Today marks the anniversary of the release of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. An excerpt about the book from Orwell: Life and Art, by Jeffrey Meyers.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four the 1930s were the prerevolutionary past, the final phase of capitalism that led to atomic warfare, revolution, purges and the absolutism of Big Brother. Nineteen Eighty-Four is about the past as well as about the future and the present.
The past is one of the dominant themes of the novel. The Party confidently believes: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The Party can not only change the past but can also destroy it and authoritatively state: “it never happened.” By creating a new as well as destroying the old past, the Party can also arrange to predict events that have already taken place. Winston spends a great deal of time conversing with the proles, trying to recall and reestablish the personal and historical past that has been officially abolished, for he believes that the past may still exist in human memory. When Winston plots with O’Brien, they drink “To the past.” O’Brien gravely agrees that the past is more important than the future because under a system of organized lying only a remembrance of the past can prevent the disappearance of objective truth.
Orwell’s ideas about the capacity of language to express complex thoughts and feelings, to describe the dimensions of experience with accuracy and honesty, are central to Nineteen Eighty-Four. These ideas originate in Winston’s desire to rediscover his own past—in his dreams and his diary—and are contrasted to Ampleforth’s enthusiastic creation of Newspeak. In pursuing these thoughts about language, Orwell joined the literary debate about modern prose.
The Newspeak tendency to reduce the language, to limit the meaning and to reject abstract words was originally a positive aspect of modern prose that developed just after the Great War. Hemingway, who began his career as a journalist, was fascinated by the language of telegraphic cables that resembles the messages sent to Winston’s desk at the Ministry of Truth: “speech malreported africa rectify.” Hemingway told his colleague Lincoln Steffens: “Stef, look at this cable: no fat, no adjectives, no adverbs—nothing but blood and bones and muscle. It’s great. It’s a new language.” Influenced by Ezra Pound, Hemingway came to believe: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.”