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The Writing on the Wall

The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell

edited by Sonia Orwell, edited by Ian Angus
Harcourt, Brace & World, Vol. IV, 521 pp., $40 the set

This collection of Orwelliana—essays, journalism, letters—is very sparse in letters. Orwell was not much of a correspondent, and the people he must have written to, e.g., his parents, evidently did not save his letters. In four thick volumes, only one to his mother turns up, one to his wife Eileen, one to Sonia Brownell, whom he married in his last illness, none to his father or his sisters. He writes his publisher that the older sister, Marjorie, has died and he will have to go up to Nottingham for her funeral, and footnotes let us in on the fact that the younger one, Avril, was actually living with him as his housekeeper after his wife’s death and taking care of his adopted son. Did he never leave a note on the kitchen table when he went out for a walk or write her during his absences to inquire how things were going? Not a word from Burma, where he spent more than five years in the Indian Imperial Police; four letters (one partly business) and a postcard from Spain, during the Civil War. It was mainly publishers, editors, his agent, his executor, writer friends—people with office space and the professional habit of filing documents—who duly kept his correspondence. This gives a bleak impression of a life.

From April 1939 to January 1940, there is a blank; you would never know that the war had broken out on September 3 and that he was trying to enlist in the army—quite a reversal since when last heard from he had been violently opposing a war with Germany, declaring that it would result in the “Fascization” of England and that the British Empire was worse than Hitler. Such epistolary blanks, like holes cut out by the censor, surround the principal events of his life, both in the private sphere (what led to his marriages? did he never write a love letter?) and in the sphere of politics, where so much of his passion as a writer and journalist centered.

Take Hiroshima. It is first mentioned in his regular “London Letter” to Partisan Review. You would expect some further reactions in letters to his friends on the Left. Nothing. Ten days after Nagasaki he is writing to Herbert Read about organizing a Freedom Defense Committee, Animal Farm, the death of his wife, which had happened some months before, a holiday he plans to take, Labor Party politics, the doings of common friends. Since he has been emphatically approving (May 1944, in a polemic with Vera Brittain in Tribune) the saturation bombing of German cities on the basis of military realism, the reader is curious as to how he will “take” the atom bomb. Later (October 1945, “You and the Atom Bomb”), he foresaw the enormous significance of nuclear weapons in maintaining an international balance of terror and a political status quo within the super-states, but what happened in between, what caused him to revise his common-sense, let’s-cut-the-cackle defense of the practice of total war, is not revealed in these volumes. There was something in Orwell that made him jib at the atom bomb, maybe what he called “decency,” yet whatever it was, quirk or deep moral sanity, remains to be guessed at.

Or take the gas chambers. Though he was in Germany as a reporter shortly after the surrender, he seems to have been unconscious of the death camps, which just then were being discovered further east. No letters, apparently, have survived from this period, or perhaps he did not write any. The dispatches he sent to The Observer and The Manchester Evening News have not been reprinted here (presumably for lack of interest), but in his regular journalism he continues to speak of “concentration camps,” as if he did not know about the extermination camps or as if unaware of a difference—impossible to tell which. You will not find “Auschwitz” or “Genocide” in the index, and Orwell’s attitude toward atrocity stories is sometimes that of the plain Englishman rendered suspicious of “propaganda”; the departure from the average represented by an atrocity put a tax on his powers of belief. At other times, while conceding that there were such things as war crimes, he tended to write them off as committed by both sides and hence, on the balance sheet, cancelling each other out. If the crucial fact of Auschwitz finally “got to him”—he lived, after all, until 1950—the record is amnesiac.

In view of the uncanny “natural selection,” which has decreed, as though according to his wish, that whatever was intimate or revealing in the private letters of the man who became “George Orwell” should perish, the survival of the first letter in this collection, dated 1920, is all the more extraordinary and dramatic. Of the hundreds of schoolboy “missives” he must have penned in his copper-plate handwriting, why should this one—and this one only—have come to light? Eric Blair, aged seventeen, is writing to a school friend from his family’s summer home in Cornwall: “My dear Runciman, I have little spare time, & I feel I must tell you about my first adventure as an amateur tramp. Like most tramps, I was driven to it….” He goes on to explain how, taking the train from Eton for his summer holidays, he unwisely got out of the carriage at a station, was left behind, missed his last connection, and was stranded for the night in Plymouth with seven pence ha’penny, where he had a choice of staying at the YMCA for sixpence with no supper or buying twelve buns for the same money and sleeping in a farmer’s field. He chose the second and passed a cramped, cold August night surrounded by neighboring dogs that barked at his every movement and risked getting him put in the clink for fourteen days—he understood that “frequently” happened if you were caught on somebody else’s property with no visible means of support. “I am very proud of this adventure,” he ends, “but I would not repeat it.”

Such a relatively unadventurous adventure has been granted to many middle-class children: missing your train, being stranded without money, sleeping or trying to sleep in a cold, uncomfortable, illicit place in great fear of detection. I once slept in a confessional box while running away from home and, another time, aged fourteen or fifteen, I spent most of a cold night roaming about the back yard of a university student I loved, dressed in my first evening gown (yellow chiffon with a silver belt and a bunch of cherries at the waist) with a bottle of poison in my hand. I too was unnerved by the barking of neighboring dogs and also by the clatter of garbage-can lids, which I must have jostled as I passed, in my new silver slippers, to match the belt; a bride of Death was the principle of my costume. Though eager to die, I was terribly fearful of being caught trespassing before I could swallow the iodine and be discovered on the premises as a corpse.

In that charade, no necessity was operating. I was not “driven” into an action that might have led a suspicious person to call the police. I could equally well have killed myself in my own bed or at the wash basin, leaving a note. Yet in fact the young Eric Blair did not have to pass the night in a farmer’s field in some “slummy allotment.” He must have known about the Salvation Army. Obviously an alert internal prompter notified him that here was his chance: carpe diem. Indeed, his letter to Steven Runciman sounds as if the idea of being a tramp was something they had often discussed at school. Now he had done it and was happy to furnish the details.

Ten years pass before Blair is heard from again, and now he is addressing an editor, enclosing an article he has written: “The Spike.” It is an account of one of the casual wards where he has been sheltering, with other derelicts, while tramping through the south of England. Soon, rearranged, it will turn up in Down and Out in Paris and London, the first published book of “George Orwell,” who was contriving to bury Blair in more senses than one. Before assuming the identity of a part-time tramp in England, he had been working as a dishwasher and kitchen porter in Paris. He picked hops in Kent as a migratory laborer (described here in “Hop-Picking”) and made an effort to penetrate the inside of prison life by deliberately getting himself arrested as drunk and disorderly (“Clink”)—a failure; they let him out after forty-eight hours. From 1927 till 1932, in Paris, London, and southeast England, Blair was purposefully moving in the lower depths of society among the wrecks and the jetsam. He was conducting a sort of survey, the reverse of the traditional Grand Tour, of the geography and institutions of these nether regions: workhouses, flophouses, Salvation Army shelters, cheap lodgings, jail. It is clear that he was not doing this for “copy,” nor was he exactly forced to it by shortness of money; his favorite aunt was living in Paris all the time he was down and out there, but, so far as one can tell in the absence of any letters, he does not seem to have touched her for a loan.

It is as though, once he had resigned from the Indian Service, he wished to be acted upon, rather than to act, that is, to follow the line of least resistance and see where it led—a quite common impulse in a writer, based on a mystical feeling that the will is evil. Blair-Orwell detested and resented every form of power; in politics, he loved rubbing his opponents’ noses in reality, the opposite of the corporate or individual will, just as in language he hated abstraction, the separation of mental concepts from the plurality of the concrete. The line of least resistance, obeying a law of social gravity, led him naturally downward to gauge the depths of powerlessness and indignity, and the knowledge he brought back made it impossible for him ever to eat a meal in a smart restaurant again, in the same way as, later, after going down into the English coal mines, he wrote “I don’t think I shall ever feel the same about coal again.” Every now and then, in those four or five years of vagrancy, Blair surfaced, working as a tutor to a defective boy, staying with his older sister and her husband, staying with his parents, only to plunge back again into anonymity. Was this “coming up for air” a simple manifestation of the life-instinct or some complicated testing of his forces of resiliency? By coming to the top he kept his freedom to sink once more, when the spirit moved him. He refused to drop definitively out of sight by an act of choice.

Certainly he was not averse to abrupt decisions: the resolve to fight in Spain (we do not see the resolve forming; here is another of those blanks—he suddenly writes to his agent that he will be going to Spain in about a week, though up to then—December 15, 1936—the war in Spain has not even been mentioned), the resolve to write the book about the coal mines, living in with the miners’ families, the resolve to rent a farmhouse on the remote island of Jura in the Hebrides.

That last decision was probably fatal, but for the reader, gifted with foresight, every move, starting with that first juvenile “adventure,” has been fatal and fateful—a succession of coffin nails hammered home. It was in the cards: death of pulmonary tuberculosis, aged 46, London University Hospital. Q.E.D. Like a spectator at a play of preternaturally tight construction, the reader is gripped with horror, admiration, anger, pity, revulsion as he races through the early accounts (sometimes printed here for the first time) of Orwell’s experiments in crossing the class barrier, experiments conducted ruthlessly on his own frame, in a scientific spirit, for though he was a strong believer in individual difference and came to fear, above all, the thought that people would become interchangeable parts in a totalitarian system, he seems to have felt that as a subject for study himself he was a universal, i.e., a fair sample of his kind, capable of normative reactions under dissection. His end has something macabre in it, like the end of some Victorian pathologist who tested his theories on his own organs, neglecting asepsis. In his last letters, he speaks of his appearance as being “frightening,” of being “a death’s head,” but all along he has been something of a specter at the feast. He was prone to see the handwriting on the wall, for England, for socialism, for personal liberty; indeed, his work is one insistent reminder, and his personal life—what we glimpse of it—even when he was fairly affluent seems to have been an illustrated lesson in survival techniques under extreme conditions, as though he expected to be cast adrift in a capsule.

Survival interested him greatly, yet the punishment he gave his own body almost insured its rapid decline. It was a miracle he lasted as long as he did, considering. An undiscovered lesion in his lung contracted in his Dickensian boarding-school (“Such, Such Were the Joys”), a bout with pneumonia in the Hôpital Cochin in Paris (“How the Poor Die”), the throat wound from a sniper’s bullet during the Spanish Civil War, the first sanatorium, in Kent, the winter in a warm climate—Marrakech—prescribed by the doctors, another illness, the War, rejection by the Army as medically unfit, service in the Home Guard, austerity, poverty, assiduous overwork, the cold winter of 1947, the second attack, the sanatorium in Glasgow, the Crusoe-like severities of the primitive island of Jura, which was often cut off from the mainland, near-drowning in a whirlpool and exposure while waiting for rescue, the third attack…. When his first wife, Eileen, aged 39, died while he was abroad just after the German surrender, he ought, one feels, to have taken it as a warning signal to himself: what was the cause of her unexplained “poor health”? He does not seem to have wondered. “When Eileen and I were first married,” he had written a few years earlier to his friend, Jack Common, “… we hardly knew where the next meal was coming from but we found we could rub along in a remarkable manner with spuds and so forth.” More than once he speaks of how women of the working class age early in comparison to middle-class women, and it sounds as though Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a doctor’s daughter, had embraced a working-class fate in marrying Eric Blair. “Yes, she was a good old stick,” he said after her death to a friend who was expressing sympathy.

The consumption that carried off Orwell used to be considered a disease of the industrial poor. It cannot be an accident that so many of the best writers of our century have been consumptive: D.H. Lawrence, Kafka, Silone, Simone Weil, Camus, but also Thomas Mann and Katherine Mansfield, who do not appear to “belong” to this company of prophets and holy outcasts, although Katherine Mansfield was often desperately poor. Tuberculosis, for artists of this century, is what syphilis was for the nineteenth, a sign, almost, of election. But whereas venereal disease was the mark of commerce with Venus (now fully licensed), a lesion of the lung appears among modern writers as a sort of Franciscan stigmata, a mark of familiarity with privation; after all, poverty today, at least in the West, is a “stigma.” Most of those tubercular writers can be imagined as constituting a brotherhood or third order outside ordinary society, a brotherhood of intractables. Simone Weil going to work in a factory and eventually starving herself to death in order to share the diet of the people of occupied France was answering the same “call” as Orwell living among the derelicts and hop-pickers or as Silone militating in the underground, in clandestinity. It may be significant that no American writer, so far as I know, has contracted tuberculosis, and no American writer of this age has been an inspired “voice,” like Camus, like Orwell, like Lawrence, like Simone Weil, like Silone, like Kafka.

A copy of 1984, translated into Hungarian and secretly passed about, is said to have been the catalyst of the Hungarian Revolution. Animal Farm, a precious text too in Eastern Europe, became a classic the day it was published. But surely Orwell’s best work is that of his heroic early period: Down and Out in Paris and London, “A Hanging,” “Shooting an Elephant,” The Road to Wigan Pier, and finally Homage to Catalonia, which ends his novitiate. These terse writings resemble loose-leaf pages from a diary, which has survived to tell the tale. Or they are like polished driftwood, not intended for the coffee-table. There was always something unwelcome in Orwell’s revelations: the return of the repressed. This note was struck again, hard and fierce, in two of his later essays, jotted down, it would seem, for his own satisfaction when he was already famous and successful: “How the Poor Die” and “Such, Such Were the Joys.” He would not forget having touched bottom, which assured him of having his feet on the ground.

His book reviews and literary essays (“Inside the Whale,” “Dickens, Dali and Others”) are not especially acute, except in flashes. His penetration was less literary than moral; he was on the lookout for the hidden flaw in an author. More important historically are “Boys’ Weeklies,” “The Art of Donald McGill,” “Raffles and Miss Blandish.” The criticism of popular culture was a genre he virtually invented; it is hard to remember that, before him, it scarcely existed, though there were anticipations of it in the early Rebecca West and in Q. D. Leavis (Fiction and the Reading Public). “I have often thought,” he wrote to Geoffrey Gorer in 1936, “it would be very interesting to study the conventions etc. of books from an anthropological point of view…. It would be interesting & I believe valuable to work out the underlying beliefs & general imaginative background of a writer like Edgar Wallace. But of course that’s the kind of thing nobody will ever print.” This gloomy forecast no doubt pleased him; he would not have liked to know that he would be starting a fashion for that “kind of thing.”

He was on to something new in “Boys’ Weeklies” (1939), but not exactly new to him. He had done something like it, though he may not have been aware of the parallel, in his masterpiece, Down and Out in Paris and London. I.e., he was making a descent. An exploratory plunge into the limbo of sub-literature, sub-art: cheap stories for boys, comic postcards, thrillers. He was also very much interested in a category which Chesterton had named “good bad books”; he was an avid collector of pamphlets and he had a great memory for hymns and music-hall songs. He enjoyed this type of material and believed that everyone else did, if they would only confess the truth, and, as happens with sports and hobbies, his enjoyment was solemnized by expertise, the rites of comparing, collating, a half-deliberate parody of scholarship, like the recitation of batting averages (cf. Senator McCarthy).

If there was anything he despised, it was fashion; whatever was “in” affected him with a kind of violent claustrophobia. He wanted out. His first escape attempt was to Burma. On the surface this looks natural enough. He was born in Bengal; his father was in the Indian Service, and his mother was the daughter of a tea-merchant in Burma. Yet if he was following family tradition (he had “worshipped” Kipling as a boy), he was also eluding the career open to his talents; the next step after Eton ought to have been Cambridge or Oxford, then the London literary world. Instead, he became a policeman. Whatever his parents thought, from the point of view of his contemporaries at Eton he could have sunk no lower. Empire was out of fashion. But from his own point of view the colonial society he found in Burma must have been preferable to the London literary cliques, if only because the second looked down on and snickered at the first.

He hated intellectuals, pansies, and “rich swine,” as he called millionaires, and nothing made him angrier during the War than the fact that repairs were being made to the empty grand houses in the West End. He was also incensed at the suggestion that rationing should end. His extreme egalitarianism involved cutting down to size any superior pretensions. He was quick to catch the smell of luxury, material or intellectual; he sneered at Joyce for trying to be “above the battle” while living in Zurich on a British pension, at Gandhi for playing “with his spinning-wheel in the mansion of some cotton millionaire.” The luxury of being a pacifist (“fascifist”) in wartime drove him into furies of invective; at different times he compared Gandhi to Frank Buchman, Pétain, Salazar, Hitler, and Rasputin. He was capable of making friends with individual plain-living pacifists and anarchists, e.g., George Woodcock, having attacked them in print, but he continued to regard anarchism as at best an affectation (at worst it was “a form of power-worship”); the pretense that you could do without government was mental self-indulgence. What he really had against intellectuals, pansies, and rich swine was that they are all fashion-carriers—a true accusation. Fashion is an incarnation of wasteful luxury (nobody needs a mini-skirt), and one thing he liked about the poor was that they could not afford to be modish—a somewhat tautological point.

He did not mythicize the poor (he loathed myths too); he saw them rather dourly as they were. Their imperviousness to middle-class ideas was both an argument in their favor and a reason for despair since they showed no signs of inventing a socialism of their own, and he did passionately want socialism for everyone, on moral and rational grounds; as he pointed out, the machine had changed everything: “So long as methods of production were primitive, the great mass of the people were necessarily tied down to dreary, exhausting manual labor: and a few people had to be set free from such labor, otherwise civilization could not maintain itself, let alone make any progress. But since the arrival of the machine the whole pattern has altered. The justification for class distinctions, if there is a justification, is no longer the same, because there is no mechanical reason why the average human being should continue to be a drudge.” Yet the poor and the working class, slow to change their habits (and maybe because of this), possessed at any rate “common decency”—a quality Orwell found absent in many intellectuals and well-to-do people. “One has the right,” he says despondently, speaking of Pound, “to expect ordinary decency even of a poet.” The “even” sums up his feelings. Having no vanity himself, though plenty of angry pride, he disallowed the claim of the artist to be exceptional in any way, and here he was flying in the face of reality. The artist is an exception and hence indulged and forgiven (also mistreated). But Orwell did not have much forgiveness. It is surprising, for instance, to find him indulgent to Sir Osbert Sitwell. His egalitarian strictness made him an incipient philistine mistrustful of the vagaries of art, not to mention the vagaries of the artist.

Indeed, he was a philistine, of a peculiar kind, that loved beauty, flowers, birds, Nature; this curmudgeon even loved poetry, not just good bad poetry, but the real thing. But it was a love crossed by misunderstandings, like the love, in some fable, of one species for another, a mastiff for a rose. He wrote bad poetry himself and sometimes in his early book reviews a schoolboy purpled prose. His genius was for precise observation of data and for quantifying, which made him a better analyst of the art of Frank Richards, author of boy’s stories, than of the art of Tolstoy. It is easier to quantify “the underlying beliefs & general imaginative background” of a Frank Richards than to apply these rule-of-thumb measurements to Tolstoy or Swift or Dickens.

Though aware of the impossibility of this, he would have liked to find some acid test to subject works of art to which would tell the investigator demonstrably whether they were good or bad. In fact he devised one for characters in fiction: a character in a novel “passes” if you can hold an imaginary conversation with him. In his own novels, only Big Brother, probably, would meet that eccentric requirement. He was a Sherlock Holmes fan and a lover of puzzles and brain-twisters, also of the odd fact of the “Believe It or Not” variety. His literary criticism often smacks of police detection, as when he discovers—quite astutely—that the fault of Koestler is “hedonism,” something that is not apparent to the untrained eye. He was not a natural novelist, having no interest in character or in the process of rising or sinking in ordinary society or in a field of work—a process that engaged the sympathies not just of Proust or Balzac but of Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Conrad, Zola, Dickens, Dreiser. He would have been indifferent both to success and to failure. It is hard to imagine the long family-chronicle novel in several volumes he was planning to write just as the War was breaking out. Maybe he did not have enough human weaknesses to be a real novelist.

He was interested in institutions, in whatever could be measured, counted, surveyed, in the mechanics of work, in cost. He inventories his books to find how much reading has cost him over the past fifteen years and gets a figure of 25 pounds a year. Calculated out at nine and ninepence a week, this equals 83 cigarettes (Players). Most of his books, he notes, he bought second-hand. He was always totting up. He maintained careful records of the minute profits of the small village shop he kept (about one pound a week), of crops planted in his garden, of the milk produced by his goats and eggs laid by his hens. When the War comes, he reckons that he can grow half a ton of potatoes in one year, which ought to see them through the all-but-certain food shortage. And shortly after Munich, he tries to enlist Herbert Read in a scheme to buy printing presses to be ready to get out clandestine leaflets when England goes fascist; estimated cost probably three or four hundred pounds. He is sure fascism is coming because he has added up the possibilities and he “cannot believe that the time when you can buy a printing press with no questions asked will last forever.”

In his political speculations he thought in terms of futures and sought out “laws” to ease the labor of prediction (wars break out in the autumn, after the harvest has been got in; the decline of the British Empire was attributable to the invention of the telegraph, which killed off individual initiative and centered decisions in Whitehall), just as when arriving at a spike he sought to find its characteristic defect—every spike had one. He was fascinated by the inner workings of institutions and would have liked to take them apart, like a watch. His inventiveness was of an old-fashioned, hard-headed, utilitarian kind. At one time he “tried to devise an envelope which couldn’t be opened without the fact becoming apparent.” After a tabulation and breakdown of famous cases, he amused himself constructing a model of the popular idea of the perfect murder. Some similar ratiocination must have led to the construction of the “model” societies of 1984 and Animal Farm. Building these ingenious, air-tight, neat worlds based on a few simple principles such as double-think and “but some are more equal than others” must have appealed to his sardonic imagination.

He was an unsociable bird and so far as one can tell he held little communion with himself, except to the extent that he was a source of data, the nearest one at hand. He used himself, as I said, as an experimental animal in the course of his social researches. Or as a “control.” Hence he had to keep himself under observation with impartial scientific rigor, and this is especially evident in his early period, when he was a “pure” recording instrument and his writing was most delicate and exact. His celebrated honesty was a workmanly quality. It is a question of keeping your tools clean. A precision tool must be “true,” straight as a die.

Later he formed the habit of making avowals to his readers, often in a truculent manner. For instance he admits suddenly that he has never been able to dislike Hitler. Such a confession “expects” that the reader feels the same but has not had the bravado to declare it. The part of himself that Orwell exposes to his readers—and the only part that interests him—is the common man, the man on the street, You and I, insofar as we are capable of honesty. Nigel Dennis said that Orwell’s appeal was “to what everyone knows in his heart,” but this is less a soft appeal than a challenge, a species of blackmail or bullying: if you think you dislike Hitler, you are a hypocrite or a toady of fashion and you had better think again. The same with such phrases as “the pansy Left,” “the successive literary cliques which have infested this country,” “hordes of shrieking poseurs,” Blimpish summons to the boor in the reader’s heart to emerge with a safe-conduct. “To write in plain vigorous language one has to think fearlessly,” he declared. It is true that he did not care what people thought of him, but this may not always be such a virtue as he imagined; the opinion of others is a corrective.

Possibly Blair-Orwell was corrected too often in youth to brook it afterwards. Though he tots up afterwards, for the record, the mistakes in prophecy he has made in his “London Letter” to Partisan Review, he is generally convinced of his own rightness and never repents an error with a truly contrite heart. Once he has changed his mind he seems to be unconscious of having done so and can write to Victor Gollancz early in 1940, “The intellectuals who are at present pointing out that democracy & fascism are the same thing depress me horribly,” evidently forgetting that he has been saying that himself a year earlier. On the occasions when, conscious of a possible previous injustice, he starts out to write a reappraisal, as in the cases of Gandhi and Tolstoy, he slowly swings around to his original position, restated in less intemperate language. In “Why I Write,” he declared “I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood.” This is loyal and admirable in the man, but it is a grave limitation on thinking. Lacking religion and mistrustful of philosophy, he stayed stubbornly true to himself and to his instincts, for which he could find no other word than “decency,” as if no further definition was needed. The refusal to examine this concept (is it innate or handed down and if so what is the source of its binding power?) makes Orwell an uncertain guide to action, especially in the realm of politics, unless he is taken as a saint, that is a transmitter of revelation—a class of person he had a great distaste for.

It is impossible, at least for me, to guess how he would have stood on many leading questions of our day. Surely he would have opposed the trial and execution of Eichmann, but where would he be on the war in Vietnam? I wish I could be certain that he would not be with Kingsley Amis and Bernard Levin (who with John Osborne seem to be his main progeny), partly because of his belligerent anti-Communism, which there is no use trying, as Conor Cruise O’Brien does, to discount, and partly because it is modish to oppose the war in Vietnam: we are the current “pinks.” I can hear him angrily arguing that to oppose the Americans in Vietnam, whatever their shortcomings, is to be “objectively” pro-totalitarian. On the other hand, there was that decency. And what about CND? He took exception to the atom bomb, but as a “realist” he accepted the likelihood of an atomic confrontation in a few years’ time and computed the chances of survival: “If the show does start and is as bad as one fears,” he wrote from Jura to a friend, “it would be fairly easy to be self-supporting on these islands provided one wasn’t looted.” I cannot see him in an Aldermaston march, along with long-haired cranks and vegetarians, or listening to a Bob Dylan or Joan Baez record or engaging in any of the current forms of protest. The word protest would make him sick. And yet he could hardly have supported Harold Wilson’s government. As for the student revolt, he might well have been out of sympathy for a dozen reasons, but would he have sympathized with the administrators? If he had lived, he might have been happiest on a desert island, and it was a blessing for him probably that he died.

If he is entitled to be called “the conscience of his generation,” this is mainly because of his identification with the poor. He was not unique in tearing the mask off Stalinism, and his relentless pursuit of Stalinists in his own milieu occasionally seems to be a mere product of personal dislike. Nobody could say that Orwell had sold out or would ever sell out for money; honors, women, pleasure; this gave him his authority, which sometimes, in my opinion, he abused. His political failure—despite everything, it was a failure if he left no ideas behind him to germinate—was one of thought. While denouncing power-worship in just about everybody and discovering totalitarian tendencies in Swift (the Houynhnhnms have a totalitarian society), Tolstoy, and gentle local anarchists and pacifists, he was in fact contemptuous of weakness—ineffectuality—in political minorities. Apparently he did not consider how socialism, if it was to be as radical and thorough-going as he wished, could secure a general accord or whether, failing such an accord, it should achieve power by force.

Actually during the War he was in favor of arbitrary measures, such as the seizure and requisitioning of empty mansions for housing the bombed-out poor—a sound enough notion but unlikely to be accepted by the Churchill government, as he of course knew. Would he have organized and led a committee of the homeless to storm and occupy those mansions? If not, why rail? It is a question whether Orwell’s socialism, savagely felt as it was, was not an unexamined idea off the top of his head: sheer rant.

In reality, though given to wild statements, he was conservative by temperament, as opposed as a retired colonel or a working-man to extremes of conduct, dress, or thought. He clung to the middle-class values which like himself in his early period had sunk to the bottom of society. His main attacks were launched against innovations, including totalitarianism, a “new” wrinkle in the history of oppression, and this may explain his revulsion from the atom bomb. “Man,” he wrote, “only stays human by preserving large patches of simplicity in his life,” a good dictum but hard to carry out unless some helpful Air Force general will bomb us back to the Stone Age. The longing to go back to some simpler form of life, minus modern conveniences, is typical of a whole generation of middle-class radicals whose loudest spokesman was Orwell. On the subject of socialism and progress, Orwell indulged in a good deal of double-think; in fact he hated the technology which he counted on to liberate the majority and loved working the land which in any rational socialist economy would be farmed by tractors. When the War finally came, he found an unsuspected patriot in himself via the agency of a dream. He had completed a circle: his first published writing, printed in a local paper (and not reprinted here), was a patriotic poem: “Awake, Young Men of England.” The date was October 2, 1914.

Letters

If… July 10, 1969

If… July 10, 1969

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