July 15, 2009
Facing Orwell's Way
Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays by George Orwell. Compiled with an
introduction by George Packer. Harcourt, 308 pp., $25.00.
All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays by George Orwell. Compiled by George Packer
with an introduction by Keith Gessen. Harcourt, 374 pp., $25.00.
Is it time to stop asking "what would Orwell say?" Christopher Hitchens, an ardent admirer and astute interpreter of Orwell, thinks so. "I am no longer interested," he wrote a few years ago, "in whether or not Orwell would take my view or anyone else's if he were still with us ... We have to say goodbye to him as a contemporary." Few of us, though, are as strong-minded as Hitchens. And even he admitted that it would be nice to talk things over with Orwell now and then, to "find out what he thought and more importantly how he thought" about whatever vexes us, his stumbling successors. "It would be a pleasure to disagree with him," Hitch allowed - and, it goes without saying, an even keener pleasure to agree.
A new two-volume reissue of Orwell's essays, selected by the New Yorker's George Packer and introduced by Packer and novelist Keith Gessen, is an opportunity to talk things over with Orwell. It's a well-judged selection, serviceably introduced and very helpfully annotated. All the great essays are here, and most of the near-great ones: "A Hanging," "Shooting an Elephant," "My Country Right or Left," "England Your England," "Looking Back on the Spanish War," "Why I Write," "How the Poor Die," "Such, Such Were the Joys," "Inside the Whale," "The Prevention of Literature," "Politics and the English Language," "Writers and Leviathan," "Reflections on Gandhi," and critical essays on Swift, Dickens, Tolstoy, Wells, Kipling, Eliot, Chaplin, Dali, boys' weeklies, and seaside postcards. To those who treasure every page of the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, with its innumerable Tribune columns, "London Letters" to Partisan Review, quotidian book reviews, and letters to friends, Facing Unpleasant Facts and All Art Is Propaganda will probably not seem indispensable. But since (inexplicably) not everyone does own the more complete four-volume edition, these two elegantly produced newcomers are welcome.
The emphasis in Facing Unpleasant Facts is on the personal essayist more than the polemicist. Packer, a reporter who has also written fiction and memoir, perceptively contrasts Orwell's extroverted, observant narratives with contemporary "creative nonfiction."
The essays in this volume could not be farther from the kind of autobiographical writing that has been fashionable over the past ten or fifteen years, in which the writer puts the reader under the spell of pure novelistic storytelling, all emotional vibration without an insight anywhere. The narrator of this type of memoir drifts helplessly on the surface of events in an eternal present tense, which takes away the power and the responsibility of retrospection: It just happened - don't ask me what it means. Orwell's essays are the opposite - transparent and accountable. He is both character and narrator, and in the distance that comes with looking back at his own experience in the past tense he manages to raise it out of the narrow circle of private confession and into the sphere of universal revelation.
Packer also pays some apt compliments to Orwell's inimitable directness of voice and "puritanical bias" toward simplicity. Whether or not it's true that "the soundness of Orwell's political judgment is of a piece with the clarity of his sentences," it's certainly worth thinking about the possible relation. (Unfortunately, Packer cites as evidence of Orwell's "soundness of judgment" what is perhaps his most notable misjudgment: his harsh criticism of Auden's "
Perhaps because neither is an academic, both Packer and Gessen give the back of their hand to Orwell's left-academic critics. Packer writes, a little gruffly: "A generation of students has gone to school on the banal truth that all literature is 'constructed,' and learned to scoff at the notion that words on the page might express something essentially authentic about the writer. The usefulness of this insight runs up against its limits when you pick up Orwell's essays." Gessen is a shade more genial. "You can tie yourself in knots - many leftists have done this over the years - proving that Orwell's style is a façade, an invention, a mask ... that by seeming to tell the whole story in plain and honest terms, it actually makes it more difficult to see, it obfuscates, the part of the story that's necessarily left out; that ultimately it rubber-stamps the status quo. In some sense, intellectually, all this is true enough; you can spend a day, a week, a semester proving it. There really are things in the world that Orwell's style would never be able to capture. But there are very few such things." Perhaps because I'm not an academic, I agree.
Packer and Gessen are illuminating about Orwell the prose writer; neither is out to "steal" Orwell politically, in the way Orwell's essay on Dickens famously noted that Left, Right, and Center had all tried to "steal" that novelist. But I find myself unable to imitate their and Hitchens's restraint. What would Orwell say about ...oh, the last election?
One clue: in 1938, explaining why he had joined the Independent Labour Party, Orwell affirmed, as he did from first to last, that he was a socialist, incorrigibly suspicious of "capitalist democracy," and that it was "vitally necessary that there should be in existence some body of people who can be depended on ... not to compromise their Socialist principles." In the 1970s and 80s he would likely have voted for Dave Dellinger, Jesse Jackson, and Barry Commoner in preference to even the most liberal Democratic Party candidate. Another clue: the ILP also recommended itself to Orwell because it "is not backed by any moneyed interest, and is systematically libeled from several quarters" - which sounds very much like Ralph Nader in 2008.
But what about lesser-evilism? "I do not mean," Orwell assured his less radical readers, "that I have lost all faith in the Labour Party. My most earnest hope is that the Labour Party will win a clear majority in the next General Election. But we know what the history of the Labour Party has been" - i.e., very disappointing. This is precisely the attitude of most Nader voters toward the Democratic Party: exasperation, mistrust, and earnest good wishes. Orwell, it is true, left the ILP two years later in disagreement about the war, which he strongly supported. But he also confidently hoped, and frequently predicted, that the war would put paid to capitalism and class society: that "the Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the country houses will be turned into children's holiday camps, the Eton and
And whomever he voted for, he would surely not have joined in the widespread mindless disparagement of Nader since the 2000 election. That year, a corrupt and irrational electoral system inflicted the worst president in its history on the
Orwell was not a contrarian; he simply tried to say what most needed saying. In the late 1930s, the Nazis were a far greater evil than
Conor Cruise O'Brien, introducing his own fine essay collection, Writers and Politics (1965), defined the responsibility of intellectuals in a way that I imagine Orwell would have endorsed - and practiced - if he had lived during the Cold War. It is a long paragraph; but then, it is a delicate subject.
All criticism, all political analysis, involves a quest for truth, but few critics, few analysts, could give a philosophically respectable or coherent answer to the question: what is truth? Yet we can identify lies readily enough, and can reasonably hope that, when we have chipped away at these, what remains will be closer to the indefinable truth. A certain amount of chipping away goes on in the pages that follow. It will be seen that the chipping is mainly, though not exclusively, at the expense - or for the benefit - of Western cultural and political edifices. There are, I think, adequate reasons for this. The English-speaking critic and analyst is - or should be - led to criticize and analyze the phenomena of his own contemporary culture, which is increasingly dominated by values prevalent in the United States of America. The distortions and misleading façades which he will most often encounter ... are pro-American and anti-communist distortions and façades. He will, of course, be aware that in the communist world, and in the poor world of Asia and
In 1967 Arthur Schlesinger Jr. reluctantly concluded that American attempts to crush the Vietnamese resistance would probably not succeed at an acceptable cost to ourselves. He acknowledged, however, that he might well be wrong, in which case he and other "responsible" critics of the war "may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government." Likewise, if attempts to suppress the Iraqi resistance had not cost thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, liberals would very likely have joined conservatives in saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the Bush administration. Would Orwell?
Keith Gessen is afraid he might. "It must have been clear to [Orwell] on some level that the world was going to use [Animal Farm and 1984] in a certain way" - that is, to discredit in advance all radical criticism of American society or policy. It was not entirely bad faith, not "devious propaganda by the right," that turned Orwell into a "bludgeon" against "the anti-war, anti-imperialist left" during the Cold War. And in our time, Gessen sorrowfully acknowledges, "it was under the banner of Orwell ... that some of the best intellectuals in
I think Gessen's concern about Orwell's possible complicity in his appropriation by contemporary prowar intellectuals is misplaced. To have supported the
Other unpleasant facts Orwell would not have overlooked include enthusiastic US support for Saddam during the most oppressive periods of his rule, even to the extent of assisting his development of WMD, as well as contemporaneous US support for various Saddam-like crimes, including Turkish atrocities against the Kurds, Indonesian atrocities against the Timorese, and Salvadoran and Honduran atrocities against their own populations. Orwell would doubtless have pointed out that all of these lethal relationships were presided over by exactly the same freedom-loving, democracy-promoting defense and foreign policy officials who more recently assumed charge of liberating
On the contrary, he was, as we know, remarkably downright. For example, if a terrorist enemy declared emphatically that its antipathy to America was based on the enormous and threatening US military presence in the Middle East, on US manipulation of Middle Eastern politics to secure friendly clients at the head of resource-rich states, and on unstinting US support for the dislocation and dispossession of millions of people indigenous to the Middle East, it is unlikely that Orwell would have come up with a name for that antipathy that so effectively obscures these unpleasant facts as "Islamofascism" does.
Orwell's "power of facing unpleasant facts" would have allowed him to see through the containment doctrine, nuclear deterrence, the myth of American exceptionalism, the clash of civilizations, and other rationalizations for American dominance that took in so many intellectual Cold Warriors, both liberal and conservative. And beneath the surface of British and American domestic politics, he would have discerned similar ugly facts: the unrelenting efforts of the business classes to roll back the meager protections of workers, consumers, and the environment won between the 1930s and the 1960s. Orwell would, beyond a doubt, have devoutly wished to hang the last capitalist in the entrails of the last commissar, while cursing flag-burners, postmodernists, libertarians, and identity-politics hustlers as irrelevant nuisances. If you want a picture of his likely political evolution from 1949, when he died, to 2009, imagine him pissing on a composite portrait of Norman Podhoretz and Tom DeLay - forever.
If I could talk over one or two things with Orwell today, it would not be to pin him down on the left or right in respect of one issue or another. Instead I'd try to get at "how he thought," as Hitchens put it, in one or two curious and revealing instances.
For example, Orwell defended the bombing of German civilians. He was not, of course, merely bloody-minded, like Churchill, who continually brayed about "killing Huns." Instead, Orwell sounds a little like D.H. Lawrence to anyone who has read the latter's remarkable essays in
Now, it seems to me that you do less harm by dropping bombs on people than by calling them "Huns." Obviously one does not want to inflict death and wounds if it can be avoided, but I cannot feel that mere killing is all-important. We shall all be dead in less than a hundred years, and most of us by the sordid horror known as "natural death." The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible. War damages the fabric of civilization not by the destruction it causes (the net effect of a war may even be to increase the productive capacity of the world as a whole), nor even by the slaughter of human beings, but by stimulating hatred and dishonesty. By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamouring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation, but at humanity itself.
This kind of moral reasoning, equally bewildering to the thuggish militarist, the sentimental humanitarian, and the academic philosopher, would be well worth getting Orwell to explain.
One might also try to coax him - strictly off the record -- into saying a few encouraging words about the future. Orwell was a socialist with a distaste for utopias and a polemicist with a distaste for rhetoric. He wrote vividly about individual features of English landscape, national character, even cookery, but never tried to evoke the good society in persuasive detail. He seemed to think that was impossible in principle. Individual scenes of happiness - the Cratchit family Christmas, for example - could convince, but "all efforts to describe permanent happiness, on the other hand, have been failures, from earliest history onwards." Wells's high-tech utopias were "nightmares," and even William Morris's lovely pastoral News from Nowhere only managed to induce "a sort of watery melancholy." (I like to hope, though with no great confidence, that my own favorite, Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975), would have gotten a rise out of him.) I had assumed the problem was temperamental. Orwell was simply a stoic - a noble grouch. But All Art Is Propaganda includes an essay, "Can Socialists Be Happy?", not found in the four-volume collection, which points out that in the popular imagination, happiness has always been associated with a relief from effort or want or pain - a holiday from real life. "Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks that happiness consists in not having toothache." This is why utopian writers failed: "they wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary," and of course the palliatives they offer - leisure, food, sex, play, even political participation - eventually came to seem boring or oppressive to most people.
Cold War heroes and liberal sages like Isaiah Berlin and Leszek Kolakowski - equating utopia with static perfection, as no utopian has ever done - regularly demonstrated the impossibility or perniciousness of all utopias. Orwell's verdict is wiser and more generous than theirs. Socialists "want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain."
There's still more than enough swindling and murdering around to keep a contemporary Orwell too busy to think much about "where to go from there." All the same, it would be nice now and then to talk over the remoter prospects with him.
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and What Are Intellectuals Good For?