Sunday, June 23, 2019

Dorian Lynskey's "The Ministry of Truth"

Dorian Lynskey has been writing about music, film, and politics for more than twenty years for publications including The Guardian, The Observer, GQ, Q, Empire, Billboard, and The New Statesman. His first book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, was published in 2011.

Lynskey applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Here, undeniably, are the moral and intellectual foundations of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Totalitarianism’s war on reality was more dangerous than the secret police, the constant surveillance or the boot in the face, because in “that shifting phantasmagoric world in which black may be white tomorrow and yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree” there is no solid ground from which to mount a rebellion—no corner of the mind that has not been infected and warped by the state. It is power that removes the possibility of challenging power. That’s why it is not enough for O’Brien to force Winston to say that two plus two equals five. He has only truly won when Winston believes that two plus two equals five.
Page 99 coincides with a turning point for both George Orwell and 1984. In the summer of 1943, Orwell was preparing to resign from the BBC, where he had spent the last two years broadcasting soft propaganda to India, and take a new job as literary editor and columnist for the socialist periodical Tribune. His more relaxed work schedule would allow him to start writing Animal Farm and to sketch the outline of his novel about the future, which he was then calling The Last Man in Europe.

The page focusses on ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, a crucial essay which joined the dots between Orwell’s disillusioning experience fighting for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 (which is where my book begins) and the themes of 1984. In Spain, Orwell had been shocked by the extent to which Spanish communists and their Russian backers defamed and persecuted the POUM, the vulnerably small anti-Stalinist faction for which he fought, and by the willingness of the communist press outside of Spain to parrot those outrageous lies. Six years later, having become intimately familiar with the mechanics of propaganda at the BBC, he was able to develop this observation into a more sophisticated analysis of the relationship between power and untruth.

‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’ looks forward as well as back, demonstrating that Orwell had already hit upon some of 1984’s key ideas and phrases years before he started writing it. A totalitarian regime, he writes, “controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five—well, two and two are five.” This could easily be a passage from the novel. The “shifting phantasmagoric world” is a perfect description of 1984’s unstable, dream-like quality. Orwell believed that when tyrants had lied in the past, they had at least acknowledged that truth existed even as they defied it. In the totalitarian era, however, reality was pliable for the powerful and “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world”.

That essay has been widely quoted over the last three years (I cite it again in the last chapter of my book) because it speaks to the way Trump and Putin, in their different ways, display contempt not just for specific inconvenient facts but for the existence of facts. I argue that 1984 is “prophetic” only because Orwell understood so keenly the psychology of tyranny in the 1940s, and because that mindset hasn’t fundamentally altered. That’s why his observations of his own time read like predictions of ours.
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--Marshal Zeringue