In the 50 years since his death, Orwell has become England's secular saint.by Geoffrey Wheatcroft / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
Fifty years after his death, George Orwell looms larger than ever. His aura has never been greater, nor his name invoked more often. There is a strange symmetry about his life, death and legacy. His lifetime was almost exactly covered by the first half of the 20th century: he was born in June 1903 and died in January 1950. But it’s the second half of the century which has been “the age of Orwell,” with his shadow lengthening all the time. He captivates us and haunts us. He is cited or prayed in aid by politicians and polemicists on diametrically opposed sides. His name resonates across the world, but in England it has acquired the flavour of a household god.
The real-life Orwell’s last years were a kind of martyrdom: journalistic drudgery; the failure to have children of his own; his wife’s sudden death; the struggle to bring up his adopted son; the slow, horrible death from lung disease; marriage on his deathbed to the frightful Sonia (who didn’t love or desire him and was, according to literary lore, still Cyril Connolly’s mistress at the time).
All this was only made more bitter by the irony that he had become famous and rich just when it could help him no more. Orwell might have echoed Mozart’s wistful complaint that he was paid too much for what he should not be doing and too little for what he should: compare the international bestsellerdom of Nineteen Eighty-Four with Homage to Catalonia, now one of his most admired books, which sold fewer than 700 copies in its first two years.
In the 50 years since his death, he has become a secular saint, his cultus growing wider and wider. In many ways, he is the English writer of the 20th century. Compare him with the remarkable generation to which he belonged. George Orwell (or Eric Blair) was at Eton with Connolly and Anthony Powell, both friends later in his life, not to say with Robert Byron and Henry Yorke (“Henry Green”). If he had gone to Oxford, as he might have done if family finances had allowed, he would have been there with Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Kenneth Clark and Claud Cockburn. A little later came “the nancy poets,” as Orwell called WH Auden and Stephen Spender.
The fashion is to sneer at “the Brideshead generation,” but what a crop they were, those English writers born in the first decade of the 20th century. There was no other literary vintage like it for the rest of the century. And yet none of these names has quite the same cachet today as Orwell’s. This is, incidentally, the third essay Prospect has published on Orwell in four years, and it is hard to think of any other writer of whom that might be true. Waugh and Auden were both great writers and notable literary “characters.” Waugh gave the world Captain Grimes and “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”; Auden “The flat ephemeral pamphlet” and “History to the defeated.” But Orwell has enriched the language on a scale of his own, from “Four legs good, two legs bad” to “There’s a thin man inside every fat man” (not the only one of his aphorisms to be purloined by Connolly). His phrases illuminate our age like starshells. We should scarcely be able to understand our own times without Big Brother, Newspeak and Doublethink.
Nor, with all the fame of Waugh and Auden, does anyone speak of “Waughian” phenomena (should it be “Wavian,” or perhaps “Waughlike”?), or describe events as “Audenesque.” As I write, Anatole Kaletsky of The Times has just referred to “the Orwellian atmosphere in which this Russian election unfortunately had to be conducted.” A few weeks ago, when protesters tried to break up the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle, some of them carried banners which read “WTO equals Way Too Orwellian.”
That word is itself 50 years old. One of the first uses was in 1950, when Mary McCarthy wrote of “a leap into the Orwellian future.” Since then it has been used by every other writer and journalist in the English-speaking world. In 1963, the Observer was using the word properly when it condemned “the Orwellian grimness of the Abolition of Passes Act in South Africa, which ensured that an African had to carry 27 papers combined in one booklet”: the euphemisms of apartheid often merited Orwell’s pen. But the word has otherwise become too amorphous, and half the time we don’t quite know what “Orwellian” means, rather as “Dickensian” is inaptly used in “Dickensian squalor” (proletarian poverty scarcely appears in Dickens’s novels, whose prevailing atmosphere is one of hearty and gluttonous good cheer among the lower middle class, a point Orwell makes in his splendid essay on Dickens).
The uses and abuses of Orwell are many; and the intellectual grave-snatching began early. Soon after his death, the CIA bought the rights to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, to make them into lurid propagandist movies. Orwell was posthumously turned into an intellectual ballistic missile in the cold war. There was a long and unseemly tussle between left and right, each claiming St George’s shroud. Neo-conservatives insisted that he would have shifted to the right as they themselves had. He would have supported the west in the 1950s as he had supported “my country right or left” in 1942; he would have backed the Vietnam war in the 1960s. Writing in 1981, the American “neo-con” Norman Podhoretz asked what Orwell would have become “If Orwell Were Alive Today.” He answered, roughly speaking, that “Orwell would have become me.”
This is possible, although by no means certain. The Complete Works reveals an impressive and touching correspondence between Orwell and Dwight Macdonald, in some ways his American equivalent. A fellow-traveller and then a Trotskyist in the 1930s, an anarchist-pacifist in the 1940s, a cold war liberal in the 1950s, Macdonald did not follow the rest of “the anti-communist left” in the 1960s towards the nemesis of Vietnam. To the contrary he was politically reactivated in opposition to the war. This might have been true of Orwell too, and it did not have to mean, as Macdonald showed, that he would have had to modify his hatred of totalitarianism.
One reason why Orwell’s stature has grown is that his antagonists’ stature has shrunk. It is increasingly hard to recapture the atmosphere of the bitterest cold war years, the quarter-century after 1945, when authentic liberals fought continuously against not so much hard-line Stalinism but anti-anti-communism, on the new left as well as the old.
Orwell was an authentic liberal, not to say the “19th-century liberal” that his friend George Woodcock called him. This does not mean that he was always right, or even always “decent,” that word his admirers loved to use. It is easy to draw up a list of Orwell’s faults, especially with the help of that astonishing 20-volume Complete Works. Not many writers can stand the experience of having everything they ever wrote published in this way-grave and gay, immortal or transient, sage or silly-and the edition manages both to diminish and to enhance Orwell.
For much of his life he was a true hack journalist. Nobody would give him an award on the strength of his cuttings as a reporter or profile-writer for the Observer in the mid-1940s. His reviews for the Manchester Evening News were often drudgery, and they read like it. He wrote for Tribune a memorably glum description of the book reviewer, “in a moth-eaten dressing gown… 35, but looks 50… suffering from a hangover,” as he opens an imaginary parcel of books for review. They include Palestine at the Cross Roads, Scientific Dairy Farming, an enormous history of Europe, and “a novel It’s Nicer Lying Down, probably included by mistake.” Many a true word… In November 1946 we find Orwell reviewing, in one piece, Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque, Five Great French Composers, and an anthology of animal poetry.
Orwell might seem like one of those writers whose quality is in inverse proportion to the size of his readership. Some of his finest essays were written for little magazines: the study of McGill’s vulgar postcards and “Politics and the English Language” were published in Horizon. But then again, the London Letters he wrote for Partisan Review are surprisingly thin, quite apart from his propensity to get the wrong end of most available sticks where British politics were concerned.
And along with his tiresome blokiness and his morosity, there are the sheer unpleasant sides of Orwell. His bad temper and his quirks can look very much like bigotry. You don’t have to be a member of Stonewall to wince at those references to the nancy poets and “pansy-left circles,” or a radical feminist to squirm at his saying that the mark of Conrad’s genius is that women never like him, as well as his jokes about the ugliness of officers in the women’s services.
He tried to come to terms with his inherited prejudices, but only part successfully in the case of antisemitism and even snobbery. He had ambiguous feelings about the poor, especially when they are poor no more. There is one obnoxious passage in The Road to Wigan Pier about the type of working-class man who has climbed into the middle class as a writer: “It is not easy to crash your way into the literary intelligentsia if you happen to be a decent human being… to be a highbrow, with a footing in the snootier magazines, means delivering yourself over to terrible campaigns of wire-pulling and backstairs-crawling… by being the life and soul of cocktail parties and kissing the bums of verminous little lions… Literary London now teems with young men of proletarian origins… Many of them are very disagreeable people…”
As Nicolas Walter has rightly said (Prospect, October 1998), The Road to Wigan Pier is his worst book. It also contains some of his most venomously spluttering rants against his pet hate, middle-class and upper-middle class socialists: “That dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking to the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.”
Even at the time, those faults were clear enough. The Road to Wigan Pier was originally published by the Left Book Club, whose list hove to the party line. And so club members were provided with a prophylactic introduction by Victor Gollancz, which “the general public are asked to ignore,” explaining Orwell away to the earnest party members and hangers-on. Comical as this seems, Dwight Macdonald later saw it as an example of British fair play and open discussion: “One cannot imagine their American opposite numbers at the same time acting so.”
Although some of what Gollancz wrote was absurd and embarrassing-”Orwell even commits the curious indiscretion of referring to Russian commissars as ‘half-gramophones, half-gangsters”‘-he scored some palpable hits. As Gollancz says, vegetarians and feminists are not inherently contemptible; and Orwell “calls himself a ‘half-intellectual,’ but the truth is that he is at one and the same time an extreme intellectual and a violent anti-intellectual.”
One other side of Orwell isn’t so much distasteful as neurotic. His personality had an unmistakable sadomasochistic streak, shown in the loving detail with which torture and cruelty are dwelt on. Even he recognised, in a letter to a friend, the vulgarity of the “Room 101″ episode in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And then there is his obsession with smell. It runs from “smelly little orthodoxies” to “the lower classes smell,” from the unforgettable smell of militia latrines in Barcelona to “socialism smells of crankiness,” by way of his saying that one can feel affection for someone with a physical deformity but not for someone whose breath stinks. Reading through the 20 volumes, I began making a note of every olefactory reference, and then gave up. Someone with a computer could add them up, and a Freudian could analyse them.
Orwell mentioned the prevailing English smell of cabbage and tobacco, and his own sense of smell might be one of his English characteristics. He would have resented his appropriation as St George of England. Eric Blair would certainly have bridled at the adulation of Tony Blair, but he himself is partly to blame, since he did present himself as an authority on his own country, its vices, virtues and foibles, rhapsodising about all things English, not excluding cooking, pubs and the weather. He could be an acute observer of English life. Consider the full passage from The Lion and the Unicorn, from which John Major famously quoted: “The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings-all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.”
This was a good description 60 years ago, which only shows how ephemeral such things are. There are still lorries, but no more clogs, still pubs but no more pin-tables (and one shudders to think of what Orwell would have made of “the gay soukh” that Soho has become). But the English are no longer distinguished by their bad teeth, as he puts it elsewhere in the same essay. Indeed, reading Orwell can seem like a historical exercise. It is poignant to recall that the illustration of “national gentleness” that he liked to give was the behaviour of football crowds. Tell them that at Hillsborough or Heysel.
Did he himself embody the English virtues? His awkward individualism, his empiricism, his need to see for himself, his hostility to abstraction and pomposity, his unadorned style, his preference-despite his egalitarianism-for liberty over equality: all these certainly seem part of his Englishry, although we should not forget that this patriot was also a cosmopolitan. He was a true European (speaking French and Spanish) and, of course, anti-colonialist.
But in England’s tug-of-war between puritanism and pragmatism, Orwell belonged to the smaller puritan tendency. He was above all a political moralist; one of those writers who make us feel uneasy, like the anarchists with whom he was in many ways at home. And like them he set impossible standards. He insisted that socialism would make everyone poorer, and a good thing, too. His form of socialism was honestly espoused, but will always be a minority taste, like all forms of puritanism. The rest of us want our cakes and ale more than we want to build the just city.
Writing on the 50th anniversary of “Politics and the English Language,” Andrew Marr quoted the famous passage: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” But is this true? The atom bomb was defended with public honesty, and Orwell himself argued lamentably that the terror-bombing of civilians was no worse, and possibly better, than killing healthy young men in battle.
Critics who say that he didn’t understand power have a point. Political “fudge” is often required to stop horrible things happening and the meaning of words has to be abused in an “Orwellian” way so that everyone can sign up to a treaty. Northern Ireland’s “peace process” comes into the category of things which can only honestly be defended in language too brutal for most of us to face. We make a man minister of education to stop him killing children. But then most people support the peace process, most people are not moral absolutists, and most accept that grubby compromises are necessary. Orwell’s words have to be set against Disraeli’s: if you wish to keep your respect for governments, as for sausages, you should not look too closely into their making. Obsessive “Orwellian” integrity makes the best the enemy of the good.
Most of Orwell’s enemies accused him of being “wrong from the right.” For Raymond Williams, “By viewing the struggle as one between only a few people over the heads of an apathetic mass, Orwell created the conditions for defeat and despair.” For Isaac Deutcher, millions of people in the west had been “inclined, in their anguish and despair, to flee from their responsibility for mankind’s destiny and to vent their anger and despair on the giant bogey-cum-scapegoat which Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has done so much to place before their eyes.” And for Edward Said, Orwell’s writing was “from the start an affirmation of unexamined bourgeois values.” With enemies like that, Orwell scarcely needs friends. But what some of these anti-anti-communists really disliked about Orwell was simply that he was right about their failed god.
Fifty years on, it seems rather that he was more often “wrong from the left.” He was not a Marxist, but he had read some Marx, enough to defend him from simple-minded critics, and sometimes veered towards his own form of vulgar-Marxism. His claim that we are all supported by the sweat of the brow of Asian coolies or Welsh coal-miners was simply wrong, and has been drastically falsified. That simply isn’t how modern economies work.
To the end of his life Orwell insisted that he was a democratic socialist, that he supported the Labour government, and that he could even understand why working-class people pinned their hopes on Soviet Russia. Moreover, he foresaw that Russia might become more liberal and less tyrannical. But he not only failed to see the implosion of actually existing socialism (along with almost everyone else), he repeatedly insisted “that laissez-faire capitalism is finished.” He died without even imagining the economic miracle of the second half of the 20th century, and he would have been utterly bewildered by information technology and third-stage capitalism.
There is a broader problem. To borrow John Carey’s question about Shaw, Orwell is a great something, but a great what? As Nicolas Walter has said, his novels are good, but not very good. The pre-war novels don’t in my view compare too badly with some of the contemporary books by Greene or Powell, and Coming Up for Air is a locus classicus for Orwell’s yearning over a lost England. But he would not be remembered for those books alone, and it would be sad if he were remembered only for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. On the other hand he is a very good literary critic indeed, far better than FR Leavis and the other academic zealots. The pieces on beloved writers help make him the great essayist of his age in England—a literary, social and political moralist of a kind for whom we lack an exact word.
And confounded as his prophecies have often been, misused as his name often is, we need Orwell more than ever. Just when I think that Nineteen Eighty-Four is neurotic and fantastic, I pick up Timothy Garton Ash’s The File, and David King’s The Commissar Vanishes, and it seems like social realism.
The events and conditions which produced Orwell are gone. “Every line of serious work that I have written,” he claimed, “has been, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism.” Not only are Hitler and Stalin dead, but totalitarianism as it then existed is no more. And yet Orwell’s real target was not any particular political system, but public mendacity and intellectual dishonesty. When those disappear, Orwell will be irrelevant. Until then…