27 Feb


The worst thing we can say about a work of art is that it is insincere. And this is even truer of criticism than it is of creative literature, in which a certain amount of posing and mannerism and even a certain amount of downright humbug doesn’t matter as long as the writer has a certain fundamental sincerity. Modern literature is essentially an individual thing. It is is either the truth expression of what one man thinks and feels or it is nothing.

As I say, we take this notion for granted, and yet as soon as one puts into words one realises how literature is menaced. For this is the age of the totalitarian state, which does not and probably cannot allow the individual any freedom whatever. When one mentions totalitarianism one immediately thinks of Russia, Germany, Italy, but I think one must face the risk that this phenomenon is going to be worldwide. It is obvious that the period of free capitalism is coming to an end and that one country after another is adopting a centralised economy that one can call Socialism or State Capitalism according as one prefers. With that the economic liberty of the individual, and to a great extent his liberty to do what he likes, to choose his own work, to move to and fro across the surface of the earth, comes to an end. Now, till recently the implications of this weren’t forseen.It was never fully realised that the disappearance of economic liberty would have any effect on intellectual liberty. Socialism was usually thought of as a sort of moralised Liberalism. The state would take charge of your economic life and set you free from poverty, unemployment and so forth, but it would have no need to interfere with your private intellectual life. Art could flourish just as it had done in the liberal-capitalist age, only a little more so, because the artist would no longer be under any economic compulsions.

Now, on the existing evidence, one must admit that these ideas have been falsified. Totalitarianism has abolished freedom of thought to an extent unheard of in any previous age. And it’s important to realise that its control of freedom of thought is not only negative, but positive. It not only forbids you to express – even to think – certain thought but it dictates what you shall think , it creates an ideology for you, it tries to govern your emotional life as well as setting up a code of conduct. And as far as possible it isolates you from the outside world, it shuts you up in an artificial universe in which you have no standards of comparison. The totalitarian state tries, at any rate, to control the thoughts and emotions of its subjects at least as completely as it controls their actions.

The question that is important for us is, can literature survive in such an atmosphere? I think one must answer shortly that it cannot. If totalitarianism becomes worldwide and permanent, what we have known as literature must come to an end.

George Orwell
“Literature and Totalitarianism”
Broadcast: 21 May, 1941


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