Originally published in 1991 by THE REED REVIEW
The Last Man in Europe
When George Orwell chose Nineteen Eighty-four as the title of his masterpiece of political fiction, he could not have known what a disservice he was doing to later generations.
The title, quite as much as the novel itself or the early television play, certainly captured the popular imagination. So much so, indeed, that it almost became a part of public mental furniture throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies.
Unfortunately, the interpretation most often put on the book was the rather crude one of political prediction. It is one of the great ironies of modern literature that the two best known works of this above all lucid writer should have been so widely misunderstood: Animal Farm was, and all too often still is, seen as a simple attack on the Soviet Union.
When the fateful year came and went, there was what amounted to a general sigh of relief when the full apparatus of thought control were seen not to be in place. There were actually more hopeful signs than there had been for years in international politics. Orwell's 'prediction' was seen to be 'wrong' and, after exploiting the Orwell connection for all it was worth during and just before 1984. the popular media promptly dropped it.
This was perhaps only to be expected, me about it all was the low-key reaction of more serious writers and critics. With a few honourable exceptions, the usual response seems to have been much the same as that of popular culture: more sophisticated perhaps, but still fundamentally the same.
Others, probably turned off by the media circus, simply kept quiet about the whole thing. This has been the longer-term pattern: Orwell's work and its meaning is now much less discussed. The feeling is probably that too much has been written and said already.
This is a great pity. The importance of this clear-sighted man's warning is, if anything, greater today than it was seven years ago, current events in Europe notwithstanding. So, just what was this warning?
It was not, as such, a warning primarily about secret police and the other trappings of a totalitarian society. These were, after all, far from unknown when Orwell was writing. Rather it was a warning that the seeds of perversion and totalitarianism are present in any society. This was why he chose to call the political orthodoxy in Nineteen Eighty-four Ingsoc (= English Socialism).
The key sections of the book are not the chapters describing the drabness of society, nor the narrative references to the international political system which provide the framework of the story. Nor are they even the horrifying details of the interrogation of the protagonist, Winston Smith, and the fate that awaited him in 'Room 101' (a rather clumsy device by the standards of the rest of the novel).
No, the real heart of the book, and the part that should hold most meaning for us today, is to be found in Goldstein's 'book within the book' and the appendix on Newspeak (both of which, incidentally, the American publishers wanted to cut). What these do, coolly and rationally, is describe what will happen if the seeds of totalitarianism are allowed to take root.
I will not, in this short essay, argue that the political climate of today is any more favourable than it was seven, ten, or thirty years ago. We will all have our own ideas on that subject.
What I will do instead is remind you of the alternative title of the book, one which Orwell was still considering in late 1948: The Last Man in Europe. Who is to say what would have happened if he had settled on that title? One thing is sure; there would have been less media hype in our own decade. I like to think that Orwell's message would have been more clearly understood, and perhaps more seriously discussed as we approach the millennium.
It certainly deserves to be. But then, seven years on from The 1984 Show, there's nothing stopping us doing that anyway. And perhaps it's better to do it now, before one of us becomes the last man, or woman, in Europe.