The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell *****

In our age, the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy. Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution. The sort of things that are working against him are the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books, making it necessary for nearly every writer to earn part of his living by hackwork, the encroachment of official bodies… Everything in our age conspires to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed down from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth. But in struggling against this fate he gets no help from his own side; that is, there is no large body of opinion which will assure him that he’s in the right.

Orwell’s persistent prescience emerges once more. Though in order to bring this paragraph up to date one would have to clarify that those few rich men are Jewish, and their race is by no means an irrelevant matter in accounting for the orientation of their media outlets. Also to point out that we have today an intellectual tyranny (variously legally, extralegally and illegally enforced) far more crushing because the two enemies he mentions have merged. The monopoly of creative production is in the hands of the same far-left radicals who had such a stranglehold in his day. Today their hold is far worse because they are not merely writing and reviewing all the books, but publishing them as well. Only today the tyranny they enforce is not obeisance to the foreign or domestic policies of the Soviet Union, but to the chimerical ever-shifting beast of Cultural/Neo-Marxism in all its innumerable hideous heads.

The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as 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. Among intelligent Communists there is an underground legend to the effect that although the Russian government is obliged now to deal in lying propaganda, frame-up trials, and so forth, it is secretly recording the true facts and will publish them at some future time. We can, I believe, be quite certain that this is not the case, because the mentality implied by such an action is that of a liberal historian who believes that the past cannot be altered and that a correct knowledge of history is valuable as a matter of course. From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, 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. The friends of totalitarianism in this country usually tend to argue that since absolute truth is not attainable, a big lie is no worse than a little lie. It is pointed out that all historical records are biased and inaccurate, or on the other hand, that modern physics has proven that what seems to us the real world is an illusion, so that to believe in the evidence of one’s senses is simply vulgar philistinism. 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.

We live today in exactly such a society. Only it is not just the state that lies, but all major institutions of our political, social, cultural and economic establishment. Disorganised lying, if you will. But what Orwell could not have foreseen is that this schizophrenic state of affairs is not maintained by naked state brutality (thought that is certainly employed as needed) but by the overwhelming force of social pressure, and the subversion of all institutions, private and public, by Alinskyite quiet radicals, who do whatever the loud and noisy radicals outside the institutions demand.

Above a quite low level, literature is an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience. And so far as freedom of expression is concerned, there is not much difference between a mere journalist and the most ‘unpolitical’ imaginative writer. The journalist is unfree, and is conscious of unfreedom, when he is forced to write lies or suppress what seems to him important news; the imaginative writer is unfree when he has to falsify his subjective feelings, which from his point of view are facts. He may distort and caricature reality in order to make his meaning clearer, but he cannot misrepresent the scenery of his own mind; he cannot say with any conviction that he likes what he dislikes, or believes what he disbelieves. If he is forced to do so, the only result is that his creative faculties will dry up. Nor can he solve the problem by keeping away from controversial topics. 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 to 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, though a poet, at any rate a lyric poet, might possibly find it breathable. And in any totalitarian society that survives for more than a couple of generations, it is probable that prose literature, of the kind that has existed during the past four hundred years, must actually come to an end.

Literature has sometimes flourished under despotic regimes, but, as has often been pointed out, the despotisms of the past were not totalitarian. Their repressive apparatus was always inefficient, their ruling classes were usually either corrupt or apathetic or half-liberal in outlook, and the prevailing religious doctrines usually worked against perfectionism and the notion of human infallibility. Even so it is broadly true that prose literature has reached its highest levels in periods of democracy and free speculation. What is new in totalitarianism is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand, they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice. Consider, for example, the various attitudes, completely incompatible with one another, which an English Communist or ‘fellow-traveler’ has had to adopt toward the war between Britain and Germany. For years before September, 1939, he was expected to be in a continuous stew about ‘the horrors of Nazism’ and to twist everything he wrote into a denunciation of Hitler: after September, 1939, for twenty months, he had to believe that Germany was more sinned against than sinning, and the word ‘Nazi’, at least as far as print went, had to drop right out of his vocabulary. Immediately after hearing the 8 o’clock news bulletin on the morning of June 22, 1941, he had to start believing once again that Nazism was the most hideous evil the world had ever seen. Now, it is easy for the politician to make such changes: for a writer the case is somewhat different. If he is to switch his allegiance at exactly the right moment, he must either tell lies about his subjective feelings, or else suppress them altogether. In either case he has destroyed his dynamo. Not only will ideas refuse to come to him, but the very words he uses will seem to stiffen under his touch. Political writing in our time consists almost entirely of prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child’s Meccano set. It is the unavoidable result of self-censorship. To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.

Totalitarianism, however, does not so much promise an age of faith as an age of schizophrenia…to be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes. Wherever there is an enforced orthodoxy…good writing stops.

Once again, what can one do but shake one’s head in despairing agreement at how horribly true it all is, even now more than then. It is taken for granted today by everyone that there are things which no author may touch or even approach under any circumstances. The largest of these intellectual no-go zones being the ill-doings of blacks, queers, Muslims, Jews or any similarly privileged-minority. One could not, in 2022, write about an actual immigrant no-go zone in a European city in a book, except in a perverse and mendacious way that placed everything at the feet of the Europeans (who as everyone knows, are so desperate for Africans and Arabs to fill up their suburbs that they kidnapped them from their homes in their millions and force them to live there)–in effect, blaming the white women in the miniskirt being harassed by a Muslim Sharia patrol for her harassment. Even if the events being portrayed in what is, remember, supposed to be a work of fiction, are actually perfectly true and based on real life. No agent would accept such a book, no publisher would print it, no bookseller, physical or online, would stock it. Even if such a book were somehow to get through, all it would take is one or two minutes of hate on Twatter and booksellers would remove it, the publishers would immediately withdraw it, the author would disown it and have his career evaporated before his eyes, all in the process issuing grovelling apologies to fictitious ‘victims’ who have been ‘harmed’ by this work of literature. In every Western country except America (for now) it would be actually illegal. And we can’t write about any of them because the rarefied atmosphere of late-stage communism that stifles not only intellectual freedom, but creativity and even to a certain extent literary quality itself (just take a glance at the absolutely dismal pieces of diverse dreck masquerading as literature that GoodReads is offering up to you via the permanent banner at the top of the page).

It is not certain whether the effects of totalitarianism upon verse need be so deadly as its effects on prose. There is a whole series of converging reasons why it is somewhat easier for a poet than a prose writer to feel at home in an authoritarian society. To begin with, bureaucrats and other ‘practical’ men usually despise the poet too deeply to be much interested in what he is saying. Secondly, what the poet is saying — that is, what his poem ‘means’ if translated into prose — is relatively unimportant, even to himself. The thought contained in a poem is always simple, and is no more the primary purpose of the poem than the anecdote is the primary purpose of the picture. A poem is an arrangement of sounds and associations, as a painting is an arrangement of brushmarks. For short snatches, indeed, as in the refrain of a song, poetry can even dispense with meaning altogether. It is therefore fairly easy for a poet to keep away from dangerous subjects and avoid uttering heresies; and even when he does utter them, they may escape notice.

I think this is why poets like Akhmatova were still able to exist even under Stalin. As I’ve often said, poetry gets away with more because whereas prose says, poetry merely suggests; where prose explains, poetry evokes, and so on.

In western Europe and America large sections of the literary intelligentsia have either passed through the Communist Party or have been warmly sympathetic to it, but this whole leftward movement has produced extraordinarily few books worth reading. Orthodox Catholicism, again, seems to have a crushing effect upon certain literary forms, especially the novel. During a period of three hundred years, how many people have been at once good novelists and good Catholics?

In both American and Britain (both Protestant countries) some of the most celebrated writers of the last century have been practicing Catholics. Many of them were active in Orwell’s day. Orwell often cuts his own legs from under himself with his sweeping generalisations.

Of course, print will continue to be used, and it is interesting to speculate what kinds of reading matter would survive in a rigidly totalitarian society. Newspapers will presumably continue until television technique reaches a higher level, but apart from newspapers it is doubtful even now whether the great mass of people in the industrialized countries feel the need for any kind of literature. They are unwilling, at any rate, to spend anywhere near as much on reading matter as they spend on several other recreations. Probably novels and stories will be completely superseded by film and radio productions. Or perhaps some kind of low grade sensational fiction will survive, produced by a sort of conveyor-belt process that reduces human initiative to the minimum.

I’m already getting bizarre pseudo-news sites cropping up in my Jewgle searches that one has to actually peruse for a few moments before one realises that the ‘article’ one is reading was generated by an AI. Goodness knows what the point of such things is. Some sort of data mining, maybe (I say as if I knew what ‘data mining’ was). All this, of course, while Jewgle openly manipulates its search results and outright removes dissident sites and content while boosting radical leftist ones (compare the search results from the front page of DuckDuckGo and Jewgle, if you don’t beleive me).

It would probably not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery. But a sort of mechanizing process can already be seen at work in the film and radio, in publicity and propaganda, and in the lower reaches of journalism. The Disney films, for instance, are produced by what is essentially a factory process, the work being done partly mechanically and partly by teams of artists who have to subordinate their individual style. Radio features are commonly written by tired hacks to whom the subject and the manner of treatment are dictated beforehand: even so, what they write is merely a kind of raw material to be chopped into shape by producers and censors. So also with the innumerable books and pamphlets commissioned by government departments. Even more machine-like is the production of short stories, serials, and poems for the very cheap magazines. Papers such as the Writer abound with advertisements of literary schools, all of them offering you ready-made plots at a few shillings a time. Some, together with the plot, supply the opening and closing sentences of each chapter. Others furnish you with a sort of algebraical formula by the use of which you can construct plots for yourself. Others have packs of cards marked with characters and situations, which have only to be shuffled and dealt in order to produce ingenious stories automatically. It is probably in some such way that the literature of a totalitarian society would be produced, if literature were still felt to be necessary. Imagination — even consciousness, so far as possible — would be eliminated from the process of writing. Books would be planned in their broad lines by bureaucrats, and would pass through so many hands that when finished they would be no more an individual product than a Ford car at the end of the assembly line. It goes without saying that anything so produced would be rubbish; but anything that was not rubbish would endanger the structure of the state. As for the surviving literature of the past, it would have to be suppressed or at least elaborately rewritten.

Once again, I think Orwell overreaches himself here (probably he had not seen many, or maybe any, Disney films). Disney animations, of the 2d era, required a huge amount of creativity and talent and skill. He would have a point with regards to Frozen and the following abominations, however. And classic books (including my beloved childhood books of Enid Blyton) are already being subjected to silent, subtle and sinister censorship to bring them in line with the, as Orwell points out, extremely unstable and ever-shifting tenets of Cultural Marxism.

Meanwhile, totalitarianism has not fully triumphed anywhere. Our own society is still, broadly speaking, liberal. To exercise your right of free speech you have to fight against economic pressure and against strong sections of public opinion, but not, as yet, against a secret police force. You can say or print almost anything so long as you are willing to do it in a hole-and-corner way. But what is sinister, as I said at the beginning of this essay, is that the conscious enemies of liberty are those to whom liberty ought to mean most. The big public do not care about the matter one way or the other. They are not in favour of persecuting the heretic, and they will not exert themselves to defend him. They are at once too sane and too stupid to acquire the totalitarian outlook. The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.

Well we don’t have a secret police; the regular police have proven themselves to be quite bad enough. Everything else Orwell says is absolutely apropos. There are a few ‘Dissident Right’ small presses that have cropped up recently (which so far as I can tell do everything through print-on-demand-type third parties, so it’s questionable whether they’re real publishers at all), which I’ve purchased a few tomes from recently (reviews coming hopefully in a time not too far off). But nothing with any real cultural presence. And all of them, so far as I can tell, are based in America, which has (for now) the First Ammendment. Probably they would be shut down and the people who run them arrested if they operated in Britain or on the Continent, or even in my country, now that our government has stripped away our last vestiges of free speech.

Overall, this essay explored stuff I’ve thought about a lot, as someone who aspires, however foolishly, to publication myself. I really don’t see any way around censorship, except to avoid any depiction of contemporary life altogether (which it would be impossible to write about honestly without touching on the verboten) and write only ‘apolitical’, or as close to it as one can get, books. There is something to be said for escapism–we certainly need it at the moment. But we also need literature which does the job that Orwell envisions for it: holding up a mirror, however small, however subjective to society.  After all, our reality is not only horrifying but also hilarious; every day we encounter fresh absurdities, beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined. Civilisation is collapsing so quickly it’s impossible to keep up; every day new leftist lunacies emerge which make the ones that shocked us the day before seem tame and almost reasonable by comparison. And then the day after those lunacies become universally accepted dogma, and our tongues are twisted by new, even more unswallowable shibboleths. There has never been a situation like this, anywhere, ever, except perhaps China at the peak of Maoist hysteria. And it’s a shame, given that ages which were in hindsight golden eras of sanity and sobriety all had their satirists, that there is no one of any stature or talent who is recording, in the form of lasting works of fiction, the unfathomable experience of what it is like to be alive now, except in ways that deliberately distort it, because they are on the side of the censors. Or rather, the censors are on theirs.

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