Fall 2003 - Volume 6 Number 1
Down the Memory Hole: Orwell at 100
We have organized our civilization with clocks and calendars. We have taken note of decades and millennia, anniversaries and centennials. This habit has allowed us to show up at work on time, and to study our past in digestible, if artificial lumps. It has also permitted us to define and regularly celebrate important events. Otherwise arbitrary dates serve as punctuation marks in our historical sentences, paragraphs and longer narratives. In any intrinsically meaningful sense, there were no "sixties." There was no "nineteenth century," no "age of enlightenment," and no "medieval era." Such markers are contingent and convenient categories to which we allocate events in order to construct coherent stories. Each, we insist, has a beginning, a middle and an end. They are fake. They are made up.
This is the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell or, rather, Eric Arthur Blair. The date, 1903, is contrived to match a calendar constructed by some ancient Romans. It has been amended to fit the travels of our planet around our local star, and numbered to reflect the sum of years since the birth of a singular religious figure in Palestine, about 2000 circumnavigations of the Sun ago. It, too, is a fabrication, just like the name George Orwell.1 Mr. Orwell, famed for his commitment to the simple truth and common decencies, is just a nom de plume, a persona, created for reasons known best to Mr. Blair.2 Some even doubt the literal truth of his journalism. The line between fact and fancy seemed sometimes blurred. Whether or not he actually shot an elephant, he certainly previewed the "new journalism" of the 1960s and 1970s. Think of it: George Orwell as a primitive drunken Norman Mailer or drug besotted Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.3
This is also the 100th anniversary if my fathers birth. I am one of a very few people left alive who cares about my father. Lots of people care about Mr. Orwell. George Orwell is different. George Orwell matters. As befits a man of his standing, the centenary of his birth has been marked by the publication of several new biographies, an abundance of tributes, an academic conference or two, and an abundance of controversies. Many of the debates are old, but newly enlivened by Trotskyite sputters, anarchist spits and Stalinist smoke arising from the smoldering dustbin of history. George Orwell would be amused by the "numerology" of centenaries. He would be perplexed by their politics. He would be outraged by the biographies. George Orwell frequently felt himself a failure.4 He was distressed by the idea that someone would chronicle his life and explicitly forbade anyone to do so in his last will and testament. Sorry, George. Thanks, Sonia.5 Happy 100th, Dad.
The 1970s and the 1980s saw the best commentaries and explications of the life of George Orwell. We could probably have remained safe with them. However, the opportunity for a party, or a book tour, is not lightly ignored. Therefore, we have new material to work with and to work through.Body-snatching from the Right
Mr. Orwell was one of the most memorable of twentieth-century English writers, except for the fact that he was born in India, of a half-French mother and a father who was as absent from his life as fathers were often absent from his novels. He was never quite at home in Britain. He was never quite at home anywhere. Something was always slightly amiss. So it is with the centennial spate of life histories. The most provocative (or at least the most publicized on this side of the pond) was actually published in 2002. Its author was Christopher Hitchens, who has been nominated both as the successor to George Orwell and to Gore Vidal. Orwell, it is plain, would be his icon of choice.6 As for the false start, it never hurts to get a leg up on the competition.
The others - Bowker, Lucas and Taylor-have ambitions, but they are unlikely to imagine themselves quite so strategically placed. Besides, though a political writer who preferred plain fact to speculative theory, Orwell is most associated with debates in which the question of truth is central. In this regard, it is Hitchens, in some ways the least successful of the biographers, who nonetheless offers the most interesting challenge. Even, it seems, in the matter of celebration, there is something about the discussion of George Orwell that is not quite right.
An excellent example of the ambiguity that surrounds George Orwell can be seen on the website of the US plutocrat Malcolm Forbes. There, the relentlessly inept and so far unelectable presidential candidate champions American capitalism, advocates the "flat tax," and seeks to enlighten the electorate by promoting a Conservative Book Club. Its inventory is chockablock with erudite volumes that promote his right-wing views. This is as it should be. Who, after all, would deny citizens-even the obscenely wealthy and obsessively powerful Mr. Forbes-the right to proselytize in their own self-interest? That said, it is dismaying to learn that, among the books that this group holds high on its list, is George Orwells 1984.
Orwell, bless him, wrote vigourously that his polemic against totalitarianism ought neither to be interpreted as an attack on socialism nor as a defence of capitalism. Alas, 1984 was his last novel. His health failed, his voice was silenced, and his pleas have been largely ignored by English teachers and supporters of the Congress for Cultural Freedom alike. Whether by their own lights, or because they were illuminated by the CIA, three generations of children have learned to associate Big Brother with Big Government and have therefore become suspicious of public enterprise, social programs and the modern welfare state in all its forms. Worse, now that the Soviet Empire has imploded, the alleged lessons of 1984 are being applied willy-nilly to the broad range of economic and cultural policies that pass for "left-wing" plans and projects in Canada and throughout the western capitalist democracies. Orwell would have been appalled, as he frequently was, but not shocked. The perversion of his attack on totalitarianism, both in 1984 and in the anti-Stalinist novel Animal Farm, into an assault on democratic socialism has been ... well, Orwellian.
Orwell wrote seventy-six "As I Please" columns for the Tribune and served as that journals literary editor during the last years of World War II. His offerings are reminiscent of no one more than the tory radical Cobbett.7 It is fitting, perhaps, to give voice to a current Tribune writer to settle the matter of the poaching of Orwells politics. "Nothing," writes Ian Hamilton, "vindicates Orwell so much as his criticsexcept perhaps the usurpers who have posthumously enlisted his name in support of causes that he would have detested." Orwells clearly stated political and moral positions, he continues, "have been chucked down the memory hole so that he can be rewritten as a free market conservative, or in the case of Christopher Hitchens, somehow as simultaneously a Trotskyist and a retrospective neo-neoconservative supporter of current American imperial ambitions." 8 I do not propose to add to the attempts to rehabilitate or further distort Orwell here, but it is worthwhile to outline the debate that continues to whirl around him.The Cardboard Controversy
The twisting of the message in his last novels, is only the final (though surely the most important) of the spins and turns associated with him, his career and his legacy. To set matters up, it is useful to take advantage of Terry Eagletons recent piece in the London Review of Books. He puts those who would judge Orwell in two rival camps and summarizes the cases for the prosecution and the defence in order:
Orwell was a self-mythologizing romantic toff who went in for the odd bit of sentimental slumming, sometimes adopting a ludicrous cockney accent in the process, and ended up in political defeatism and despair. A second-rate novelist and a furtively fabricating social commentator, he was a homophobic, anti-feminist, unsociable, anti-intellectual authoritarian and latently violent. He was also an anti-semitic, sexually promiscuous, self-pitying Little Englander, whose later fantasies about Big Brother and pigs running farms (they havent the trotters for it) bequeathed a set of lurid stereotypes and convenient caricatures to the Right.9
Orwell was a magnificently courageous opponent of political oppression, a man of unswerving moral integrity and independence of spirit who risked his life fighting Fascism, narrowly escaped death at the hands of Stalins agents in Spain, and denounced imperialism of which he had had unpleasant firsthand knowledge as a young policeman in Burma. In the meantime, he managed to pioneer what is now known as cultural studies. In a remarkable feat of self-refashioning, he turned his back on a life of middle-class privilege and chose for his companions tramps, hop-pickers, Catalonian revolutionaries, louche artists and political activists.10
Most standardized curricula and teachers handbooks enforce banality and insist that such polarities be transformed into the bell curve bromide that the truth is probably somewhere in between. My suspicion is that any truth that is available to us will include both extremes, the middle, and a good deal more as well.11The Primacy of Polemics
The first theme to be dealt with and discarded is the notion of literary merit. It is entirely a secondary matter even to address the question of whether or not Orwell was a "good" novelist or creative writer of any sort. As I see it, John Wain nicely dispensed with this issue almost fifty years ago when he urged us to stop worrying about how Orwell measured up as a ?man of letters.? Orwell himself said that "all art is propaganda." 12 If this is how Orwell read others, Wain suggests it is how we should read him. If we do so, we can quickly get past "the initial paradox-the fact that his work, with so many and such crippling faults, contrives to be so valuable and interesting. He was," Wain goes on, "a novelist who never wrote a satisfactory novel, a literary critic who never bothered to learn his trade properly, a social historian whose history was full of gaps. Yet, he matters. For as polemic, his work is never less than magnificent." 13
Polemic is a kind of writing that recognizes that an issue exists about which it is important to take sides. It involves the choice of which side to take. It then uses whatever skills the author may possess as a journalist, novelist, poet, playwright or pamphleteer to persuade an attentive public to accept the authors interpretation and to take such action as the author implicitly or explicitly recommends. The qualities of polemical writing are, thus, not those of artists alone, but assume the character of virtues and include urgency, incisiveness, clarity and humour. These, says Wain, Orwell "possessed in exactly the right combination." 14Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens is an extraordinary polemicist. For more than a quarter-century, he has been a journalistic force on both sides of the Atlantic. He is most famous for his excoriating attacks on a range of scoundrels from Mother Theresa to Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton.15 His contempt for all three derives from the high moral ground he has taken on the questions of venal selfishness and disregard for plain truth. All three come up short, although his abhorrence of Mother Theresa is compounded by his well publicized hatred for religion (he is no mere atheist but a stout anti-theist).
Hitchens is also well known for his excellent essays for The Nation and his critical commentaries for Vanity Fair. His Letters to a Young Contrarian convinced many contemporary young people that there was honour in dissent, and gave helpful hints about how to display personal integrity while defying the wickedness of authority.16 He, unlike other formidable patrician dissidents such as Lewis Lapham, has been given more television time than almost any other ostensible leftist in the closed circuitry of US network programming. A loquacious Englishman with a large vocabulary, a sinister wit and a wide circle of influential contacts, he has parlayed his privileged English education and early Trotskyist activism into a role as house rebel for the US liberal/literary establishment. Always a little dangerous (he did, after all, present a modest brief against Americas elder statesman Kissinger as a real war criminal), he was a sort of "Lears foole" to the readers of the New York Times. Cleverer than most, however, he has yet to be hung. What has been said of Orwell has been said of Hitchens as well:
A passionate left-wing polemicist, he nonetheless retained more than a few traces of his public-school breeding, including a plummy accent and a horde of posh friends. He combined cultural Englishness with political cosmopolitanism, and detested political personality cults while sedulously cultivating a public image of himself. From a vantage point of relative security, he made the odd foray into the lives of the blighted and dispossessed, partly to keep his political nose to the ground and partly because such trips furnished him with precious journalistic copy. He had the ornery, bloody-minded streak of the independent leftist and idiosyncratic Englishman, as adept at ruffling the feathers of his fellow socialists as at outraging the opposition. As he grew older, this cussedness became more pronounced, until his hatred of benighted autocratic states led him in the eyes of many to betray his left-wing views altogether.17
For Orwell, the dispossessed were in Spain, English mines and prisons, the slums of London and Paris, and the imperial hinterland. For Hitchens, they ranged throughout the world, though they were notably located in Palestine.18
Christopher Hitchens can be forgiven for writing a laudatory book on Orwell at the time that he did for several reasons. Having apparently made peace with capitalism, it was an opportunity to make a good profit. As well, he had been so negative about his main subjects that some people were becoming worried that he was just a carpy harpy with the gift of the gab. It was time to come out for something. As well, his political ideas were changing. Like social democrat apostates who cover their retreat from the left with the claim that they can no longer be associated with a political program that approves of illegal strikes or defends the freedom of speech of pornographers, so Hitchens was in need of cover for his departure from The Nation and the liberal left in the United States over the question of terrorism. Invoking the memory of Orwell may simply have been serendipitous, but it did not hurt.
Well aware of the practical limitations of Orwells politics, Hitchens emphasizes the moral and communicative clarity of the writing. To do so is an exquisite challenge for Hitchens. For years, he has made a career out of acerbic irreverence, being especially keen on demolishing windy academics, obsessive-compulsive policy analysts and unprincipled self-promoters such as (in his view) Mother Theresa, Henry Kissinger and William Jefferson Clinton. Except for some short pieces on undoubtedly heroic eastern Europeans, residents of the Balkans, Cyprus and the middle east, Hitchens has never written a tribute to anyone. The result is a slim and predictable volume. In the end, Hitchens has remarkably little to add to our store of knowledge about George Orwell. Hitchens argues that Orwells fame and rectitude are based on three claims:
Like many such honest, prescient and brave heroes, Orwell was misunderstood and thought a bit odd in his time. He was also "independent." Hitchens emphasizes Orwells independence, says Stephan Collini, "because he shares with him the animating illusion that to be out of step with a large body of opinion is in itself the most likely indicator of being right." 19 After setting down a brief inventory of Orwells admirable traits, Hitchens does not have a great deal more to say about Orwell himself. Why should he? He is a polemicist, too. He wants to make a case for Orwell, not to describe or explain him.
Accordingly, what he does with characteristic wit and relish is beat up on anyone who has ever had a critical remark to make about George Orwell. How one reads these jousts (mainly with the dead) will depend on the question of whom one prefers in the battle. I, for example, enjoyed his pillorying of the right, but felt compelled to murmur "Steady on! Fair play!" when Hitchens went after the late historian Edward Thompson. Such is the nature of polemics. One must choose sides.
Insofar as Orwell and Hitchens exemplify the traditional liberties of the free-born English, they are worthy blokes. When, however, their high grade philistinism takes command and they run out of breath for want of something new to say, they can each become a bit wearisome. Of Orwell, it can be said that he tried to exculpate himself from the role of a right-wing Cold Warrior; Hitchens has taken the torch in (as always) defiance of the comfortable, complacent consensus. Truth be told, however, Hitchens is merely one of the more articulate lads in the pub, all too comfortable among the new burghers and advocating the new (if temporary) consensus, as codified by Donald Rumsfeld with CNN as the virtual town crier. Not much integrity there.
Both, it can be said, reverted to type. Orwell was by far the more protean. He played many parts. I can imagine him as a secondary character in Graham Greenes The Comedians. I can imagine him almost anywhere. He wore many hats, and he filled out the body beneath them with admirable skill. An actor committed to the cause of keeping the play going, he finally succumbed to the frailty of his diseased lungs and the heartlessness of a diseased world. Then, he quit. Hitchens has fewer opportunities for playfulness. He has become a character, not a character actor. Neither has been quite able to escape their roots.
In one sense, the sense of a committed revolutionary, Orwell had set the stage for reversion in 1940. He had already gone postmodern. In "Inside the Whale," he wrote:
Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism-robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale-or, rather, admit that you are already inside it (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you can control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it.20
A short time ago, the following copy of a note to Hitchens appeared in pixels on my computer screen. It seems to have come from the fine Chicago journalist Studs Terkel. It is addressed to Christopher Hitchens:
Chris, I miss your stuff in The Nation very much. It discombobulates me that your stalwart Orwellian self has become aligned with the wanton boy swatting flies. Remember the line from King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport." That a wanton boy, at this moment in history, is the most powerful man in the world is an absurd fact. It's a scenario that can have been written only by that master of outrageous humour W.C. Fields. It grieves me that one as gifted as you has chosen to play second banana to the wanton boy in a burlesque skit that's not very funny. Come back, Chris; the martini is waiting. On second thought, I withdraw the invitation. Difficulties might ensue. We'd reflect, of course, on the wanton boy's appointment of Kissinger as truth-seeker. But as we mellowed with a drink or two, we'd probably reminisce about our dear old friend Jessica Mitford and what she'd make of things today; and of you. Five gets you ten she'd have said, "Christopher Hitchens, poor boy, since his conversion, has been transmogrified from a witty observer of the human comedy to a bloody bore, seated at the far-right end of the bar." As you may surmise, Kiddo, it would wind up as a somewhat less than pleasant visit. I'd find the memory of Mitford much better company than the presence of Hitchens. Thus, at this moment, I'm drinking alone, hoisting one to Jessica (Decca, as we called her) and her dreams; and mine; and young Christopher's.
Most biographies are not polemics. Their traditional task has been to provide a record of the life and times of a person who was either to be revered or chastised as a champion, martyr or villain. So, the deeds and thoughts of extraordinary individuals were set down and a narrative woven around them to give structure to their stories and, often, substance to the "morals" they were created to teach. In addition to these ends, a task has been added to many biographies, especially in the past century. It has been to link public acts and statements to private histories (conscious or unconscious). This was no doubt a consequence of the influence that Sigmund Freud recently had on pretty much the whole of western civilization. Some ?psychohistorians? even went so far as to dig into the bones and spirits of the long dead to induce why people from Martin Luther to Karl Marx turned out the way they did. Indeed, efforts have been made to transform entire political philosophies into detailed psychopathologies. In some cases (Friedrich Nietzsche and Louis Althusser come prominently to mind), it has been demonstrated that authors of genius occasionally have a screw loose. The implications that counter-ideologues try to draw from examinations of the mental health of influential writers are, however, questionable. Believing that anti-semitism is morally wrong (as Nietzsche did) or that economic conditions profoundly affect cultural values (as Marx did) are not necessary signs of madness, or even a bad childhood. In fact, we might do better to discuss ideas rather than the personalities that came up with them.
Orwell was of a different view. He thought it important to understand an authors motive for writing and, more important, he said flatly: "I do not think one can assess a writers motives without knowing something of his early development." 21 The obsession with biography, especially when it indulges in the systematic poking about in an authors bed-wetting, early family relations or puberty rites, is fascinating for those interested in the trivialization of later thoughts. It betrays, however, a sort of compulsive anti-intellectualism that is bound to trade in the fetishism of the singular. Just as organizational "case histories" are of no particular use to anyone seeking to understand social structures and trends, so probing into the "naughty bits" (or gallant triumphs, for that matter) of great writers tell us precious little about the character and quality of their writing. This is not to say that the mighty text must stand wholly apart from its author (Heideggers association with the Nazis remains relevant in any consideration of the "Black Forest philosopher," but Being and Time merits study quite apart from anything a psychologist might make of his relationship with Hannah Arendt, just as Socrates can be held to account for his support of dictators and the relentless censorship of poets regardless of his being Alcibiades big tease).
Unfortunately, those who wish to make his politics the explanandum of his internal explanans, will find that Orwell, as usual, presents difficulties. While the general facts about his family life, school days and opportunities to fantasize about sticking bayonets in the guts of sniggering Buddhist priests are fairly well known, the intricacies of his private life are not easy to weigh. His internal dialogue has often been called "impenetrable." What is not impenetrable is the importance that Orwell gave to individual attributes, both external and internal.
Terry Eagleton points out that Orwell greatly esteemed Charles Dickens, "a writer for whom abstract moral states reflect themselves in physical features. For Dickens," he relates, "you cannot be virtuous and have greasy skin. With inverted Romanticism, Orwell even seemed to think that the more squalid things were, the more real they became. In his sub-Zolaesque, anti-pansy way, he could not see that beauty is as real as mice-droppings or faecal odours." The aesthetics of the aficionados of the soiled not only helped sell his books, but also allowed him to deal with moral questions without bothering to understand them. The political consequences were obvious: "portraying the seamy side of things seems a radical gesture; yet it also paints a world so gross that it is hard to imagine how it might be transformed, which is not a radical gesture at all." 22 Dickens and Marx saw the same London. Dickens was content to moralize and offer the comfortable view that life would be much nicer if the people who lived it were nicer. Orwell was not about to fall for that, but he was not going to think too much about the systemic nature of capitalism either.
Orwell was fond of saying that he learned more about the evils of capitalism by watching a man pilfer food than he did from reading socialist pamphlets. He also insisted, referring to his serving as a police officer in Burma in his more-or-less callow youth, that no one could understand imperialism without having been a part of it. In short, he wallowed in the crude epistemology of lived experience. The problem is that this is rot. Seeing a homeless child or a crackhead can as easily evoke a sense of disgust as of compassion; in neither case does it produce understanding of poverty or addiction. Dickens made us feel better about ourselves as we wept for Little Nell and despised Uriah Heep; Orwell makes us feel a little worse about everybody, ourselves included. Neither generated greater understanding.Bowker and Taylor
The books by Bowker and Taylor are traditional biographies. They are reasonably judicious in their selection of subject matter and moderate in their judgements. Both pay heed to Orwells prep school and to his time in Spain. Both acknowledge that he was misogynistic, homophobic and not much fun at parties. If full of himself and eager to impose his opinions on others, he was so mainly when shielded by the bulwark of his typewriter ribbon.
Of the two, Bowker is more interested in Orwells pursuit of la boue. (Sartre felt nausea at the sight of a used Kleenex, Orwell wanted to embrace it). He also actively addresses Orwells sexuality and his typically "lower-upper-middle class" interest in the occult. Taylor deals a little more with official family background, including his clergyman grandfather Thomas Blair and his father, who possessed the Gilbert & Sullivan sounding title (Eagleton prefers "Monty Pythonesque") of Assistant Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, Fifth Grade.
There is, however, considerable overlap between the two, as though they had combed through the same sources and picked different bits according to taste. The ever reliable Eagleton tell us that "the world is too big and life is too short for both these impressive volumes. Perhaps some kind soul should have put the two men in touch with each other." 23 They are nonetheless to be commended for their interpretation of George Orwell as a literary figure and as a man. Writes Paul Foot: "These two long and admirable biographies have surely dredged up all that there is left to be known about this shy man of action who liked above all to be alone with the fish and birds on a remote Scottish island." 24 His politics? Apart from discussing, at good length, Orwells time in Spain and its consequences, they seem to be indifferent: "Taylor does not care, and Bowker cares only a little, that Orwell gave British intelligence the names of Communists-like any fink from the Ministry of Truth.25Lucas
Others do care. If Hitchens is somewhat self-serving, Scott Lucas is written in the service of a cause. He is a vengeful prosecutor of almost Doestoevskian dimensions. Scott Lucas teaches American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham. His Orwell: Life and Times is a relentless attack on Orwell as a closet liberal and a bundle of political and personal contradictions that would not need to be sorted out, save for his enduring influence. His attacks, like most polemics, are sometimes (but only sometimes) fair, but there is a fine line between a hearty polemic and a grating rant. Lucas too often crosses the line, offering any supporter of Orwell a large target to counter attack.
He says that Orwell was self-contradictory; but that does not make him a hypocrite. He points to his lack of political correctness, especially in his famous derision of the "pansy Left" and the venomous misogyny in 1984. He takes pains to recall Orwells "aesthetic distaste" for Gandhi. He faults him for his ignorance of Marxist theory (the closest he ever got to Marx might have been in the naming of his dog), his weak grasp of history, and his inability to offer any constructive solution to politics under capitalism. All this is true enough, but it is seriously beside the point. Just as Orwell is not sensibly to be criticized as a failed man of letters, neither does it do much good to hold him accountable for his deficiency as political philosopher of high degree. That was not what he did. It was not in his job description.
So, there is no gain in noting that Orwells pragmatics were occasionally bizarre (he toyed with the notion of transforming the Home Guard into a proletarian army that would overthrow the British government in 1941 and carry on with the support of European socialists to defeat fascism and establish a federation of democratic socialist states in Europe).26 It advances no cause to rehearse the facts that:
Much of what Lucas has to say is, of course, undeniably true. It is also irrelevant, for Orwell is not a man to be judged on his failure as a Marxist philosopher, nor even as a modest supporter of the Labour Party for whom he campaigned in a desultory manner in 1945. Lucas, however, cannot help himself. Orwell was a brilliant Cassandra; what he warned about was the totalitarianism that Lucas can not defend but must try to ignore.
For Lucas, Orwell is an enemy. As such, we witness what John Newsinger calls a "traditional Stalinist attack on Orwell, but with the Stalinism left out. For Lucas, Orwell was really never more than a liberal (he provides a particularly fatuous discussion of Orwell and Dickens to prove this) and with the onset of the Cold War he finally displayed his true colours." What Lucas cannot adequately face is the problem that Orwell did engage: how to rehabilitate socialism in the wake of Lenin and Stalin in ruins. Writes Newsinger
Instead, all of Orwell's attacks on Stalinism are treated as if they were attacks on socialism, despite Orwell's continued insistence that they were not. This was never an honest way to proceed but while one might have got away with it when Stalinism still had some credibility on the left, you cannot get away with it today. For Lucas, Orwell is tarnished by, indeed blamed for, those socialists who did become Cold War liberals. What he cannot account for are the thousands who every year are inspired by Orwell, whom he helps to see through the rubbish to continue the struggle for a better world.27
Orwells last years were depressing. Ill, stuck up on the island of Jura with little human contact (by choice), finishing 1984 in a state of despair, and desperately searching for a new wife to care for his adopted son, Richard, after his passing, he gave attention to the future of Britain.
In 1949, George Orwell composed an infamous list which he turned over to Celia Kirwan, a young woman with whom he seemed smitten at the time. She worked with the "Information Research Department." Orwells list contained the names of people whom he would not considered appropriate for post-war government employment explicitly because of their political views. Sir Michael Redgrave was on that list. So were other "unreliable" people such as historian E. H. Carr, comedian Charlie Chaplin, anthropologist Gordon Childe, political philosopher G. D. H. Cole,political economist Harold Laski, historian Isaac Deutscher, editor Kingsley Martin, singer/actor Paul Robeson and others among "the usual suspects." Orwells list has been called benign. At most, it was meant to identify possible fifth-columnists in the event of a future war with the Soviet Union. At worst, say Orwells defenders, it was a sort of "negative letter of reference" for future government jobs, and not a list of foreign agents to be picked up in case of hostilities. It had, after all, few serious or long-term consequences.
Still, Colin Redgrave is unsure. He is the son of Sir Michael Redgrave who was temporarily blacklisted by the BBC during World War II. After a couple of months, Prime Minister Churchill, under pressure from the likes of Leslie Howard, Sir Laurence Olivier and E. M. Forster, agreed that the ban on Sir Michael should be lifted. "Terribly sorry, old chap! No harm done." He wonders about such a list today. Under the terms and conditions of the Terrorism Act 2000, and at a time "when large posters urge on us the patriotic duty to report a ‘benefit fraud" 29 repressive measures and an ethos of informing should give us pause. That George Orwell should have been a "snitch" is a matter worthy of attention.Optimism, Pessimism and Corporatism
Scott Lucas, in e-mail conversation with D. J. Taylor, tried to end the debate saying, "Now that hes 100, lets put saint George to rest." 30 Much as I would like to agree, he will stick about for a while.
Ian Williams tells us why:
"At the Orwell centenary conference at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, this May, I had a sort of epiphany. Scholars were analyzing Orwells deep pessimism, and I had to go to the rostrum to share a brainstorm: in fact, Orwell was a hopeless optimist. In 1984, he thought that rulers would care enough about history to want to rewrite it! Does George W. Bush know or care?" 31
We have been more effective. We have dumped all knowledge of our past down a memory hole. We have put it in cold storage, in computerized data banks where it can be made the stuff of recombinant history to be sold to an indifferent public as entertainment. "Those who do not remember the past, we seem to recall Santayana saying, "are condemned to repeat it." That is too easy. The skeletal structure of the past has been fractured, its themes disjoined. Instead of Marxs famous dictum that events happen in history twice, first as tragedy and second as farce, we confront a future in which we are teaching ourselves Henry Fords dictum that history is bunk. The effect is a constantly revised electronic kaleidoscope of social simulacra mediated through electronic screens.
Thus, it happened that the historical 1984 of Orwells increasing furtive imagination did not come with OBrien and the rats. It also did not achieve the happy face totalitarianism of Brave New World. We have torture chambers and Wal-mart greeters, but they are neither so pervasive nor persuasive. The literary 1984, of course, was borrowed from Eugene Zamyatins 1918 novel We and anticipated Margaret Atwoods The Handmaids Tale (1984 from Julias perspective, if you will). It possessed the basic structure of all dystopias, but it does not help much in describing ours. Orwell was supremely indifferent to the United States. He was not much interested in technology. He did, however, know a thing or two about the ideological underpinnings of Boys Weeklies and he had worked for the BBC.32 So, he might have caught on quickly to the "information age." Still, just as he could not be blamed for misunderstanding Marx (he never tried), he cannot be attacked for failing to anticipate television, computers and the world-wide-web. That said, he is still no insightful commentator on the genuinely ghastly instruments of newspeak and the educational institutions that serve as the flourishing memory holes in our time. What remains valuable is his impulse to question, his hatred of class-based authority, his disgust at pious cant, his attachment to traditional liberties and his misgivings about progress. What remains to us is our duty to carry on this impulse.
Squabbling over his bones is unseemly. Besides, there are more constructive things to do. Lucas concedes that Orwell never abandoned the struggle for democratic socialism but warns that he also never provided an actionable alternative to pessimism and despair. If that is so, so be it. We can take up the struggle. It can start where Orwells intellectual contribution to emancipation started, with the study of language. We can divest ourselves of our own newspeak, of proactive strategies, of core competencies, of employee empowerment, of clients when we mean students, of visions and outcomes and all the other nonsense with which we pollute our memoranda and our minds. We can follow Orwells advice in our own colleges and speak plainly as a step toward speaking the truth. If we do, the catharsis we will bring upon ourselves will be tremendous.
Not long before he died, the Italian dictator Mussolini lamented that he regretted giving the name fascism to his movement, his party and his government. Such a magnificent union of capitalist economic power and state political authority ought properly to have been called corporatism. Were he here today, Orwell might have diagnosed the problems with corporatism. Were he true to form, he would not have come up with much of a therapy for it. That is our job.
1. The best contemporary evidence suggests that Jesus Christ was born in March, 7 BC. Even if we could achieve consensus on the timing, however, fixing things now would probably be more trouble than accuracy is worth.
2. Eric Blair could have as easily been Kenneth Miles or H. Lewis Allways. See The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1: An Age Like This 1920-1940 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 131 (hereafter CEJL). The alias he used while tramping was P. S. Burton. A popular version has it that he chose to rename himself after a local river so that he might distance himself from Down and Out in London and Paris, should it become embarrassing in the future.
3. I refer here especially to Mailers The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (New York: xxx) and Hunter Thompsons Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972 (New York: xxx).
4. CEJL-1, p. 26.
5. At the end of 1972, Mrs. Sonia Orwell, George Orwells widow, granted unrestricted access to Bernard Crick for the purpose of writing her husbands biography, George Orwell: A Life (London: Secker and Warburg, 1980). Though more recent volumes, including the ones under review here, have benefited from the disclosure of documents from other sources, Cricks remains the standard by which all others must be judged.
6. Vidals position on the attack on Iraq has, I am sure, put him quiet beyond the pale. See Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (New York: Thunders Mouth Press/Nation Books) 2003.
7. I stand corrected. After completing a draft of this review, I happened to download a review of Orwells Victory (the title of the British edition of Why Orwell Matters) in which Stephan Collini says that the prolific Mr. Hitchens "is one of the best contemporary examples of a species we tend to think of as living in the 19th century ... the political journalist as man of letters ... in style two parts Hazlitt to one part Cobbett with a dash of Crockers Tory venom." See " ‘No Bullshit Bullshit," London Review of Books (23 January, 2003).
8. Ian Williams, review of Bowker, Orwell, and Lucas, Orwell: Life and Times, in The Tribune (28 June, 2003)
9. Terry Eagleton, "Reach-Me-Down-Romantic," London Review of Books (19 June, 2003), p. 7.
10. Ibid., p. 8.
11. Acutely aware of the contradictory ideological interpretations of Orwell, Raymond Williams gave this advice in his book, Orwell (London: Fontana, 1971), p. 87: "Instead of flattening out the contradictions by choosing this or that tendency as the ‘real Orwell ... we ought to say that it is the paradoxes which are finally significant." This helps some, but not enough.
12. George Orwell, "Charles Dickens," in CEJL 1, p. 492.
13. John Wain, "George Orwell as a Writer of Polemic," in Essays on Literature and Ideas (London: Macmillian, 1957), reprinted in Raymond Williams, ed., George Orwell: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974), p. 90.
15. Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice (London: Verso, 1995), Nobody Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton (London: Verso, 1999). and The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London: Verso, 2001).
16. Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian (New York: Basic Books, 2001). Hitchens, incidentally, has also published four volumes of his best essays over the past two decades.
17. Eagleton, op. cit., p. 6.
18. See Christopher Hitchens and Edward Said, eds., Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (London: Verso, 1988).
19. Collini, op. cit.
20. George Orwell, "Inside the Whale," in CEJL, 1, pp. 576-577. Edward Thompson was unsatisfied with this "apology for quietism." His reply, ?Inside Which Whale?? has been published in a number of places, most prominently in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London: Merlin, 1979), pp. 1-33. Though no reference is made, Orwells most engaging thesis-the importance of remaining lucid in the maw of technology out of control-has been given new life in Henry S. Kariel, The Desperate Politics of Postmodernism, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989).
21.George Orwell, Why I Write, in CEJL, 1, p. 25.
22. Eagleton, op. cit. p.7.
23. Ibid., p. 9. Others do take sides on this matter. John Newsinger, writing in the July, 2003 issue of The Socialist Review is especially dismissive of Taylors Orwell. He calls it "a lightweight literary biography ... the limitations [of which] are best demonstrated by the fact that Taylor spends more time discussing Orwell's attitude to rats than he does his attitude towards the Soviet Union. ... The book is just not worth reading." After faintly praising Bowker for including new material of interest, he concludes that the best biography of the man remains Bernard Crick's Orwell: A Life, a judgement with which I am compelled to concur. As for Hitchens, Newsinger renders the verdict that "Orwells Victory is likely to be his last decent book now that he has become a cheerleader for US imperialism. It is a vigorous of Orwell, marred by a tendency to show off and self advertise. Nevertheless it is an excellent introduction."
24. Paul Foot, "By George, theyve got it," The Guardian (1 June, 2003).
26. Crick, op. cit., pp. 268-272. See also: CEJL Volume 2: My Country Right or Left 1940-1943 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), pp. 43-44, 141-142.
27. Newsinger, op. cit.
28. Colin Redgrave, "Idealists and informers," The Guardian (28 June, 2003).
29. The fact that the British intelligence service was infiltrated by KGB agents from Kim Philby (Head of MI6 in Washington), Donald Maclean (Head of Chancery and Secretary Atomic Energy Committee, British Embassy in Washington), Guy Burgess (Foreign Office), and Sir Anthony Blunt (Surveyor of the Queens Pictures) on down may be the best evidence that "crypto-communists" had little to fear from being ?ratted out? to MI5.
30. Scott Lucas, with D. J. Taylor, "Orwell: saint or stooge?" The Guardian (28 June, 2003).
31. Ian Williams, op. cit.
32. See CEJL - 1, pp. 505-531.
Howard A. Doughty, B.A.(York), M.A.(Hawaii), M.A.(York), M.Ed.(Toronto), teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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