Orwell Abuse

Orwell: muse, not model
December 18, 2007

Once in a great while, one encounters a writer who seems not only to have a finger on the pulse of his or her own era, but also to have something authoritative to say to posterity. In the English language, Dr. Johnson is still probably the paradigmatic example of such a writer. But since his death in 1950 at the age of forty-six, there can be little doubt that it is George Orwell who occupies this place in the collective imagination of the culture.

Whether Orwell himself would have relished being treated simultaneously as seer, secular saint, yardstick of conscience, and arbiter of political good sense is surely doubtful. He was not without vanity, but he was both too much of a natural contrarian and too skeptical of human motives to have taken such adulation at face value. Like Simone Weil, whom he would have loathed (a dislike Weil would have reciprocated with interest), Orwell had an almost pitch-perfect talent for making things as difficult for himself as possible, and a penitent’s tropism toward physical discomfort and privation even when there were easier and more comfortable roads open to him. Weil essentially ensured her own death when, already gravely ill and a refugee in London, she insisted on subsisting on the official ration for people in Nazi-occupied France even though virtually everybody in France at the time had extra sources of food. Orwell, his tuberculosis worsening, left London, where he might have been properly looked after, for the cold isolation of the Isle of Jura off western Scotland, where he tried to write, make furniture, and raise pigs as his health went from bad to worse.

Both Weil and Orwell were “judgers.” Their standards were high and their opinions severe. Few people measured up, perhaps least of all those with whom they shared important political and cultural affinities. Weil was at war with her own Jewish background and with her Catholic faith. Orwell, as the political historian George Lichtheim, who knew him, once told me, seemed puzzled at how he had wound up with so many Jews and homosexuals for comrades, and in many ways he was as sentimental about England—or at least a certain fantasy image of England—as any of his more conventional classmates at Eton or colleagues in the Burmese colonial police.

Would the writer whose stock-in-trade was the telling of unpleasant truths—truths to power on behalf of the powerless, but also truths about power to people whom Orwell felt criticized it without understanding it—have really reveled in what has now been almost sixty years of encomia? He was not without ego, so perhaps he would have succumbed—at least for a time. But I find it hard to believe that, in the end, Orwell’s natural cussedness would not eventually have reasserted itself and that he would not have wondered what all the fuss about himself was finally all about.

The praise has been as curious as it has been lavish. Many influential writers are “claimed” by one political side both in their own time and after their deaths. Orwell always insisted that he was a man of the left, and yet he is now claimed by both the left (apart from an extreme fringe for whom Orwell’s anticommunism remains anathema) and the right. The neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz once wrote an essay on Orwell insisting that were he alive today, he too would be a neoconservative. At the same time, Orwell is routinely invoked in descriptions of the current political depredations of the American right. Weighing these mutually excluding acts of appropriation, it is hard not to feel that the actual George Orwell disappears the more the debate intensifies. It is as if he had become a kind of Rorschach blot onto which contestants in our contemporary political controversies can project their own opinions, but using Orwell as nineteenth-century politicians used the Bible—as a debate-settling textual authority. Opponents of George Bush think that Orwell would have seen in the Karl Rove propaganda machine the realization of his fears of political Newspeak. Supporters of the Iraq war insist that Orwell was first and foremost an antitotalitarian, and thus would have welcomed the overthrow of so vicious a tyrant as Saddam Hussein. For the right, campus political correctness is totalitarian. For the left, it is Orwell’s fear of a controlled media that resonates in this period of increasing media monopoly and capitalist political consensus.

The truth is that none of the people who express themselves so recklessly and self-servingly about what Orwell would have thought and where he would have stood have the right to opine believably about either. To state the obvious: Orwell died fifty-seven years ago, when the Cold War was in its infancy, the European colonial empires still existed, the global predominance of the United States was not clear (to Orwell at least), globalization and the information economy did not exist, the mass migration of the people of the Global South to the rich world had not yet begun, feminism had not yet transformed the family, and neither the Internet nor the biological revolution had taken place. To claim that one can deduce from what Orwell said and what one believes he stood for in his own time what he would have thought of the early twenty-first century is either a vulgar quest for an authority to ratify one’s own views, a fantasy about the transferability of the past to the present, or both. We haven’t a clue what Orwell would have thought or what side he would have taken.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

What we do have the right to is the claim that posterity can always make on the work of a great writer like George Orwell. We can say that Orwell’s work, whether it be the description of Communism in Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia, of totalitarianism in 1984, or of the poor in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier, and in his essential essays on the relationship between language and politics, is a profound inspiration to us—not a shortcut to making the points we deem important, but an example to be emulated of how to think and how to write. To claim more for Orwell is not to honor him but to deny his work its specific gravity. He is a writer, not a guide. And surely that should be enough.

David Rieff is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of seven books, most recently At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention.