by Michael Scammell
The New Republic, 15 June 1992
Few writers of this century have been as thoroughly canonized as George Orwell. He is one of that very small group whose names have been turned into household adjectives. "Orwellian" stands with "Kafkaesque" as a kind of shorthand for those forces of blind oppression and coercion that have dominated so much of our century, that both writers did so much to expose. In hugely different ways, of course: Orwell was the self-consciously political writer of the two. Indeed, politics lay at the very heart of his creativity, and his whole adult life was devoted to an exploration of its limits and possibilities. He was an eagle-eyed observer of the political processes of his time, a profoundly committed and outspoken commentator on the beliefs and the prejudices that governed those processes, a sharp critic of the writings and behavior of his contemporaries during the 1930s and 1940s.
This outspokenness made him many ideological enemies during his lifetime. Since his death in 1950, however, his popularity has grown exponentially, so that he is now universally hailed as a prophet, and a political genius of the first order. This consensus may have something to do with the perceived decency of Orwell, reinforced as it was by an English reticence and modesty in personal matters that belied the fierceness of his polemical prose and impressed itself on all who knew him. Richard Rees, an old friend, was not alone in calling him "almost saintly" in his daily life.
Of greater consequence has been the rush by pundits of both right and left to clothe themselves in the robes of "Saint George." To the right he has been overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, the author of the two last books that made him famous, Animal Farm and 1984, that is to say, a tribune of anti-communism and a patron saint of the cold war. To the left he was above all the author of such early books of searing social criticism as Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Burmese Days, not to speak of the essays in which he defended the rights of the downtrodden and called for a new socialist order. In between, and largely ignored by the pundits, came the unsuccessful novels and that enigmatic work on the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, which seemed to point both ways at once.
It was not unusual, of course, for writers of Orwell's generation to make the journey from youthful unorthodoxy to middle-aged conformity, or, in political terms, from early socialism or communism to later conservatism. Orwell was virtually unique, however, in avoiding extremes in his oscillation between the left and the right. Unlike most of his peers, he never got seriously involved with the Communist Party, nor did he ever become a conservative or a rightwing anti-Communist in the usual sense of that term. He was an English patriot and a lover of traditional values even while calling for socialism to overthrow the tyranny of the bourgeoisie (Cyril. Connolly, a friend from prep school days, called him "a revolutionary in love with the 1900s"), and he sided with the proletariat and the working class even while pillorying Communists and the excesses of totalitarian party rule. He was never a conformist.
In short, Orwell's complexity was not of the kind we usually associate with political writers at all, and it was understandable for a literary aesthete like Connolly, though quite wrong, to urge Orwell to abandon politics and to devote himself to writing novels. For it was precisely in his political writing that Orwell found himself. As he observed in his essay Why I Write in 1946, "I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books." In the same essay he commented that he had striven most "to make political writing into an art"; and the paradox is that it was precisely in his political writing that he demonstrated the values of literary modernism (which he admired every bit as much as Connolly), whereas in the novels his "modernism" was contrived and unconvincing. Hence the nuanced richness of his political thought that defies easy classification by labels of "left" or "right," and hence, too, the difficulty of pigeonholing him either as thinker or writer.
A sign of this complexity is the amazing proliferation of books of biography, criticism, and commentary devoted to the task of understanding and categorizing him. These products of a flourishing Orwell industry continue to multiply by leaps and bounds, and now occupy four times as much space on library shelves as the not inconsiderable works of Orwell himself. The latest is a new book by the American scholar Michael Shelden, who cites Orwell's complexity, plus his own dissatisfaction with the works that have appeared to date, as his reason for undertaking yet another biographical study of Orwell. Shelden's aim is both to offer the fruit of his own researches on Orwell's life and to provide a kind of summation of everything that has emerged so far.
The work that Shelden's book is bound to be compared with is Bernard Crick's George Orwell, a Life, a monumental biography published only ten years ago to wide acclaim. And some will remember that Crick was preceded by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, whose two books, The Unknown Orwell (1972) and Orwell: the Transformation (1979), laid down the essential outlines of Orwell's life up to his Spanish adventures in 1937. 1t appears, however, that Orwell biographers are a curmudgeonly crew. Crick, a political scientist whose book was commissioned by Orwell's widow, Sonia, partly as a response to Stansky and Abrahams's unauthorized excavations, was decidedly sniffy about his two predecessors while drawing freely on their pioneering work. Shelden is even sniffler about Crick, criticizing him for pedantry and impersonality, and pillorying his laborious method of marshaling often contradictory sources and refusing to adjudicate between them.
Shelden's approach, while not particularly original ("a biography must have a strong narrative and provide some sense of the human character
behind the public face"), is sufficiently distinct from that of Crick or Stansky and Abrahams not to need apologies or special pleading. In the context of recent historical developments, moreover, Shelden's timing is extremely felicitous, for the question of Orwell's stature has taken on a new interest and relevance in the light of the recent changes in the East.
Whatever one's opinion of Orwell's position between left and right, it cannot be denied that the postwar political struggle between the two superpowers contributed enormously to the growth of his reputation. From this point of view, the timing of his two last and most famous books was crucial. Animal Farm came out in 1945, and 1984 in 1949, and together they swiftly acquired a reputation as uniquely authoritative guides to, and commentaries on, life in a totalitarian Soviet Union. Now the Soviet Union is no more, and totalitarian society survives (for how much longer?) only in China, Cuba, and North Korea. How will Orwell's reputation fare with communism crumbling and the cold war gone? Will Animal Farm and 1984 retain their status as classics, or will they fade with the historical and political circumstances that contributed so much to their creation? And if they do, what of the "socialist" Orwell? Will the early books fade too, or will they take on fresh relevance in a post-Communist (and postmodern) era?
Shelden does not set out to answer these questions directly, but his fluently written life provides an excellent foundation for the reader to attempt to answer them for himself. Shelden states in his introduction that the aim of the biographer should be "to look at the world through his subject's eyes and to convey that experience to the reader" through "an extension of sympathy and imagination." This he pretty much succeeds in doing, especially in the first half of his book, devoted to Orwell's early development as a man and a writer. Shelden is treading ground well worn by his predecessors here, yet his account of the progress of the young Eric Blair (Orwell's real name) through prep school, Eton, and service in the Indian Imperial police is surelooted and judicious, and gains considerably from Shelden's assiduity in tracking down new sources, or creatively interviewing some of the old ones to gain a new perspective. Shelden also produces a persuasive account of Blair's literary apprenticeship, which coincided with his bitter disillusionment with British rule in Burma (then a part of India), his resignation from the police and return to England, and his seemingly quixotic decision to immerse himself in the "lower depths" of Paris and London, which led to the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, in 1933.
This was a fateful step in the life of an upperclass ex-public schoolboy and ex-colonial officer. It seems that Orwell was influenced in his decision to explore the life of the poor by Jack London's similar experiment at the turn of the century, which had resulted in People of the Abyss, a favorite book of Orwell's, and by his reading of Shaw and Wells. But a contributing factor was certainly a natural, instinctive sympathy for the downtrodden, which had been developed and intensified by his experiences in Burma, where he came to hate his role as an "oppressor" of the British empire's colonial subjects. Indeed, Burma was to be the subject of his first novel, Burmese Days (1934), in which Orwell described the increasing disillusionment of the protagonist with colonialism in terms a touch too autobiographical and raw to make for successful fiction, although some of its documentary pages were very powerful.
At this period Orwell regarded himself primarily as a fiction writer, and went on to write two more novels during the mid-'30s: A Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Both dealt with middle-class characters who have difficulty reconciling themselves to conventional lives and who drop out for a while before returning to a middle-class existence, and both had large dollops of autobiography in them. Both also had pretensions to modernism, which Orwell recognized as the dominant literary mode of the time and had begun to write about as a reviewer for the British literary magazine Adelphi.
A Clergyman's Daughter in particular was written under the direct influence of Joyce, whose Ulysses Orwell had smuggled in from Paris (it was still banned in England as obscene) and admired to distraction. "I rather wish I had never read it," he wrote to a friend around this time:
It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production and can pass himself off fairly well as a bass or baritone, but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying was even less successful (Orwell later dismissed it as a potboiler), but it did contain some effective polemics about a "civilization rounded on greed and fear" and the "cynical and hoggish money code" by which most people lived.
The bitterness that reviewers rightly detected in Aspidistra reflected Orwell's desperation as an impecunious and struggling writer, who was too poor to propose to a young woman he had recently fallen in love with. Eileen O' Shaughnessy was a self-contained and mature young woman who had once had her own business, and she was studying for an M.A. in psychology at London University when Orwell met her. She was from the professional middle class but was no better off than he was at the time of their romance. It was the middle of the Great Depression--popularly known as "the slump" in England--when millions of men were out of work, the streets were full of beggars, and even the middle class led a pinched and squeezed existence: no time to be a struggling free-lance writer. Thus there was a certain aptness in his first publishers' commission, which was to travel to the industrial north of England and write a report on the effects of unemployment and poverty on the lives of the working class.
The result was The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell's second work of autobiographical reportage, which appeared in 1937. It was, as Shelden makes clear, a breakthrough book in every way. For a start, it was a superb piece of documentary realism, in which Orwell described firsthand the hellish and dangerous lives of the coal miners, the squalid and unsanitary houses to which the families of the working class were confined, the disease and the hunger and the privation that were the everyday accompaniments of millions of ordinary people, whether they were employed or not, and above all the utter, degrading demoralization of being out of work and on the dole. The book was also packed with facts, figures, statistics, and tables to provide objective confirmation, as it were, of the bleak picture painted by his prose. The whole added up to a devastating indictment of British society that fully justified its choice by Orwell's publisher, Victor Gollancz, for distribution by his recently established Left Book Club, which was to cater to left-wing subscribers. In the event, it sold more than 46,000 copies and established Orwell as a writer to be reckoned with.
It was also the book in which Orwell "found himself" as a creative writer. particularly in the more philosophical and political second part, in which he mused on his own past experiences and compared them with what he had seen "up north." Here Orwell analyzed that eternal British obsession, the class structure, describing his own background as "lowerupper-middle class," which he determined on the basis of his father's modest income. "Nevertheless," wrote Orwell, "the essential point about the English class system is that it is not entirely explicable in terms of money. Roughly speaking, it is a money-stratification, but it is also interpenetrated by a sort of shadowy caste system; rather like a jerry-built modern bungalow haunted by medieval ghosts." He went on to describe the effect of this caste system on his school years, when he was "an odious little snob" but poorer than most of his fellows and therefore resentful:
On the one hand it made me cling tighter than ever to my gentility; on the other hand it filled me with resentment against the boys whose parents were richer than mine and who took care to let me know it. I despised anyone who was not describable as a "gentleman," but also I hated the hoggishly rich .... The correct and elegant thing, I felt, was to be of gentle birth but to have no money. This is part of the credo of the lower-upper-middle class. It has a romantic, Jacobite-in-exile feeling about it which is very comforting.
That last sentence, undercutting the hint of self-righteousness that runs through the rest of this passage, was what we have since come to recognize as the authentic voice of the mature Orwell. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell succeeded in breaking through to a form of mixed autobiography and journalism that was much more suited to his talent than autobiographical fiction. In it he found that individual tone of voice, polemical and sharp, yet at the same time self-deprecating and candid, that henceforth would be unmistakably his. Forty years later Tom Wolfe was to claim autobiographical reportage as an invention of the "New Journalism" in America, forgetting that Orwell had gotten there first.
Orwell had also found socialism, which was Gollancz's reason for publishing the book, but Orwell's approach to socialism turned out to be as candid and idiosyncratic as his attitude to everything else. Part two of Wigan Pier contained a merciless analysis of English socialism that might well have been written by a die-hard Tory, but in the end Orwell supported socialism as the only possible answer to fascism. Even so, he was not spared the wrath of Gollancz, who wrote a special foreword to the Left Book Club edition disclaiming some of Orwell's more controversial views, and later issued part one of the book on its own, leaving out the reflections on socialism altogether. Orwell also incurred the wrath of the Communist Party, which was very strong in British left-wing circles in the '30s, so that when civil war broke out in Spain in 1937, and Orwell decided to oppose fascism in deed as well as by words, the Party refused to supply him with the necessary recommendation, and he was obliged to turn to the Independent Labor Party for help.
By now Orwell had earned enough from his royalties to marry Eileen O'Shaughnessy, but marriage didn't stop him from rushing off to Spain as soon as he could, and Eileen not only did not try to stop him, but herself got a job with the TLP office in Barcelona and traveled out to join him. He became an active soldier, fought at the front in Catalonia, and displayed great personal bravery in more than three months of service, until a sniper's bullet pierced his throat and he was evacuated to Barcelona for treatment. He was eventually declared unfit for further service and returned to England.
Not surprisingly, Orwell's Spanish experiences led to another book of autobiographical reportage, Homage to Catalonia, in which he tried not only to describe his own experiences, but to expose the horrible political infighting that had gone on behind the lines between the Communists, who were being manipulated by Stalin, and the other socialist contingents who had fought alongside the Communistdominated International Brigade. All this was described in his book, but it was met with a chorus of denials from the left in Britain, and he learned that an active campaign to discredit him had been launched by the Communist Party based on an alleged statement in The Road to Wigan Pier to the effect that "the working classes smell." What he had actually said was that "middle-class people are brought up to believe that the working classes 'smell,"' which was quite a different thing, and he emphasized this in an indignant letter to Gollancz. But he realized quite clearly that this campaign of disinformation was aimed not at Wigan Pieras such, but at his credibility as a witness on the events in Spain.
Gollancz refused to publish Homage to Catalonia on the grounds that it was too critical of the Communists, and it was brought out by Warburg instead. In fact it was not as good a book as The Road to Wigan Pier, and despite some favorable reviews it sold very badly. But its best pages confirmed that Orwell's talent flourished when he mixed autobiography and reportage with personal observation and commentary, and it was this combination that contributed so much to the success of the wonderful series of mature essays and reviews that he was to begin writing in 1939 and continue until his death. It can be said that Orwell was instrumental in reviving the genre of the essay in English. It is also worth noting that he anticipated the modern preoccupation of semioticians and literary critics with popular culture. His pieces on Boys' Weeklies, "Good Bad Books," "Raffles and Miss Blandish," The Art of Donald McGill, and The Decline of the English Murder were the first by a prominent English author to take such "trivial" subjects seriously. Most of them appeared first in Connolly's pioneering magazine Honzon, and were collected and published in book form in 1940 as Inside the Whale, the tide of a long article on Henry Miller.
One curious feature of Orwell's essays was the fierce patriotism and love of English tradition that they revealed, unusual in such a strong supporter of socialism, for socialism gloried in its internationalism (which Orwell had also supported by going to Spain). And his exaltation of the pedestrian virtues of daily English life was not just a literary pose. Already in 1936 he had moved to a primitive seventeenth-century cottage in Wallington, thirty-five miles north of London, and reopened the village store that had once occupied the premises. He gloried in the fact that the cottage had no electricity, no hot water, and no indoor toilet, somehow perceiving sterling yeoman values in these privations. (Eileen, too, was expected to share these values when Orwell took her there after their marriage.) He took up gardening, kept a goat for milk, and even later, after moving to London, raised chickens in his backyard and furnished a workshop in his basement so that he could practice carpentry and build homemade furniture.
Orwell spent the first half of the war working for the Indian Service of the BBC. When war was declared, he had rushed to enlist, feeling passionate about the need to resist fascism in the most direct and active way, but was turned down on medical grounds. He then joined the Home Guard, a sort of defense militia consisting of men and women too old or unfit for active service, and threw himself into organizing his local battalion in London, while writing a series of articles and pamphlets on this subject. In one of them he urged the government to "arm the people," envisioning a sort of urban guerrilla force similar to those he had seen in Spain, and in another he wrote: That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or laborer's cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there." In the event the Home Guard never got to fight, while he himself was confined to conducting psychological warfare against the Germans and the Japanese through his talks and features, though there were pitifully few Indians with shortwave radio sets to justify the British government's expenditure. In time Orwell also realized somewhat ruefully that the propaganda that he was producing was not the sort to promote the interests of the working class, but reflected those of the ruling class, which went against the grain of almost everything he stood for. Toward the end of 1943, therefore, he resigned from the BBC and began writing book reviews for the Sunday Observer. He also became literary editor of the independent leftwing weekly Tribune, which was socialist in orientation but not dominated by the Communists, and (at Clement Greenberg's suggestion) began contributing London Letters to Partisan Review.
It was around that time that Orwell started work on the short book that was to make him famous. He had had the idea of writing something about Stalinism ever since his experiences in Spain, when he had witnessed firsthand the way in which an entire revolutionary movement had been taken over by a dictatorship based a thousand miles away. He also despised the way in which the English left had been taken in by the myth of the Soviet revolution and was prepared to turn a blind eye to the evil of Stalin's purges and show trials. And he had himself been pilloried as a class enemy because of his refusal to share in the blindness. Even in bourgeois Britain the Communists were exercising an influence that was out of all proportion to their numbers or to the real strength of their ideas, and this influence was intensified by the fact that the Soviet Union had become an ally in the struggle against Nazism. Orwell, meanwhile, had also not given up on his old dream of finally writing a successful novel, and in the allegory (the book was subtitled "a fairy tale") that he produced about a bunch of farm animals who at first conduct a successful revolt against their exploitative master and then get taken over by an even more exploitative group of pigs, he at last found a way to let his genius for political analysis dictate a suitable fictional form.
Animal Farm was quite different in genre from Wigan Perand his essays, but it was informed by the same fierce devotion to justice and hatred of oppressors that had inspired all his best work. "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others" summed up the sophistry of the Bolsheviks and made the betrayal of their revolutionary ideals crystal clear. The book was finished in the summer of 1944, but it immediately ran into difficulties with publishers. Gollancz rejected it out of hand, on the grounds that it was disloyal to an ally (the Soviet Union) and "played into the hands of the Nazis." Three others turned it down for more or less the same reason, including T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber, who had the distinction of also rejecting Down and Out in Pans and London.
When Animal Farm was finally published by Secker and Warburg a year later, in August 1945, it had been deliberately held up until the war in Europe was over so that any offense to Stalin did not matter. It was an instant success in Britain, selling ten times the usual number for one of Orwell's books, and in the United States it was a colossal best seller, with sales of more than half a million. Edmund Wilson compared its author to Voltaire and Swift (a boyhood idol of Orwell's), and declared that it was time to reconsider Orwell and regard him as a major writer of the times.
Orwell was at the zenith of his career, yet that career was already being overshadowed by tragic developments in his personal life. In 1943 his mother had suddenly died of heart failure. In 1944 Orwell, who passionately wanted children but believed himself to be sterile, had persuaded his reluctant wife to give up her job at the Ministry of Food and adopt a baby son. She did, but in March 1946, before the child was 2 years old, she died on the operating table while undergoing a hysterectomy. Meanwhile Orwell himself was suffering from a recurrence of lifelong problems with his lungs. Even as a baby he had endured bronchitis, and later he was discovered to have defective bronchial tubes and a lesion in one lung. By the time he was 28 he had had four bouts of pneumonia, each more serious than the last, and in 1937, at the age of 32, he had been hospitalized for several weeks with suspected tuberculosis. (Given the state of British medicine at the time, it could never be confirmed.) Ten years later, when he was in the middle of what was to be his last and finest novel, 1984, tuberculosis was finally diagnosed as being the cause of his troubles, and despite treatment with the best available drugs, he died eighteen months later, in January 1950, six months after 1984 had been published and taken the literary world by storm.
1984 was undoubtedly Orwell's crowning achievement. It had a prophetic force that was to resonate ever more richly with each new generation of readers. A world divided into three great powers (Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia in the novel) perpetually at war with one another has not been difficult to recognize in the modern era, even if that war has been "cold" rather than hot. But will future generations brought up in a postCommunist, post-cold war world read of these things with that same chill of recognition that we do today, and that marks our encounters with all literature that transcends the ephemeral to touch us at the deepest level of our experience?
We cannot know for sure, of course, and Shelden pretty much ignores the question in his biography, perhaps because he takes a positive answer for granted. His treatment of both the last novels is surprisingly perfunctory. Still, it is possible to construct an answer to this question, and one that might also solve the riddle of Orwell's "left" or "right" orientation.
The place to look, it would seem, is not so much at the obvious political targets of 1984, but rather at its sources, for the point is, as Shelden rightly indicates, that the roots of Orwell's nightmarish vision were firmly rooted in his own personal past. Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, is clearly related to Orwell's earlier middle-class heroes and to Orwell himself, with his nostalgia for an English "golden age" and his yearning for the more innocent world of his Edwardian childhood. Smith's romance with Julia also echoes themes from Orwell's life and earlier works, while Smith's championing of the "proles" (proletarians) exactly parallels Orwell's preoccupation with the rights of the working class.
Somewhat less obvious is the way in which the nightmarish apparatus of oppression portrayed in the novel, most readily associated with totalitarian Communist societies, represents a creative and original transformation of Orwell's own experiences. These had begun when, in the traditional English manner, he was packed off to an expensive preparatory boarding school (St. Cyprian's) at the tender age of 8, where he was crammed with a classical education. He spent five miserable years at St. Cyprian's, about which he later wrote one of his most searing and impassioned essays, "Such, Such Were the Joys," in which he described his detestation of the school's spartan living conditions, its crippling tyranny over its youthful charges, and the addiction of its proprietors to corporal punishment. Lonely children like himself, for instance, who were unfortunate enough to wet their beds, were publicly humiliated and mercilessly caned until they stopped; and all manifestations of spontaneity or independence were ruthlessly crushed. It was a totalitarian society in miniature. The mature Orwell was to recall its cruelties with the same fear and loathing that he had experienced as a small boy.
Just as pertinent were his years as a policeman in Burma, where he had learned the bitter truth of what it meant to be an oppressor: that doing "the dirty work of the empire" was morally corrupt, that it enslaved the masters as much as it did their Burmese subjects. It was there that he witnessed torture being applied to prisoners, and saw the effect it had not only on the tortured, but also the torturers. Oppression became a topic that was to obsess him for the rest of his life, leading to the composition not only of Burmese Days, but also to some of his most memorable essays, such as "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant." "When the white man turns tyrant," he wrote in the latter essay, "it is his own freedom that he destroys." Even at the end of his life, according to Shelden, Orwell was trying a second novel about Burma.
There were also Orwell's experiences of censorship throughout his career as a writer. These had reached a kind of climax during his spell as a writer at the BBC. True, he was there during wartime, when even liberal governments resort to censorship. Still, the repeated attempts to control his work in even the most petty details and the allpervading insistence on the BBC's role as an instrument of propaganda were anathema to his need for intellectual independence and creative freedom. It was not for nothing that he modeled the headquarters of the Ministry of Truth in 1984 on Broadcasting House in London, since it was there that he came to realize that censorship and thought control attain a kind of perfection when they can be achieved by a raised eyebrow or a silent shake of the head, the classic British manner.
Nor was censorship in Britain a monopoly of the BBC. Orwell had been badly shaken one day in 1940 when the police showed up at his Wallington cottage with a search warrant and confiscated some "obscene" books from his study. He had been foolish enough to plan an article on Henry Miller and had ordered the necessary books from Paris, but his letter had been intercepted and read by the postal authorities. Some, but not all, of the books were returned, and he received an official warning that he was liable to prosecution. This was just before the war. About a year later, after the war had started, Orwell discovered that the London Letters he was sending to Partisan Review were not only being censored by the Ministry of Information [sic], but in some cases were being retyped, so that the recipients did not even know that they had been censored. He also noted that the telegraphic address on a communication from the ministry was "miniform."
From the very beginning of his literary career, in fact, Orwell had been dogged by various kinds of censorship. Ever since submitting the manuscript of Down and Out in Paris and London he had had to struggle with Gollancz over repeated attempts to cut and distort his work for fear of the dreaded libel laws (far worse in Britain than in America, then and now, and convenient for publishers to hide behind). He was also aware that the reasons several of his works had been refused by publishers were political rather than aesthetic; and his freshest memories, of course, were of rejections of Animal Farm on the ground that it was "offensive to an ally." Even "Such, Such Were the Joys," his article on his prep school experiences, could not be published for fear of libel action by the school's former proprietors. It was obvious enough that even if the war constituted a reasonable pretext for the exercise of censorship, censorship was, to borrow a phrase, as British as apple pie.
1984, then, was animated by memories of Western (and specifically British) society as much as by reflections on developments in the Soviet Union at the time. That is why the ideology of the ruling party in Oceania was described as "Ingsoc," an abbreviation of "English Socialism," and why the dreary daily existence of Winston Smith and his fellow citizens was modeled on life not only in wartime Britain, as Shelden suggests, but in Britain before the war, as it was experienced by millions of its poorer citizens. Orwell himself was clear about his intentions in this regard. "The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the Englishspeaking races are not innately better than anyone else, and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere," Orwell wrote to the American union leader Francis A. Henson soon after the book was published. And elsewhere he added: "I don't believe that the kind of society I describe will arrive, but I believe something resembling it could arrive. Totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences."
Orwell was seized (if not obsessed) by the fear that in the very struggle of the liberal democracies to oppose fascism, they would increasingly resort to fascist methods (censorship, thought control, preventive detention) to assure victory, and he foresaw that the same danger would recur in a future struggle against communism. 1984, therefore, was intended as a warning. It takes its place as an anti-utopia, or a dystopia, in a long line of twentieth-century dystopias by authors beginning with Wells and London and continuing with Zamyatin and Huxley. All these authors were admired by Orwell, and seem to have influenced him in some way, but pride of place must go to Zamyatin's We, which Orwell reviewed (in a French translation) in 1945.
There is an instructive parallel between the two works. Zamyatin's novel, like Orwell's, is popularly read as a satire on Soviet communism, mainly because so many of the negative phenomena described in it were subsequently embodied in the Soviet state. But Zamyatin was writing in 1920, when only the barest outlines of Lenin's new order were coming into view. What is frequently forgotten is that Zamyatin had also spent a year in the industrial city of Newcastle in northern England (he was there during the Russian revolutions) and had been stunned by the soulless mechanization and stunted emotional life of capitalist, industrialized Britain. Like Wells before him and Orwell after him, Zamyatin found a large part of his inspiration in modern industrial society in its most advanced and pitiless form-- that is, not in the fledgling Soviet state, but in England.
Thus the tradition in which Orwell was writing was well defined and was not at all dependent on the existence of a concrete totalitarian state for its force, relevance, and vitality. On the contrary, it drew (and still draws) its power from its ability to mirror and to reinterpret imaginatively some of the deeper currents of modern Western society, which in turn reflect enduring impulses in human nature everywhere. From this point of view, the Soviet state under Stalin (and its later imitators) represented a kind of laboratory in which many of the tendencies of modern industrial society were concentrated to an incredibly intense degree, resulting in a kind of distillation, but also a monstrous parody, of Western institutions in the twentieth century. It was itself a kind of grotesque Cesamtkunstwerk, as Boris Groys has written, simultaneously confirming the cautionary vision of works like Animalfarm and 1984 and outdoing them in its horrors. It may be that the example of the Soviet Union will work as an antidote to the social and political poisons that have flowed so freely through our lives at least since the First World War; but this will be the end of only a very brief phase of history, even if it has spanned the lifetimes of many of us.
Orwell's vision will remain relevant because it is rooted in a perception that the enduring human impulse to create a more perfect society is fraught with terrible risk, and is in constant danger of toppling into the very tyranny it most fears and despises. But Orwell remained convinced that the risk was worth taking, that to do nothing was even worse than to make even terrible mistakes. In this context it is worth recalling that all the great twentiethcentury dystopians have been socialists, and Orwell was no exception. The road that led to Wigan Pier was the same road that led to Mr. Pilkington's farm and the nightmare world of Oceania in 1984. There is no contradiction between the socialist Orwell and the antiCommunist Orwell, no need to choose between them.
As for the implications of Orwell's vision, he expressed them best in an essay on his fellow socialist and fellow warrior Arthur Koestler in 1944:
It is quite possible that man's major problems will never be solved. But it is also unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and say to himself, "It will always be like this: even in a million years it cannot get appreciably better? So you get the quasi-mystical belief that for the present there is no remedy, all political action is useless but that somewhere in space and time human life will cease to be the miserable brutish thing it now is. The only easy way out is that of the religious believer, who regards this life merely as a preparation for the next. But few thinking people now believe in life after death.... The real problem is how to restore the religious attitude while accepting death as final. Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.
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