The Orwellian Orwell

Written on April 30, 2009 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Literature

Rolf Strom-Olsen

It is surely a testament to a writer's importance when his or her name eponymously enters the language. This is an exclusive club and there are only a few examples that come to mind. The French Renaissance writer François Rabelais may be little read today (Pantagruel probably sounds more like a Portuguese breakfast pudding than a famous work to many modern ears), but the word "Rabelaisian" persists as a fancy way of saying "funny, but rather disgusting." Franz Kafka, who endures still, furnishes us with "Kafkaesque" (Kafkiano in Spanish, kafkaesk in German), a word whose meaning appropriately enough is rather elusive in a kafkaesque way, but which describes generally a pointless and disorienting complexity.

And then there's Orwellian (orwelliano, orwellien, orwellisch), a word that bounded into existence almost simultaneously with the publication of George Orwell's two famous dystopian novels, Animal Farm and 1984. Twenty years ago, Orwell and his eponymous adjective perhaps looked unlikely to survive the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet system as little more than a historical relic.Orwell

Eight years of the Bush administration, however, have breathed new life into the word. From secret torture memos and the extralegal detention camp at Guantanamo Bay to the bewildering malfeasance practiced upon the English language and the Us (or is it US)-against-Them mentality fostered during the Bush years – all this revived the full qualities evoked by the word Orwellian.

The appearance of a new edition of selected essays of Orwell (details here) has produced several considerations of his place in history and culture. Both Julian Barnes, writing in the New York Review of Books and James Wood, in a piece for the New Yorker (sadly inaccessible online) offer interesting perspectives that share at least one common theme: Orwell's irrepressible Englishness. Julian Barnes notes:

Orwell is profoundly English …. He is deeply untheoretical and wary of general conclusions that do not come from specific experiences. He is a moralist and a puritan, one who, for all his populism and working-class sympathies, is squeamish about dirt, disgusted by corporal and fecal odors. He is caricatural of Jews to the point of anti-Semitism, and routinely homophobic, using "the pansy left" and "nancy poets" as if they were accepted sociological terms. He dislikes foreign food, and thinks the French know nothing about cooking; while the sight of a gazelle in Morocco makes him dream of mint sauce. He lays down stern rules about how to make and drink tea, and in a rare sentimental flight imagines the perfect pub.

Wood, too, stresses something of the same theme. What "Orwell called the English genius is also Orwell's genius," he writes "finding in English life its own ideological brotherhood." (Although I am not sure what that means.) Much of this brand of commentary stems from the fact that Orwell relentlessly and unapologetically cast his eye over the England in which grew up and in which he lived, rather uncomfortably.

CataloniaInterestingly, neither focus on what I have always felt was the most important episode in Orwell’s life, which was his decision to go fight in the Spanish Civil War. This act of leftist derring-do produced one of the finest English-language memoirs of the Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, which does full justice to the chaotic and disjointed conduct of the conflict on the Republican side. More importantly, perhaps, to Orwell’s legacy: had he not gone to Spain, I think it unlikely he would have ever written either Animal Farm or 1984, the novels which propelled his name into our modern vocabulary and turned him from a 1930s-brand leftist journalist provocateur into anti-totalitarian prophet.

Orwell was not one to shy away from discomfort. In his books on the horrors of poverty (Down and Out in Paris and London) and the soul-destroying misery and outright physical danger of working class drudgery (The Road to Wigan Pier), Orwell seems to have positively reveled in the opportunity to slum it hard in order to get the fullest bag of grist possible for his ideological mill. And full bags they were by the time he had finished.

But in all of his earlier, pre-Catalonia writings there is, it seems to me, a common thread. Orwell consistently sets out to prove in action something which he knows in theory to be true already. When he was sleeping in the streets of Paris eating (basically) garbage, he knew full well that unmitigated poverty was miserable. Who wouldn’t? Similarly, when he traveled the road to Wigan Pier, I doubt he expected to be happily convinced that the life of miners was anything but hell in a sunken shaft. The process was straightforward: fulfill expectation, write a book about it.

When he traveled to Spain, he did so as a committed revolutionary. He was certainly not a doctrinaire Communist as was the case of many who volunteered or supported the Republican side (e.g. Arthur Koestler). But the lifelong grievance he carried forward with him from his days at Eton, where he acutely felt the injury of class distinction, had left him committed to the idea of profound social upheaval. Orwell may have disliked the ideological aspect of revolution, but I think he believed in the ability of class consciousness to effect a momentous change in the order of society. Republican Spain offered him the perfect opportunity to see this process close up.

Thus, when he left for Barcelona I think Orwell was steeped in what might be termed (sorry for the neologism) preconvictions. This was a titanic struggle between Good and Evil. For all his capacity for nuanced thinking, the Spanish Civil War was a black-and-white affair. Ordinary people on one side; the Church, the Fascists, the landowners, the aristocracy, the power-elites on the other, all bundled together into a convenient package called Falange, which has a sinister ring about it to boot. As with his earlier forays into the uncomfortable, I have no doubt that Orwell was setting out to prove by experience something that he knew from the isolation of his writing-desk to be true already: that an oppressed working class would, having become conscious of itself and taken to armed resistance, manifest its struggle in righteous terms. And win, too. The Republicans in Barcelona were Orwell’s Chosen. A whole city where the consciousness of the working class had risen up to defy an unjust and unfair system.

Of course, things didn’t work out that way. Instead, Orwell found dissension, infighting, tyranny and violence. The Civil War was being lost because the Left was fighting as much or more with itself as with its enemy. Orwell spent most of his time in Spain on a hillside near LleÌda, cold, bored and hungry and it left him with a lot of time to stew about things. His disillusion is palpable on every page; the real politics of the left, when the structures of class privilege had been thoroughly dismantled, was as bad as the system it replaced. Worse even.

It was the first time that Orwell’s expectations were not fulfilled. It was less that his politics had been betrayed as they had been tested and found wrong. The heroic working class was not better than its politics or ideology. When he returned home, Orwell was clearly a changed man. Shades of Barcelonan disappointment permeate Animal Farm; the experience taught him that the organised left betrayed its own people with the same or worse viciousness as the power-holders that he despised.

Homage to Catalonia is a reminder that often the best results come not from being proven right, but being proven wrong which is why the word “Orwellian” exists.



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