One of the reasons a work becomes a classic is its timelessness, its continued relevance to each period in which it is read. This is certainly why many of George Orwell’s works are seen as classics. Scarily, there is nothing more relevant now than his writing on the impact of totalitarianism – of which his 1946 essay, “The prevention of literature”, is one example.
The essay starts by responding to a PEN meeting that was held on the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica. Milton defends, Orwell writes, “the freedom of the press”, and he was concerned that not one of several hundred people present “could point out that the freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose”.
Orwell continues to say that there are two main threats to “the idea of intellectual liberty”: the theoretical enemies, or proponents of totalitarianism; and, the immediate, practical enemies, bureaucracy and monopoly. He spends little time on this latter, but I’ll mention it because it is as valid now as it was then. He sumarises it as:
the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, and the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books.
I’m not sure how the last of these stands now, but I believe Australians are buying books, and particularly did so during the pandemic. However, his first two points are certainly still valid concerns, eight decades later.
Orwell’s prime focus, however, was the impact of totalitarianism on intellectual freedom, and thus on literature. He spends some time discussing attacks on freedom of thought and the press. He argues that
in the foreground the controversy over freedom of speech and the press is at bottom a controversy over the desirability or otherwise of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the bias and self deception in which every observer necessarily suffers.
I love this qualification, but I think you can see where this is going in terms of my opening paragraph. I’m not going to write a treatise on this, but Russian-American Masha Gessen wrote a response to it in The New Yorker, in 2018, which is well worth reading for their historical understanding of where Orwell was coming from as well as for their commentary on its relevance to how. They wrote that:
We live in a time when intentional, systematic, destabilizing lying—totalitarian lying for the sake of lying, lying as a way to assert or capture political power—has become the dominant factor in public life in Russia, the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries in the world. When we engage with the lies—and engaging with these lies is unavoidable and even necessary—we forfeit the imagination. But the imagination is where democracy lives. We imagine the present and the past, and then we imagine the future.
What Gessen is referring to here is, first, the point that Orwell makes about totalitarianism’s “disbelief in the very existence of objective truth” – its lack of interest in “truthfulness” – and, second, its quashing of the “imagination” which is fundamental to literature.
Orwell argues that totalitarianism engenders instability, that totalitarians alter their perspectives at a moment’s notice to suit the prevailing situation. Such a society, he writes, “can never permit either the truthful recoding of facts, or the emotional sincerity, that literary creation demands”. You don’t have to be in a totalitarian state for this to happen, he adds. This problem can also occur wherever there is “an enforced orthodoxy – or even two orthodoxies”, where you cannot write sincerely. This point, I think, is worth considering in terms of “rules” about who can write what. I am certainly sympathetic to the concern about people’s stories being appropriated and, more problematically, being over-ridden, but there are many stories and “truths”, and sincere (I like this word) writing about them should be welcomed and respected. We learn about ourselves through the give-and-take, the conversation, that the arts facilitates. It is truly positive that we are now hearing more voices – this is what we must encourage and protect – but it would be dangerous if all these voices were confined to boxes.
Related to this is Orwell’s understanding of literature. He writes that “above a quite low level, literature is an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience”. For him, essentially all literature – particularly “prose literature” – is political in some sense. He says “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness”. It sounds very much like our time.
Finally, after some other fascinating discussions – some of which made sense, some less so to me, such as his discussion of verse – he concludes that “a bought mind is a spoilt mind” and that “the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity”.
“The prevention of literature”, although written at a very particular point in world history, turned out to be more relevant than I would have hoped possible. It raises many questions about the threats we are currently facing to intellectual liberty and freedom of expression, and thus, to “truthfully” reporting, to “sincerely” questioning, what we see happening.
“The prevention of literature” (orig. 1946)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
Available online at the Orwell Foundation.