George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903, in Motihari, a small town in Bengal near the Nepalese border, and in the middle of a highly productive opium district. His father was there working as an agent for the British Opium Department, not arresting growers, but supervising quality control of the product, in which Britain had long enjoyed a monopoly. A year later, young Eric was back in England with his mother and sister, and did not return to the region until 1922, as a junior officer of the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma. That job paid well, but when he came home on leave in 1927, much to the distress of his father, he decided to chuck it, because what he really wanted to do with his life was be a writer, and that is what he became. In 1933, with the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, he adopted the pseudonym of George Orwell, which was the name he was known by from then on. Orwell was one of the names he had used while tramping round England, and may have been suggested by a river of the same name in Suffolk.
1984 was Orwell's last book—by the time it came out, in 1949, he had published 12 others, including the highly acclaimed and popular Animal Farm. In an essay from the summer of 1946, "Why I Write," he recalled, "Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write." Shortly after this, he was at work on 1984.
What is clear from his letters and articles at the time he was working on 1984 is Orwell's despair over the postwar state of "Socialism." What in Keir Hardie's time had been an honorable struggle against the incontrovertibly criminal behavior of capitalism toward those whom it used for profit had become, by Orwell's time, shamefully institutional, bought and sold, in too many instances concerned only with maintaining itself in power. And that was just in England—abroad, the impulse had been further corrupted, in immeasurably more sinister ways, leading at length to the Stalinist gulags and the Nazi death camps.
Orwell seems to have been particularly annoyed with the widespread allegiance to Stalinism to be observed among the Left, in the face of overwhelming evidence of the evil nature of the regime. "For somewhat complex reasons," he wrote in March of 1948, early in the revision of the first draft of 1984, "nearly the whole of the English Left has been driven to accept the Russian regime as 'Socialist,' while silently recognizing that its spirit and practice are quite alien to anything that is meant by 'Socialism' in this country. Hence there has arisen a sort of schizophrenic manner of thinking, in which words like 'democracy' can bear two irreconcilable meanings, and such things as concentration camps and mass deportations can be right and wrong simultaneously."
We recognize this "sort of schizophrenic manner of thinking" as a source for one of the great achievements of this novel, one which has entered the everyday language of political discourse—the identification and analysis of doublethink. As described in Emmanuel Goldstein's The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a dangerously subversive text outlawed in Oceania and known only as the book, doublethink is a form of mental discipline whose goal, desirable and necessary to all Party members, is to be able to believe two contradictory truths at the same time. This is nothing new, of course. We all do it. In social psychology it has long been known as "cognitive dissonance." Others like to call it "compartmentalization." Some, famously F. Scott Fitzgerald, have considered it evidence of genius. For Walt Whitman ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself") it was being large and containing multitudes, for Yogi Berra it was coming to a fork in the road and taking it, for Schrödinger's cat, it was the quantum paradox of being alive and dead at the same time.
Doublethink ... lies behind the names of the superministries which run things in —the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth tells lies, the Ministry of Love tortures and eventually kills anybody whom it deems a threat. If this seems unreasonably perverse, recall that in the present-day United States, few have any problem with a warmaking apparatus named "the Department of Defense," any more than we have saying "Department of Justice" with a straight face, despite well-documented abuses of human and constitutional rights by its most formidable arm, the FBI. Our nominally free news media are required to present "balanced" coverage, in which every "truth" is immediately neutered by an equal and opposite one. Every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia, and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed "spin," as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round. We know better than what they tell us, yet hope otherwise. We believe and doubt at the same time—it seems a condition of political thought in a modern superstate to be permanently of at least two minds on most issues. Needless to say, this is of inestimable use to those in power who wish to remain there, preferably forever.
There is a game some critics like to play, worth maybe a minute and a half of diversion, in which one makes lists of what Orwell did and didn't "get right." Looking around us at the present moment, for example, we note the popularity of helicopters as a resource of "law enforcement," familiar to us from countless televised "crime dramas," themselves forms of social control—and for that matter at the ubiquity of television itself. The two-way telescreen bears a close enough resemblance to flat plasma screens linked to "interactive" cable systems, circa 2003. News is whatever the government says it is, surveillance of ordinary citizens has entered the mainstream of police activity, reasonable search and seizure is a joke. And so forth. "Wow, the Government has turned into Big Brother, just like Orwell predicted! Something, huh?" "Orwellian, dude!"
Well, yes and no. Specific predictions are only details, after all. What is perhaps more important, indeed necessary, to a working prophet, is to be able to see deeper than most of us into the human soul. Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not yet even come into its own—the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power, were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the third Reich and Stalin's USSR, even the British Labour party—like first drafts of a terrible future. What could prevent the same thing from happening to Britain and the United States? Moral superiority? Good intentions? Clean living?
What has steadily, insidiously improved since then, of course, making humanist arguments almost irrelevant, is the technology. We must not be too distracted by the clunkiness of the means of surveillance current in Winston Smith's era. In "our" 1984, after all, the integrated circuit chip was less than a decade old, and almost embarrassingly primitive next to the wonders of computer technology circa 2003, most notably the Internet, a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy mustaches could only dream about.
Thomas Pynchon is the author of Gravity's Rainbow, V., and Mason & Dixon, among other novels. This is excerpted from a new foreword to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Pynchon and published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved. Excepted with permission of the publisher. You can buy the new Plume editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, with a new foreword by Anne Patchett, at Amazon.com.