The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's "1984"by Published 04 Jun 2019
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The author has written a study that places George Orwell's 1984 in a variety of contexts: the author's life and times, the book's precursors in the science fiction genre, and its subsequent place in popular culture. Lynskey delves into how Orwell's harrowing Spanish Civil War experiences shaped his concern with political disinformation by exposing him to the deceptiveness of people he'd once regarded as allies against fascism: the Soviets and their Western apologists.
The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's "1984" Reviews
“The Ministry of Truth” provides a fascinating if at times all too brief look at one of the most important books ever written. “1984” made such an impression on me when I read it in 1984 as a teenager that I would later name my daughter after the female protagonist. 70 years after its publication, it remains as relevant as ever. The fact that it is both embraced and attacked by all points on the political spectrum speaks for itself, but it was the Trump (mis-) Administration that catapulted “1984” back to the bestsellers list.
The first two-thirds of “The Ministry of Truth” intersperses a biography of George Orwell with literary influences on “1984.” This hybrid approach by British music critic Dorian Lynskey generally works well, but “Utopia Fever” (Chapter 2) is the one chapter I would skip because it focuses on an obscure book by Edward Bellamy that Orwell never acknowledged reading. In contrast, Lynskey does a fine job looking at the interactions of H.G. Wells and Aldus Huxley with Orwell and how they shaped his thinking. I was disappointed with Huxley’s “Brave New World” when I read it two years ago, but Lynskey left me wanting to give Wells a try.
Lynskey rightly points to Orwell’s Spanish Civil War memoir “Homage to Catalonia” and his allegory “Animal Farm” as the two most important works for understanding “1984.” “Animal Farm” is the only book I can still remember reading in middle school. I had no idea who Stalin or Trotsky were, but that didn’t really matter. In “Homage to Catalonia,” Orwell nearly lost his life fighting for Communism, but he ultimately concluded that the theory is unworkable in the real world due to the unchecked powers of its leaders. Lord Acton got it right: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Lynskey clears up some of the myths and misconceptions about “1984,” starting with the title. My English teacher told us the title was the inversion of the year Orwell wrote the book (1948), but this is just a “theory” as Lynskey puts it because Orwell died of TB seven months after publication and never provided an explanation. Some have dismissed “1984” for providing too bleak an assessment of the fate of mankind, but here Orwell was perfectly clear. Lynskey closes his book by repeating this quote from George, “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one. Don’t let it happen. It depends on you” (p. 269).
It is important to point out what “The Ministry of Truth” is not. Lynskey only spends a few pages actually analyzing and assessing “1984.” You will have to look elsewhere for literary criticism. Lynskey provides a summary of “1984” as an appendix, but I would have much preferred an “Additional Readings.” Readers wanting to dig deeper must wade through 50 pages of footnotes.
The final 80 pages of “Ministry of Truth” focuses on the literary and popular culture progeny of 1984. This is where I wish Lynskey had gone into much more detail. Lynskey describes “1984” as being “intertwined" with Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951), but only devotes a few sentences to this seminal work. Lynskey offers this tantalizing statement, “Although Arendt was more knowledgeable about Germany and Orwell more interested in Russia, they came to many of the same conclusions: totalitarianism was the unprecedented intersection of ideology, bureaucracy, technology and terror” (p.193). I would devote a whole chapter to unpacking this.
I hope Orwell would have been disturbed if he had lived to see that the animated version of “Animal Farm” was funded by the CIA, but then Lynskey relates the even more disturbing fact that Orwell passed on a list of Brits he suspected to be Communists to British intelligence.
Two examples Lynskey provides of the Orwell-inspired pop culture landscape intrigued me. Even though I had recently read Dylan Jones “oral biography” of David Bowie, I had no idea that his album “Diamond Dogs” was intended to be part of a “1984” musical, but Orwell’s widow rejected the proposal. The second is this tidbit, “The BBC television series “Blake’s 7” knitted the cruelest innovations from Orwell, Huxley and Wells into a kind of “Star Trek” for the chronically pessimistic.” Hmmmm.
Lynskey devotes less than three pages to the biggest “1984” pop cultural artifact of the past 50 years, the movie released in 1984. Lynskey omits such basic information as box office receipts and critics’ reaction to the film. Lynskey trashes the Eurythmics soundtrack as “ill-fitting synth-pop.” Setting aside my belief that Annie Lennox has one of the most beautiful voices of all time, I think “Doubleplusgood” and “Sexcrime” work quite well. “Julia” is hauntingly beautiful.
Lynskey also only makes one passing reference to the country that most resembles “1984” today: North Korea (p.246). North Korea is listed with China and Iran, but neither of those countries are totalitarian. I cannot describe the overwhelming sense of relief when my flight from Pyongyang arrived in Beijing. It is the only time I have ever wanted to yell “Freedom at last!” in China.
The final chapter of “Ministry of Truth” only briefly takes up the topic of Donald Trump and his Orwellian tendencies. Lynskey is somewhat dismissive, suggesting that Trump is closer to Joseph McCarthy than Big Brother. “He has the cruelty and power hunger of a dictator but not the discipline, intellect or ideology” (p. 261). That might be the case, but it merits much more discussion than Lynskey gives it.
Lynskey doesn’t do more than list several books taking a darker view at the end of his introduction. The one book that he does not list that I wish he had devoted several pages to is “How Democracies Die” (Levitsky and Zablat, 2019). These Harvard professors argue that for the first time in history, Trump’s America meets all four of the criteria they establish for democracy to die, including jailing opponents (“Lock her up!”) and demonizing the press (“Enemy of the People!”).
Hillary is not in jail (yet) and one of the countless people Trump has sued in the past just called him a “whiny little bitch” last night on HBO (comedian Bill Mahler in tip top form), but what concerns me most is that roughly 40% of American voters continue to support him. Thanks to voter suppression, Project Veritas/Russian-style disinformation campaigns, and the electoral college, 40% could be enough to reelect Trump in 2020. “1984” might then just go from nightmare to reality.
I love books about books and so this, the biography of George Orwell’s most famous novel, “1984,” was a must read for me. This is split into two main sections; the first dealing with Orwell’s writing of the novel and the second part looking at the impact of the book.
If you are looking for a biography of George Orwell, this is not really the book for you. Although it covers part of his life, which mainly deals with the period where he was either considering writing, or actually working on, “1984,” this is not a book about his entire life. Rather it looks on influences on the novel, including Orwell’s time in Spain, the political situation leading up to the Second World War, utopias and dystopian novels that were popular at the time, the work of H.G. Wells, Orwell’s time at the BBC (including working with Guy Burgess), London during, and after, the war and other such events. Some of this is very funny – including a rather disastrous dinner party with H.G. Wells, other parts are insightful, such as Orwell’s thoughts on Dickens – you can only create if you care – some touching, such as Orwell’s refusal to accept his life was almost over, when he was terribly ill, and others really give a sense of those turbulent, political times. Orwell’s time in Spain allowed him to feel the paranoia and fear that comes with a totalitarian state, while he was obviously heavily influences by Stalin’s regime of obliterating free speech, rewriting history and forced confessions; even if such thoughts were not always welcomed by those who were concerned that books like, “Animal Farm,” would not be welcomed by our Allies…
Looking at whether, “1984” is still relevant, after being published in 1949 is almost a pointless question. The author shows how, throughout history, the book constantly comes back into favour during turbulent times. After Trump’s inauguration, when the press questioned his office claiming the largest crowd ever, which was obviously untrue, they were blithely informed that this was, “alternative facts.” Sales of “1984,” rocketed, as it had before and, undoubtedly, will again. Phrases from the book have come into common use – from Room 101, Big Brother, The Ministry of Truth and even the term, ‘Orwellian.’ Sometimes, you feel the author has really discovered every single reference to the novel is every television show, song, slogan and film. However, from ‘The Prisoner ,’ to David Bowie, these are covered in detail. I think, overall, I preferred the beginning of this book and the writing of the novel itself, but this is also interesting. It was also fascinating to learn what people imagined was warned against in the novel, and how they interpreted it. For example, the book is often seen as a warning about computers, and social media, when actually Orwell’s vision of a screen that watched you, came from televisions – which he never owned and which was taken off air during the war years anyway. Indeed, his understanding of technology was, in Lynskey’s words, rudimentary at best.
Overall, though, this is a wonderful read and very well written. The research is thorough and comprehensive – even exhausting at times. Yet, Dorian Lynskey manages to keep this readable and constantly unearths interesting nuggets of information, which will make you wish to read the novel again – or, if you have not read it before – discover Orwell’s world for yourself.
4.5 stars, but rather dry - even as an audiobook. I'm not sure if I would have enjoyed it more in physical form where I could more readily trace/write down titles of all the books mentioned, or less because then paying attention would be even more taxing.
George Orwell had a long and varied life filled with lived experiences, but Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably his masterpiece.
This biography of the book itself focuses on the conversations and literary influences that forged elements of the book, so the biography of George Orwell the man is largely in the background.
However, for casual readers like me, that means learning an awful lot about George Orwell.
For example, I knew he fought in the Spanish Civil War and slept on the streets of Paris and London, but I didn't know that Eric Arthur Blair took on the name George Orwell to spare his "lower upper middle class" family the embarrassment of hearing of his travails in Down and Out in Paris and London (which I still haven't got around to reading, despite years of pestering from my mother).
See also: Orwell knocking the pretensions of his fancy schools, Orwell in Burma, Orwell's Oxford-educated wife dropping out of her master's and joining him in Spain, H.G. Wells calling him a "shit," a long radio and columnist history covering everything from op-eds slipped into opera reviews to fairy-tale adaptations for colonized India, popularizing Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and probably being solely responsible for its enduring legacy in English, escaping to a Greek island, marrying a self-professed "gold-digger" on his death bed, McCarthy getting ideas, David Bowie trying to make a musical version...
The whole book ends (and turns) on the difference between the first and subsequent editions of 1984: [spoilers removed]
1984 is huge these days of rising authoritarianism and surveillance states undreamt of in Orwell's work. How does this short novel written by a dying man on the island of Jura in 1948 become such a touchstone for 70 years following its publication? This book documents Orwell's life experience and reading sources that went into this timely work. From his experience of British working class that pulled him towards socialism and his experience in Spain and the betrayal of its cause by the Soviets for realpolitik reasons and the fanaticism and cynicism of ideologues. 1984 was made by this hard-won life history. The book then talks about the books afterlife in politics in the seventy years since. Including misunderstandings and obfuscation by various figures. And of course the exploding popularity of this authoritarian moment. A nice supplement to the critical 1984
a video on 1984
This is about the making and repercussions of the book 1984 (also known as Nineteen-Eighty-Four). It is divided in two sections: Orwell’s life and how he came to write 1984 – and the impact and durability of 1984 since its’ publication in 1949.
Orwell died of complications from tuberculosis in 1950, he survived 1984’s release by only 227 days (page 186, my book). 1984 was a long work in the making and Orwell was scrupulous about editing his writing. He eliminated portions of his work that he felt unnecessary and detracted from the main themes.
The foremost impact on Orwell was his participation in the Spanish Civil War where he witnessed first-hand how forces like the Soviet Union were abusing power with the Republican Spanish forces that were against Franco. It would seem that there was more animosity within the Republican coalition than against their Franco opponents. Friends one day could easily become enemies the next day. All this influenced his two most important works of fiction “Animal Farm” and 1984.
Orwell also realized that totalitarian regimes can be an intersection – Fascism and Communism – both are authoritarian with a strong emphasis on an omnipotent and worshipped leader (Hitler, Stalin, Mao…), an unrestricted secret police, surveillance with informants…
The author also discusses the various works and authors who influenced Orwell. H.G. Wells is prominent with many of his works of science fiction. Also, Edward Bellamy, and very interestingly, Yevgeny Zamayatin, a Russian writer of the book “We” who fled the Soviet Union, and Arthur Koestler.
Unlike many intellectuals and writers of the era, Orwell was never fooled by the professed workers paradise of Stalin’s Soviet Union. In a very real sense Orwell would have agreed with Groucho Marx’s expression “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member”. He was an honest and profound skeptic.
1984, like “Animal Farm” was popular from the moment it was published. It continues to be successful due to the many levels of meaning within it. Winston Smith is the common underdog trying to find his way through an oppressive and labyrinthine regime that constantly saps his energy and relentlessly removes his privacy. He finds temporary bliss and companionship with Julia.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s it served to exemplify the Cold War and the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union and its’ repression in the Eastern Bloc countries. It also served as a warning to the conformity and witch-hunts of the Joe McCarthy period. Later (Big Brother) it came to represent government, large corporations (IBM, Exxon…) and then the growth of computer data.
There were some after the year 1984 that felt the books' relevance would fade away. But then came 9/11 clearly illustrating the malevolence of fundamentalist religion (admittedly Orwell does not touch on religion, but in a very real way they are a form of Big Brother’s conformity and surveillance). This was followed by the endless wars in the Middle East, the rise of Putin in Russia, the economic rise of China and the total control by the Chinese Communist Party on its population where among other issues they have erased any reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and then came Trump with fake news, a constant word-play of truth and lies, enemies of the people…
Page 168 (my book)
One of the novels’ dark jokes is that it may not even be 1984. When Winston comes to write in his diary, he realises he isn’t sure, because “it was never possible nowadays to pin down any date within a year or two.” So the very first line he writes may be untrue. Orwell is telling the reader early on that this is a book in which you can trust nobody and nothing, not even the calendar.