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Masha Gessen on Orwell's Advice for Writing in Dark Times


In a moving piece for the New Yorker, Masha Gessen reflects on George Orwell’s famous essay “The Prevention of Literature,” in which he examines the ways that totalitarian regimes block the imagination and self-reflection necessary for writing literature. Gessen applies the lessons of Orwell’s essay to our own times; while totalitarian regimes might be few in number today compared to Orwell’s time, lies have gained a renewed public prevalence and power. In such an era, writes Gessen, it become more urgent—and more difficult—for the writer to not merely describe the way things are, but to imagine the way things could be. Check out an excerpt from Gessen’s piece below, or the full text here.

“Serious prose,” he writes, “has to be composed in solitude.” Totalitarianism, as Arendt famously wrote, eliminates the space between humans, turning them into One Man of gigantic proportions. Separately, she spoke about the peculiar illusion of warmth and closeness that totalitarianism engenders. Totalitarian societies mobilize everyone. Supporters of the regime may be gathered in the big square, chanting their support for the leader, but opponents band together in tiny clumps that are always under siege, always in struggle to hold on to a patch of knowable truth. This is an honorable effort, but it is as far from an imaginative exercise as anything can be. No one can imagine the future—or, for that matter, the present or the past—with their teeth clenched and their minds in singular focus. This leads me to the best-known line from this Orwell essay: “imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”

Image of George Orwell via the New Yorker.