In this day and age, every so often we see a book or a movie; perhaps even a television series that has a profound effect on language and popular culture. It is usually a measure of its level of success and influence, but in years gone by and especially during the 20th century there were many works of fiction that found their way into the vernacular of the general public and gained varying receptions within the uppermost political circles.
I have already written about the German socialist reaction to Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, while in another previous post I covered censorship of a completely different kind with regards to the explicit Allen Ginsberg poem Howl. Meanwhile, movies carried a lot of weight among Europe’s higher echelons, a fact illustrated most aptly by the treatment towards a certain 1939 American film starring the legendary James Stewart, Mr Smith Goes to Washington.
It is a political comedy that hints at potential corruption within the US Senate, but also carries an underlying message that was at odds with the ideologies of a number of the leading European nations of the time, some of which actually went as far as to dub certain parts of the film in order for it to conform with their social beliefs. It was banned in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s USSR, and General Franco’s Spain.
Indeed, Franco seized power in the same year as Mr Smith Goes to Washington was released to the mainstream audience, following the Spanish Civil War. One man caught up in some of the proceedings over that three-year period was one of the 20th century’s most influential and outspoken authors, George Orwell, who documented his experiences in the autobiographical novel Homage to Catalonia.
Renowned for his bitter hatred of communism, Orwell was a forward thinker who never hid his opinions within the pages of his books for experts to decipher with the use of forensic examination. That is made perfectly clear in his short though powerful novel Animal Farm, where he uses domesticated livestock to personify the political landscape of the 1940s, with the evil pig Hamilton representing Stalin.
This work ruffled a few feathers, but his final novel would be the one which would confirm his legacy and leave the name George Orwell indelibly listed among the leading visionary authors of the age. Nineteen Eighty Four was set in a dystopian future where the United Kingdom was now made up of an uneven society that was subject to permanent censorship and surveillance, led by a dictatorship known as Big Brother.
Having read Nineteen Eighty Four, it is clear that Orwell is imagining a world how the world could have ended up in the not-too-distant future should the Western forces lost the war against communism and given in to its policies. While it is clearly an exaggeration that contains whimsical concepts borne out of a desire to warn democratic society of the potential harm that might have lay ahead of it, sometimes I treated it as political satire when elements of the story actually detailed events that Orwell thought plausible.
Big Brother is the first and most obvious term which has found its way into the modern language. The name of a reality television programme broadcast in many different countries, it connotes total surveillance through eyes, cameras and other sensory equipment. The wide eyes of Orwell’s moustachioed Inner Party mascot reinforce that none of the characters in Nineteen Eighty Four have any privacy or freedom of speech whatsoever.
This is where my citation of Mr Smith Goes to Washington becomes relevant. As the central character in Nineteen Eighty Four, Winston Smith, and his lover Julia wage a secret war against Big Brother and the Inner Party, their views are ruthlessly exposed by a sophisticated surveillance mechanism and it leads to them being tortured by the Inner Party hierarchy and forcibly made to change their views towards Big Brother through twisted and manipulative techniques.
The total eradication of an alternative political view is what those four world leaders did to Mr Smith Goes to Washington. A differing ideology was not allowed to exist, meaning that the message from the top was the only message that could either be believed or followed. This is the leading theme in Nineteen Eighty Four, only that presence of any opposing views – whether aired or not – would lead to a visit to the torture chamber, otherwise known as Room 101.
This is another idea from the novel to have given its name to a television programme, which makes light of the concept of there being a room containing all the horrors imaginable. The fate that awaits any of Big Brother’s silent detractors (Thought criminals) is hinted at throughout the novel, as many of Winston’s ‘comrades’ in the Outer Party disappear mysteriously over time.
There are many other words and phrases from Nineteen Eighty Four to have succumbed to common use. For example, Newspeak is now a language in its own right, the same way that Klingon is for fans of Star Trek. It is a fascinating language at that, given that it gradually removes words in order to find a more simplistic alternative, while abbreviations and acronyms are commonplace.
While the awful and unforgiving world that Orwell created did not come to fruition, some of the concepts he portrayed do resonate with many who feel that he hit the right notes in a few areas, particularly with the whole idea of censorship and universal surveillance. In the UK, security services such as GCHQ have alienated some members of the public by monitoring telephone conversations and social media accounts, and this is regularly cited as a manifestation of what Orwell described.
There is so much that can be written about Nineteen Eighty Four that fits within the purpose of this blog, but its level of influence and the way it continues even now to shape opinions is the most remarkable of all its talking points. Orwell used imagination and the political environment of the time to create a version of reality which has since been named after him, a rare accolade shared by only the best of British literary figures such as Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare.