Banned Books Week: 1984 From Whittington’s Eyes

For our first Banned Book, professor Ian Whittington has written an ode to his favorite endangered book, 1984 by George Orwell.  Whittington brilliantly discusses the toils and trials that 1984 has had to face for questioning authority and government censorship in the Cold War era.

 

Few novels seem to crystallize the high political stakes of literature, and of attempts to censor it, quite as clearly as George Orwell’s 1984. Published to immediate acclaim in 1949, Orwell’s dystopia famously renders the mass-mediated political deception of the Second World War in monstrous, exaggerated form. Orwell had spent two years during the war as a propagandist for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and had seen how changes in the geopolitical winds could alter seemingly stable facts. The slogans promoted by the novel’s fictional Ministry of Truth—War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength—epitomize the mutability of truth in a state where history is re-written daily in order to suit the propaganda needs of the government.

The novel’s strong denunciation of totalitarian information control made it as despised by authoritarian regimes as it was beloved by pro-democracy groups both inside and outside those regimes. Along with Orwell’s anti-Stalinist fable Animal Farm (1945), 1984 was banned in the USSR until 1988, and circulated largely in illicit, underground samizdat copies. Anti-communist forces in the US and elsewhere held it up as an indictment of leftist governments across the globe. The CIA saw great propaganda potential in the book, but nonetheless felt the need to tweak the ending; when a film version was released in 1956, the agency ensured that protagonist Winston Smith’s final thoughts were changed from the original, gutting admission of defeat—“He loved Big Brother”—to a cry of resistance: “Down with Big Brother!” If the agency was aware of the irony of altering the text of 1984 to suit a political purpose, no record of such awareness remains.

While Cold War democracies seized on the novel as anti-leftist propaganda, the truth is somewhat more complicated. Orwell despised the totalitarian regimes of the USSR and the emerging Eastern Bloc, and even went so far as to draw up a list of suspected communists for the British Ministry of Information in 1948, but he was also a lifelong democratic socialist. Smith’s conviction, in 1984, that “If there is hope… it lies in the proles” indicates that Orwell’s adherence to a Marxist vision of history persisted despite his antipathy towards totalitarianism. Indeed, the novel has periodically been banned at the local level in the US precisely because its vision of society is insufficiently anti-communist. To top it all off, some schools have prohibited the novel because of its frank treatment of sex as a mode of individual expression and a vehicle for resistance to conformity. Like some other banned books, 1984 seems to be many dangerous things to many different people.

Its status as a paradigmatic statement of the dangers of information suppression has contributed to its sustained popularity and to a range of compelling visual evocations of censorship. One edition of the novel, released by Penguin Books in 2013 and pictured here <http://www.openculture.com/2016/04/the-cover-of-george-orwells-1984-becomes-less-censored-with-wear-and-tear.html&gt;, renders the author and title of the work all but indiscernible, thereby evoking both the government-mandated suppression of information and the need, occasionally, for certain books to circulate in secret. Built into this design is the telling feature that, as the book is handled, read, and passed between people, the title and author become increasingly visible, as if the free circulation of knowledge might allow us all to stand a little more clearly in the light. Imagine that.

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