Some essays are letters into the future. “The Prevention of Literature” is one such essay, and today I’d like to respond to it from 2018.
Orwell argues that totalitarianism makes literature impossible. By literature, he means all kinds of writing in prose, from imaginative fiction to political journalism; he suggests that verse might slip through the cracks. He writes, too, that there is such a thing as “groups of people who have adopted a totalitarian outlook”—single-truth communities of sorts, not just totalitarian regimes or entire countries. These are deadly to literature as well.
Orwell was writing in 1946, five or seven years before scholarly works by Hannah Arendt, on the one hand, and Karl Friedrich, on the other, provided the definitions of totalitarianism that are still in use today. Orwell’s own “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which provides the visceral understanding of totalitarianism that we still conjure up today, was a couple of years away. Orwell was in the process of imagining totalitarianism—he had, of course, never lived in a totalitarian society.
He imagined two major traits of totalitarian societies: one is lying, and the other is what he called schizophrenia. He wrote, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as it is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.” The lying entailed constantly rewriting the past to accommodate the present. “This kind of thing happens everywhere,” he wrote, “but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”
He goes on to imagine that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”
Orwell was right. The totalitarian regime rests on lies because they are lies. The subject of the totalitarian regime must accept them not as truth—must not, in fact, believe them—but accept them both as lies and as the only available reality. She must believe nothing. Just as Orwell predicted, over time the totalitarian regime destroys the very concept, the very possibility of truth. Hannah Arendt identified this as one of the effects of totalitarian propaganda: it makes everything conceivable because “nothing is true.”
As for what he called “schizophrenia,” this, too, has been borne out. In 1989, as the longest-running totalitarian experiment in the world, the U.S.S.R., neared what then appeared to have been its demise, a great sociologist named Yuri Levada and his team undertook a large study of Soviet society. He concluded that the Soviet person’s very self-concept depended on a constant negotiation of mutually exclusive perceptions: the Soviet person identified strongly with the great Soviet state and its grand experiment, and yet felt himself to be insignificant; he worshipped at the altar of modernity and progress, and yet lived in conditions of enforced poverty, often deprived of modern conveniences that even the poor in the West had come to take for granted; he believed in egalitarianism and resented evident inequality, yet accepted the extreme hierarchical order and rigid class structure of Soviet society. To live in his world—simply to function day to day, balancing between contradictory perceptions—the Soviet person had to engage in constant negotiations. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Orwell predicted this negotiation, and named it doublethink. You will recall that “even to understand the word doublethink involved the use of doublethink.” Doublethink destroyed the mind and crushed the soul, and yet it was essential for survival. It killed as it saved, and that, too, is doublethink.
But perhaps Orwell’s most valuable observation in this essay concerns instability. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he wrote, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on the pain of damnation, but on the other hand, they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.” Orwell had observed the disfavor and disappearance of prominent Bolsheviks and the resulting adjustments to the official narratives of the Revolution—the endlessly changing and vanishing commissars. Arendt argued that the instability was, in fact, the point and purpose of the purges: the power of the regime depended not so much on eliminating particular men at particular moments but on the ability to eliminate any man at any moment. Survival depended on one’s sensitivity to the ever-changing stories and one’s ability to mold oneself to them.
But why, exactly, did Orwell think all this was so destructive to literature? He defined literature as a sort of conversation—“an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience.” He added that “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. Even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought. It follows that the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer.” Note that he is once again talking about the atmosphere of totalitarianism: the lived experience rather than the mechanics of it. It would follow that, as with the perpetual lie, this literature-deadening effect can outlast state terror. Of course, taboos exist everywhere. But Orwell notes that “literature has sometimes flourished under despotic regimes.” It is having to cater to the instability imposed by totalitarianism—having to constantly adjust one’s world view—that is murderous to the writer, or at least to the writing.
Orwell’s assessment is based on his own intuition but also on the observation that little literature of note came out of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. One might reasonably suspect, though, that censorship and fear were to blame, that better writing existed but had to be hidden. Certainly, Orwell could not have been aware of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” a short cycle of poems about her son’s confinement to the Gulag. Or of Vasily Grossman’s Second World War novel “Life and Fate,” whose existence wasn’t exposed until the nineteen-seventies. There was, indeed, a literature in hiding then, including poems whose manuscripts were destroyed almost as soon as they were written, committed to memory until a time when they could be made public.
Some of this work is great, and this greatness might seem, at first glance, to undermine Orwell’s point. But great works of literature are always a miracle, and they are usually dissonant with their environment, which might be what allows them to transcend time and, in translation, space. But I would venture that Orwell is not talking about the unpredictable business of producing masterpieces. What is lost under totalitarianism is good and even good-enough literature. These are the books that may be popular and even win awards before they are quickly forgotten. These are the books that pad the best-seller lists. The books that will seem quaint, outdated, or, at best, like curious documents of a bygone era in just a few decades. These are also the very books that facilitate conversation, that create mental public space, that influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries. Without these books, politics—the discussion of how we inhabit a city or a country or a planet together—is impossible.
Orwell suggests one more way in which totalitarianism kills writing. “Serious prose,” he writes, “has to be composed in solitude.” Totalitarianism, as Arendt famously wrote, eliminates the space between humans, turning them into One Man of gigantic proportions. Separately, she spoke about the peculiar illusion of warmth and closeness that totalitarianism engenders. Totalitarian societies mobilize everyone. Supporters of the regime may be gathered in the big square, chanting their support for the leader, but opponents band together in tiny clumps that are always under siege, always in struggle to hold on to a patch of knowable truth. This is an honorable effort, but it is as far from an imaginative exercise as anything can be. No one can imagine the future—or, for that matter, the present or the past—with their teeth clenched and their minds in singular focus. This leads me to the best-known line from this Orwell essay: “imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”
I want to zoom out a little to provide context for that famous phrase:
“Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes. Not only is it doomed in any country which retains a totalitarian structure; but any writer who adopts the totalitarian outlook, who finds excuses for persecution and the falsification of reality, thereby destroys himself as a writer…. Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another, literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes something totally different from what it is now, we may learn to separate literary creation from intellectual honesty. At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”
It's remarkable that Orwell ends the essay on a note of some uncertainty. His lament for the possible—probable—loss of the imagination is itself an exercise in the imagination. That is what makes this essay both a work of literature and a political work.
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.
When the values, institutions, and most of what we hold dear about politics is under attack—which it most certainly is—we find ourselves fighting the good fight to preserve things just as they are. This is the opposite of imagination, the opposite of literature, and, I suspect, the opposite of democracy. Fighting to preserve things as they are inevitably becomes a battle to think and speak of things in certain ways, either defensively or preemptively. In trying to salvage the meaning of words as they pertain to the present, we keep words and concepts from evolving. Salvaged words quickly dry up and crack. Then they fail. We face the future empty-handed, language-wise; we are dumb in the face of the future.
I have been struggling with this in my own work. Last week, reporting in Detroit, I found myself looking at an architectural model of an urban farm. The perimeter of the model was made up of large, symbolically windowless gray buildings. These were the blocks that planners assumed would be bought, as so much of Detroit has been, and developed speculatively into faceless buildings that could be anywhere and belong nowhere. I know how to describe those buildings, and I have the language to describe what’s happening in Detroit. I can write about the collapse of government and the vanishing of faith in democracy. I can write about the disenfranchisement of the African-American residents, who make up eighty-six per cent of the city. I can write about the homogenization and privatization of public space, complete with a private security force that has supplanted police in the neighborhoods of so-called revival, and about the private tram line for the gainfully employed residents of Detroit, who happen to be mostly white. I can even write about what’s not there: houses that used to belong to families, schools, shops, music venues, the landscape of the life that used to be. I can write about the business of buying up and securing ruins, turning even unoccupied space into private space, preemptively. And I can write about a middle-aged African-American man who was wandering the streets of an apparently unfamiliar neighborhood, most of which was no longer there, looking for the building he was supposed to be guarding; it was his second day on the job at a private security firm.
But how do I describe what was in the center of the architectural model? It was translucent, illuminated in pink here and there, light but not quite ephemeral. Made of plexiglass, this part of the model contained houses, trees, greenhouses, and other structures. Some of what was here was already there, in the actual physical space depicted. Some was not. It was functioning the way literature works: by depicting and augmenting, illuminating and imagining. But what was I looking at?
I was looking at a kind of community, a sort of kinship, and a mode of coöperation. I was looking at economic arrangements that do not involve—or involve very little—wage labor. I was looking at an alternative to private property. For some of the participants, it was an alternative to the nuclear family. I was looking at something that appeared to exist parallel to capitalism. But I still had no words to describe what it was. All my words belonged to the world of the gray monoliths around the perimeter. Of the thing itself, I could say only what it was not.
And yet I think this is the job of writers right now: to describe what we do not yet see, or what we see but cannot yet describe, which is a condition almost indistinguishable from not seeing.
I want to find a way to describe a world in which people are valued not for what they produce but for who they are—in which dignity is not a precarious state.
I want to find a way to describe economic and social equality as a central value—a world in which inequality is, therefore, shrinking.
I want to find a way to describe prosperity that is not linked to the accumulation of capital.
Find a way to describe happiness as a public good, and the current pervasive crisis of mental health in a way that doesn’t involve the frames of norms and pathology, or the language of “fixing” people.
Find a way to describe a world without borders as we have known them—a world in which nation-states are not prized or assumed.
Find a way to describe learning that does not involve the warehousing and disciplining of children.
Find a way to describe justice whose objective is not retribution but restoration.
Find a way to describe politics that are genuinely participatory, that reflect the complexity and diversity of human experience, that avoid arbitrary divisions along party lines and emphasize cooperation around common goals.
Find an ever more complicated and evolving way to write about gender.
Find ways to describe kinship that is not the nuclear family or framed by the nuclear family. Find ways to tell the stories of friendship and community.
Find ways to describe a humanity that protects its planet, itself, and other creatures that inhabit the earth with us. Find words for reasonable and responsible cooperation.
Find a way to describe public space that is genuinely public and accessible, and include in this the virtual space of social networks and other media.
Above all, find a way to describe a world in which the way things are is not the way things have always been and will always be, in which imagination is not only opperant but prized and nurtured.
And find a way to describe many other things that are true but not seen, seen but not spoken, and things that are not but could be. Orwell wrote that, for the fiction writer, subjective feelings were facts; being compelled to falsify those feelings in a “totalitarian atmosphere” amounted to the “prevention of literature.” Orwell’s perceptions of totalitarianism formed the basis for his novels, which, in turn, shaped much of our current understanding of totalitarianism. I am proposing that subjective hopes are also, for the purposes of writing, facts. These are the facts endangered by the fear and despair prevalent in our current politics. If one insists on writing the truth of those hopes—or, rather, if many writers do this—the result may not be great literature, which is always a miracle, but it will exercise the imagination. If it is good, or good enough, it will fuel conversation. And may it be half as prescient as “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
Credits: This essay originally appeared in 2018 in The New Yorker.