(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Perhaps only a Briton—and a supremely self-confident one—could have written 1985. The idea of publishing not just a sequel but a corrective to George Orwell’s powerful Nineteen Eighty-Four seems almost presumptuous, an occasion of hubris to invite critical, if not divine punishment. Nevertheless, Anthony Burgess attempts to do the job, in both fiction and nonfiction, in his new work.

The first half of the book is straightforward literary criticism, even if it is slightly unorthodox in form. It begins with a short section titled “Catechism,” which sets forth the fictional history from 1945 to 1984 lying behind Orwell’s novistic nightmare. Burgess’ intention, as he forthrightly states, is to see where Orwell “went wrong,” and to give another picture, one of what the future may really be like.

Burgess concentrates first on demolishing what he sees as mistaken readings of Orwell’s novel. The task of clearing the ground begins in a dialogue with “an old man” who remembers the Britain of 1945 which first read the novel. The old man begins by pointing out the often overlooked comedy that enriches Nineteen Eighty-Four and insists that the first readers saw much more humor in the book than we do today. According to Burgess (who turns out to be the “old man”), the humor begins in the novel’s opening line, continues through the vaguely ridiculous name of its hero, Winston Smith, and crops up from time to time throughout, sometimes in very odd places. Burgess startles us with his assertion that at least one careful reader found even Smith’s constant observation by the telescreen a comic occasion. The old man of the dialogue maintains, with a good deal of force in his arguments, that the picture of life in the novel accurately reflects life in Britain in 1948, and is not a plausible portrait of a future threat to human freedom. The argument then turns to the relationship between English socialism in 1948 and the Ingsoc of Orwell’s novel. The old man sees no connection at all between the two, to the dismay of those who have used Orwell’s novel as evidence against varied leftist theories and policies.

But where then does Ingsoc come from? The next essay, “Ingsoc Considered,” attempts an answer by indirection: it examines the tools used by the all-powerful Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Burgess discusses the inventions of doublethink (the ability to assert contradictory ideas simultaneously) and Newspeak (the revision of English which the Party promotes to forestall subversive thinking). Once again, Burgess has something useful to say: he analyzes doublethink as a rather necessary part of everyday life, especially for intellectuals and politicians. Those who must support partial solutions (for example, a compromise in politics) while recognizing the inadequacy of those solutions must practice an almost innocuous form of doublethink. But Burgess points out that doublethink will not work as Orwell envisions it: doublethink affects only what is inside one’s head, not what exists in external reality. He notes that the universe pictured in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the nineteenth century concept of an infinitely malleable nature: man can do with it what he will without fearing the consequences. The real world is not like that: pollution, for example, or an epidemic will not be corrected by doublethink.

Burgess’ expertise in linguistics leads him to a similar conclusion about Newspeak. Irresistible forces, such as linguistic change, would operate in the real world to defeat the very purpose for which Newspeak is invented. Burgess therefore concludes that both weapons of Ingsoc are unusable; the real power of the novel, he contends, lies not in its usefulness as a warning or prophecy, but in its expression as a metaphor of our deepest anxieties. More and more in the twentieth century, those anxieties focus on the state, and why government should be such a magnet for our fears is the topic of the next essay, “Cacotopia.”

Cacotopia is a word Burgess coins, parallel to utopia and dystopia, which means a hypothetical political system that is impossibly bad—it can never be realized. He introduces the term to classify the kind of novel represented by Nineteen Eighty-Four. Then he asks why, since cacotopias are unrealistic, stories embodying them come to be written. He finds the answer to this question in theology, specifically in whether one accepts or rejects the idea of human depravity resulting from original sin. The great opponents on the question historically are, of course, Pelagius and St. Augustine, and Burgess argues that Orwell was a Pelagian, a believer in the innate goodness and perfectibility of man.

Since the Pelagian cannot blame the individual when faced with the undeniable existence of evil in the world, he searches outside the individual for the source of evil. For many, then, and in particular for Orwell, the State replaces the Devil; and the State takes on many of the characteristics of the Devil in traditional theology. Since moral choice is the basis of human freedom, the greatest evil the State can commit is to destroy the capacity to make a choice: to turn human beings into robots. Only the State would then be capable of making choices, and it could demonstrate both its freedom and its power by choosing to do evil.

Dialogue reappears as Burgess contrasts the real states of today with Orwell’s imaginary one. “State and Superstate” discusses the direction in which national governments have moved...

(The entire section is 2292 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXV, September 15, 1978, p. 146.

Economist. CCLXIX, October 14, 1978, p. 144.

New Statesman. XCVI, October 6, 1978, p. 444.

Newsweek. XCII, October 9, 1978, p. 105.

Times Literary Supplement. October 6, 1978, p. 1109.