Tim Conley is a professor of English Language and Literature at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.
What's the difference between fiction and a lie?
As the world watches "truthiness" being supplanted by "alternative facts," George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published almost 70 years ago, has climbed up the bestseller lists. Social media are accordingly abuzz with claims that the Donald Trump presidency is "Orwellian," an adjective that the author would probably be horrified to hear is usually understood as synonymous with "totalitarian." Yet, the new popularity of Orwell's novel raises more questions than definite answers.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is unambiguously bleak, but it is important to observe that there is nonetheless no consensus among readers about what it means. Some see it as a warning against the ever-creeping threat of socialism (and, often as not, against any number of leftist political initiatives), disregarding the fact that the nemesis of Orwell's nightmarish state, the dissident Emmanuel Goldstein, decries that state as oligarchical, not an egalitarian movement of the common people. On the other hand, readers who locate hope in the thinking embodied by Goldstein or in the promise of a revolution by "the proles" overlook the fact that Goldstein's writings are themselves a fabrication, used to ensnare those guilty of "thoughtcrime," and that no hint of any genuine, organized revolution is to be found.
If we want to understand why so many people seem to feel that Orwell's novel matters amid the rise of an authoritarian leadership deeply opposed to differing points of view, the first thing to understand is this division: Everybody understands that Big Brother is bad, but there is disagreement as to exactly who and what he is. Mr. Trump's election is itself the result of this disagreement. To Trump supporters, Washington's career politicians and bureaucrats are an oppressive menace to be overthrown. To others, Mr. Trump's rapid-fire executive orders and policy-as-tweet approach are alarmingly in tune with Big Brother's credo, "ignorance is strength."
Orwell was apparently first propelled into writing the novel after hearing a lecture about Soviet distortions of science. The book's lonely protagonist, Winston Smith, writes in his secret diary, "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two are four." When he is later tortured by the state authorities, this declaration is used against him. Winston must be trained in "doublethink," the required capacity to privilege the truth recognized by power over the truth recognized by his own senses.
When state leaders and spokespersons can invent crimes and massacres, denounce the media for departing even slightly from the official party line and dismiss scientific findings, citizens have to decide whether they will likewise engage in doublethink, learn the newspeak and concede that two plus two is whatever these authorities say it is.
The renewed popularity of dystopian novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (from which Orwell took much of his own novel), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is interesting not because any one of these books represents a comprehensive guide to surviving (let alone overturning) the Trump presidency and all of the abuses of power that it will doubtlessly license. It's interesting precisely because at the moment in history when people feel that the simple right to determine facts and reality is under attack, they are turning to fiction.
Why should this be so?
Fiction shows us, as Nineteen Eighty-Four does, the nature of freedom. The exploration of "what if," of alternative possibilities and alternative points of view (rather than "alternative facts"), affirms that truth is elusive, perhaps sometimes even indeterminate, but worth seeking out and not to be taken on trust. There's a striking paradox at the heart of Orwell's novel: reading and writing are means of discovering truths and ourselves, but they can be used against us, as Winston's diary is. Goldstein's book is a trap. Pornographic novels are mechanically churned out to provide distraction for the workers: fiction as escapism. Yet Orwell sounds this cautionary note in a novel.
Just as a fiction is not a lie, a paradox is not a total contradiction. Orwell is underlining fiction's invaluable fostering of skepticism. Readers of fiction learn that they always have to determine the truth for themselves, not find it ready-made between covers. We all need more of this skepticism, more and more urgently.