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That is to say, the political ideologies of a literary work are directly related to the world in which the author was writing or the message that the readers are intended to learn through the piece.
Even more confusing, “1984’s” message has often been appropriated by the very types of organizations that Orwell despised, thus becoming, as Lynskey writes, “a book that almost any political faction could claim.” It has been held up as a warning about the perils of imperialism, capitalism, socialism and fascism; it has been lauded by both the John Birch Society — who used the numbers 1-9-8-4 as the last four digits of its phone number — and the Black Panthers, who taught Orwell in their Oakland Community School.
And it has gone on to live a life far beyond its title in Terry Gilliam’s comic nightmare 1985 film “Brazil” — “I hadn’t read 1984,” Gilliam said, “but we all know what it is” — and as a successful product-branding Ridley Scott television commercial for Apple in 1983, wherein a woman in a tank-top saves the world from conformity with a hammer.
The most important thing to know about “future-thinking” “utopian” and/or “dystopian” novels is that they are never really about the future at all; instead these novels are about the world that surrounded the author.
That is why one of the unproven rumors about “1984” — as explored in Dorian Lynskey’s “The Ministry of Truth,” a respectful and intelligent “biography” of a novel — is that the title was merely a transposition of its publication date, 1948.
Orwell went on to become a consistently radical critic of his world who always appreciated the conventional pleasures of middle-class and working-class life; his novels and essays are thick with appreciations for everything from drinking tea and smoking cigarettes to the novels of Dickens and Kipling — and the “naughty” seaside postcards of Donald Mc Gill.
After skidding along unillustriously as a “scholarship” boy at Eton College, he joined the Imperial Police in Burma, where he quickly learned what it felt like to wear a uniform — and how it could make you think and feel things you might consider repugnant when you weren’t wearing it.
Of course Big Brother isn’t just watching us anymore — he’s listening to our cell phone and Face Time conversations, friending us on Facebook, following us on Instagram (just as we are often following Him).
He’s introducing us to our next partner or spouse on dating and “hook-up” apps, bombarding us with spurious and inaccurate information through jargon and euphemism (“border control” as a code for family separation, or “climate change” as a substitute for “climate collapse”), and instructing us — even from as far away as other continents – about who we should vote for and, more important, who we shouldn’t.
(Check out his great personal essays about that period, “A Hanging” or “Shooting an Elephant” — for Orwell, the horror of totalitarianism was not that someone would impose it on you, but rather that you might be all-too-prepared to submit.) Eventually, he went to London, where he wrote productively for the left-wing press — while never missing an opportunity to criticize its failures – and after a brief adventure fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War, secured a full-time job working for the BBC, a monolithically imposing cultural force that Orwell later satirized as “The Ministry of Truth.”In many ways, Orwell’s genius was best exemplified by his essays and journalism — and the success of his most famous novels (it may be impossible to avoid either “1984” or “Animal Farm” in most high school curricula) has often obscured the impact of the things he said.
For example, he wasn’t — as students are often mis-taught — concerned simply with the oppressive forces of Stalin or “socialism,” but rather with almost every “ism” that manipulated truth through the misuse of language and political propaganda.