Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and political words

Excerpted from Orwell: Life and Art, by Jeffrey Meyers. The chapter deals with George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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.

meyers - orwellOrwell’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.”

Like Robert Graves, John Dos Passos, Erich Remarque and other writers who had served in the Great War, Hemingway learned to distrust patriotic rhetoric. In A Farewell to Arms he wrote: “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. . . .  Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” The abstractions were lies. Only the concrete places where men had fought and died had any dignity and meaning. The bitter disillusionment of the Great War is connected to the betrayal of principles in Nineteen Eighty-Four by Winston’s prophecy of doom: “We are the dead,” which is repeated by Julia and reaffirmed by the telescreen when they are arrested. For Winston’s grim phrase is an ironic echo of an accusatory line, spoken by a corpse, from John Macrae’s popular poem of the First World War, “In Flanders Fields”:

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

In the Thirties, this need to reject meaningless abstractions was combined with the desire to find a basic vocabulary and create a proletarian literature. Though Hemingway’s short words, limited vocabulary and declarative sentences, his bare, clear and forceful style, had a salutary effect on modern prose, he was criticized by Wyndham Lewis in “The Dumb Ox” for choking off the possibilities of thought: “Hemingway invariably invokes a dull-witted, bovine, monosyllabic simpleton . . . a super-innocent, queerly-sensitive, village-idiot of a few words and fewer ideas.” Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates how the modern tendency to reduce language to its essential meaning can, when carried to the extremes of Newspeak, make the expression of unorthodox opinions almost impossible.

Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” demonstrates the connection between inaccurate expression and dishonest thought. It debunks political pomposity, criticizes fuzzy thinking and shows the corruption that comes from the use of clichés, hackneyed diction and dead language. Nineteen Eighty-Four, however, criticizes the opposite tendency to oversimplify language so that it limits the range of human expression. While expounding the principles of Newspeak and creating the brilliant neologisms that have taken a permanent place in our speech (Big Brother, Thought Police, doublethink, facecrime, vaporized, unperson), Orwell also predicted the radical deterioration of language and the perversion of meaning. In our time, the influence of technology, bureaucracy, television and journalism has debased the language. Dangerous euphemisms have diminished the reality of all unpleasant concepts: prison, torture, war, disease, old age and death. Vague but condemnatory words—Communist, fascist, racist, sexist—have been indiscriminately attached to anything that anyone dislikes. Orwell would have deplored the primacy of visual over verbal media in our culture—television and video over books and magazines—and the corruption of language by computer jargon. All these tendencies have produced words that seem to be written on a typewriter by a typewriter.