Thursday, 21 January 2010

George Orwell: Sixty Years On

George Orwell died sixty years ago today; he was only forty-six.

He seems so fixed in time and place, it is perhaps disconcerting to realise many of his contemporaries - including some also notable in the literary and political battles of the 1930s and 1940s - were alive until fairly recently. Some are with us even today.

Of the recently departed, one can think of Hartley Shawcross (1902-2003); A. L. Rowse (1903-1997); Orwell's fellow pupil at Eton, the historian Steven Runciman (1903-2000); and Stephen Spender (1909-1995).

The leftwing poet Edward Upward, born like Orwell in 1903, died just last year.

And with us still is Orwell's friend and Tribune colleague Michael Foot (1913- ).

It would have been unlikely for the sickly George Orwell to have survived to our own times.

Nonetheless, almost every reflective person interested in liberal and democratic politics would like to think that, if Orwell were alive today, he would share their views, and endorse their concerns.

This would go for the neo-conservative urging "regime change" in "fascist" states, as well as for the radical disgusted with such latter-day "imperialism" and all the official "obfuscation" attending it.

It is probably not difficult to identify one's own supposed liberal and democratic politics - whatever they are - with those of George Orwell.

We would like to think that he too would be horrified by the very same abuses of power which we find horrific; and that he would also be bitterly scornful of those abuses of political language which we detest.

But I think Orwell would be rather disappointed with this outcome.

He would not want to be used as a convenient reinforcement of any political views which one would have anyway.

On the contrary, Orwell always sought to challenge conventional thinking about politics, especially amongst liberals and democrats.

It seems to me that, if one is to take Orwell seriously as a political influence, one should try and identify the views that one holds which Orwell would contest, the assumptions which he would seek to undermine, and the prejudices he would want to expose.

Reading Orwell should be incredibly unsettling, forcing one to consider questions such as these:-

What habits of thought and language do you have which could lead to cruelty and abuse?

When do your purported progressive opinions slide into mere justifications for inhumane treatment?

Why, like Winston Smith, do you find O'Brien so attractive and want to believe in him?

Who, for you, is the Snowball or Goldstein that you always want to blame?

How do you seek to try and limit the vocabulary and free expression of those with whom you disagree?

Are you really intellectually and morally honest?

Any supposed liberal can - and should - claim George Orwell as their champion; but reading Orwell's major novels and essays should not be a comforting experience for a reflective person.

Orwell may well have agreed with you on any given subject; but it is that moment when you realise he might not have done - and why he would not have done - which makes him the most valuable of all modern political writers.


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Botogol said...

well said,jack, well said.

"The thing that he was about to do was to write a blog. This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished"

(Ok I changed it a bit)

Maria said...

Nice post. Makes me want to reread him, especially his less famous works. Well, maybe not 'Aspidistra'. That one made me want to slash my wrists.

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

Orwell also died in an era where the language of politics and journalism was, at least for the most part, still used to convey all the hues and variety, along with the precision and succinctness, of the user's meaning and intention: and not just be the cheapened conveyance of the monosyllabic conceit and dissembling which it's become on both sides of the pond in more recent decades.

There was more philosophy to Orwell's approach than many today might perhaps attribute or recognise, in that he didn't necessarily tell the reader what to think: more how to think, and certainly why it is necessary to examine your own rationale and prejudices.

Essential reading for those of any political hue.

Martin Budden said...

Orwell's early death does mean that the copyright of his works has expired in Australia. Anyone in Australia who wishes to read or re-read his works can obtain them here:

asquith said...

You see how everyone admires Orwell (me included). I don't know whether he would agree with my views or give me a sharp dressing-down. I hope the former & try to keep honest but still.

I wondered, is there anyone who disowns the legacy of Orwell & doesn't want to be associated with him? Someone who, in 2010, says "Yeah, he was a bit of a cunt really". I've never come across such a person but perhaps they exist somewhere.

Cavall de Quer said...

How nice to see an appreciation of Orwell - I live in Barcelona, and pass every day the observatory atop the Poliorama theatre from which he looked across to the snipers dug into the Moka café (also still there). We have a Plaça George Orwell, too. I never fail to salute his shade up there as I pass and think of what a constant source of inspiration are his writings. Someone said that "Politics and the English Language" single-handedly saved English from a pit of jargon and - yes - Newspeak. We owe him a debt.
And I'm glad Michael Foot is still with us!