The Importance of Being Orwell
Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell's Social Evolution
At various points in his essays—notably in “Why I Write” but also in his popular occasional column As I Please—George Orwell gave us an account of what made him tick, as it were, and of what supplied the motive for his work. At different times he instanced what he called his “power of facing unpleasant facts”; his love for the natural world, “growing things,” and the annual replenishment of the seasons, and his desire to forward the cause of democratic socialism and oppose the menace of fascism. Other strong impulses include his near-visceral feeling for the English language and his urge to defend it from the constant encroachments of propaganda and euphemism, and his reverence for objective truth, which he feared was being driven out of the world by the deliberate distortion and even obliteration of recent history.
As someone who had been brought up in a fairly rarefied and distinctly reactionary English milieu, in which the underclass of his own society and the millions of inhabitants of its colonial empire were regarded with a mixture of fear and loathing, Orwell also made an early decision to find out for himself what the living conditions of these remote latitudes were really “like.” This second commitment, to acquaint himself with the brute facts as they actually were, was to prove a powerful reinforcement of his latent convictions.
Read with care, George Orwell’s diaries from the years 1931 to 1949 can greatly enrich our understanding of how Orwell transmuted the raw material of everyday experience into some of his best-known novels and polemics. They also furnish us with a more intimate picture of a man who, committed to the struggles of the mechanized and “modern” world, was also drawn by the rhythms of the wild, the rural, and the remote. (He barely survived into the first month of the second half of the twentieth century, dying of the sort of poverty-induced disease that might have killed a character out of Dickens. Yet despite his Edwardian and near-Victorian provenance he remains more contemporary and relevant to us than many authors of a much later date.)
These diaries are not by any means a “straight” guide, or a trove of clues and cross-references. It would be rather difficult to deduce, for example, that it was during his sojourn in Morocco in 1938–1939 that Orwell conceived and composed the novel Coming Up for Air. This short and haunting work involves an evocation of a lost bucolic England set in the barely imaginable years before the drama of the First World War. For it to have been written amid the torrid souk of Marrakech and the arid emptiness of the Atlas Mountains must have involved some convolutions of the creative process into which he gives us little or no insight. But he was also in Morocco—in addition to being in search of a cure for his gnawing tuberculosis—to make notes and take soundings about the conditions of North African society.
Indeed, the thirties were the decade during which Orwell took up the task of amateur anthropologist, both in his own country and overseas. Sometimes attempting to disguise his origins as an educated member of the upper classes and former colonial policeman (he is amusing about his attempts to flatten his accent according to the company he was keeping), he set off to amass notes and absorb experiences. His family background, the income of which depended on the detestable opium trade between British-ruled India and British-influenced China, had at first conditioned him to fear and despise the “locals” and the “natives.” One of the many things that made Orwell so interesting was his self-education away from such prejudices, which also included a marked dislike of the Jews. But anyone reading the early pages of these accounts and expeditions will be struck by how vividly Orwell still expressed his unmediated disgust at some of the human specimens with whom he came into contact. When joining a group of itinerant hop-pickers he is explicitly repelled by the personal characteristics of a Jew to whom he cannot bear even to give a name, characteristics which he somehow manages to identify as Jewish. He is unsparing about the sheer stupidity and dirtiness of so many of the proletarian families with whom he lodges, and is sometimes condescending about the extreme limitations of their education and imagination. The failure of The Road to Wigan Pier was partly attributable to a successful Communist campaign to defame it (and him) for saying that “the working classes smell.” Orwell never actually did say this, except in the oblique context of denouncing those who did, but his own slightly wrinkled nostrils must have helped a little in the spread of the slander.
It may not be too much to claim that by undertaking these investigations, Orwell helped found what we now know as “cultural studies” and “postcolonial studies.” His study of unemployment and poor housing in the north of England stands comparison, with its careful statistics, with Friedrich Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, published a generation or two earlier. But with its additional information and commentary about the reading and recreational habits of the workers, the attitudes of the men to their wives, and the mixtures of expectation and aspiration that lent nuance and distinction to the undifferentiated concept of “the proletariat,” we can see the accumulation of debt that later “social” authors and analysts, such as Michael Young and Richard Hoggart, owed to Orwell when they began their own labors in the postwar period. We can also feel, in the increasingly stubborn growth of his egalitarian and socialist principles during these years, the germination of one of the most famous lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four: “If there is hope, it lies in the proles.” From a detail in the life of the British coal miner—does he have the right to a cleansing bath at the pithead, and if so, does he pay for it out of his own wages and in his own time?—Orwell illustrates the potential power of the working class to generate its own resources out of an everyday struggle, but also to generalize that quotidian battle for the resolution of greater and nobler matters such as the ownership of production and the right to labor’s full share.
Similarly, in North Africa, Orwell continued down the track on which he had begun when he declared his own independence from the British colonial system in Indochina. (It is often forgotten that one of his first published researches, written in French and published by a small radical house in Paris, was about the way in which Britain’s exploitation perpetuated the underdevelopment of Burma.) The sexual and racial implications of the exertion of colonial power he reserved for his first novel—Burmese Days—but he never lost sight of the importance of the economic substratum and, in his comparatively brief sojourn in Morocco, was also highly interested in the ethnic composition of the population and in such seemingly arcane matters as the circulation wars between the different language groups and political factions, as reflected in the sales of local newspapers. Again, though, one notices a certain fastidious preoccupation with the stench of poverty and squalor, including some pungent reflections on the discrepant scents of Jewish and Arab ghettos.
The most searing and formative experience of Orwell’s engagement with the thirties was his enlistment on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, during which he took a bullet in the throat from the fascist side and—very nearly—another one in the back from the Communists. If there is a diary covering this intense period it almost certainly reposes in the archives of the Russian secret police in Moscow, having been seized from Orwell and his wife during a Communist police raid on his Barcelona hotel in 1937. However, references to Spain, and to the agony of its defeat at the hands of a military rebellion backed by Hitler and Mussolini, are scattered throughout every section of these English and Moroccan journals.
In England, Orwell concentrates on attitudes about the war among workers and intellectuals and draws on his friendship with other radical British volunteers from the educated classes to propose a “Peoples’ Army,” along the lines of the Spanish militias, to defend Britain in the event of a German invasion. With the help of some seasoned veterans like Tom Wintringham, Humphrey Slater, and Tom Hopkinson, the idea of a “Home Guard” for precisely this purpose was actually officially implemented, contributing considerably to the quiet egalitarian revolution which swept Britain during the war and helped evict the Conservatives from power as soon as it ended.
From this period also dates some of Orwell’s best and most mordant egalitarianism. Readers who have followed the “99 per cent” campaign of response to the mixture of crime and capitalism on Wall Street in 2011 may be amused at the exactitude of Orwell’s observation in this culling from the press.
From a letter from Lady Oxford to the Daily Telegraph, on the subject of war economies:
“Since most London houses are deserted there is little entertaining . . . in any case, most people have to part with their cooks and live in hotels.”
Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99% of the population exist.*
Franco’s invasion of Spain was initially launched from Madrid’s colony in Morocco and reinforced by the deployment of several Moorish colonial regiments. Orwell’s interest in the territory, then, was also heavily strategic. He thought that the Allies should declare in favor of Moroccan independence and then set up a provisional antifascist Spanish government in exile, thus taking Franco in the rear both militarily and politically. However, knowing the generally pro-imperial mentality of the British establishment, and its obdurate shortsightedness in preferring Franco to a victory of the Spanish left, he was sure that London would lack the imagination for such an emancipating move (and he was right). Nonetheless, it deserves to be remembered that, throughout the course of a protracted war which concentrated attention on the grand Atlantic and Pacific “theaters” and on the huge battles in Western Europe and Russia, Orwell always sought to focus attention on the liberation of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), on the independence of India and Burma, on the sufferings of the Maltese under Axis bombardment, on the aspirations of Arab nationalism, and in general on the end of imperialism. This was an outcome which he foresaw, and worked for, long before most intellectuals—even many leftist ones—could be convinced that the days of a white-ruled globe were over.
It was from his time making wartime broadcasts to India for the BBC that Orwell began to concentrate on the idea of history and falsification. He could see events being mutated into propaganda before his very eyes, even in the information headquarters of an ostensible democracy. Thus in the summer of 1942, when the British authorities resorted to massive force in order to put down demonstrations and riots in India, he noticed that the hitherto respectable name of Nehru—once the British favorite for the Indian leadership—had somehow become blacklisted: “Today the reference to Nehru was cut out of the announcement—N. being in prison and therefore having become Bad.” This is a slight but definite prefiguration of the scenes in the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where certain political figures are suddenly deemed to be “unpersons” and where rapid changes of wartime allegiance necessitate the hectic rewriting of recent history.
The culture of censorship and denial also necessitated a coarsening of attitudes to language and truth; earlier in the same year he had written:
We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply dis- appeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.**
One has to use a certain amount of decoding to identify literary transitions like this, as they move from Orwell’s private to his published writing, whereas other sources of inspiration and provocation are more blunt and obvious. In 1939 he takes a “miscellaneous” diary note from the agricultural journal Smallholder: “Rat population of G.Britain estimated at 4–5 million.” Who knows in what part of his cortex he stored away that random finding, against the day when it would help form one of the most arresting images of terror in all of his fiction. Indeed, the whole leprous moral and social texture of “Airstrip One,” his dystopian name for a future totalitarian Britain, is taken from the dank, smelly, depressing, and undernourished society (“drowning in filth” in a less metaphorical sense) that he had been observing at close hand in peace and war. It was this that called upon his growing capacity “to see the world in a grain of sand / and heaven in a wild flower.”***
This need to know things at the level of basic experience, and the reluctance to be fobbed off by the official story or the popular rumor, was a part of the “infinite capacity for taking pains” that Thomas Carlyle once described as the constituent of genius. Hearing a rumor in 1940 that “Jews greatly predominate among the people sheltering in the Tubes [London underground stations],” Orwell minutes, “Must try and verify this.” Two weeks later, he is down in the depths of the transport system to examine “the crowds sheltering in Chancery Lane, Oxford Circus and Baker Street stations. Not all Jews, but, I think, a higher proportion of Jews than one would normally see in a crowd of this size.” He goes on, with almost cold objectivity, to note that Jews have a way of making themselves conspicuous. Again, this is not so much an expression of prejudice as a form of confrontation with it: a stage in Orwell’s own evolution. Only a few days after he expresses the misanthropic and even xenophobic view that European refugees, including Jews, secretly despise England and surreptitiously sympathize with Hitler, he excoriates the insular-minded British authorities for squandering the talents of the Jewish Central European émigré Arthur Koestler. When he contradicts himself, as he very often does, he tries his best to be aware of the fact and to profit from it.****
A good small example of the ways in which Orwell could discover virtues even in matters of which he disapproved is provided by an observation he makes during this same period of bombardment, while surveying the near destruction by the Nazis of London’s most beloved cathedral:
Appalled today by the havoc all round St. Paul’s, which I had not seen before. St. Paul’s, barely chipped, standing out like a rock. It struck me for the first time that it is a pity the cross on top of the dome is such an ornate one. It should be a plain cross, sticking up like the hilt of a sword.
This forms an admirable example of what I have elsewhere described as Orwell’s version of the Protestant ethic and the Puritan revolution. In his essays, he generally ridiculed the Christian religion and displayed an especial animus toward its Roman Catholic version, but he admired the beauty of the Anglican liturgy and knew much of the King James Bible and the Cranmer Book of Common Prayer by heart. In this image of a possible St. Paul’s, drawn almost from the rhetoric of John Milton and Oliver Cromwell, he evinces an understanding that certain traditional values may become useful for radical purposes: the ceremonial symbol pressed into service as a weapon of popular struggle. (His ambitions for the Home Guard clearly drew on his admiration for Cromwell’s “New Model Army.”)
The Protestant revolution was partly centered on the long battle to have the Bible made available in the English vernacular and removed from the control of the linguistic priesthood or “Inner Party.” So it is perhaps surprising, given his lifelong near-obsession with the subject, that Orwell does not appear to expend much energy here in his famous preoccupation with the mutations of the English language for purposes of propaganda. There is one vivid example, but it has more to do with another element of “Newspeak”: the need for compression in order to produce journalistic neologism. In the early days of the bombing of London, he observes that “the word ‘blitz’ now used everywhere to mean any kind of attack on anything. . . . ‘Blitz’ is not yet used as a verb, a development I am expecting.” Three weeks later he laconically records that “the Daily Express has used ‘blitz’ as a verb.” At a slightly later stage, while analyzing the way in which he finds himself scouring the press for deeper sources of interpretation, he decides that “nowadays, whatever is said or done, one looks instantly for hidden motives and assumes that words mean anything except what they appear to mean.” So the outline of a discourse in which, for example, “freedom is slavery,” was slowly taking shape in his mind. This is not a thesaurus of eurekas, in other words, so much as a gradual and often arduous set of connections being slowly pieced together.
It seems to be an open question whether that very weight—the strain and tedium and approximation of everyday existence—was a hindrance to Orwell or an assistance. He himself seems to have thought that the exigencies of poverty, ill health, and overwork were degrading him from being the serious writer he might have been and had reduced him to the status of a drudge and pamphleteer. Reading through these meticulous and occasionally laborious jottings, however, one cannot help but be struck by the degree to which he became, in Henry James’s words, one of those upon whom nothing was lost. By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage. And, permanently tempted though he was by cynicism and despair, Orwell also believed in the latent possession of these faculties by those we sometimes have the nerve to call “ordinary people.” Here, then, is some of the unpromising bedrock—hardscrabble soil in Scotland, gritty coal mines in Yorkshire, desert landscapes in Africa, soulless slums and bureaucratic offices—combined with the richer soil and loam of ever-renewing nature, and that tiny, irreducible core of the human personality that somehow manages to put up a resistance to deceit and coercion. Out of the endless attrition between them can come such hope as we may reasonably claim to possess.
(Reprinted, in slightly different form, in Vanity Fair, August 2012)
*It perhaps counts as an irony of British society that the little Oxfordshire church-yard in which Orwell was laid to rest, in the village of Sutton Courtenay, became also the “last resting place” of Margot Asquith’s husband, the former prime minister and Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Equality between the one and the ninety-nine was attainable at least in death.
**This is a very acute register of what Orwell himself called “a power of facing unpleasant facts.” Netted in a world of lies, he wanted not to be spared the bad news or coddled by victory propaganda at his place of work. And he despised the alter- native flow of information and insight, which was gossip and rumor. Like Winston Smith, he was first and foremost activated by a raging thirst to know: a thirst that could only be slaked by a personal quest for the least varnished version of the truth.
***It is from this poem of William Blake’s that Orwell also claimed one of his favorite lines, and one of the clues to his personality: “A truth that’s told with bad intent / Beats all the lies you can invent.”
****It deserves to be said that Orwell went on to write several analyses and condemnations of anti-Semitism and to attack contemporary writers like G. K. Chesterton who exploited it in their work. Among his colleagues and friends at the socialist weekly Tribune he numbered two Jewish colleagues, Jon Kimche and T. R. “Tosco” Fyvel. Not to recycle any corny allusion to “some of my best friends,” but Fyvel regarded Orwell as free from prejudice and even as having been slightly prescient in his misgivings about Zionism, then a popular cause on the left. (Orwell thought that even if it were a just cause it would necessitate a garrison state to defend itself against the rival nationalism that it had defeated.)
From And Yet…: Essays. Used with permission from Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2015 by Estate of Christopher Hitchens.