The land of double-think and memory hole

Without agreeing with everything he said, I am an unashamed admirer of George Orwell’s, though my favourite writings are not the two famous novels but his various political and literary essays. I find that there is nothing more annoying than watching people reduce this hard-headed and strong-minded writer to mush.

The guilty party in this case is the National Film Theatre, an institution that shows many excellent and entertaining second-rate films from the past, which is good; it also provides notes of unsurpassed silliness that are examples of soggy-left and thoughtless political consensus.

I have lost track of the number of times some American producer, director or actor who had a highly successful career in Britain, on the Continent or, even, back in the United States has been described as being a blameless, liberal victim of “McCarthyite witch hunts”, with complete disregard of the difference between the Senate enquiry that was not in the slightest interested in Hollywood and the House Un-American Activity Committee (HUAC) and equally complete disregard of the fact that most of those “innocent” victims were, in fact, Communists who had preferred to lie on orders from the Party. Nor do we get any explanation as to who, if anybody, actually prevented these people from working in Hollywood studios.

Now it is Orwell’s turn to be dragged into this morass of half-truths and double-think. (He would have understood it very well and railed against the sogginess and dishonesty.)

In April the NFT will be marking the 60th anniversary of the publication of “1984” with films about Orwell, as well as a showing of the famous 1956 version with Edmond O’Brien, the less well-known 1954 TV play with Peter Cushing and the 1984 film with John Hurt. Fine. But what do the notes in the recently sent out programme say?

2009 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s classic dystopian vision of Britain.

In Orwell’s re-imagining of British life in the year 1984 the nation has become Airstrip One, a subsidiary of Oceania, one of three global superstates engaged in relentless warfare against one another. London is a fetid, near-derelict metropolis dominated by the monolithic buildings of the ruling Party, its slums battered by rockets fired from enemy states. The collective memory of life before the wars has been all but obliterated by the Party which shapes and monitors the lives of its workers while keeping the disorderly ‘proles’ in a state of controlled ignorance.

Dystopian vision? Re-imagining of British life? Is there not a word missing here, one beginning with the letter “c”? Orwell was not writing a dystopian vision and, while he was re-imagining life in Britain and, to some extent, warning about governments grabbing too much power, he was describing a very precise society.

The shortages, the denunciations, the Inner and Outer Party, the re-writing of history and throwing articles about unpersons into the memory hole, the biographies of imaginary shock workers and, above all, the permanent enemy Emmanuel Goldberg, obviously the figure of Trotsky – these are all aspects of Soviet society, of Communism. Clearly, as far as the NFT and its meandering, never-stepping-out-of-the-box programme organizers, Communism is just one of those unpleasant episodes that have to be thrown down the memory hole. Otherwise the left-wing vision of the world might be polluted.

(Astonishingly enough, this evening I heard an excellent talk given as introduction to Fritz Lang’s “The Testament of Dr Mabuse” by the writer and cinema critic Philip Kemp in which he openly equated Nazism and Stalinism. There were some murmurs in the audience but I could not make out whether these were noises of approval or of people getting the vapours. In my experience, this is a first for the National Film Theatre.)

This is based on a posting on Conservative History Journal blog

8 thoughts on “The land of double-think and memory hole”

  1. In the spring after 9/11 a man described his love for Orwell and how he caught America – what with its 15-minute daily hate of Bin Laden. I didn’t see that then or ever – more jokes about him than fear even though terrorism was (rightly) seen as a danger. He looked blank at mention of Orwell’s anti-communism. He was a nice guy but such thinking is unchallenged in groups that gather about the arts in America, too. Orwellian describes George Bush’s America, one replaced by the utopian Obama’s, I guess.

    As you imply it isn’t just a pollution of the past – it buries the causes of consequences that sometimes can’t be ignored and colors those consequences with inevitability. For instance, when our students see little need to expand their vocabularies, the work of Big Brother has been done subtly and well. (No, I don’t think there was exactly a conspiracy, but sloppy thiking begat sloppy thinking and teacher’s colleges begat teachers.)

    By the way, 1984 isn’t on Netflix – it’s been on our request list (when it’s released) for a year or more.

  2. Christopher Hitchens has written an excellent history of the use and abuse of Orwell’s writings by various political factions in Why Orwell Matters. It’s well worth checking out.

  3. James, I am covered with shame. It was a typo, honestly. I do remember all the fuss at the time. Have not seen the film, though, as I was put off by the poster, which showed Big Brother as a quasi-Hitler. (I shall now go into silent edit mode and correct my error.)

    Christopher Hitchens, I suspect, sees himself as a latter day Orwell and there is something to be said for that. I am not sure I have read that particular essay but shall do as soon as I can. Hitch is always worth reading even if one ends up screaming at the book. But the same is true about Orwell.

  4. Yeah,Hitchens is the only leftist I know,who has shown real guts;most of the others belong to the chickenshit brigade.When Sidney Blumenthal, a friend of Hitchens, and a hireling of Clinton,tried to smear Lewinsky,Hitchens blew the whistle and took much heat for it.

  5. Yes, Hitchens might, just might to come close to that “honest principled Leftist” type I wrote about in the post about Victor Serge, among our contemporaries. Still, his picking up fights with Hizbollah in Lebanon are rather stupid than corageous – which is what Serge’s life (and especially the last years of it) was.

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