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Such, Such Was Eric Blair

Orwell used “sophisticated” and “intellectual” and “intelligentsia” as terms of dispraise, hated Bloomsbury, and not just expected but hoped that the sales of Uncle Tom’s Cabin would outlast those of Virginia Woolf. He was scathing about social elites, finding the ruling class “stupid.” In 1941 he declared that Britain was the most class-ridden country on earth, ruled by “the old and silly,” “a family with the wrong members in control”; yet he also recognized that the ruling class was “morally fairly sound” and in time of war “ready enough to get themselves killed.” He described the condition of the working class with sympathy and rage, thought them wiser than intellectuals, but didn’t sentimentalize them; in their struggle they were as “blind and stupid” as a plant struggling toward the light.

Orwell is profoundly English in even more ways than these. 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.

He is uninterested in creature comforts, clothes, fashion, sport, frivolity of any kind, unless that frivolity—like seaside postcards or boys’ magazines—leads to some broader social rumination. He likes trees and roses, and barely mentions sex. His preferred literary form, the essay, is, as George Packer observes, quintessentially English.* He is a one-man, truth-telling awkward squad, and what, the English like to pretend, could be more English than that? Finally, when he rebranded himself, he took the Christian name of England’s patron saint. There aren’t too many Erics in the lists either of saints or of national treasures. The only Saint Eric is Swedish, and he wasn’t even a proper, pope-made saint.

Getting its history wrong,” wrote Ernest Renan, “is part of being a nation.” Pointedly, he said “being,” not “becoming”: the self-delusion is a constant requirement, not just part of a state’s initial creation myth. Similarly, getting its iconic figures wrong—and rebranding them at intervals—is part of being a nation. The Orwell whom the English have sanctified is a descendant of the stone-kicking, beef-eating, commonsensical Dr. Johnson (another malleable iconic construct). It is the Orwell who writes to the publisher Fredric Warburg in October 1948, “I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot.” It is the Orwell of straight thinking, plain writing, moral clarity, and truth-telling.

Yet things are never so simple, not even in the truth-telling, and Orwell’s own line—“All art is to some extent propaganda”—might make us cautious (and reflect that the dictum applies a fortiori to journalism). Take Orwell’s denunciation of St. Cyprian’s. Despite being written three decades after young Eric Blair’s grim experiences, it is much harsher than that of anyone else who wrote about the school. If Orwell had lived to show up at Flip’s funeral, the revenge of the golf correspondents might have been worthy of St. Cyprian’s itself. But was Orwell’s account so unremitting because he saw more truth than all the others, because time had not sentimentalized him, because with hindsight he could see exactly how that kind of education system perverted young minds and spirits to the wider purposes of the British establishment and Empire? Or was his thumb propagandistically on the scale?

One small moment of literary history at which many Orwellians would like to have been present was an encounter in Bertorelli’s restaurant in London between Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick and Orwell’s widow, Sonia. Crick dared to doubt the utter truthfulness of one of Orwell’s most celebrated pieces of reportage, “Shooting an Elephant.” Sonia, “to the delight of other clients,” according to Crick, “screamed” at him across the table, “Of course he shot a fucking elephant. He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word!” The widow, you feel, was screaming for England. Because what England wants to believe about Orwell is that, having seen through the dogma and false words of political ideologies, he refuted the notion that facts are relative, flexible, or purpose-serving; further, he taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit.

But the unpatriotic doubter must persist, as Crick did. And in the afterword to the paperback edition of his biography he quotes a tape recording of an old Burma hand’s memories of the incident Orwell recounted. According to the elderly witness, Orwell did indeed shoot “a fucking elephant.” However, the elephant had not, as Orwell claimed, rampagingly killed a man (whose corpse he described in detail); further, since the beast had been valuable company property, not to be so lightly destroyed, its owners complained to the government, whereupon Blair was packed off to a distant province, and a certain Colonel Welbourne called Blair “a disgrace to Eton College.” Such external doubting might corroborate the internal doubts of literary genre. As Crick argues, twelve of the fourteen pieces in the issue of Penguin New Writing where “Shooting an Elephant” first appeared were “similarly of a then fashionable genre that blurred the line between fact and fiction—the documentary, ‘authentic’ style.”

The same skepticism—or critical research—may be, and has been, applied to Orwell’s equally celebrated anti-Empire piece, “A Hanging.” Crick, while admiring its six pages as having “the terror of a Goya coupled with the precise, mundane observation of a Sickert,” was not convinced that Orwell had ever attended a hanging; or even if he had, whether it was this one—the hanging of the essay being by implication something confected. Whether or not this is the case, there is one interesting omission from Orwell’s account: any stated reason why the man was being hanged. If, as a young journalist, you attended an execution, and afterward drank whisky with those in charge, you would surely have found out what crime the poor devil had committed. And if so, why not pass it on to readers? It’s possible that the offense was so vile that Orwell suppressed it lest readers conclude that there might, after all, be something to be said for capital punishment. Or he might have suppressed it as irrelevant, given his belief that any execution anywhere was an “unspeakable wrongness.” Or, as Crick suspected, he might have been describing a typical execution rather than a specific one.

When Dirk Bogarde or Ronald Reagan exaggerate (or invent) their war service, we think them mildly (or seriously) deluded. We might, if sympathetic, imagine them stretching the truth once or twice, and then finding themselves stuck with the story. Why judge Orwell differently? Because he’s Orwell. We could argue, as David Lodge has done with “A Hanging,” that the value of the two Burmese essays does not rest on their being factually true. But this is a very literary defense, and possibly a case of cutting the writer more slack because we admire him anyway. Yet we are hardly dealing with someone like Ford Madox Ford, who believed in the greater truth of impressions over that of mere grubby facts. Further, if the neglected Ford is sometimes classified as a “writer’s writer,” Orwell was the very opposite—a kind of nonwriter’s writer. As Packer puts it of “Shooting an Elephant,” “the naive reaction is the right one.” Many of those who admire him might lose respect or faith if he turned out not to have shot a fucking elephant, or not to have attended this specific fucking execution, because he, George Orwell, said he had, and if he hadn’t, then was he not mirroring those political truth-twisters whom he denounced? If “all art is to some extent propaganda,” then are we not to suppose that the laws of propaganda apply even if you are on the side of truth, justice, and the angels?

One of the effects of reading Orwell’s essays en masse is to realize how very dogmatic—in the nonideological sense—he is. This is another aspect of his Johnsonian Englishness. From the quotidian matter of how to make a cup of tea to the socioeconomic analysis of the restaurant (an entirely unnecessary luxury, to Orwell’s puritanical mind), he is a lawgiver, and his laws are often founded in disapproval. He is a great writer against. So his “Bookshop Memories”—a subject others might turn into a gentle color piece with a few amusing anecdotes—scorns lightness. The work, he declares, is drudgery, quite unrewarding, and makes you hate books; while the customers tend to be thieves, paranoiacs, dimwits, or, at best—when buying sets of Dickens in the improbable hope of reading them—mere self-deceivers. In “England Your England” he denounces the left-wing English intelligentsia for being “generally negative” and “querulous”: adjectives which, from this distance, seem to fit Orwell pretty aptly. Given that he died at the age of forty-six, it’s scary to imagine the crustiness that might have set in had he reached pensionable age.

Nowhere is he more dogmatic than in his attitude toward writing: what it is for, how it should be done, and who does it badly. Auden is “pure scoutmaster”; Carlyle “with all his cleverness…had not even the wit to write plain straightforward English”; Rupert Brooke’s “Grantchester” is “accumulated vomit.” Even those he approves of have major faults: Dickens is really “rather ignorant” about how life works; H.G. Wells is “too sane to understand the modern world”; while Orwell’s “defense” of Kipling is oddly patronizing. There are huge generalizations about how writers develop and age; and for all his moral clarity about totalitarian language, his own prescriptiveness is sometimes severe, sometimes woolly.

All art is to some extent propaganda” looks striking, but is greatly weakened by the “to some extent,” and what, finally, does it mean? Only that all art is “about” something, even if it is only about itself. “Art for art’s sake”—a concept Orwell would abhor—is just “propaganda” for art itself, which the movement was well aware of. Then there is: “A novelist who simply disregards the major public events of the moment is generally either a footler or a plain idiot.” Since this dismisses both novelists of the private life and those who (as was common in the nineteenth century) set their stories a generation or two back, out go Austen, the Brontës, Flaubert, James, and so on, and so on.

Good prose is like a windowpane.” As an instruction to cub reporters and old hacks—also as a self-instruction of the kind writer-critics issue to the world while actually describing their own procedures—it sounds reasonable enough. But it begs questions, as does Orwell’s other key instruction, from “Politics and the English Language”: “Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.” Together, these dicta presuppose, and instruct, that writing is a matter of examining the world, reflecting upon it, deducing what you want to say, putting that meaning or message into words whose transparency allows the reader, now gazing through the same windowpane from the same position, to see the world exactly as you have seen it. But does anyone, even Orwell, actually write like that? And are words glass? Most writing comes from a more inchoate process; ideas may indeed propose words, but sometimes words propose ideas (or both transactions occur within the same sentence). As E.M. Forster, a frequent target of Orwell’s, put it (or rather, quoted) in Aspects of the Novel : “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” To Orwell this might seem a piece of pansy-left whimsy; but it probably accords more closely to the experience of many writers.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell enumerated the things about England that made him glad to be home: “bathrooms, armchairs, mint sauce, new potatoes properly cooked, brown bread, marmalade, beer made with veritable hops.” In “England Your England” he celebrated “a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans.” In 1993, the Trollope-loving Prime Minister John Major, with his party split, the currency on the slide, and his own authority diminishing, found similar refuge in those seemingly eternal aspects of Englishness:

Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers [i.e., bettors on football pools], and, as George Orwell said, “Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist” and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.

Less than a third of those fifty years have elapsed, but many pools fillers now play the national lottery or log on to Internet gambling sites; global warming is giving the English a taste for chilled beer; while the bicycling Anglicans are being replaced by Muslims driving to the suburban mosque. All prophets risk posthumous censure, even mockery; and the Orwell we celebrate nowadays is less the predictor than the social and political analyst. Those born in the immediate postwar years grew up with the constant half-expectation that 1984 would bring all the novel described: immovable geopolitical blocs, plus brutal state surveillance and control. Today, the English may have their sluggardly couch-potato side; their liberties have been somewhat diminished, and they are recorded by CCTV cameras more often than any other nation on earth. But otherwise 1984 passed with a sigh of relief, while 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall brought a louder one.

Orwell believed in 1936 that “the combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.” That “never” was a risky call. And on a larger scale, he believed throughout World War II that peace would bring the British revolution he desired, with blood in the gutters and the “red militias…billetted in the Ritz,” as he put it in private diary and public essay. And after the revolution:

The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten….

One out of four on the vision thing; and tractors were hardly a difficult pick.

Against such a background, it would be rash to try to predict the continuing afterlife of Orwell’s work. Many of his phrases and mental tropes have already sunk into the conscious and unconscious mind, and we carry them with us as we carry Freudian tropes, whether or not we have read Freud. Some of those English couch potatoes watch programs called Big Brother and Room 101. And if we allow ourselves to hope for a future in which all Orwell’s warnings have been successfully heeded, and in which Animal Farm has become as archaic a text as Rasselas, the world will have to work its way through a lot of dictators and repressive systems first. In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just a single novel about the country, but a trilogy: Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell shared with Dickens a hatred of tyranny, and in his essay on the Victorian novelist distinguished two types of revolutionary. There are on the one hand the change-of-heart people, who believe that if you change human nature, all the problems of society will fall away; and, on the other, the social engineers, who believe that once you fix society—make it fairer, more democratic, less divided—then the problems of human nature will fall away. These two approaches “appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time.” Dickens was a change-of-heart man, Orwell a systems-and-structures man, not least because—as these essays confirm—he thought human beings recidivist, and beyond mere self-help. “The central problem—how to prevent power from being abused—remains unsolved.” And until then, it is safe to predict that Orwell will remain a living writer.

  1. *

    Orwell’s essays are less well known in America than in Britain, and their availability less continuous. George Packer’s two volumes make a fine introduction, containing all the celebrated pieces, plus lesser items demonstrating Orwell’s range of curiosity. Packer divides them into the “narrative” essays, mainly from an earlier period, and drawing more on personal experience; and the “critical,” mainly from a later period, when analysis was more central. But the essay is such a compendious and tolerant form, and Orwell’s nature as a writer so resistant to borders and categories, that just as the essayistic mode spills into his fiction, so here there is much overlapping between the “narrative” and the “critical.”

    The Penguin volume contains four of his key essays: “Why I Write,” “The Lion and the Unicorn,” “A Hanging,” and “Politics and the English Language.”

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