1984: the perpetual year

Allusions – subtle references to another work of literature or a cultural phenomena – are an integral literary device, showing that the author is well-read and able to make connections.  Allusions to literature are equally common in the non-literary realm.

Although you might find a different answer if you looked at allusions in religion or broad-based culture (the Bible and Shakespeare would certainly predominate), in politics, one of the most influential sources of allusion is George Orwell’s 1984.  Check out a few of these current examples:

On the education blog “Schools Matter,” Jim Horn writes with suspicion about teaching methods that involve creating “learned helplessness” among students.  He concludes, “Makes me want to snuggle up tonite with my old copy of 1984. Goodnite, Winston.”

Back in July, the Department of Education raised the ire of bloggers by creating a Truth Squad to monitor and correct invalid information on blogs.  Commentators across the blogosphere began using the term “Ministry of Truth” to describe the new position.  The Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue, as you will remember, is where Winston works in 1984, changing historical records to suit Big Brother’s official positions.

The Olympics, this year held in Communist China, have not escaped the Orwellian comparison.  See this article in the Quebec newspaper The Suburban.  Another article discusses at the age controversy in women’s gymnastics and sees an Orwellian image. 

“Orwellian,” “Big Brother-ish,” “Newspeak,” “Ministry of Truth,” and other terms based on 1984 have taken on a very specific meaning in political commentary.  …And don’t forget about the television reality show aptly named “Big Brother.”  Take a look at the following Google News searches and the many results that pop up:

Big Brother
Ministry of Truth

All of this just goes to show how powerful a literary image can be, especially in politics, where comparisons and ominous music are the norm.  I imagine that Machiavelli’s The Prince and More’s Utopia had similar power in Europe in the sixteenth century, as did Shakespeare’s tragedies in England in the seventeenth. 

In the essay “Why I Write,” Orwell talked about the meeting point of politics and literature.   “No book is genuinely free from political bias,” he said.  “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”  In his conclusion, Orwell argued that writing from a political consciousness is one of the greatest reasons for writing:

“I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

We cannot know if Orwell himself would have welcomed or supported these comparisons, but we can see that politics and literature, so intertwined in Orwell’s mind, remain closely connected to this day.


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