RELEVANCE OF GEORGE ORWELL IN THE 21st CENTURY

When I read Animal Farm in the seventh grade and Nineteen Eighty-Four in the eighth grade, I wondered if the present would ever catch up with Orwell’s future and beliefs about society. And now, I ponder upon if our world has indeed become the nightmare George Orwell once described. When his book “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was published in the United Kingdom on 8 June 1949, there was an air of scepticism if this timely book would survive its relevance over the years to come. Thirty-five years later, in the year of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, the world had not yet become so depraved as described in his prophetic book; commentators again repeated their words that the book’s popularity would diminish. Thirty-six years have elapsed since then, and we keep leaning on his books when the truth is stifled and sane voices muffled; when power is exploited, and false narratives are given birth. As the saying goes, truth is single, but its various versions are mistruths. What we see and hear these days is a massive distortion of language to make way for these “mistruths”. 

The Facade of Utopia

One of the major points Nineteen Eighty-Four seeks to deliver is the thought that history is “mutable”; the truth is what the Party advocates; and the truths discovered in the arc of history are the foundations of the principles of the future. Fascist German leaders of that time would say if you tell a lie loud enough and often enough, people will embrace it as truth. Stalinists rewrote historical facts to feed the Party’s needs. 

“Who controls the present controls the past.”- Party slogan in Nineteen Eighty-Four 

To illustrate this belief, Orwell created Newspeak, the “official” language of Oceania in his book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It worked as a modus operandi of the Party’s excessive control. If the Party could control thought, it could control actions as well. Without a word for freedom, freedom would cease to exist. Orwell believed that the decline of language could serve “political and economic” causes. He speculated that the languages of countries under dictatorships, such as Germany and the Soviet Union, saw a stark decline under their respective regimes.

The most influential novel of the twentieth century has not only filled its readers with a pulsating feeling of dread but has pervaded the consciousness of a multitude of people who have never even read it. Through the story of an ordinary man doomed from the inception, Orwell weaves a tale that has lived through the test of time, for decades hence phrases and concepts that Orwell gave birth to have become essential motifs of political language, still wielding influence after years of use and misuse: Newspeak, Big Brother, Thought Police, Room 101, doublethink, unperson, memory hole, telescreen, 2+2=5, Ingsoc, The Ministry of Truth and the Two Minutes’ Hate directed at the renegade leader of the counter-revolutionary group, Brotherhood, the symbolic nemesis of state used as a scapegoat to ideologically unite the people of Oceania with the Party, through hate and fear but not harmony. Its title sought to mint a “calendar year”, while the word “Orwellian” has made the author’s own name synonymous with everything he “hated and feared”. 

I first encountered Orwell when I was a teenager. As he said, “the books you read when you are young stay with you forever”. I received his books with a sense of disbelief, but this was when the world didn’t seem so Orwellian. The book’s relevance was largely fragmentary; its presence was felt in political language, media, surveillance but not the entire picture. I was struck by what Orwell once remarked about fascism, “If you pretend that it is merely an aberration which will presently pass off of its own accord, you are dreaming a dream from which you will awake when somebody coshes you with a rubber truncheon.”

The “Animal” within

With Animal Farm, Orwell discusses people’s “sheep-like” conformist mentality and animal-like tendencies. The motto of Animal Farm was to build a society which advocated egalitarianism, where all were equal, but soon the principles changed, the ideals of “animalism” swung from “All animals are equal” to “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Animal Farm was an elusive attack on Stalinism in Russia. The book demonstrates how a revolution can be as damaging as a corrupt government and come to a halt with the same government the people rebelled against.  

In Germany and the Soviet gulags, men had built dystopia and forced their men and women to live and die within its sturdy and robust borders, turning its inner demons against itself. Those regimes are the past, but Orwell’s books continue to materialise our nightmares, even as they morph and change. 

Over time, this wariness of establishment narratives directed many people to seek the truth but many others to choose their own versions of  “truths”. Credulity combined with pessimism led people, who boast about being sceptical of certain news channels and journalists who were unbiased and speaking the truth but contradicting their thought process, becoming unhesitant to take unverified social media posts and quack science at face value and live in their makeshift cocoon of alternate realities. Social media made this process painless.

War is Peace

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

His novels are not a prediction but a warning. We spend our days under the everlasting surveillance of a telescreen that we bought at some Electronics Store, carry it with us everywhere, criticise incumbent governments on social media, not clandestinely, but in the open, without any coercion by the state. The Ministry of Truth is fake news. We know Big Brother, and he is us. The Soviet Union is history. Nazism has been defeated. Technology is freedom. 

We now live in a time that Orwell did not anticipate; not dearth of information, but the excess of it. Terror has not given birth to lies, but we have. Too much information from too many sources has led to a worrying account of fragmentation, which leaves ordinary minds to work the truth out for themselves at the behest of their own prejudices. Fervent nationalism has now been channelled into xenophobia, casteism and bigotry, as the once insipid superiority complexes materialise into demons turned against itself. Some political leaders did not wield power through a coup or revolution. It was not recession or terrorism or nuclear war that made their authority effective. Blatant lies have become “alternative facts”. What we see is the creation of parallel reality and the people who accede to it inflate their sense of self-entitlement. Grosser the lie, the more magnificent those in power become. We now live in a world that is a blend of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World envisioned by Huxley; hedonism combined with cruelty.

Orwell’s books are about many things. 

“During the cold war, it was a book about totalitarianism. In the 1980s, it became a warning about technology. Today, it is most of all, a defence of truth.” – The Guardian on Nineteen Eighty-Four

-Anannya Mathur

References:

https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/n/1984/critical-essays/the-mutability-of-history

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