« Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. » — George Orwell
For its July 4, 1949 issue, Life Magazine pulled a couple of rather unusual moves: it featured an elaborate preview of George Orwell’s just-published novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and, as if that wasn’t weird enough, it called upon the services of renowned cartoonist Abner Dean to (copiously) illustrate the article.
Typically, given the USA’s usual political temperament and the then-prevailing climate of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, Life resorted to some choice bits of disinformation and misdirection to sell Orwell and his book to its decidedly whitebread readership. No irony whatsoever.
« British novelist George Orwell, 46, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, saw firsthand what the Communists were up to and has since devoted all his talents to warning the world of the fate which awaits it if it confuses liberalism with regimentation. His new novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a terrifying forecast of what the world of human beings may be like 35 years hence. It is a July selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and will be condensed in the September Reader’s Digest. It is guaranteed to make the flesh creep on anything except brass monkeys and commissars. »
Let’s see, now. Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War. Fair enough. Let’s dwell on that detail for a bit. Which side was he on?
« In December 1936, Orwell went to Spain as a fighter for the Republican* side in the Spanish Civil War that was provoked by Francisco Franco’s Fascist uprising. He did not join the International Brigade as most leftist did, but the little known Marxist POUM. In conversation with Philip Mairet, editor of New English Weekly, Orwell said: ‘This fascism… somebody’s got to stop it’. To Orwell, liberty and democracy went together, guaranteeing, among other things, the freedom of the artist; the present capitalist civilization was corrupt, but fascism would be morally calamitous.
He joined the Independent Labour Party contingent, which consisted of some twenty-five Britons who had joined the militia of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM – Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), a revolutionary communist party. The POUM, and the radical wing of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (Catalonia’s dominant left-wing force), believed General Franco could be defeated only if the Republic’s working class overthrew capitalism — a position at fundamental odds with the Spanish Communist Party, and its allies, which (backed by Soviet arms and aid) argued for a coalition with the bourgeois parties to defeat the fascist Nationalists. » [ source ]
So… Orwell was not merely a communist, but a Marxist advocating the overthrow of capitalism. Just like your average Reader’s Digest subscriber, obviously!
It’s intriguing that LIFE would devote this much space to such a controversial topic, but hardly surprising that it would stack the deck. It’s a regrettable hallmark of blind hubris to believe that only ‘the opposition’ is capable of totalitarian atrocities, when allowed unchecked power. Benevolent dictators have always been very, very scarce. To quote Margaret Atwood, a lady who knows her way around a dystopia, « ‘1984’ is not a wonder tale. Not only could it happen, but it has happened, but under different names. »
On a more general artistic note, if you like the cut of Mr. Dean’s jib, you might be interested by our trio of posts devoted to his fine œuvre: Abner Dean’s Universe: Before…; Abner Dean’s Universe: … After.; and Social Perils and Pitfalls: Abner Dean’s ‘Come As You Are’ (1952). What can I say? I like the guy’s work.
*pray note that, in that particular conflict, the Fascists and the Republicans weren’t one and the same.
A vastly entertaining column this time around! (And I always love your witty asides, bathed as they often are in uncut sarcasm.) As someone who played Winston Smith in a 12th grade stage production of 1984 (in 1984!) at the International School of Kenya, I approve.
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Thank you so much, Matt! It’s funny how it’s often the most obscure, out-of-left-field topics that come out best. Perhaps it’s because the path is less familiar, so that fruitful detours can be made.
Oh, and it’s fascinating (no sarcasm!) to hear that you trod the boards, and in the starring rôle, to boot — by which I do *not* mean the one “stamping on a human face forever” (since we’re on the topic of Orwell). It’s looking more prophetic all the time.
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Ha, the kid who played O’Brien was as Method as I guess a high school student could be — so much so that I feared he would hold up real rats to my face for that one terrifying scene!
And, yeah, I always planned to be an actor and even majored in Theater at college before switching to English. I made the change because I figured I would only be *slightly* less impoverished as a scribe than as a thespian.
I can just picture it! And yet, I’m left wondering: how was, in fact, the rat scene done? Slide projections, audio effects, puppetry? How does one put across such a pivotal scene in live performance?
I’m sure you were a fine actor, but I, for one, fully support (selfish of me, I know) your decision to be a scribe. “Les paroles s’envolent, les écrits restent”…