Ah, music to this blogger's ears: "a blog sui generis." If this is (fair & balanced) self-delusion, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
Why Orwell Endures
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
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In Sutton Courtenay churchyard about 10 miles south of Oxford, near the imposing tomb of H.[erbert] H.[enry] Asquith, the prime minister 100 years ago, a much simpler gravestone reads “Eric Arthur Blair.” It was to that grave a friend and I recently made a pilgrimage for a sad anniversary. Blair died of tuberculosis on Jan. 21, 1950, at the age of 46, just when he had found fame and fortune under the name by which the world knows him, George Orwell.
An early death was a kind of secular martyrdom for this latter-day St. George of England, and the heroic aura hasn’t faded. Sixty years on, Orwell towers above not only the apologists for tyranny whom he loathed but also other antitotalitarian writers. Recent biographies of Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone haven’t done much to enhance the reputation of either man. Both believed that, as Silone said, “the last battle” would be between Communists and former Communists, like themselves, and such men too often evinced in their anti-Bolshevik guise the dogmatism or even fanaticism that had made them Bolsheviks in the first place. That kind of zealotry was alien to Orwell.
He has worn well for other reasons, of course. His deathbed fortune came with 1984, which has been plausibly described by Robert Harris (another notable political novelist) as the most influential novel ever written. No other can have so enriched the language. Try a Web search for countless contemporary uses of Newspeak, the thought police or doublethink — the expressions, that is: a glance at the political pages or op-ed columns provides plenty of examples of what those brilliant coinings describe.
And yet for all his fame and stature, Orwell remains elusive. For one thing, he is impossible to categorize. He was a great something — but a great what? Scarcely a great novelist: the prewar novels are good but not very good, and even Animal Farm and 1984 aren’t great in the sense of Madame Bovary. To call him a great journalist, as many have done, means overlooking plenty of mundane (and inaccurate) political commentary. It’s when he turns to such unlikely matters as boys’ comics and vulgar postcards, as well as to his central subject of politics and language, that he enters the realm of deathless literature.
His politics were likewise sui generis. Although he called himself a democratic socialist, and served with a revolutionary-Marxist militia in Spain, he was in many ways an emotional and cultural conservative. The least doctrinaire of political writers, he had the gift of being able to transmute the Tory virtues of skepticism and pragmatism into a distinctive kind of radicalism.
Even his personality is elusive. It’s most striking that although he worked for BBC Radio and lived in the heyday of newsreels, we don’t have a single recording of his voice or moving image of him, or indeed any photograph at all of Orwell smiling. That too somehow seems appropriate. There were dark sides to his personality, and it’s not hard to understand what his friend Malcolm Muggeridge meant when he said that Orwell was an easier man to love than to like.
Sad as Orwell’s death was, one can’t escape a sense that in some way it was providential. Koestler and Silone were sullied by the bruising battles of the cold war, while Orwell’s early death, as Harris says, bestowed an “aura of unassailable posthumous integrity” on his life and work. That explains why so many years later he has survived his notorious fate, appropriated by a militant right he abhorred, yet vilified by much of the left to which he felt he belonged.
Only a few years ago, his enemies on the left found a new stick to beat him with, the list of fellow-travelers and crypto-Communists he compiled in 1949 and showed to a friend in the foreign office. Apart from the fact that, to anyone who knows anything about literary and political London then, the list is shrewd, fair-minded and often amusing, look back a few years. In 1941-42, Orwell was sardonically taken by the way so many French intellectuals had transferred their loyalty to the Third Reich. “If the Germans got to England, similar things would happen, and I think I could make out at least a preliminary list of the people who would go over.” Was that equally reprehensible?
Besides, there is the sheer originality of what Orwell says, which is why whenever you dig into him you will hit a nugget of golden wisdom. “India is potentially a nation, as Europe, with its smaller population and great racial homogeneity, is not,” he wrote, thereby obviating acres of print since, about whether there will ever be a United States of Europe.
And when friends of Israel wonder sorrowfully these days why international opinion has turned against that country, I think of Orwell writing in 1945 for an American (and largely Jewish) audience in the famous leftist magazine Partisan Review. As he observed, liberal-left sentiment was then “strongly committed to support the Jews against the Arabs” in what was still British Palestine. And yet, he went on, “the Palestine issue is partly a color issue,” in which “an Indian nationalist, for example, would probably side with the Arabs.” There in a lightning flash you have it: “an Indian nationalist” — Nehru and many another — did support the Palestinian Arabs, followed over the years by the whole of Asia and Africa.
Or again, whenever perplexed Americans fret over Osama bin Laden or suicide killings, and delude themselves that material progress will cure these ills, I think of what Orwell wrote in 1940 about another charismatic monster. “Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.... However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.”
And then, when the Berlin Wall fell at last and Big Brother was dethroned in Eastern Europe, I wondered how many people recalled another insight by this famous scourge of Communism. Hannah Arendt insisted that Soviet dictatorship could only grow ever more horribly repressive, a view 1984 might seem to endorse. But it was also possible that the grip might one day be relaxed, Orwell said with great prescience, and that even a slight relaxation would ultimately doom the regime, which would collapse from the inside.
In the end, when trying to pin down Orwell’s mysterious grandeur, I think of two phrases. One was by Evelyn Waugh, with whom Orwell shared an unlikely mutual admiration, and who saw just what mattered: Orwell’s “unusually high moral sense and respect for justice and truth.” And there is Orwell himself, who once wrote of Anatole France that he was not a socialist but a radical, as could be seen quite simply in “his passion for liberty and intellectual honesty.” Could there be a better epitaph for the man who said that? Ω
[Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include The Controversy of Zion (1996) and Yo, Blair! (2007). He is writing a study of Winston Churchill’s reputation and influence. Wheatcroft was educated at University College School, London, and at New College Oxford, where he read Modern History.]
Copyright © 2010 The New York Times Company
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