It's All in Orwell: Eric Blair's Uncertain Legacy

By Kemp, Andrew | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, October 2007 | Go to article overview

It's All in Orwell: Eric Blair's Uncertain Legacy


Kemp, Andrew, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


When the critics are at a distance, and friends close at hand, literature is projected as an accurate and vivid mirror of the world; when the critics close in, and the friends are absent, oh well, then, some degree of literary licence has to be tolerated in the name of creative imagination.'

- Richard A. Epstein

To keep up with current affairs requires a lot of reading. In Australia, one would naturally look to the Quarterly Essay journal as a medium for understanding what issues are making Australians scratch their heads. You could learn, for instance, that Australians have been encouraged to fear each other. In case you hadn't noticed it (you obviously haven't been reading enough), 'the defining mood of the Howard years is an uneasy fear of each other, the fear that we're growing apart'-that is according to David Marr, public intellectual extraordinaire.

The joining of the literary world with the actual world is a practice that was picked up long ago. Yet political writing today is typically influenced by the political writing that has characterised twentieth-century politics, the writing to which we are introduced at school and later at University, should we be that unfortunate.

The topic at hand is the literary and political mastery of George Orwell. It is difficult to make proper commentary on twentieth-century politics without Orwell looming over our shoulders. His presence grows stronger still into the twenty-first century, as anti-terror laws have the effect of impeding our liberty and tripling the number of literary allusions to Nineteen Eighty-Four.

These allusions are sometimes striking, but often self-indulgent. The phrase 'War On Terror' is often associated with the Orwellian invention of Newspeak. Take the following example from an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to the Carter Administration.

The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a geographic context nor our presumed enemies ... But the little secret here may be that the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors. Constant reference to a 'war on terror' did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.

This is dripping with Orwell. Assuming the essence of Brzezinski's premise is correct (after all, these arguments rely a lot on 'essence'; see 'vibe' for more detail), there remains at least one critical error. Fear obscures reason except when applied to Brzezinski, whose genius goes so far as to penetrate the power of fear and prevent it from destroying the analytical faculties of his own mind. Other exceptions, of course, would be the countless others who take issue with the current US administration's foreign policy.

With 9/11 clouding international affairs today, literary figures have conjured up frighteningly new dystopias in die mould of Orwell's Oceania. Other social democrats who have disowned Soviet communism or the false historicism of Karl Marx have begun to target American neo-liberalism as the new totalitarian threat, though in a more sophisticated, subtler way. Journalists and political scientists salivate at the opportunity to dissect political language and propaganda that might otherwise have deceived the unknowing masses. If you happen to purchase a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four from the online ABC shop, you'll notice that the product description describes the book as 'more relevant than ever'.

This is hardly a surprise, and furthermore, it is an accurate description. Orwell's writing was so prolific, his generalisations so magnificent, that there is literally something for everyone. Socialists can take ease at reading his hopes for universal equality. Conservatives can enjoy his musings on the English language and its abuse by Stalinist dogmatists. …

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