I remember when 1984 rolled around, with the Cold War still going in high gear (in fact higher than ever after Reagan correctly called the Soviet Union “an evil empire”), and it was natural that the literary world would mark the occasion with a callback to George Orwell’s 1984. The anti-anti-Communist left at the time labored mightily to downplay or distract from Orwell’s anti-Communist message, offering convoluted takes about how 1984 was “really about us” in the democratic West.
These were snortworthy takes, to be sure, but right now it is appearing that Orwell’s description of the tyrannical drive to control history and language fits us pretty well. Key passage:
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
Maybe 1984 “was about us” is ironically correct after all. Cue Leo Strauss’s great observation on the victory of German thought after World War II in Natural Right and History:
It would not be the first time that a nation, defeated on the battlefield and, as it were, annihilated as a political being, has deprived its conquerers of the most sublime fruit of victory by imposing on them the yoke of its own thought.
It gets worse. Apparently the Orwell estate has granted permission for 1984 to be “rewritten” from a “feminist point of view.” The new version will be called Julia, and purports to tell the story from the point of view of Winston Smith’s lover. The Guardian’s account of the author, Sandra Newman, doesn’t sound especially encouraging:
Julia will be published after Granta releases Newman’s new novel The Men – in which every single person with a Y chromosome vanishes from the world – next June. It is the latest in a series of feminist retellings of classic stories, from Natalie Haynes’s reimagining of the Trojan war A Thousand Ships, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a version of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, to Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, which centres on the life of Shakespeare’s wife, and Jeet Thayil’s Names of the Women, which tells the stories of 15 women whose lives overlapped with Jesus.
A world without any men, eh? That’s one way to smash the patriarchy. (Though this novel, coming next spring, may be implicitly anti-trans, as there are lots of people with Y chromosomes now identifying as “women.” What happens to them in this scenario?)
Perhaps Julia won’t have any overt ideological bent, though the absence of Orwell’s original insight into the totalitarian mind now dominating American institutions will be literary crime enough. One of Newman’s previous novels is The Country of Ice Cream Star, which is described on the dust jacket thus: “In the ruins of a future America, fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star and her nomadic tribe live off of the detritus of a crumbled civilization.” What is it with a certain literary type that a fallen, post-apocalyptic America is such a persistent backdrop to their imagination (or lack thereof)?
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