by Jeffrey M. Landaw
Baltimore Sun, 25 June 2003
George Orwell, born 100 years ago today, achieved so much in so little time (he died at age 46 in 1950) that he's become the subject of an intellectual parlor game: "What would Orwell say?"
The game attracts so many players because, as the late British writer John Wain observed, Orwell "was born into an age in which the really suffocating nonsense was talked by reactionaries, and lived on into an age in which it was talked by progressives." That makes it possible for almost anybody to pick and choose something in Orwell's work that fits his prejudices.
Orwell was an intellectual who distrusted intellectuals and built his political faith on "the native decency of the common man." He was an unbeliever who saw that the decline of religion had landed the world in "a cesspool full of barbed wire" and was buried, at his request, according to the rites of the Church of England. He disliked prigs and Puritans but lived a life of what essayist Christopher Hitchens calls "almost ostentatious austerity" - and may have died young because of it.
Culturally, Orwell was a conservative who appreciated "naughty" postcards, music-hall bawdiness and James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and even Henry Miller. ("As usual I cannot quote any of the best passages," he wrote of Miller's Black Spring, "... but if you can get hold of a copy, have a look at the passage between pages 50 and 64, for instance. It is the kind of prose which ... makes me feel that I should like to fire a salute of 21 guns.")
Most famously, Orwell was a political radical who found his lasting ideal in revolutionary Barcelona, but whose opposition to Stalinism and pacifism got him taken up by the Right. Hitchens' book Why Orwell Matters, published last year, is partly a response to Norman Podhoretz's notorious claim of 1983 that "if Orwell were alive today, he would be taking his stand with the neoconservatives and against the Left."
Why should it matter what Orwell might have thought more than half a century after he died, and more than a decade after the Soviet Union - the obvious target of his two most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984 - fell apart? One reason is that the kind of folly, cowardice and corruption he fought against is still with us; which also explains why Orwell couldn't have kept himself out of the conservatives' book of familiar quotations if he'd wanted to.
Orwell anticipated the revolutionary fantasies that bloomed in the late 1960s and still haunt the imaginations of many academics, intellectuals and journalists with the line about Spain: "So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot."
When Tony Kushner, the gay Marxist playwright, announced that he'd become a vegetarian, he invited the world to quote the famous complaint in Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier: "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England." People rejected socialism because leftist intellectuals seemed to be "pouring European civilization down the sink at the command of Marxist prigs"; they still do.
The conditions Orwell observed in 1943 haven't changed - or changed enough: "... western civilization has given the intellectual security without responsibility, and in England, in particular, it has educated him in skepticism while anchoring him almost immovably in the privileged class. He has been in the position of a young man living on an allowance from a father whom he hates. The result is a deep feeling of guilt and resentment, not combined with any genuine desire to escape. But some psychological escape ... there must be, and one of the most satisfactory is transferred nationalism."
What Orwell offers is a way of looking at the world that he called "a power of facing unpleasant facts" and we might call character. There is nothing too contradictory to one's preconceptions to admit, nothing that mustn't be true.
Another important trait of Orwell's is even scarcer than it was in his time. It's the spirit that kept him from shooting an enemy soldier in Spain who was running from the latrine with his pants down. The same spirit led him to trade verse polemics over pacifism with Alex Comfort (yes, the future author of The Joy of Sex) and then to admit to Comfort afterward that his poem was superior; and to give authors like T.S. Eliot and Rudyard Kipling, who stood for everything Orwell detested, artistic and moral credit where it was due.
Orwell, in fact, resembles his own picture of Charles Dickens: "... a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry."
That kind of character, scarce as it will always be, is why The Economist says Orwell's voice "speaks as urgently to our times as it did to his." It's why Joseph Epstein, the critic and essayist, says Orwell was "a less great writer" - less great than Tolstoy, James, Chekhov, Conrad; Orwell surely would have agreed - "who was a very great man."
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