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Why Orwell Matters
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In this widely acclaimed biographical essay, the masterful polemicist Christopher Hitchens assesses the life, the achievements, and the myth of the great political writer and participant George Orwell. True to his contrarian style, Hitchens is both admiring and aggressive, sympathetic yet critical, taking true measure of his subject as hero and problem. Answering both the detractors and the false claimants, Hitchens tears down the façade of sainthood erected by the hagiographers and rebuts the critics point by point. He examines Orwell and his perspectives on fascism, empire, feminism, and Englishness, as well as his outlook on America, a country and culture toward which he exhibited much ambivalence. Whether thinking about empires or dictators, race or class, nationalism or popular culture, Orwell's moral outlook remains indispensable in a world that has undergone vast changes in the seven decades since his death. Combining the best of Hitchens' polemical punch and intellectual elegance in a tightly woven and subtle argument, this book addresses not only why Orwell matters today, but how he will continue to matter in a future, uncertain world.
But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. To heat a liquid with an electric lamp requires not the strongest lamp possible, but one of which the current can cease to illuminate, can be diverted so as to give heat instead of light. To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. Similarly, the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.
MARCEL PROUST: Within a Budding Grove
Introduction: The Figure
Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly
Betray the influence of his warm intent.
Because he taught us what the actual meant
The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly.
Not all were grateful for his help, one finds,
For how they hated him, who huddled with
The comfort of a quick remedial myth
Against the cold world and their colder minds.
We die of words. For touchstones he restored
The real person, real event or thing;
— And thus we see not war but suffering
As the conjunction to be most abhorred.
He shared with a great world, for greater ends,
That honesty, a curious cunning virtue
You share with just the few who don’t desert you.
A dozen writers, half-a-dozen friends.
A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings
Sometimes a silliness we view askance,
Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;
He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings.
While those who drown a truth’s empiric part
In dithyramb or dogma turn frenetic;
— Than whom no writer could be less poetic
He left this lesson for all verse, all art.
ROBERT CONQUEST: ‘GEORGE ORWELL’ (1969)
The stanzas above were written in a glacial time, and refer back to a period of almost polar frigidity — the ‘midnight of the century’ reviewed through the optic of the Cold War, with the additional prospect of a ‘nuclear winter’ never remote enough to be dismissed. Yet the chilliness of the opening is at once redeemed by a friendly gleam, and this gleam is renewed through the subsequent glow of friendship until it suffuses the closing lines with something almost like fire.
It’s an open question as to whether or not integrity and honesty are cold or hot virtues, and England can be a dank place in which to locate the question. ‘Wintry Conscience of a Generation’ was Jeffrey Meyers’s subtitle for his 2000 Orwell biography — the phrase itself being annexed from the lukewarm pages of V. S. Pritchett. Orwell’s own work is much preoccupied with the demoralizing effects of the freezing point, and not entirely free from the ancestral belief that a cold plunge is a good thing. But this gaunt and aloof person underwent his two crucial epiphanies in the torrid and sultry climates of Burma and Catalonia; and his work in its smuggled form was later to kindle a spark in the Siberias of the world, warming the hearts of shivering Poles and Ukrainians and helping to melt the permafrost of Stalinism. If Lenin had not uttered the maxim ‘the heart on fire and the brain on ice’, it might have suited Orwell, whose passion and generosity were rivalled only by his detachment and reserve.
Sir Victor Pritchett, as he later became, was among many to have configured Orwell as among the ‘saints’, albeit a secular member of that communion. Again we are confronted with spareness and the spectre of self-denial, instead of with the profane and humorous writer who said — of Mahatma Gandhi — that saints are always to be adjudged guilty until proven innocent. Speaking of another celebrated supposed Puritan, Thomas Carlyle wrote of his Cromwell that he had had to drag him out from under a mound of dead logs and offal before being able to set him up as a figure worthy of biography. This is not a biography, but I sometimes feel as if George Orwell requires extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies; an object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise, employed to stultify schoolchildren with his insufferable rightness and purity. This kind of tribute is often of the Rochefoucauldian type, suggestive of the payoff made by vice to virtue; and also of the tricks played by an uneasy conscience. (It was Pritchett, after all, who had cheaply denounced Orwell’s dangerously truthful despatches from Barcelona by writing in 1938 that ‘there are many strong arguments for keeping creative writers out of politics and Mr George Orwell is one of them’.)
There were very many ‘creative writers’ with high political profiles in the period that is covered by the years between Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). If we agree to confine ourselves to the English-speaking world, we find George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, J. B. Priestley and Ernest Hemingway as only the foremost. And of course there were the poets — the group collected under the doggerel name ‘MacSpaunday’ which symbolizes Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and Cecil Day Lewis. (The portmanteau name omits that of their mentor Edward Upward, about whom Orwell also wrote.) It is fairly safe to say, however, that the political statements made by these men would not bear reprinting today. Some of their pronouncements were stupid or sinister; some were just silly or credulous or flippant. However, and by way of bold contrast, it has lately proved possible to reprint every single letter, book review and essay composed by Orwell without exposing him to any embarrassment. (There is one arguable exception to this verdict, which I intend to discuss separately.)
It would be too simple to say that the gentlemen mentioned above, along with many others in the business of mere journalism, were susceptible to the lures and enticements offered by power while Orwell was not. But it would be true to say that they could expect to see their work in print while he was never able to compose anything with the same confidence in having it published. Thus, his life as a writer was in two important senses a constant struggle: first for the principles he espoused and second for the right to witness to them. He would appear never to have diluted his opinions in the hope of seeing his byline disseminated to the paying customers; this alone is a clue to why he still matters.
However, the image of the drudge in the garret, who takes his failure as a sign of his high principle, is an over-familiar one, which Orwell lampooned with some thoroughness in his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. His importance to the century just past, and therefore his status as a figure in history as well as in literature, derives from the extraordinary salience of the subjects he ‘took on’, and stayed with, and never abandoned. As a consequence, we commonly use the term ‘Orwellian’ in one of two ways. To describe a state of affairs as ‘Orwellian’ is to imply crushing tyranny and fear and conformism. To describe a piece of writing as ‘Orwellian’ is to recognize that human resistance to these terrors is unquenchable. Not bad for one short lifetime.
The three great subjects of the twentieth century were imperialism, fascism and Stalinism. It would be trite to say that these ‘issues’ are only of historical interest to ourselves; they have bequeathed the whole shape and tone of our era. Most of the intellectual class were fatally compromised by accommodation with one or other of these man-made structures of inhumanity, and some by more than one. (Sidney Webb, co-author with his wife Beatrice of the notorious volume Soviet Russia: A New Civilisation?, which in its second edition dropped the question mark just in time to coincide with the Great Purges, became Lord Passfield under Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government of 1929, and in that capacity acted as an exceptionally repressive and pompous Colonial Secretary. George Bernard Shaw managed to be stupidly lenient about both Stalin and Mussolini.)
Orwell’s decision to repudiate the unthinking imperialism that had been his family’s meal ticket (his father was an executive in the degrading opium trade between British India and China) may be represented as Oedipal by those critics who prefer such avenues of inquiry. But it was very thoroughgoing and, for its time, very advanced. It also coloured everything he subsequently wrote. Not only is it strongly present in one of his very first published articles — a review of the way in which British tariffs were underdeveloping Burma, written for the French paper Le Progrès Civique in 1929 — but it pervades his first real book, Down and Out in Paris and London, and it formed the sub-text of his first contribution to John Lehmann’s New Writing. Orwell may or may not have felt guilty about the source of his family’s income — an image that recurs in his famous portrait of England itself as a family with a conspiracy of silence about its finances — but he undoubtedly came to see the exploitation of the colonies as the dirty secret of the whole enlightened British establishment, both political and cultural. This insight also allowed him to notice certain elements in what Nietzsche had termed the ‘master–slave’ relationship; his fiction manifests a continual awareness of the awful pleasures and temptations of servility, and many of its most vivid scenes would have been inconceivable without it. Living as we do in the warm afterglow of post-colonialism, and in the complacent appreciation of postcolonial studies, we sometimes forget the debt we owe to this pioneering insistence.
By staying true to what he had won by way of his colonial experience, and to the way he had confirmed it by his sojourns among the empire’s internal helots (as one might picture the downtrodden and outcast in the Paris and London of the time), Orwell was in a stronger position to feel viscerally as well as intellectually about the modernist empires of Nazism and Stalinism. Among many other things, of which an educated sympathy for victims and especially racial victims was only one, he had grown sensitive to intellectual hypocrisy and was well-tuned to pick up the invariably creepy noises which it gives off. He was already an old India hand, in other words, when it came to detecting corrupt or euphemistic excuses for undeserved and unchecked power.
His polemics against fascism are, oddly enough, not among his best or best-remembered work. He seems to have taken it for granted that the ‘theories’ of Hitler and Mussolini and Franco were the distillation of everything that was most hateful and false in the society he already knew; a kind of satanic summa of military arrogance, racist solipsism, schoolyard bullying and capitalist greed. His one especial insight was to notice the frequent collusion of the Roman Catholic Church and of Catholic intellectuals with this saturnalia of wickedness and stupidity; he alludes to it again and again. As I write, the Church and its apologists are only beginning to make their belated amends for this period.
An early volunteer in Spain, Orwell appears to have thought it axiomatic that fascism would mean war (in both senses of the verb ‘to mean’) and that the battle should be joined (in both senses of that term) as early and decisively as possible. But it was while he was engaged on this front that he came to an understanding of Communism, and began the ten-year combat with its adherents which constitutes, for most people alive today, his intellectual and moral legacy. Without an understanding of his other motives and promptings, however, this legacy is decidedly incomplete.
The first thing to strike any student of Orwell’s work and Orwell’s life will be its independence. Having endured what is often called a ‘conventional’ English education (‘conventional’, presumably, because it applies to a microscopic percentage of the population), he did not make the traditional progress to a medieval university, and having chosen the alternative, the colonial service, he abruptly deserted it. From then on, he made his own living in his own way and never had to call any man master. He never enjoyed a stable income, and never had a completely reliable publishing outlet. Uncertain as to whether he was a novelist or not, he added to the richness of English fiction but learned to concentrate on the essay form. Thus, he faced the competing orthodoxies and despotisms of his day with little more than a battered typewriter and a stubborn personality.
The absorbing thing about his independence was that it had to be learned; acquired; won. The evidence of his upbringing and instincts is that he was a natural Tory and even something of a misanthrope. Conor Cruise O’Brien, himself a notable critic of Orwell, once wrote of Edmund Burke that his strength lay in his internal conflicts:
The contradictions in Burke’s position enrich his eloquence, extend its range, deepen its pathos, heighten its fantasy and make possible its strange appeal to ‘men of liberal-temper’. On this interpretation, part of the secret of his power to penetrate the processes of the [French] revolution derives from a suppressed sympathy with revolution, combined with an intuitive grasp of the subversive possibilities of counter-revolutionary propaganda, as affecting the established order in the land of his birth . . . for him the forces of revolution and counter-revolution exist not only in the world at large but also within himself.
With Orwell, something like the converse applies. He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the ‘coloured’ masses who teemed throughout the empire, his suspicion of Jews, his awkwardness with women and his anti-intellectualism. By teaching himself in theory and practice, some of the teaching being rather pedantic, he became a great humanist. Only one of his inherited prejudices — the shudder generated by homosexuality — appears to have resisted the process of self-mastery. And even that ‘perversion’ he often represented as a misfortune or deformity created by artificial or cruel conditions; his repugnance — when he remembered to make this false distinction — was for the ‘sin’ and not the ‘sinner’. (There are occasional hints that unhappy early experience in monastic British institutions may have had a part in this.)
Thus, the Orwell who is regarded by some as being as English as roast beef and warm beer is born in Bengal and publishes his first articles in French. The Orwell who always disliked the Scots and the cult of Scotland makes his home in the (admittedly unpopulated) Hebrides and is one of the few writers of his period to anticipate the potential force of Scottish nationalism. The young Orwell who used to fantasize about driving a bayonet into the guts of a Burmese priest becomes a champion of Burmese independence. The egalitarian and socialist sees simultaneously the fallacy of state-ownership and centralization. The hater of militarism becomes the advocate of a war of national survival. The fastidious and solitary public-schoolboy dosses down with tramps and tarts and forces himself to endure bedbugs and chamberpots and lockups. The extraordinary thing about this nostalgie de la boue is that it is undertaken with a humorous self-consciousness and without any tinge of religious abjection or mortification. The foe of jingoism and muscular Christianity is one of the finest writers about patriotic verse and the liturgical tradition.
This creative tension, coupled with a hard-won confidence in his own individual convictions, enabled Orwell to be uncommonly prescient not just about the ‘isms’ — imperialism, fascism, Stalinism — but about many of the themes and subjects that preoccupy us today. Rereading his collected works, and immersing myself in the vast new material collected by the exemplary labour of Professor Peter Davison, I found myself in the presence of a writer who is still vividly contemporary. Some instances include:
his work on ‘the English question’, as well as the related matters of regional nationalism and European integration;
his views on the importance of language, which anticipated much of what we now debate under the rubric of psychobabble, bureaucratic speech, and ‘political correctness’;
his interest in demotic or popular culture, and in what now passes for ‘cultural studies’;
his fascination with the problem of objective or verifiable truth — a central problem in the discourse now offered us by post-modern theorists;
his influence on later fiction, including the so-called ‘Angry Young Man’ novel;
his concern with the natural environment and what is now considered as ‘green’ or ‘ecological’;
his acute awareness of the dangers of ‘nuclearism’ and the nuclear state.
This list is a partial one. There is one outstanding lacuna: his relative indifference to the importance of the United States as an emerging dominant culture. Yet even here, he was able to register some interesting insights and forecasts, and his work found an immediate audience among those American writers and critics who valued English prose and political honesty.* Prominent among these was Lionel Trilling, who made two observations of great acuity about him. The first was to say that he — Orwell — was a modest man because in many ways he had much to be modest about:
If we ask what it is he stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do . . . He is not a genius — what a relief! What an encouragement. For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done, any one of us could do.
This perception is of the first importance, also, in explaining the sheer hatred of Orwell that is still to be found in some quarters. By living and writing as he did, he discredited the excuse of ‘historical context’ and the shady alibi that there was, in the circumstances, nothing else that people could have done. In turn, this licenses Professor Trilling’s next point, most beautifully stated, where he speculates on the nature of personal integrity:
Orwell clung with a kind of wry, grim pride to the old ways of the last class that had ruled the old order. He must sometimes have wondered how it came about that he should be praising sportsmanship and gentlemanliness and dutifulness and physical courage. He seems to have thought, and very likely he was right, that they might come in handy as revolutionary virtues . . .
‘Facing it —’ as Captain MacWhirr says so memorably in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Typhoon’, ‘always facing it — that’s the way to get through.’
‘I knew,’ said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, ‘that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’ Not the ability to face them, you notice, but ‘a power of facing’. It’s oddly well put. A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact. So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’. The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’. Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoubling of efforts to overcome the obvious. The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.
Though he popularized and dramatized the concept of the all-powerful telescreen, and worked for some years in the radio section of the BBC, Orwell died early and impoverished before the age of austerity gave way to the age of celebrity and mass media. We have no real record of what he sounded like, or of how he would have ‘come across’ on a TV chat show. Probably this is just as well. His photographs show someone lean but humorous, proud but by no means vain. And yes, as a matter of fact, we do have his voice, and don’t seem to have reached a stage where we can say we no longer need it. As for his ‘moral genius’ — Robert Conquest’s phrase, in accidental opposition to Trilling — this may or may not be found in the details.
* It still does. In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, when a number of intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals affected a sort of neutrality between the victims of New York and Pennsylvania and Washington and the theocratic fascists of Al Quaeda and the Taliban, a large e-mail circulation was given to this extract from Orwell’s May 1945 essay, Notes on Nationalism:
The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States . . .
Orwell and Empire
- "Not only a fine defense of Orwell's politics, but also the most stimulating introduction available to almost every other aspect of his work."—The Sunday Telegraph (London)
- On Sale
- Aug 6, 2008
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Basic Books