* June 25, 1903 Motihari - India
+ January 21, 1950 London - GB
GEORGE ORWELL (1903-1950)
"Only by resurrecting our own memories can we realise how incredibly distorted is the child's vision of the world."
St Cyprian's and Eton
Police Officer, Indian Imperial Police, Burma (1921-28); schoolteacher (1932); assistant, London bookshop (1933); volunteer in Spanish Civil War (1936); Home Guard during WWII; BBC Eastern Service correspondent (1940-43); Tribune literary editor (1943-45); war correspondent, the Observer.
Did you know?
Orwell was recently revealed as a government informant whose list of 'crypto-communists' had been kept secret for almost half a century.
A towering figure from the days when the boundaries between journalists and writers weren't so clearly defined, Orwell's 1984 is the ultimate vision of totalitarian oppression (he later said the book probably wouldn't have been so grim if he hadn't felt so ill at the time). He elevated political writing into an art: his impassioned documentary of unemployment in northern England (The Road To Wigan Pier) and his examination of poverty (Down And Out In Paris And London) marked him down as the premier social commentator of the age. In contrast, dull suburban existence was beautifully drawn in Keep The Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air. With the political satires Animal Farm and 1984, Orwell's reputation was cast in stone. "He was a man," wrote Cyril Connolly, "whose personality shines out in everything he said or wrote.
Down and Out In Paris and London (1933), The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), Homage To Catalonia (1938), Animal Farm (1945), 1984 (1949)
Swift, Tolstoy, Zola
Now read on
Anthony Burgess (his 1985 offers a post-Orwellian dystopia and a critical reading of Orwell's novel which finds 1984 in 1948), Cyril Connolly, Aldous Huxley and Albert Camus.
1984 (dir Michael Radford, 1984); Keep The Aspidistra Flying (aka The Merry War, dir Robert Bierman, 1997). There's also a heartbreaking cartoon version of Animal Farm.
Orwell requested in his will that no biography be written; Stephen Ingle ignored the master for his provocative George Orwell: A Political Life.
On the Guardian:
30 Jun 2000 :
How Big Brothers used Orwell to fight the cold war
A 79-page FBI dossier released on George Orwell reveals how the British author of Animal Farm and 1984 was used by both the Americans and the Russians as a key figure in the battle for ideas for two decades after his death in 1950.
24 Jun 2000 :
Shadows of Orwell
When Luke Harding heard that George Orwell's birthplace had been turned into a cowshed, he travelled to one of India's poorest towns to see for himself
15 Jan 2000 :
Last days of Orwell
Fifty years ago, the creator of 1984 and Animal Farm was fatally ill but also newly wed, at the peak of his fame, and bursting with book ideas. DJ Taylor reconstructs the author's final weeks.
23 Aug 1998: Signed
Review: The Complete Works of George Orwell, Edited by Peter Davison
10 Apr 1986 :
An instinct for the future
Review of George Orwell. The Age's Adversary, by Patrick Reilly
10 Jun 1949 :
Though all "thinking people," as they are still sometimes called, must by now have more than a vague idea of the dangers which mankind runs from modern techniques, George Orwell, like Aldous Huxley, feels that the more precise we are in our apprehensions the better. Nineteen Eighty-Four speaks of the psychological breaking-in process to which an up-to-date dictatorship can subject non-cooperators.
24 Aug 1945 :
Books of the day
Mr. George Orwell's Animal Farm, described as a fairy story, is a delightfully humorous and caustic satire on the rule of the many by the few. On the Manor Farm the animals, led by two wise pigs, revolt against the dictatorship of Mr. Jones, turn him out, and proceed to run the place themselves for the sole benefit of the animal community
8 Apr 1945 :
Future of a ruined
As the advance into Germany continues and more and more of the devastation wrought by the Allied bombing planes is laid bare, there are three comments that almost every observer finds himself making. The first is: 'The people at home have no conception of this.' The second is, 'It's a miracle that they've gone on fighting.' And the third is, 'Just think of the work of building this all up again!'
Orwell is revealed in role of
By Tom Utley
12 July 1996
AN icy blast from the Cold War blew through the Left-wing Establishment yesterday when it was revealed that George Orwell, one of the great heroes of twentieth-century Socialism, had secretly co-operated with the Foreign Office in its propaganda battle against Communism.
Documents released by the Public Record Office showed that in 1949 Orwell volunteered to provide the FO's covert Information Research Department (IRD) with a blacklist of writers and journalists whom he regarded as crypto-Communists and fellow travellers. The revelation has reopened old divisions on the Left, to whom Orwell has always posed an awkward problem: should they hero-worship him for his brilliantly lucid Socialist writings, or attack him for the fervent anti-Communism of his later years, exemplified by his masterpiece, Animal Farm?
The news of the writer's co-operation with the IRD was greeted by Left-wingers with varying degrees of surprise. To some, it was as if Winston Smith had willingly co-operated with the Thought Police in 1984. Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour Party and a friend of Orwell's in the 1930s and 1940s, was "amazed" by the revelation.To Richard Gott, who resigned as literary editor of the Guardian in 1994 after admitting that he had accepted travel expenses from the KGB, it came as only a "small surprise".
But to Orwell's biographer, Bernard Crick, it was no surprise at all. He said that the novelist's notebook, containing 86 names of writers he thought sympathetic to Communism, had been lying in the Orwell archive for at least 20 years. Some of the names in it, he said, were written in the hand of Arthur Koestler, who also co-operated with the IRD in producing anti-Communist propaganda.
Professor Crick firmly supported his subject's offer to help the IRD in the days of the post-war Labour Government. "He did it because he thought the Communist Party was a totalitarian menace," he said. "He wasn't denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for a counter-intelligence operation. "I'm afraid there are some on the Left who still think he went too far. God knows, it's a strange mentality."
Professor Crick said it had to be remembered that in the late 1940s Orwell's friends and acquaintances were returning to eastern Europe - some of them to face death at the hands of Communist regimes. "You have to remember that these were fairly serious days," he said. "I would like to ask Michael [Foot] what the hell he would do if he had been faced with Communism."
The documents show that the IRD approached Orwell in March 1949 at a sanatorium in Cranham, Gloucs, where the novelist was suffering from the tuberculosis of which he died the following year. Mr Foot said he found the letter "amazing". "There's a lot of argument about him deserting his socialism at the end of his life," he said. "I don't think that's true but I am very surprised that he was dealing with the secret service in any form."
animals are traced back to their farm
By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor
22 May 1999
THE setting for George Orwell's Animal Farm has been identified by a historian researching the author's links with a Hertfordshire village.
It was reported this week that a farm in East Sussex was claiming to be the likely model for the satire on the Russian revolution, which has recently been made into a film using "animatronic" technology. But Brian Edwards believes that he has established the credentials of Bury Farm, in Wallington, where the author lived with his wife, Eileen, before the Second World War.
Residents had assumed that Orwell - who ran the village shop - used local settings, but most saw Manor Farm, to which Orwell's shop was tied, as his model for Animal Farm. In the book, the farm is called Manor Farm before the animals stage a take-over, deposing the brutal farmer Jones and setting up an egalitarian system soon corrupted. However, Mr Edwards, who is taking a doctorate at West of England University, said that of all the properties in the village, Manor Farm is the one whose topography and lay-out is least like that described in the novel. Bury Farm is the closest and would have been accessible by footpath to Orwell in the 1930s.
His research has been backed by Prof Peter Davison, senior research fellow at De Montfort University, and an authority on Orwell, who edited the 20-volume collected works published last year. He said: "It has always been thought that Animal Farm owed nothing to real life settings. I had never thought of it in that context. Even 1984 is thought to have been loosely based on his experience at the BBC and if all his other books have links to episodes in his life, then why not Animal Farm? It does seem to me to make sense."
Telegraph 4 January 2000
inspired by Orwell's wife?
By Peter Foster
ONE of English literature's most enduring riddles has taken a fresh twist with the rediscovery of a poem written almost 65 years ago by George Orwell's first wife.
Ever since Orwell's bleak picture of a post-war totalitarian state was published in 1949, scholars and lay readers alike have argued over why he chose the year Nineteen Eighty-Four for its title. Suggestions have ranged from the attractively simple, for example, the reversal of the last two digits of 1948, the year Orwell completed the book, to obscure literary references and inventive calculations by numerologists.
But the real reason may be contained in a poem entitled End of the Century 1984 written by Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, who died in 1944. It was composed in 1934, 15 years before the novel appeared, and was recently rediscovered by The Times Literary Supplement. The poem was written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sunderland Church High School where O'Shaughnessy had been a pupil in the 1920s. It looks back over the last 50 years and forward to the school's centenary in 1984.
Although written before Orwell and O'Shaughnessy met, scholars have identified striking similarities between images in the poem and Orwell's own vision of the future in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Peter Davison, the editor of the definitive complete works of Orwell, sees a possible forerunner of Orwell's Big Brother in the line describing scholars tuning thoughts to "Telepathic Station 9/From which they know just what they ought". Similarly, O'Shaughnessy's vision of a world of "mental cremation" where "Shakespeare's bones are quiet at last" is echoed in Orwell's vision of personal freedom eradicated by Thought Police and pornographic media.
Michael Shelden, author of Orwell: the Authorised Biography and professor of English literature at Indiana State University, believes that Orwell might have been paying hidden tribute to his late wife when he chose the title of his novel. "Scholars are agreed that Eileen had a great influence on Orwell, particularly when he was writing Animal Farm, and she is often credited with giving Orwell's work a fresh sense of humour at this time.
"Of all the writers in his generation, Orwell was probably blessed with the most intelligent wife and I can see them discussing this poem and it sticking in Orwell's mind. The book was originally called The Last Man in Europe but Orwell changed it at the request of his publisher in America. Perhaps this was his way of paying a silent tribute to Eileen after her death for all the help she provided with Animal Farm."
Prof Davison, who is now working on the second edition of Orwell's complete works, said the discovery would not alter his own theories about the inspiration for the title of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He said: "It would not surprise me at all if Orwell recalled Eileen's poem, although there is no evidence to prove it either way. Few people realise that in the earliest manuscript Orwell set the book in 1980 but moved the dates, first to 1982 and then, finally, to 1984."
Prof Davison's own complex theories revolve around Orwell's age when the Second World War broke out in 1939 - he was 36 - and believes he was looking forward to a nominal date for the start of a third world war. "I believe that when he started the final draft he was looking forward to the time when his son Richard would also be 36, that date being the original starting point for the novel, 1980. But perhaps we could imagine Orwell packing up his finished manuscript on the island of Jura ready for the publisher and stumbling across an old copy of the magazine and saying, 'My God, let's call it 1984'. It's a nice thought, at least."
Bernard Crick, Orwell's other major biographer, was much less convinced that the poem offered any fresh clues as to why Orwell picked on the year 1984. He is familiar with most theories on Orwell's inspiration, however obscure. They include references to 1984 in chapter 21 of Jack London's 1907 novel The Iron Heel, while in a 1976 edition of the Journal of Peasant Studies, the author, one R E F Smith, argues that Orwell borrowed the title from a story by a Russian called Chayanov.
Mr Crick said: "I don't think Mr Smith's argument would have got him through the doors of even the most rudimentary police court and I am no more convinced by this poem. It seems to me this is pure coincidence. Orwell always remained enigmatic about the reasons behind titles. Unfortunately I am a great believer in common sense and the one I go for is the simplest, the reversing of the date in 1948."
The road to
George Orwell's final novel was seen as an anticommunist tract and many have claimed its grim vision of state control proved prophetic. But, argues Thomas Pynchon, Orwell - whose centenary is marked this year - had other targets in his sights and drew an unexpectedly optimistic conclusion
Saturday May 3, 2003
George Orwell's last book, 1984 , has in a way been a victim of the success of Animal Farm, which most people were content to read as a straightforward allegory about the melancholy fate of the Russian revolution. From the minute Big Brother's moustache makes its appearance in the second paragraph of 1984 , many readers, thinking right away of Stalin, have tended to carry over the habit of point-for-point analogy from the earlier work. Although Big Brother's face certainly is Stalin's, just as the despised party heretic Emmanuel Goldstein's face is Trotsky's, the two do not quite line up with their models as neatly as Napoleon and Snowball did in Animal Farm . This did not keep the book from being marketed in the US as a sort of anticommunist tract. Published in 1949, it arrived in the McCarthy era, when "Communism" was damned officially as a monolithic, worldwide menace, and there was no point in even distinguishing between Stalin and Trotsky, any more than for shepherds to be instructing sheep in the nuances of wolf recognition.
The Korean conflict (1950-53) would also soon highlight the alleged Communist practice of ideological enforcement through "brainwashing", a set of techniques said to be based on the work of I P Pavlov, who had once trained dogs to salivate on cue. That something very much like brainwashing happens in 1984 , in lengthy and terrifying detail, to its hero, Winston Smith, did not surprise those readers determined to take the novel as a simple condemnation of Stalinist atrocity.
This was not exactly Orwell's intention. Though 1984 has brought aid and comfort to generations of anticommunist ideologues with Pavlovian-response issues of their own, Orwell's politics were not only of the left, but to the left of left. He had gone to Spain in 1937 to fight against Franco and his Nazi-supported fascists, and there had quickly learned the difference between real and phony antifascism. "The Spanish war and other events in 1936-7," he wrote 10 years later, "turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I know it."
Orwell thought of himself as a member of the "dissident left," as distinguished from the "official left," meaning basically the British Labour party, most of which he had come, well before the second world war, to regard as potentially, if not already, fascist. More or less consciously, he found an analogy between British Labour and the Communist Party under Stalin - both, he felt, were movements professing to fight for the working classes against capitalism, but in reality concerned only with establishing and perpetuating their own power. The masses were only there to be used for their idealism, their class resentments, their willingness to work cheap and to be sold out, again and again.
Now, those of fascistic disposition - or merely those among us who remain all too ready to justify any government action, whether right or wrong - will immediately point out that this is prewar thinking, and that the moment enemy bombs begin to fall on one's homeland, altering the landscape and producing casualties among friends and neighbours, all this sort of thing, really, becomes irrelevant, if not indeed subversive. With the homeland in danger, strong leadership and effective measures become of the essence, and if you want to call that fascism, very well, call it whatever you please, no one is likely to be listening, unless it's for the air raids to be over and the all clear to sound. But the unseemliness of an argument - let alone a prophecy - in the heat of some later emergency, does not necessarily make it wrong. One could certainly argue that Churchill's war cabinet had behaved on occasion no differently from a fascist regime, censoring news, controlling wages and prices, restricting travel, subordinating civil liberties to self-defined wartime necessity.
What is clear from his letters and articles at the time he was working on 1984 is Orwell's despair over the postwar state of "socialism." What in Keir Hardie's time had been an honourable struggle against the incontrovertibly criminal behaviour of capitalism toward those whom it used for profit had become, by Orwell's time, shamefully institutional, bought and sold, in too many instances concerned only with maintaining itself in power.
Orwell seems to have been particularly annoyed with the widespread allegiance to Stalinism to be observed among the Left, in the face of overwhelming evidence of the evil nature of the regime. "For somewhat complex reasons," he wrote in March of 1948, early in the revision of the first draft of 1984 , "nearly the whole of the English left has been driven to accept the Russian regime as 'Socialist,' while silently recognising that its spirit and practice are quite alien to anything that is meant by 'Socialism' in this country. Hence there has arisen a sort of schizophrenic manner of thinking, in which words like 'democracy' can bear two irreconcilable meanings, and such things as concentration camps and mass deportations can be right and wrong simultaneously."
We recognise this "sort of schizophrenic manner of thinking" as a source for one of the great achievements of this novel, one which has entered the everyday language of political discourse - the identification and analysis of doublethink. As described in Emmanuel Goldstein's The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism , a dangerously subversive text outlawed in Oceania and known only as the book , doublethink is a form of mental discipline whose goal, desirable and necessary to all party members, is to be able to believe two contradictory truths at the same time. This is nothing new, of course. We all do it. In social psychology it has long been known as "cognitive dissonance." Others like to call it "compartmentalisation." Some, famously F Scott Fitzgerald, have considered it evidence of genius. For Walt Whitman ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself") it was being large and containing multitudes, for American aphorist Yogi Berra it was coming to a fork in the road and taking it, for Schrödinger's cat, it was the quantum paradox of being alive and dead at the same time.
The idea seems to have presented Orwell with his own dilemma, a kind of meta-doublethink - repelling him with its limitless potential for harm, while at the same time fascinating him with its promise of a way to transcend opposites - as if some aberrant form of Zen Buddhism, whose fundamental koans are the three party slogans, "War is Peace", "Freedom is Slavery" and "Ignorance is Strength", were being applied to evil purposes.
The consummate embodiment of doublethink in this novel is the Inner Party official O'Brien, Winston's seducer and betrayer, protector and destroyer. He believes with utter sincerity in the regime he serves, and yet can impersonate perfectly a devout revolutionary committed to its overthrow. He imagines himself a mere cell of the greater organism of the state, but it is his individuality, compelling and self-contradicting, that we remember. Although a calmly eloquent spokesman for the totalitarian future, O'Brien gradually reveals an unbalanced side, a disengagement from reality that will emerge in its full unpleasantness during the re-education of Winston Smith, in the place of pain and despair known as the Ministry of Love.
Doublethink also lies behind the names of the superministries which run things in Oceania - the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth tells lies, the Ministry of Love tortures and eventually kills anybody whom it deems a threat. If this seems unreasonably perverse, recall that in the present-day United States, few have any problem with a war-making apparatus named "the department of defence," any more than we have saying "department of justice" with a straight face, despite well-documented abuses of human and constitutional rights by its most formidable arm, the FBI. Our nominally free news media are required to present "balanced" coverage, in which every "truth" is immediately neutered by an equal and opposite one. Every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed "spin," as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round. We know better than what they tell us, yet hope otherwise. We believe and doubt at the same time - it seems a condition of political thought in a modern superstate to be permanently of at least two minds on most issues. Needless to say, this is of inestimable use to those in power who wish to remain there, preferably forever.
Besides the ambivalence within the left as to Soviet realities, other opportunities for doublethink in action arose in the wake of the second world war. In its moment of euphoria, the winning side was making, in Orwell's view, mistakes as fatal as any made by the Treaty of Versailles after the first world war. Despite the most honourable intentions, in practice the division of spoils among the former allies carried the potential for fatal mischief. Orwell's uneasiness over the "peace" in fact is one major subtext of 1984 .
"What it is really meant to do," Orwell wrote to his publisher at the end of 1948 - as nearly as we can tell early in the revision phase of the novel - "is to discuss the implications of dividing the world up into 'Zones of Influence' (I thought of it in 1944 as a result of the Tehran conference) . . ."
Well of course novelists should not be altogether trusted as to the sources of their inspiration. But the imaginative procedure bears looking at. The Tehran conference was the first allied summit meeting of the second world war, taking place late in 1943, with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in attendance. Among the topics they discussed was how, once Nazi Germany was defeated, the allies would divide it up into zones of occupation. Who would get how much of Poland was another issue. In imagining Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, Orwell seems to have made a leap in scale from the Tehran talks, projecting the occupation of a defeated country into that of a defeated world.
This grouping of Britain and the United States into a single bloc, as prophecy, has turned out to be dead-on, foreseeing Britain's resistance to integration with the Eurasian landmass as well as her continuing subservience to Yank interests - dollars, for instance, being the monetary unit of Oceania. London is still recognisably the London of the postwar austerity period. From the opening, with its cold plunge directly into the grim April day of Winston Smith's decisive act of disobedience, the textures of dystopian life are unremitting - the uncooperative plumbing, the cigarettes that keep losing their tobacco, the horrible food - though perhaps this was not such an imaginative stretch for anyone who'd had to undergo wartime shortages.
Prophecy and prediction are not quite the same, and it would ill serve writer and reader alike to confuse them in Orwell's case. There is a game some critics like to play in which one makes lists of what Orwell did and didn't "get right". Looking around us at the present moment in the US, for example, we note the popularity of helicopters as a resource of "law enforcement," familiar to us from countless televised "crime dramas," themselves forms of social control - and for that matter at the ubiquity of television itself. The two-way telescreen bears a close enough resemblance to flat plasma screens linked to "interactive" cable systems, circa 2003. News is whatever the government says it is, surveillance of ordinary citizens has entered the mainstream of police activity, reasonable search and seizure is a joke. And so forth. "Wow, the government has turned into Big Brother, just like Orwell predicted! Something, huh?" "Orwellian, dude!"
Well, yes and no. Specific predictions are only details, after all. What is perhaps more important, indeed necessary, to a working prophet, is to be able to see deeper than most of us into the human soul. Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not yet even come into its own - the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the Third Reich and Stalin's USSR, even the British Labour party - like first drafts of a terrible future. What could prevent the same thing from happening to Britain and the United States? Moral superiority? Good intentions? Clean living?
What has steadily, insidiously improved since then, of course, making humanist arguments almost irrelevant, is the technology. We must not be too distracted by the clunkiness of the means of surveillance current in Winston Smith's era. In "our" 1984, after all, the integrated circuit chip was less than a decade old, and almost embarrassingly primitive next to the wonders of computer technology circa 2003, most notably the internet, a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about.
On the other hand, Orwell did not foresee such exotic developments as the religious wars with which we have become all too familiar, involving various sorts of fundamentalism. Religious fanaticism is in fact strangely absent from Oceania, except in the form of devotion to the party. Big Brother's regime exhibits all the ele ments of fascism - the single charismatic dictator, the total control of behaviour, the absolute subordination of the individual to the collective - except for racial hostility, in particular anti-Semitism, which was such a prominent feature of fascism as Orwell knew it. This is bound to strike the modern reader as puzzling. The only Jewish character in the novel is Emmanuel Goldstein, and maybe only because his original, Leon Trotsky, was Jewish too. And he remains an offstage presence whose real function in 1984 is to provide an expository voice, as the author of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism .
Much has been made recently of Orwell's own attitude towards Jews, some commentators even going so far as to call it anti-Semitic. If one looks in his writing of the time for overt references to the topic, one finds relatively little - Jewish matters did not seem to command much of his attention. What published evidence there is indicates either a sort of numbness before the enormity of what had happened in the camps or a failure at some level to appreciate its full significance. There is some felt reticence, as if, with so many other deep issues to worry about, Orwell would have preferred that the world not be presented with the added inconvenience of having to think much about the Holocaust. The novel may even have been his way of redefining a world in which the Holocaust did not happen.
As close as 1984 gets to an anti-Semitic moment is in the ritual practice of Two Minutes Hate, presented quite early, almost as a plot device for introducing the characters Julia and O'Brien. But the exhibition of anti-Goldsteinism described here with such toxic immediacy is never generalised into anything racial. "Nor is there any racial discrimination," as Emmanuel Goldstein himself confirms, in the book - "Jews, Negroes, South Americans of pure Indian blood are to be found in the highest ranks of the Party . . ." As nearly as one can tell, Orwell considered anti-Semitism "one variant of the great modern disease of nationalism", and British anti-Semitism in particular as another form of British stupidity. He may have believed that by the time of the tripartite coalescence of the world he imagined for 1984 , the European nationalisms he was used to would somehow no longer exist, perhaps because nations, and hence nationalities, would have been abolished and absorbed into more collective identities. Amid the novel's general pessimism, this might strike us, knowing what we know today, as an unwarrantedly chirpy analysis. The hatreds Orwell never found much worse than ridiculous have determined too much history since 1945 to be dismissed quite so easily.
In a New Statesman review from 1938 of a John Galsworthy novel, Orwell commented, almost in passing, "Galsworthy was a bad writer, and some inner trouble, sharpening his sensitiveness, nearly made him into a good one; his discontent healed itself, and he reverted to type. It is worth pausing to wonder in just what form the thing is happening to oneself."
Orwell was amused at those of his colleagues on the left who lived in terror of being termed bourgeois. But somewhere among his own terrors may have lurked the possibility that, like Galsworthy, he might one day lose his political anger, and end up as one more apologist for Things As They Are. His anger, let us go so far as to say, was precious to him. He had lived his way into it - in Burma and Paris and London and on the road to Wigan pier, and in Spain, being shot at, and eventually wounded, by fascists - he had invested blood, pain and hard labour to earn his anger, and was as attached to it as any capitalist to his capital. It may be an affliction peculiar to writers more than others, this fear of getting too comfortable, of being bought off. When one writes for a living, it is certainly one of the risks, though not one every writer objects to. The ability of the ruling element to co-opt dissent was ever present as a danger - actually not unlike the process by which the Party in 1984 is able perpetually to renew itself from below.
Orwell, having lived among the working and unemployed poor of the 1930s depression, and learned in the course of it their true imperishable worth, bestowed on Winston Smith a similar faith in their 1984 counterparts the proles, as the only hope for deliverance from the dystopian hell of Oceania. In the most beautiful moment of the novel - beauty as Rilke defined it, the onset of terror just able to be borne - Winston and Julia, thinking they are safe, regard from their window the woman in the courtyard singing, and Winston gazing into the sky experiences an almost mystical vision of the millions living beneath it, "people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world. If there was hope, it lay in the proles!" It is the moment just before he and Julia are arrested, and the cold, terrible climax of the book commences.
Before the war, Orwell had his moments of contempt for graphic scenes of violence in fiction, particularly the American hard-boiled crime fiction available in pulp magazines. In 1936, in a review of a detective novel, he quotes a passage describing a brutal and methodical beating, which uncannily foreshadows Winston Smith's experiences inside the Ministry of Love. What has happened? Spain and the second world war, it would seem. What was "disgusting rubbish" back in a more insulated time has become, by the postwar era, part of the vernacular of political education, and by 1984 in Oceania it will be institutionalised. Yet Orwell cannot, like the average pulp writer, enjoy the luxury of unreflectively insulting the flesh and spirit of any character. The writing is at places difficult to stay with, as if Orwell himself is feeling every moment of Winston's ordeal.
The interests of the regime in Oceania lie in the exercise of power for its own sake, in its unrelenting war on memory, desire, and language as a vehicle of thought. Memory is relatively easy to deal with, from the totalitarian point of view. There is always some agency like the Ministry of Truth to deny the memories of others, to rewrite the past. It has become a commonplace, circa 2003, for government employees to be paid more than most of the rest of us to debase history, trivialise truth and annihilate the past on a daily basis. Those who don't learn from history used to have to relive it, but only until those in power could find a way to convince everybody, including themselves, that history never happened, or happened in a way best serving their own purposes - or best of all that it doesn't matter anyway, except as some dumbed-down TV documentary cobbled together for an hour's entertainment.
By the time they have left the Ministry of Love, Winston and Julia have entered permanently the condition of doublethink, the anterooms of annihilation, no longer in love but able to hate and love Big Brother at the same time. It is as dark an ending as can be imagined. But strangely, it is not quite the end. We turn the page to find appended what seems to be some kind of critical essay, "The Principles of Newspeak". We remember that at the beginning, we were given the option, by way of a footnote, to turn to the back of the book and read it. Some readers do this, and some don't - we might see it nowadays as an early example of hypertext. Back in 1948, this final section apparently bothered the American Book-of-the-Month Club enough for them to demand that it be cut, along with the chapters quoted from Emmanuel Goldstein's book, as a condition of acceptance by the club. Though he stood to lose at least £40,000 in American sales, Orwell refused to make the changes, telling his agent, "A book is built up as a balanced structure and one cannot simply remove large chunks here and there unless one is ready to recast the whole thing . . . I really cannot allow my work to be mucked about beyond a certain point, and I doubt whether it even pays in the long run." Three weeks later the BOMC relented, but the question remains, why end a novel as passionate, violent and dark as this one with what appears to be a scholarly appendix?
The answer may lie in simple grammar. From its first sentence, "The Principles of Newspeak" is written consistently in the past tense, as if to suggest some later piece of history, post-1984, in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past - as if in some way the anonymous author of this piece is by now free to discuss, critically and objectively, the political system of which Newspeak was, in its time, the essence. Moreover, it is our own pre-Newspeak English language that is being used to write the essay. Newspeak was supposed to have become general by 2050, and yet it appears that it did not last that long, let alone triumph, that the ancient humanistic ways of thinking inherent in standard English have persisted, survived, and ultimately prevailed, and that perhaps the social and moral order it speaks for has even, somehow, been restored.
In a 1946 article on The Managerial Revolution , an analysis of the world crisis by the American ex-Trotskyist James Burnham, Orwell wrote, "The huge, invincible, everlasting slave empire of which Burnham appears to dream will not be established, or if established, will not endure, because slavery is no longer a stable basis for human society." In its hints of restoration and redemption, perhaps "The Principles of Newspeak" serves as a way to brighten an otherwise bleakly pessimistic ending - sending us back out into the streets of our own dystopia whistling a slightly happier tune than the end of the story by itself would have warranted.
There is a photograph, taken around 1946 in Islington, of Orwell with his adopted son, Richard Horatio Blair. The little boy, who would have been around two at the time, is beaming, with unguarded delight. Orwell is holding him gently with both hands, smiling too, pleased, but not smugly so - it is more complex than that, as if he has discovered something that might be worth even more than anger - his head tilted a bit, his eyes with a careful look that might remind filmgoers of a Robert Duvall character with a backstory in which he has seen more than one perhaps would have preferred to. Winston Smith "believed that he had been born in 1944 or 1945 . . ." Richard Blair was born May 14, 1944. It is not difficult to guess that Orwell, in 1984 , was imagining a future for his son's generation, a world he was not so much wishing upon them as warning against. He was impatient with predictions of the inevitable, he remained confident in the ability of ordinary people to change anything, if they would. It is the boy's smile, in any case, that we return to, direct and radiant, proceeding out of an unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted - a faith so honourable that we can almost imagine Orwell, and perhaps even ourselves, for a moment anyway, swearing to do whatever must be done to keep it from ever being betrayed.
Thomas Pynchon 2003
This is an edited extracted from Thomas Pynchon's introduction to the new Plume (Penguin US) edition of George Orwell's 1984, published next week. It will be published in the UK by Penguin later this year.
Pynchon brings added currency to 'Nineteen
David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic
Saturday, May 3, 2003
By George Orwell; foreword by Thomas Pynchon
PLUME; 339 PAGES; $14 PAPERBACK
Superlatives may get people's attention, but they don't do much to reward it. So if one were to hazard, for example, that novelist Thomas Pynchon's foreword to the new Plume edition of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" just happens to be the finest, deepest, sanest new 20 pages around, the case might yet remain something shy of closed. In the wake of such praise, good questions for a skeptic to ask might include "Compared to what?" "Says who?" and, hardest of all to nail down, "Why?"
Answers to the first two boil down to "You name it" and "Who do you think?" But trying to explain why a piece of writing wipes the floor with just about anything else published this year is, necessarily, trickier. Pynchon's foreword expertly re-creates the atmosphere surrounding the composition and reception of "Nineteen Eighty-Four," but any gifted literary historian might have managed that. He articulates an unsentimental humanism relevant to developing events, but an uncommonly perceptive political essayist might have done the same. Where Pynchon doesn't just outpace but laps the rest of the field is in his incomparably supple style.
Modulating down the ages from the 18th century baroque of "Mason & Dixon" to the 1940s bebop of "Gravity's Rainbow" to "Vineland's" breathless Deadhead riffs, Pynchon's underlying verbal music stays ever recognizable, unique as a great reed player's embouchure. For the "Nineteen Eighty-Four" intro, Pynchon returns to his signature nonfiction voice: postdoctoral yet cheerfully sophomoric, sad yet undespairing, as expressive in its alternation of long notes with short as an SOS. It's an instrument tuned and retuned in more than 40 years of occasional essays, reviews and liner notes -- forming, incidentally, one of the great uncollected anthologies in American letters. Here's a snatch of the "Nineteen Eighty-Four" introduction, picked less for its considerable power than for the way Pynchon, four of whose six books are historical novels, relates Orwell's anxious age to our own:
"Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not yet even come into its own -- the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power, were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the Third Reich and Stalin's U.S.S.R., even the British Labour party -- like first drafts of a terrible future. What could prevent the same thing from happening to Britain and the United States? Moral superiority? Good intentions? Clean living?"
This isn't quite Pynchon at his best. In a sentence that begins in 1948, does Hitler really belong on a list of fascist regimes "long in place"? And do those two dashes signal interruption and resumption, or merely consecutive interruptions? Always a question. But the passage swings like crazy, and it introduces the familiar Pynchon theme that may, together with his love of individual liberty and his wariness of transnational corporations, speak most urgently to our time. It's what he calls here "the will to fascism," the eternal willingness of Orwell's proles and Pynchon's beloved, sheepish schlemihls to scoot over and leave the driving to Daddy.
Fascism's hypnotic fascination also crops up in Pynchon's great California novel "Vineland," whose heroine Frenesi's social conscience is forever at war with her weakness for men in uniform -- her literal love for Big Brother. Some bushy-tailed editor at Plume must have known "Vineland" awfully well to hope they could solicit Pynchon's intro and get a yes, as that novel represents about the only place in Pynchon's entire back catalog where he even hints at his debt to Orwell.
Pynchon set "Vineland" in the year 1984, but that isn't the half of it. He also used such Orwellian imagery as a nightmare television that announces, "From now on, I'm watching you," and a series of regular roadside busts whose eyes follow anyone driving by -- recalling the Big Brother posters in the stairwell on the first page of "Nineteen Eighty-Four." More than any incidental and possibly unconscious allusions, though, what links Pynchon with Orwell is the quality of being what Orwell called, in his 1939 essay on Dickens, "generously angry." (By the way, Michael Krasny's "Forum" book club 'takes up "Vineland" at 10 a.m. May 26 on KQED.)
But the idea behind the Plume introduction was presumably for Pynchon to illuminate Orwell, not the other way around. Luckily, it works both ways. Pynchon has taken a book few Americans get out of high school without at least pretending to have understood and found something genuinely fresh in it. For instance, maybe most importantly, Pynchon's essay uses "Nineteen Eighty- Four's" almost always skipped Appendix, "The Principles of Newspeak," to reverse-engineer a crack of daylight into Orwell's hitherto unforgiving midnight of an ending.
Pynchon maintains that, "from its first sentence, 'The Principles of Newspeak' is written consistently in the past tense, as if to suggest some later piece of history, post-1984, in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past. . . . In its hints of restoration and redemption, perhaps 'The Principles of Newspeak' serves as a way to brighten an otherwise bleakly pessimistic ending -- sending us back out into the streets of our own dystopia whistling a slightly happier tune than the end of the story by itself would have warranted." According to Pynchon's secondary research, Orwell risked 40, 000 British pounds to keep this supposedly vestigial appendix, which the Book- of-the-Month Club found anti-climactic, right where it was -- and is.
Thanks to Pynchon's close reading of other Orwelliana, and of Michael Shelden's 1991 authorized biography -- an interesting if unsurprising choice, considering the famously private Pynchon's dubiousness about unauthorized digging -- this new introduction to "Nineteen Eighty-Four" ultimately lets readers eavesdrop on some glorious, death-defying shoptalk between two of the 20th century's greatest writers. Once in a great while, only superlatives will do.
E-mail David Kipen at email@example.com.
the Observer years
George Orwell's books defined his times, and his journalism for The Observer defined the spirit of the newspaper. In the centenary of his birth we celebrate the novelist and essayist whose passion for precision in thought and language survived war, illness and family tragedy - and whose ideas became the bedrock of David Astor's paper
Sunday May 11, 2003
Today in the centenary of his birth, there is no shortage of interested parties eager to claim George Orwell as one of their own. Though renowned for following his own path and making his opinions as clear as polished glass, he has nonetheless been adopted by just about every political colour in the spectrum, from revolutionary red to Little-England blue, from hard-core Trotskyites to gung-ho neoconservatives, from utopian anarchists to old-fashioned High Tories. His gaunt, forlornly knowing features have become, as it were, the acceptable face of radicalism.
The process by which Orwell has been remoulded into a fits-all-sizes paragon is long and twisted, and not without interest (indeed there are whole bookcases of literature on the subject). But before he became a secular saint he was, first and to the last, a writer. And if it is not too clingingly possessive to mention, he was a writer for The Observer.
He was also, of course, a writer for many other publications. Orwell was almost as promiscuous as he was prodigious in his freelance journalism. It's also fair to say that his output for The Observer, while often first-rate, features few of the works on which his formidable reputation as a non-fiction writer rests. His celebrated 'As I Please' column, for example, was written for Tribune. His gentle but sharply observed meditations on English life - how to brew the perfect cup of tea and what constitutes the ideal pub - were published by the Evening Standard. And the groundbreaking forays into popular culture - his examinations of the British seaside postcard and boys' comics - and the revered polemical essays appeared in periodicals such as Horizon and Polemic.
Even so, the mark he left on this newspaper was arguably far more profound than his legacy elsewhere in Fleet and Grub streets, and not just because Horizon and Polemic quickly folded. What was different about The Observer is that Orwell's theory of journalistic writing - succinct, provocative, transparent - was designated the house style to which all the newspaper's writers were expected to aspire during its 'golden age' of the Fifties.
As early as 1938, The Observer had called Orwell 'a great writer' in its review of Homage to Catalonia, his account of his experience fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war. This was by no means a universally shared judgment, as was shown by the fact that the book - now recognised as a genre-defining classic - sold a paltry 700 copies.
It was not until late 1941, though, that Orwell was asked to write for The Observer. At the time, the paper was edited by JL Garvin, a staunch Churchillian Tory, but it was owned by the Astor family. And it was Lord Astor's son, David Astor who first approached Orwell, following a recommendation by Cyril Connolly. Astor knew Orwell only by his patriotic call to arms, The Lion and The Unicorn, but already admired his clarity of thought.
For two old Etonians, their social backgrounds could hardly have been more contrasting. Orwell (né Eric Blair) was born in Bengal, the son of an official in the Indian Civil Service. He joined the imperial police force in Burma before taking up writing and tramping and writing about tramping. Astor was a scion of a multi-millionaire Anglo-American family. His mother, Nancy, was the first woman to sit in the House of Commons. Their country seat, Cliveden, was the scene of the kind of Edwardian lavishness that, were it not for Merchant and Ivory, would tax the modern imagination. Orwell wanted an end to the class system and economic inequality. Astor was a patrician liberal. Yet the two hit it off immediately.
Astor often slept at Orwell's Belsize Park flat during the blackout and, like a pair of overgrown students (Orwell never went to university and Astor dropped out of Oxford), the two would stay up discussing politics and the war. The conversations had a lasting influence on Astor. As Richard Cockett notes in his David Astor and The Observer, Orwell was 'the man who more than any other... helped to shape the new Observer'.
All the same, as much as Orwell warmed to Astor, it did not prevent him questioning his motives. When the younger man told him about the fiasco of the Allied raid on Dieppe and concluded that it was impossible to invade Europe, Orwell noted in his diary: 'Of course, we can't be sure he wasn't planted to say this, considering who his parents are.'
One of Orwell's preoccupations throughout this period was Indian independence, a cause that was widely ignored during wartime, not least because the Japanese were calling for the British to leave India. It was also the subject of his first, unsigned, contribution to The Observer on 22 February 1942, under the title 'India Next'. It was not the most auspicious of beginnings, but it did point to a change of direction in the paper. For one thing, it was very likely the paper's first anti-colonial piece and, for another, many more were to follow.
Shortly after, Garvin was replaced by Ivor Brown, although the real driving force was now Astor - who, curiously enough, was actually employed as an officer in the Royal Marines.
Orwell was himself working for the BBC in the Indian section of the Overseas Service. His superiors were less than enthusiastic about his moonlighting and, in return, Orwell resented what he saw as the corporation's bureaucracy and censorship. He had also grown disillusioned with his own role as a propagandist, his contorted attempt to distinguish between 'honest' and 'dishonest' propaganda evidently having failed. He resigned in September 1943.
At that point, as Gordon Bowker writes in his vivid new biography (George Orwell, Little Brown), 'there was some talk of him joining The Observer full-time, but to David Astor's relief, this idea came to nothing. After the war Astor became the paper's editor and the worst thing he could have imagined, he said, was having to reject anything written by Orwell.'
Instead Orwell became Tribune 's literary editor and a fortnightly book reviewer for The Observer. Even so, there was a series of attempts to send him abroad as a reporter. Early in '43 The Observer had asked him to be a war correspondent in North Africa. But Orwell failed the medical and soon after succumbed to a bronchitis attack that left him bed-ridden for three weeks.
Perhaps at this juncture we should pause to consider his position. He was about to turn 40; save among a few intellectuals, he was unknown; he had enjoyed next to no success as a novelist and his work as a journalist, while respected, had brought little material reward; he was married and desperate for a child (he believed himself to be infertile); he carried a bullet-wound in his neck from his time fighting in Spain; and he was chronically sick. He had seven years left to live, a good deal of them spent ill in bed or hospital, and all of them under the shadow of war and its austere aftermath. Yet the two novels that would make him famous throughout the world, and much of his finest journalism, were yet to be written.
Two years later The Observer succeeded in gaining Orwell's services as a war reporter. How the paper achieved this, given the state of the writer's health, is not known, but Bowker is not alone in speculating that Astor used his contacts to circumvent a medical.
Orwell was stationed in Paris at the well-named Hotel Scribe. Also present were Malcolm Muggeridge and AJ Ayer, both working for British intelligence, and Harold Acton, the dandyish aesthete whom Orwell knew from Eton. Muggeridge introduced Orwell to PG Wodehouse, under house arrest for suspected collusion with the Nazis, which led him to write 'In Defence of PG Wodehouse', again an argument that was a long way from fashionable.
He also met Hemingway, from whom, according to the American, he requested a gun. Orwell had worried about being the target of a Stalinist hit ever since his experiences at the hands of Soviet agents in Barcelona. Continual intellectual attacks by Soviet sympathisers, not to mention the assassination of Trotsky, had done nothing to ease his paranoia. Apparently Hemingway lent him a Colt .32 pistol.
Orwell narrowly missed meeting Albert Camus when the Frenchman had to pull out of a rendezvous at the Deux Magots café due to illness. The two authors admired one another's work, and that was not all they had in common. Like Orwell, Camus was tubercular and, also like the Englishman, he would die (albeit in a car crash) at 46.
The Observer of 25 March 1945 ran an Orwell piece filed from Germany entitled 'Creating Order Out Of Cologne Slum'. Two weeks later he followed it up with an article about the 'Future Of A Ruined Germany'. In between his wife, Eileen, died in hospital in London during a routine operation to remove a growth in her womb.
The previous summer they had adopted a baby boy, Richard. It was the child's dreadful destiny to lose two sets of parents before he was seven. (In the event, he was brought up by Orwell's sister Avril, and became a farmer, as Orwell had once hoped he would in a letter to a friend.) Eileen wrote to her husband before the operation detailing her joy at Richard and her despair at living in London. She looked forward to a life beyond the decrepit confines of the capital. By all accounts, Orwell was not the most attentive of husbands, and was prone to affairs, but it seems that he had grown closer to his wife after Richard's adoption.
The crushing sense of loss he must have experienced was reflected in the devastated landscape he encountered on his return to continental Europe following Eileen's funeral. 'To walk through the ruined cities of Germany,' he wrote in The Observer on 8 April, 'is to feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation.'
In all he filed 19 dispatches from the Continent. Most were written from Paris, but he also travelled to Nuremberg, Stuttgart - where he eloquently described the looting that followed its collapse - and Austria.
Taken together, these pieces read not as straightforward reporting, nor even reportage, but more like a sober summary of events that were too large, and too chaotic, to summarise. He had wanted to witness the remnants of a totalitarian regime and found, instead, a defeated people much like any other. Astor did not think reporting was Orwell's strongest suit. In the circumstances the singular achievement was not what he wrote but that he wrote.
As Orwell acknowledged, Eileen, a former student of Tolkien's, had played an influential role in helping to plan a short novel he had completed in the summer of 1944. It was one of many sadnesses that the woman who believed so unshakably in her husband was not alive to witness the publication of Animal Farm in August 1945 and the overdue recognition it would bring.
The book, a brilliantly simple satire on the Russian Revolution, was initially turned down by several publishers, fearful of offending Britain's Soviet allies. At that time, and right up until 1956 and even beyond, the majority of this country's left-wing intelligentsia was engaged full-time in closing its eyes to the reality of life in the Soviet Union. The enemy, as far as they were concerned, was fascism. Orwell, to his undying credit, realised that the enemy was totalitarianism in its totality.
While Orwell's critics comfortably outnumbered his supporters during his lifetime, the ratio is now reversed. But that is not to say there aren't still plenty of critics. They tend to divide into two groups: those who say he failed because he 'sold out' the revolutionary cause, and those who say he failed because he would not give it up.
From the latter group, Louis Menand, recently writing in the New Yorker, played down Orwell's consistent opposition to imperialism, fascism and Stalinism. 'The important question, after condemning those things, was what to do about them, and how to understand the implications for the future. On this level, Orwell was almost always wrong.'
It's true that his predictions were frequently way off the mark, as he himself admitted. But to read Orwell as some kind of twentieth-century political Nostradamus is to miss the power of his message. He was a dissenter, not a strategist, much less a prophet. He may often have been wrong about getting it right, but in the crucial matters he was right about what was wrong.
And sometimes, if properly articulated, that is enough. Animal Farm was one such case. It portrayed in words a child could understand what so many adults had refused to comprehend: the inevitable corruption of a revolution that is controlled from the top.
With the publication of Animal Farm Orwell resigned as literary editor of Tribune, although he continued to write the 'As I Please' column for another two years. Astor, whose family owned land on Jura, recommended the Hebridean isle for a holiday. Orwell was so taken with the place that he rented a farmhouse called Barnhill on the northern tip of the island for the summer. In the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima, the remote island must have seemed like a prelapsarian retreat from the horrors of modernity.
But you would have to spend a long time scouring the British Isles to find a more hostile environment for a man with TB. There was no electricity, the rain scarcely ceased, and the house was 25 miles from the nearest doctor. It might be stretching the point to say that Orwell was a masochist (at least one woman he knew said he was a sadist), but his attitude to his health was wilfully reckless.
The correspondence between Orwell and Astor intensified. Barnhill had no phone and was two days of gruelling travel from London, so there was little choice. Orwell's letters were bucolic - lots of stuff about horses, flowers and fishing - but the references to the house suggest that 'spartan' may be too generous a description. 'I still haven't got the hot water running,' he informs Astor. And later: 'Do come across if you're ever at Tarbert. There's plenty of room here, tho still a bit rough (eg, no sheets on the beds!).'
In April 1946 Horizon published 'Politics and the English Language', Orwell's meditation on how to write what you mean and mean what you write. For years afterwards, Astor circulated the piece to every journalist who joined the paper. Ironically, it is not one of the crystalline essayist's clearest efforts. He never quite succeeds in making his case that dishonest politics leads to poor English and that, in turn, poor English leads to even less honest politics. The set of rules he recommends are hit and miss, and his examples of good and bad English often appear to be based on nothing more solid than his own preferences (short words) and prejudices (foreign words).
However, within the broad confusion and conflation of his arguments, there are paragraphs and sections that are so exquisitely precise that it is almost impossible to read them without wishing to write better. For example:
'The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.'
These were no doubt just the cautionary words that the confident young group of Oxbridge graduates Astor was assembling needed to hear. During the war, the heart, or more accurately the brain, of the newspaper was made up of brilliant émigrés such as Isaac Deutscher, Sebastian Haffner and Jon Kimche. Now Astor turned his attention to a new generation of homegrown writers for whom, in VS Pritchett's memorable phrase, Orwell would perform the role of 'wintry conscience'.
Between the end of the war and the mid-Fifties an exceptional group of young journalists, among them Patrick O'Donovan and Kenneth Tynan, joined the paper. To the moral seriousness established by Orwell and others, they added a crisp wit and a panache welcomed by a country emerging from some stark and difficult years. Between 1942, when Astor first became involved, and 1956, when The Observer overtook the Sunday Times, the circulation went from under 250,000 to more than 550,000.
Orwell maintained a close interest in upcoming talent. As late as 1949, he answered Astor's inquiry about employing one wayward writer. 'I think Philip Toynbee is a good idea. I don't know him well, but he seems to me to be quite gifted and politically OK.'
Toynbee went on to become The Observer's leading book reviewer. Orwell was himself a master of the form. He always got straight to the core of a book's argument and if he found it wanting he could be as brutal with his friends as his enemies. One Observer review of a book by HG Wells, his one-time dinner host, was so savage that the old man never spoke to him again.
Few contemporary appraisals of seminal works manage to stay the distance, but, 50 years on, his reviews, for instance, of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Eliot's Notes towards the Definition of Culture stand up as well, if not better, than the books themselves. The latter, written in his sick bed in November 1948, was one of Orwell's last pieces for The Observer. Often misunderstood as a voice of doom, he roused himself against Eliot's pessimism (which, under the circumstances, he had every right not to) and concluded: 'Before writing off our own age as irrevocably damned, is it not worth remembering that Matthew Arnold and Swift and Shakespeare - to carry the stock back only three centuries - were all equally certain that they lived in a period of decline?'
The sick bed was in Jura. What was he doing there in November? He had already been hospitalised earlier in the year with TB, just when The Observer ludicrously hoped to send him to cover the South African elections. On that occasion Astor had been able to arrange the importation of streptomycin, a TB wonder drug available only in the US, to help treat Orwell. Now he was about to return to hospital for the final time.
The previous winter had been harsh and there was a severe fuel shortage. Even armed with his royalty cheques from Animal Farm, he was still reduced to burning his son's toys to heat their leaking London flat. 'I think it will be easier to keep warm here,' he wrote to Astor from Jura, 'as we are better off for coal etc.' It's hard to decide from that sentence which was most helpless - post-war Britain or Orwell himself.
He had also returned to Jura to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was his last and most powerful warning against allowing truth to become the ruthless monopoly of the state. Read today, it may seem like a dated piece of futurism. But that's only from the perspective of a society that has had the benefit of its wisdom. If a translated copy fell into the hands of a North Korean, it would probably seem like a work of pure naturalism written this morning.
The effort to complete it surely killed Orwell, who was forced to type the manuscript himself; his publisher, Alfred Secker, having failed to arrange a stenographer. Orwell knew that his time was up. When he was told by Astor, on publication of the novel, that The Observer was making him the subject of its profile, he wrote back that perhaps it ought be refashioned as an obituary.
This time the streptomycin was of no use (had he lived for another few months, a new drug might have saved him). He married Sonia Bronwell, a young editor at Horizon, on 13 October 1949. He was looking for a widow, a literary executor, and Bronwell agreed after several other women had turned him down. Astor sorted out the licence required for a marriage in hospital. He was also best man. On 21 January 1950, the bridegroom died.
Again, Astor took care of arrangements. Orwell, the
atheist, had requested that he be buried according to the rites of the Church of
England. Astor found a plot in the churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire.
It was only right that at the end the editor of The Observer watched over
Orwell, for the writer, even if he was not aware of it, had watched
inspirationally over The Observer. Half a century on, Big Brother is not
watching us, but let us hope that at this newspaper George Orwell continues to
for many years to come.
HONEST, DECENT, WRONG
by LOUIS MENAND
The invention of George Orwell.
"Animal Farm," George Orwell's satire, which became the Cold War "Candide," was finished in 1944, the high point of the Soviet-Western alliance against fascism. It was a warning against dealing with Stalin and, in the circumstances, a prescient book. Orwell had trouble finding a publisher, though, and by the time the book finally appeared, in August, 1945, the month of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, the Cold War was already on the horizon. "Animal Farm" was an instant success in England and the United States. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection; it was quickly translated into many languages and distributed, in some countries, by the United States government; and it made Orwell, who had spent most of his life scraping by, famous and rich. "1984," published four years later, had even greater success. Orwell was fatally ill with pulmonary tuberculosis when he wrote it, and he died in January, 1950. He was forty-six.
The revision began almost immediately. Frances Stonor Saunders, in her fascinating study "The Cultural Cold War," reports that right after Orwell's death the C.I.A. (Howard Hunt was the agent on the case) secretly bought the film rights to "Animal Farm" from his widow, Sonia, and had an animated-film version produced in England, which it distributed throughout the world. The book's final scene, in which the pigs (the Bolsheviks, in Orwell's allegory) can no longer be distinguished from the animals' previous exploiters, the humans (the capitalists), was omitted. A new ending was provided, in which the animals storm the farmhouse where the pigs have moved and liberate themselves all over again. The great enemy of propaganda was subjected, after his death, to the deceptions and evasions of propaganda—and by the very people, American Cold Warriors, who would canonize him as the great enemy of propaganda.
Howard Hunt at least kept the story pegged to the history of the Soviet Union, which is what Orwell intended. Virtually every detail in "Animal Farm" allegorizes some incident in that history: the Kronstadt rebellion, the five-year plan, the Moscow trials, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Tehran conference. But although Orwell didn't want Communism, he didn't want capitalism, either. This part of his thought was carefully elided, and "Animal Farm" became a warning against political change per se. It remains so today. The cover of the current Harcourt paperback glosses the contents as follows:
As ferociously fresh as it was more than half a century ago, "Animal Farm" is a parable about would-be liberators everywhere. As we witness the rise and bloody fall of the revolutionary animals through the lens of our own history, we see the seeds of totalitarianism in the most idealistic organizations; and in our most charismatic leaders, the souls of our cruelest oppressors.
This is the opposite of what Orwell intended. But almost everything in the popular understanding of Orwell is a distortion of what he really thought and the kind of writer he was.
Writers are not entirely responsible for their admirers. It is unlikely that Jane Austen, if she were here today, would wish to become a member of the Jane Austen Society. In his lifetime, George Orwell was regarded, even by his friends, as a contrary man. It was said that the closer you got to him the colder and more critical he became. As a writer, he was often hardest on his allies. He was a middle-class intellectual who despised the middle class and was contemptuous of intellectuals, a Socialist whose abuse of Socialists—"all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking toward the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat"—was as vicious as any Tory's. He preached solidarity, but he had the habits of a dropout, and the works for which he is most celebrated, "Animal Farm," "1984," and the essay "Politics and the English Language," were attacks on people who purported to share his political views. He was not looking to make friends. But after his death he suddenly acquired an army of fans—all middle-class intellectuals eager to suggest that a writer who approved of little would have approved of them.
Orwell's army is one of the most ideologically mixed up ever to assemble. John Rodden, whose "George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation" was published in 1989 and recently reprinted, with a new introduction (Transaction; $30), has catalogued it exhaustively. It has included, over the years, ex-Communists, Socialists, left-wing anarchists, right-wing libertarians, liberals, conservatives, doves, hawks, the Partisan Review editorial board, and the John Birch Society: every group in a different uniform, but with the same button pinned to the lapel—Orwell Was Right. Irving Howe claimed Orwell, and so did Norman Podhoretz. Almost the only thing Orwell's posthumous admirers have in common, besides the button, is anti-Communism. But they all somehow found support for their particular bouquet of moral and political values in Orwell's writings, which have been universally praised as "honest," "decent," and "clear." In what sense, though, can writings that have been taken to mean so many incompatible things be called "clear"? And what, exactly, was Orwell right about?
Indifferent to his own person as Orwell genuinely was, his writing is essentially personal. He put himself at the center of all his nonfiction books and many of his essays, and he often used personal anecdotes in his political journalism to make, or reinforce, his points. He never figured himself as the hero of these stories, in part because his tendency to self-abnegation was fairly remorseless. But self-abnegation was perhaps the most seductive aspect of the persona he devised. Orwell had the rare talent for making readers feel that they were dealing not with a reporter or a columnist or a literary man—not with a writer—but with an ordinary person. His method for making people believe what he wrote was to make them believe, first of all, in him.
He was a writer, of course—he was a graphomaniac, in fact: writing was what he lived for—and there was not much that was ordinary about him. He was born, a hundred years ago, in Bengal, where his father was a sub-agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service, and he came to England when he was one, and was brought up there by his mother. (The family name was Blair, and Orwell's given name was Eric.) Orwell's father visited the family for three months in 1907, engaging in domestic life with sufficient industry to leave his wife pregnant, and did not come back until 1912. By then, Orwell was boarding as a scholarship student at St. Cyprian's, the school he wrote about, many years later, in the essay "Such, Such Were the Joys." He studied hard and won a scholarship to Eton, and it was there that he began his career in self-denial. He deliberately slacked off, finishing a hundred and thirty-eighth in a class of a hundred and sixty-seven, and then, instead of taking the exams for university, joined the Imperial Police and went to Burma, the scene of the essays "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant." In 1927, after five years in Burma, while on leave in England and with no employment prospects, he resigned.
He spent the next four years as a tramp and an itinerant worker, experiences that became the basis for "Down and Out in Paris and London," the first work to appear under the pen name George Orwell, in 1933. He taught school briefly, worked in a bookstore (the subject of the essay "Bookshop Memories"), and spent two months travelling around the industrial districts in the North of England gathering material for "The Road to Wigan Pier," which came out in 1937. Orwell spent the first half of 1937 fighting with the Loyalists in Spain, where he was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper, and where he witnessed the brutal Communist suppression of the revolutionary parties in the Republican alliance. His account of these events, "Homage to Catalonia," which appeared in 1938, was, indeed, brave and iconoclastic (though not the only work of its kind), and it established Orwell in the position that he would maintain for the rest of his life, as the leading anti-Stalinist writer of the British left.
During the war, Orwell took a job with the Indian section of the BBC's Eastern Service, where he produced and, with T. S. Eliot, William Empson, Louis MacNeice, and other distinguished writers, delivered radio talks, mostly on literary subjects, intended to rally the support of Indians for the British war effort. For the first time since 1927, he received the salary he had once enjoyed as a policeman in Burma, but he regarded the work as propaganda—he felt, he said, like "an orange that's been trodden on by a very dirty boot"—and, in 1943, he quit. He worked for a while as literary editor and as a columnist at the Tribune, a Socialist paper edited by Aneurin Bevan, the leader of the left wing of the Labour Party in Britain and a man Orwell admired. In 1946, after the success of "Animal Farm," and knowing that he was desperately ill with lung disease, he removed himself to one of the dankest places in the British Isles: the island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland. When he was not too sick to type, he sat in a room all day smoking black shag tobacco, and writing "1984." His biographers have noted that the life of Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth in that novel is based in part on Orwell's own career (as he experienced it) at the BBC. Room 101, the torture chamber in the climactic scene, was the name of the room where the Eastern Service held compulsory committee meetings. Orwell (is it necessary to say?) hated committees.
His first wife, Eileen, with whom he adopted a son, died in 1945. He proposed to several women thereafter, sometimes suggesting, as an inducement, that he would probably die soon and leave his widow with a valuable estate; but he struck out. Then, in 1949, when he really was on his deathbed, he married Sonia Brownell, a woman whose sex appeal was widely appreciated. Brownell had slept with Orwell once, in 1945, apparently from the mixed motives of pity and the desire to sleep with famous writers, one of her hobbies. The marriage was performed in a hospital room; Orwell died three months later. He ended up selling more books than any other serious writer of the twentieth century—"Animal Farm" and "1984" were together translated into more than sixty languages; in 1973, English-language editions of "1984" were still selling at a rate of 1,340 copies a day—and he left all his royalties to Sonia. She squandered them and died more or less in poverty, in 1980. Today, Orwell's gravesite, in a churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, is tended by volunteers.
Orwell has been posthumously psychoanalyzed, but there is no great mystery behind the choices he made in his life. He explained his motive plainly and repeatedly in his writing: he wanted to de-class himself. From his days at St. Cyprian's, and possibly even earlier, he saw the class system as a system of oppression—and nothing but a system of oppression. The guilt (his term) that he felt about his position as a member of the white imperialist bourgeoisie preceded his interest in politics as such. He spent much of his time criticizing professional Socialists, particularly the leaders of the British Labour Party, because, apart from the commitment to equality, there was not much about Socialism that was important to him. His economics were rudimentary, and he had little patience for the temporizing that ordinary politics requires. In 1945, after Germany surrendered, Churchill and the Conservatives were voted out and a Labour government came in (with Bevan as Minister of Health). In less than a year, Orwell was complaining that no steps had been taken to abolish the House of Lords.
He didn't merely go on adventures in class-crossing. He turned his life into an experiment in classlessness, and the intensity of his commitment to that experiment was the main reason that his friends and colleagues found him a perverse and sometimes exasperating man. His insistence on living in uncomfortable conditions, his refusal (despite his bad lungs) to wear a hat or coat in winter, his habit of pouring his tea into the saucer and slurping it noisily (in the working-class manner) struck his friends not as colorful eccentricities but as reproaches directed at their own bourgeois addiction to comfort and decorum. Which they were. Orwell was a brilliant and cultured man, with an Eton accent and an anomalous, vaguely French mustache, who wore the same beat-up tweed jacket nearly every day, made (very badly) his own furniture, and lived, most of the time, one step up from squalor. He read Joyce and kept a goat in the back yard. He was completely authentic and completely inauthentic at the same time—a man who believed that to write honestly he needed to publish under a false name.
Orwell's writing is effortlessly compelling. He was in the tradition of writers who—as Leslie Stephen said of Defoe—understand that there is a literary fascination in a clear recitation of the facts. There is much more to Orwell than this, though. As Christopher Hitchens points out in "Why Orwell Matters" (Basic; $24), a book more critical of Orwell than the title might suggest, "Homage to Catalonia" survives as a model of political journalism, and "Animal Farm" and "1984" belong permanently to the literature of resistance. Whatever uses they were made to serve in the West, they gave courage to people in the East. The territory that Orwell covered in "Down and Out in Paris and London" and "The Road to Wigan Pier"—the lower-class extremes—was by no means new to nonfiction prose. Engels wrote about it feelingly in "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844"; Jacob Riis studied it in "How the Other Half Lives." But Orwell discovered a tone—"generous anger" is the phrase he once used to describe Dickens, and it has been applied to him, but "cool indignation" seems a little more accurate—that has retained its freshness after seventy years.
Orwell's essays have recently been collected, with exceptional thoroughness, by John Carey (Everyman; $35). The essay on Dickens, published in 1940, is weaker criticism than Edmund Wilson's "Dickens: The Two Scrooges," which came out the same year. But Orwell's essay on Henry Miller, "Inside the Whale," which also appeared in 1940, was original and unexpected. His personal essays, especially "Shooting an Elephant" and "Such, Such Were the Joys," are models of the form. Still, his qualities as a writer are obscured by the need of his admirers to claim for his work impossible virtues.
Honesty was important to Orwell. He was certainly quick enough to accuse people he disagreed with of dishonesty. But there is sometimes a confusion, when people talk about Orwell's writing, between honesty and objectivity. "He said what he believed" and "He told it like it was" refer to different virtues. One of the effects of the tone Orwell achieved—the tone of a reasonable, modest, supremely undogmatic man, hoping for the best but resigned to the worst—was the impression of transparency, something that Orwell himself, in an essay called "Why I Write," identified as the ideal of good prose. It was therefore a shock when Bernard Crick, in the first major biography of Orwell, authorized by Sonia Orwell and published the year of her death, confessed that he had found it difficult to corroborate some of the incidents in Orwell's autobiographical writings. Jeffrey Meyers, whose biography "Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation" came out in 2000, concluded that Orwell sometimes "heightened reality to achieve dramatic effects."
Crick has doubts that the event Orwell recounted in remarkably fine detail in "A Hanging"—he describes the condemned man stepping aside to avoid a puddle of water on his way to the scaffold—ever happened, and Meyers notes that, during his years as a tramp, Orwell would take time off to rest and write in the homes of family and friends, something he does not mention in "Down and Out in Paris and London," where the narrator is sometimes on the verge of death by starvation. Both Crick and Meyers suspect that "Shooting an Elephant" has fabricated elements. And everything that Orwell wrote was inflected by his predilection for the worm's-eye view. When biographers asked Orwell's contemporaries what it was really like at St. Cyprian's, or in Burma, or working at the bookshop, the usual answer was "It was bad, but it wasn't that bad."
The point is not that Orwell made things up. The point is that he used writing in a literary, not a documentary, way: he wrote in order to make you see what he wanted you to see, to persuade. During the war, Orwell began contributing a "London Letter" to Partisan Review. In one letter, he wrote that park railings in London were being torn down for scrap metal, but that only working-class neighborhoods were being plundered; parks and squares in upper-class neighborhoods, he reported, were untouched. The story, Crick says, was widely circulated. When a friend pointed out that it was untrue, Orwell is supposed to have replied that it didn't matter, "it was essentially true."
You need to grasp Orwell's premises, in other words, before you can start talking about the "truth" of what he writes. He is not saying, This is the way it objectively was from any possible point of view. He is saying, This is the way it looked to someone with my beliefs. Otherwise, his work can be puzzling. "Down and Out in Paris and London" is a powerful book, but you are always wondering what this obviously decent, well-read, talented person is doing washing dishes in the kitchen of a Paris hotel. In "The Road to Wigan Pier," Orwell gave the reader some help with this problem by explaining, at length, where he came from, what his views were, and why he went to live with the miners. Orwell was not a reporter or a sociologist. He was an advocate. He had very definite political opinions, and promoting them was his reason for writing. "No book is genuinely free of political bias," he asserted in "Why I Write." "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."
Here we arrive at the challenge presented by the "Orwell Was Right" button. Hitchens says that there were three great issues in the twentieth century, and that Orwell was right on all three: imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. What does this mean, though? Orwell was against imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Excellent. Many people were against them in Orwell's time, and a great many more people have been against them since. The important question, after condemning those things, was what to do about them, and how to understand the implications for the future. On this level, Orwell was almost always wrong.
Orwell thought that any Englishman who boasted of liberty and prosperity while India was still a colony was a hypocrite. "In order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation—an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream," he wrote in "The Road to Wigan Pier." Still, he did not believe that India was capable of complete independence, and was still saying so as late as 1943. At first, he had the idea that the British Empire should be turned into "a federation of Socialist states, like a looser and freer version of the Union of Soviet Republics," but eventually he arrived at another solution. In 1943, entering a controversy in the pages of the Tribune over the future of Burma, which had been invaded by Japan, he laid out his position. The notion of an independent Burma, he explained, was as ludicrous as the notion of an independent Lithuania or Luxembourg. To grant those countries independence would be to create a bunch of "comic opera states," he wrote. "The plain fact is that small nationalities cannot be independent, because they cannot defend themselves." The answer was to place "the whole main-land of south-east Asia, together with Formosa, under the guidance of China, while leaving the islands under an Anglo-American-Dutch condominium." Orwell was against colonial exploitation, in other words, but not in favor of national self-determination. If this is anti-imperialism, make the most of it.
Orwell took a particular dislike to Gandhi. He referred to him, in private correspondence, as a "bit of a charlatan"; in 1943, he wrote that "there is indeed a sort of apocalyptic truth in the statement of the German radio that the teachings of Hitler and Gandhi are the same." One of his last essays was on Gandhi, written two years after India, and one year after Burma, became independent, and a year after Gandhi's assassination. It is a grudging piece of writing. The method of Satyagraha, Orwell said, might have been effective against the British, but he was doubtful about its future as a tactic for political struggle. (A few years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., would find a use for it.) He confessed to "a sort of aesthetic distaste" for Gandhi himself—Gandhi was, after all, just the sort of sandal-wearing, vegetarian mystic Orwell had always abhorred—and he attributed the success of the Indian independence movement as much to the election of a Labour government in Britain as to Gandhi's efforts. "I have never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a failure" was the most that he could bring himself to say.
Hitler, on the other hand, Orwell did find personally appealing. "I have never been able to dislike Hitler," he admitted, in 1940. Hitler, it seems, "grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life," which Orwell called the attitude of "nearly all Western thought since the last war, certainly all 'progressive' thought." This response—the idea that fascism, whatever might be wrong with it, is at least about the necessity of struggle and self-sacrifice—is not that far from the response of the relatively few people in England (there were more in France) who actively endorsed fascism.
Orwell was opposed to Nazi Germany. But he thought that Britain, as an imperial power, had no moral right to go to war against Hitler, and he was sure that a war would make Britain fascist. This is a theme in his novel "Coming Up for Air," which was published in 1939, and that winter he was urging friends to begin planning "illegal anti-war activities." He thought that it would be a good idea to set up an underground antiwar organization, in anticipation of what he called the "pre-war fascising processes," and predicted that he would end up in a British concentration camp because of his views. He kept up his antiwar agitation until August, 1939. Then, with the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, he flipped completely. In "The Lion and the Unicorn," in 1941, he accused British antiwar intellectuals of "sabotage." They had become "Europeanized"; they sneered at patriotism. (This from a man who, two years earlier, had been proposing an illegal campaign against government policy.) They had weakened the morale of the English people, "so that the Fascist nations judged that they were 'decadent' and that it was safe to plunge into war. . . . Ten years of systematic Blimp-baiting affected even the Blimps themselves and made it harder than it had been before to get intelligent young men to enter the armed forces." The prediction of a fascist Britain had evidently been forgotten.
What were Orwell's political opinions? Orwell was a revolutionary Socialist. That is, he hoped that there would be a Socialist revolution in England, and, as he said more than once, if violence was necessary, violence there should be. "I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood," he wrote in "My Country Right or Left," in 1940. And a year later, in "The Lion and the Unicorn," "It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. . . . Whether it happens with or without bloodshed is largely an accident of time and place." Orwell had concluded long before that capitalism had failed unambiguously, and he never changed his opinion. He thought that Hitler's military success on the Continent proved once and for all the superiority of a planned economy. "It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption," he wrote. "The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them."
A Socialist England, as Orwell described it, would be a classless society with virtually no private property. The State would own everything, and would require "that nobody shall live without working." Orwell thought that perhaps fifteen acres of land, "at the very most," might be permitted, presumably to allow subsistence farming, but that there would be no ownership of land in town areas. Incomes would be equalized, so that the highest income would never be greater than ten times the lowest. Above that, the tax rate should be a hundred per cent. The House of Lords would be abolished, though Orwell thought that the monarchy might be preserved. (Everybody would drink at the same pub, presumably, but one of the blokes would get to wear a crown.) As for its foreign policy: a Socialist state "will not have the smallest scruple about attacking hostile neutrals or stirring up native rebellions in enemy colonies."
Orwell was not a cultural radical. Democracy and moral decency (once the blood was cleaned off the pavement, anyway) were central to his vision of Socialism. His admirers remembered the democracy and the decency, and managed to forget most of the rest. When "Homage to Catalonia" was finally published in the United States, in 1952, Lionel Trilling wrote an introduction, which Jeffrey Meyers has called "probably the most influential essay on Orwell." It is a work of short fiction. "Orwell clung with a kind of wry, grim pride to the old ways of the last class that had ruled the old order," Trilling wrote; he exemplified the meaning of the phrase "my station and its duties," and respected "the old bourgeois virtues." He even "came to love things, material possessions." A fully housebroken anti-Communist. It is amusing to imagine Orwell slurping his tea at the Columbia Faculty House.
Understanding Orwell's politics helps to explain that largely inaccurate prediction about postwar life "1984." There was, Hitchens points out, an enormous blind spot in Orwell's view of the world: the United States. Orwell never visited the United States and, as Hitchens says, showed little curiosity about what went on there. To the extent that he gave it any attention, he tended to regard the United States as vulgar, materialistic, and a threat to the English language. ("Many Americans pronounce . . . water as though it had no t in it, or even as though it had no consonant in it at all, except the w," he claimed. "On the whole we are justified in regarding the American language with suspicion.") He thought that, all things considered, Britain was better off as a client-state of Washington than as a client-state of Moscow, but he did not look on an increased American role in the world with hope. Since Orwell was certain that capitalism was doomed, the only future he could imagine for the United States was as some sort of totalitarian regime.
He laid out his view in 1947, in the pages of Partisan Review. There were, he explained, three possible futures in a nuclear world: a preëmptive nuclear strike by the United States against the Soviet Union; a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, wiping out most of the race and returning life to the Bronze Age; and a stalemate created by the fear of actually using atomic bombs and other weapons of mass destruction—what would be known as the policy of mutually assured destruction. This third possibility, Orwell argued, was the worst of all:
It would mean the division of the world among two or three vast superstates, unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by any internal rebellion. In all probability their structure would be hierarchic, with a semi-divine caste at the top and outright slavery at the bottom, and the crushing out of liberty would exceed anything that the world has yet seen. Within each state the necessary psychological atmosphere would be kept up by complete severance from the outer world, and by a continuous phony war against rival states. Civilizations of this type might remain static for thousands of years.
Orwell's third possibility was, of course, the path that history took. Mutually assured destruction was the guiding policy of the arms race and the Cold War. Orwell himself coined the term "Cold War," and after his death he became a hero to Cold Warriors, liberal and conservative alike. But he hated the idea of a Cold War—he preferred being bombed back to the Bronze Age—because it seems never to have entered his mind that the United States would be a force for liberty and democracy. "1984" is, precisely, Orwell's vision of what the Cold War might be like: a mindless and interminable struggle among totalitarian monsters. Was he right?
Some people in 1949 received "1984" as an attack on the Labour Party (in the book, the regime of Big Brother is said to have derived from the principles of "Ingsoc"; that is, English Socialism), and Orwell was compelled to issue, through his publisher, a statement clarifying his intentions. He was a supporter of the Labour Party, he said. "I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive," he continued, "but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences."
The attitude behind this last sentence seems to me the regrettable part of Orwell's legacy. If ideas were to stand or fall on the basis of their logically possible consequences, we would have no ideas, because the ultimate conceivable consequence of every idea is an absurdity—is, in some way, "against life." We don't live just by ideas. Ideas are part of the mixture of customs and practices, intuitions and instincts that make human life a conscious activity susceptible to improvement or debasement. A radical idea may be healthy as a provocation; a temperate idea may be stultifying. It depends on the circumstances. One of the most tiresome arguments against ideas is that their "tendency" is to some dire condition—to totalitarianism, or to moral relativism, or to a war of all against all. Orwell did not invent this kind of argument, but he provided, in "1984," a vocabulary for its deployment.
"Big Brother" and "doublethink" and "thought police" are frequently cited as contributions to the language. They are, but they belong to the same category as "liar" and "pervert" and "madman." They are conversation-stoppers. When a court allows videotape from a hidden camera to be used in a trial, people shout "Big Brother." When a politician refers to his proposal to permit logging on national land as "environmentally friendly," he is charged with "doublethink." When a critic finds sexism in a poem, she is accused of being a member of the "thought police." The terms can be used to discredit virtually any position, which is one of the reasons that Orwell became everyone's favorite political thinker. People learned to make any deviation from their own platform seem the first step on the slippery slope to "1984."
There are Big Brothers and thought police in the world, just as there are liars and madmen. "1984" may have been intended to expose the true character of Soviet Communism, but, because it describes a world in which there are no moral distinctions among the three fictional regimes that dominate the globe, it ended up encouraging people to see totalitarian "tendencies" everywhere. There was visible totalitarianism, in Russia and in Eastern Europe; but there was also the invisible totalitarianism of the so-called "free world." When people talk about Big Brother, they generally mean a system of covert surveillance and manipulation, oppression in democratic disguise (unlike the system in Orwell's book, which is so overt that it is advertised). "1984" taught people to imagine government as a conspiracy against liberty. This is why the John Birch Society used 1984 as the last four digits in the phone number of its Washington office.
Orwell himself was a sniffer of tendencies. He, too, could blur moral distinctions among the things he disliked, between the BBC and the Ministry of Love, for instance; he apparently thought of the Ministry of Love as the logical consequence of the mass media's "tendency" to thought control. His most celebrated conflation of dislikes is the essay, for many years a staple of the freshman-composition syllabus, "Politics and the English Language."
Orwell wrote many strong essays, but "Politics and the English Language," published in 1946, is not one of them. Half of the essay is an attack on bad prose. Orwell is against abstractions, mixed metaphors, Latinate roots, polysyllabic words, clichés, and most of the other stylistic vices identified in Fowler's "Modern English Usage" (in its fourth printing in 1946). The other half is an attack on political dishonesty. Certain political terms, Orwell argues,
Fowler would have found nothing to complain about, though, in the sentences Orwell objects to. They are as clear as can be. Somehow, Orwell has run together his distaste for flowery, stale prose with his distaste for fascism, Stalinism, and Roman Catholicism. He makes it seem that the problem with fascism (and the rest) is, at bottom, a problem of style. They're bad, we are encouraged to feel, because their language is bad, because they're ugly.
This is not an isolated instance of this way of thinking in Orwell. From his earliest work, he was obsessed with body odor, and olfactory metaphors are probably the most consistent figure in his prose, right to the end of his life, when he congratulated Gandhi for leaving a clean smell when he died. But Orwell didn't think of the relation between smell and virtue as only metaphorical. He took quite seriously the question of whether it was ever possible to feel true solidarity with a man who smelled. Many pages in "The Road to Wigan Pier" are devoted to the problem. In his fiction, a bad character is, often, an ugly, sweaty, smelly character.
Smell has no relation to virtue, however. Ugliness has no relation to insincerity or evil, and short words with Anglo-Saxon roots have no relation to truth or goodness. Political speech, like etiquette, has its codes and its euphemisms, and Orwell is right to insist that it is important to be able to decipher them. He says that if what he calls political speech—by which he appears to mean political clichés—were translated into plain, everyday speech, confusion and insincerity would begin to evaporate. It is a worthy, if unrealistic, hope. But he does not stop there. All politics, he writes, "is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia." And by the end of the essay he has damned the whole discourse: "Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable." All political parties? Orwell had sniffed out a tendency.
Orwell's prose was so effective that it seduced many readers into imagining, mistakenly, that he was saying what they wanted him to say, and what they themselves thought. Orwell was not clairvoyant; he was not infallible; he was not even consistent. He changed his mind about things, as most writers do. He dramatized out of a desire to make the world more the way he wished it to be, as most writers do. He also said what he thought without hedging or trimming, as few writers do all the time. It is strange how selectively he was heard. It is no tribute to him to turn his books into anthems to a status quo he hated. Orwell is admired for being a paragon when he was, self-consciously, a naysayer and a misfit. If he is going to be welcomed into the pantheon of right-thinking liberals, he should at least be allowed to bring along his goat.
Another pages about George Orwell in this site here and here and here
A page about Sonia Orwell here