passing.
Outwardly, there was little in the way that Orwell lived and worked to suggest that he was capable of projecting his imagination so far into the future. While he was writing the book, he lived on a sparsely populated island in the Scottish Hebrides that had few modern amenities. He liked to keep things basic, even to the point of rolling his own cigarettes. He ate simple food, drank strong tea, wore old jackets and shirts with frayed collars, and wrote in longhand or on a heavy Underwood typewriter.
In some ways Orwell might just as well have been a Victorian rather than a modern man. With his pencil-thin moustache and stoic, unsmiling expression in photographs, he would not look out of place in the uniform of a late-Victorian army major. No color photographs of him survive, and, remarkably, no recordings of his voice.
So how did a crusty Englishman who was born more than 100 years ago see so far into the future? Was he blessed with a gift for prophecy?
If anything, his genius was inspired by hindsight. As his old friend Cyril Connolly liked to joke, Orwell was a revolutionary in love with 1910. He was fascinated by anything obsolete or eccentric and was always keen to celebrate useless facts, trivial hobbies, and quaint pastimes.
What he dreaded about the future was that an increasingly powerful political and social authority would stamp out not only the past but the pleasures that went with it—the odd, individual joys that make freedom worth having. He wanted the right to be obsolete; to smoke bad tobacco, read forgotten novels, walk instead of drive, and measure things in yards instead of meters.
These are not irrelevant freedoms. When he chose to call his newspaper column of the early 1940s “As I Please,” he was making the point that the grand heroic notions of liberty begin with the right to make simple choices: defying the herd by insisting on individual preferences in even the smallest things. The Thought Police are so insidious because they work at such a basic level, banishing common ideas and phrases until they corrupt language and reason and exert control over the most elementary choices.
Despots and party slogans come and go, but as long as intellectual freedom is preserved, the abuses of power politics can be checked. In Orwell’s world, the most sacred right is the right to one’s own opinion. In the entire body of his work, nothing is more inspiring than this remark from his preface to Animal Farm: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Never one to follow the crowd, he always made a point of thinking for himself and avoiding the easy ways of the latest fashion. He was never in tune with the spirit of his time. He made a point of seeking out unpopular causes and obscure ideas and scrupulously avoiding what he called “all the smelly little orthodoxies…contending for our souls.” As a result, he wasn’t easily fooled—as most of us are—by the passions and prejudices of the moment.
His death at 46 from tuberculosis was almost like a disappearing act. He left behind mounds of documents written under his pseudonym of Orwell, but nothing that would bring to life the way Eric Arthur Blair (his real name) spoke or walked or gestured or smiled. He specifically asked to be buried under his real name at an old English country churchyard in the small village of Sutton Courtenay. And there his body rests today in relative obscurity under a faded headstone with the simple words, “Here lies Eric Arthur Blair 1903-1950.” Few who pass that way stop to visit the grave of the most important British author since Charles Dickens.
Three years after Eric Blair’s death, an early admirer—the English novelist James Hilton—remarked that he couldn’t “think of any writer of this century whose posthumous fame has expanded more than Orwell’s.” In our century that fame continues its remarkable expansion. For what the author created was not just a few books that would live on without him, but a whole range of ideas that mean even more today than they did in his time.
Excerpted from full article published in the e-book Guide to the Season Play 2015–16 available for purchase for the Kindle or Nook.
Michael Shelden is the author of five biographies, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist Orwell, which was also a New York Times Notable Book. His study of Mark Twain’s final years, Man in White, was chosen as one of the best books of 2010 by the Christian Science Monitor and the Library Journal. For 15 years, he was a features writer for the London Daily Telegraph, and for ten years he served as a fiction critic for the . His most recent book—Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill—was published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster, and film rights have been acquired by Carnival Films, the makers of Downton Abbey. His next book, The Darkest Voyage: The Mystery of Melville and Moby-Dick, will be published in 2016 by Harper Collins.