Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”He goes on to imagine that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”Orwell was right.
Arendt argued that the instability was, in fact, the point and purpose of the purges: the power of the regime depended not so much on eliminating particular men at particular moments but on the ability to eliminate any man at any moment.
Survival depended on one’s sensitivity to the ever-changing stories and one’s ability to mold oneself to them.
The subject of the totalitarian regime must accept them not as truth—must not, in fact, believe them—but accept them both as lies and as the only available reality. Just as Orwell predicted, over time the totalitarian regime destroys the very concept, the very possibility of truth.
Hannah Arendt identified this as one of the effects of totalitarian propaganda: it makes everything conceivable because “nothing is true.”As for what he called “schizophrenia,” this, too, has been borne out. R., neared what then appeared to have been its demise, a great sociologist named Yuri Levada and his team undertook a large study of Soviet society.
It would follow that, as with the perpetual lie, this literature-deadening effect can outlast state terror. But Orwell notes that “literature has sometimes flourished under despotic regimes.” It is having to cater to the instability imposed by totalitarianism—having to constantly adjust one’s world view—that is murderous to the writer, or at least to the writing.
Orwell’s assessment is based on his own intuition but also on the observation that little literature of note came out of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. “The Prevention of Literature” is one such essay, and today I’d like to respond to it from 2018.Orwell argues that totalitarianism makes literature impossible.One might reasonably suspect, though, that censorship and fear were to blame, that better writing existed but had to be hidden.Certainly, Orwell could not have been aware of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” a short cycle of poems about her son’s confinement to the Gulag.It killed as it saved, and that, too, is doublethink.But perhaps Orwell’s most valuable observation in this essay concerns instability.Or of Vasily Grossman’s Second World War novel “Life and Fate,” whose existence wasn’t exposed until the nineteen-seventies.There was, indeed, a literature in hiding then, including poems whose manuscripts were destroyed almost as soon as they were written, committed to memory until a time when they could be made public.“What is new in totalitarianism,” he wrote, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable.They have to be accepted on the pain of damnation, but on the other hand, they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.” Orwell had observed the disfavor and disappearance of prominent Bolsheviks and the resulting adjustments to the official narratives of the Revolution—the endlessly changing and vanishing commissars.