A lot of people think George Orwell is special. I’m one of them.
I first read Orwell’s books Animal Farm and 1984 when I was about twelve years old. The latter was good for many nightmares–I don’t recommend giving the book to twelve-year-olds, but nobody was paying much attention to my reading matter at the time. 1984 seemed to weave a spell over me–so much that, for a week or so, it seemed more real than what was going on around me, and far more frightening. Winston Smith’s travails seemed so terrifying and, in the end, so utterly devoid of hope, that it took me a while to come back again to my own world.
The most memorable part of the book to me, aside from Room 101 and the rats, was the section (an Appendix, I believe) about Newspeak. That words could be twisted into their opposites and used as propaganda ploys was a new thought to me at the time, but it made intuitive sense.
Later, it was the Orwell of the pithy epigram who appealed. He was an acknowledged master of the form, as evidenced here.
But I confess that I haven’t done any serious reading of Orwell’s other works. But having recently read this piece on Orwell written by Timothy Garton Ash and appearing in the New York Review of Books back in 1998, it seems that I must add Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, at the very least, to my ever-growing “required reading” list.
In his article, Ash poses a question that others have also tried to answer recently: what is it about Orwell that makes him so fascinating and important a writer even today? Ash writes:
The answer is both complicated and simple. It really starts in the Spanish Civil War. Because [Orwell] had joined the heterodox Marxist POUM militia rather than the communist-run International Brigade, he and his wife then got caught up in the violent suppression of the POUM in Barcelona. Friends with whom he had fought at the front were thrown into prison or killed by the Russian-directed communists—supposedly their republican allies. Orwell became a fugitive on the streets. This edition prints a secret report to the Tribunal for Espionage and High Treason in which Eric and Eileen Blair are described as “rabid Trotskyists” and “agents of the POUM.” Had they not slipped out of Spain a few days earlier, they could have found themselves, like Georges Kopp, incarcerated, tortured, and thrown into a coal bin with giant rats. [Note the possible origins of the particularities of Winston Smith's dread Room 101.]
This direct experience of communist terror, betrayal, and lies is a key to understanding all his subsequent work. Of the Russian agent in Barcelona charged with defaming the POUM as Trotskyist Francoist traitors he writes, in Homage to Catalonia, “It was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies—unless one counts journalists.” The tail sting is typical black humor, but also reflects a further, bitter discovery. On returning to England he found that virtually the whole left-wing press was suppressing or falsifying the facts about the Barcelona events. This was the second part of his Spanish experience, and it shocked him even more because it was happening in his own country. Here begins his fascination with what he describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as a basic principle of Oceania’s ruling ideology: “the mutability of the past.” Falsification, airbrushing, rewriting history: in short, the memory hole.
There, in a nutshell, is the fascination Orwell holds for me now: his sense of betrayal leading to bitterness and skepticism, and his realization of how easy it is for the press and others to lie about what had happened and how difficult it can be to combat those lies. Although Orwell remained a socialist all the days of his life (in his case, guilt about the British class system seemed to have been part of the reason), he was a socialist who hated—positively hated—Communism. His most basic dedication was to the cause of trying to ferret out the truth, and to describe the ways in which truth can be perverted and twisted. That mission transcended politics.
In my own humble way, I feel a small kinship. In preparation for my next “A mind is a difficult thing to change” essay, I’ve been thinking about my own bitterness, sense of betrayal (particularly by the press), and attempts at finding the truth.
For me, most of this has occurred in a long and complex post-9/11 process which will be the subject of the rest of my essays in the series. For Orwell, it was a bitter and dramatic experience that was directly personal. For me and most others, it is a more cerebral process, mediated mostly by reading, listening, and watching. But it has been a life- and mind-changing process nevertheless.
In Ash’s article, he also makes some points about Orwell that made me suddenly see Orwell in a new light, which is that he bore some resemblance to bloggers—or, at least, to the goals of many bloggers, or to bloggers as they like to imagine themselves to be: truth-seekers who are honest about their own biases, and who are not above admitting and correcting their own mistakes. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons bloggers, as a whole, seem especially attracted to him. Here’s the quote:
[Orwell] writes about [the Spanish Civil War] in the first person, not in the self-indulgent spirit of “look at me, what a brave little Hemingway am I,” but because it really is more honest. That “I” makes explicit the partiality of his view. To rub it in he tells the reader at the end of the book: “Beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.”
He uses all his hard-learned writer’s craft, chisels away at clean, vivid prose, deploys metaphor, artifice, and characteristic overstatement; but all the facts are as accurate as he can make them. It is, as he wrote in praise of Henry Miller, “a definite attempt to get at real facts.” For all the question marks about the factual basis of some of Orwell’s earlier work, his public and private writing after 1937 shows him striving for an old-fashioned, empirical truth, light-years removed from the postmodern. This includes, crucially, the unpleasant truths about his own side. These he makes a special point of exposing most bluntly…
His great essays straddle politics and literature. They explore Dickens, Kipling, and Tolstoy, nationalism, anti-Semitism, Gandhi, and boys’ weeklies. In “Politics and the English Language” he shows how the corruption of language is crucial to the making and defending of bad, oppressive politics. But he also shows how we can get back at the abusers of power, because they are using our weapons: words. Freedom depends on writers keeping the word-mirrors clean. In an age of sophisticated media manipulation, this is more vital than ever.
In his best articles and letters, he gives us a gritty, personal example of how to engage as a writer in politics. He takes sides, but remains his own man. He will not put himself at the service of political parties exercising or pursuing power, since that means using half-truths, in a democracy, or whole lies in a dictatorship. He gets things wrong, but then corrects them. Sometimes he joins with others in volunteer brigades or boring committee work, to defend freedom. But if need be, he stands alone, against all the “smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”