NO ONE WHO HAS ENDURED THE AGONY OF SELF-employment as a scribbler can possibly afford not to read George Orwell's “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” published in May 1946 in the London socialist weekly Tribune:
In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is a cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. There are also letters with addresses which ought to be entered into his address book. He has lost his address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed of looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses.
More and more sharply, Orwell etches the picture of degradation (“He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time”) while never losing sight of the lofty aspirations that brought the wretched hack to this terminus of shame. It's unusual, as a sample of his style, in being humorous. But it is a very telling description of the way he actually existed, in poverty-stricken interludes and adverse conditions and in a continuous struggle to be published. At the time he wrote the above, he had survived the refusal of innumerable editors, including T.S. Eliot on the right and Victor Gollancz on the left, to print Animal Farm, and was engaged on the first draft of 1984, for which he had no great expectations. Then aged 43, he had less than four years to live. (The centennial of his birth falls next year.)
However, having confronted the world with little except a battered typewriter and a certain resilience, he can now take posthumous credit for having got the three great questions of the 20th century essentially “right.” Orwell was an early and consistent foe of European imperialism and foresaw the end of colonial rule. He was one of the first to volunteer to bear arms against fascism and Nazism in Spain. And, while soldiering in Catalonia, he saw through the biggest and most seductive lie of them all — the false promise of a radiant future offered by the intellectual underlings of Stalinism. As he once wrote of Kipling, his own enduring influence can be measured by the number of terms and phrases — Doublethink; Thought Police; “Some animals are more equal than others” — that he embedded in our language and in our minds.
Indeed, that last achievement was a triumph on its own. In Orwell's own mind there was an inextricable connection between language and truth, a conviction that by using plain and unambiguous terminology one could forbid oneself the comfort of certain falsehoods and delusions. Every time you hear a piece of psychobabble or propaganda — “People's princess,” say, or “collateral damage,” or “peace initiative” — it is good to have a well-thumbed collection of his essays nearby. His main enemy in discourse was euphemism, just as his main enemy in practice was the abuse of power, and (more important) the slavish willingness of people to submit to it.
LIONEL TRILLING IN HIS INTRODUCTION TO Homage to Catalonia made the excellent point that Orwell was by no means a genius. He was just a reasonably good writer with a fair bit of moral courage. His work does not afflict me with the sense of uselessness that I feel when reading George Eliot or Marcel Proust. It shows, rather, what anybody with average integrity can do, as long as he does not give a damn what anyone else thinks of him. ä30
What are the sufficient and necessary conditions here? Well, a good writer must be a good reader. Orwell read keenly and widely, and wrote generous and enduring appreciations of writers as varied as Charles Dickens, George Gissing and Henry Miller. A good critic must be able to change his or her mind and be honest about the fact: Orwell despised Mahatma Gandhi for years as a stooge for British rule in India but later reversed himself and made restitution. Anyone engaged in political and cultural wars should be very wary of party-mindedness and party allegiance: Orwell did briefly join a small leftist party in England but never wrote as a loyalist or mouthpiece and often published self-criticism of his previous positions. In his entire output I can find only one piece of genuine unfairness — a very thuggish attack on the poetry of W.H. Auden, whom he regarded as a dupe of the Communist Party. But even this was softened in some later essays. The truth is that he disliked Auden's homosexuality, and could not get over his prejudice. But much of the interest of Orwell lies in the fact that he was born prejudiced, so to speak, against Jews and the colored peoples of the empire, and against the poor and uneducated, and against women and intellectuals, and managed in a transparent and unique way to educate himself out of this fog of bigotry. (Though he never did get over his aversion to “pansies.”)
This doesn't exhaust the uses of paradox in his work. Often regarded as essentially and incurably “English,” he could and did write in French and learned several Asian languages. His interest in the outside world was that of a convinced internationalist, and he wrote one of his most “English” novels — Coming Up for Air — while living in Morocco. He said that he set 1984 in England in order to show that the English were no better than anyone else. He never had any use at all for religion but showed a deep appreciation for the prose of the Cranmer prayer book and the King James Bible. He was an egalitarian and a socialist but thought of Stalin's great “experiment” (what a revealing word) as the negation of socialism and not as a Russian version of it. In The Captive Mind, written in the early 1950s, Czeslaw Miloscz wrote that Eastern European intellectuals, reading 1984 in clandestine editions, were amazed to find that its author had never visited the Soviet Union. How then had he captured its mental and moral atmosphere? By reading its propaganda, and by paying attention, and by noticing the tactics of Stalin's agents in the Spanish Republic. Anybody could have done this, but few had the courage to risk the accusation of “giving ammunition to the enemy.”
Orwell wrote easily and well about small humane pursuits, such as bird watching or gardening or cooking, and did not despise popular pleasures like pubs and vulgar seaside resorts. In many ways, his investigations into ordinary life and activity prefigure what we now call “cultural studies.” His style as a writer places him in the category of the immortals, and his courage as a critic outlives the bitter battles in which he engaged. As a result, we use the word “Orwellian” in two senses. The first describes a nightmare state, a dystopia of untrammeled power. The second describes the human qualities that are always ranged in resistance to such regimes, and which may be more potent and durable than we sometimes dare to think.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation. His book Orwell's Victory will be published by Perseus in the fall.