Why Orwell Matters
One of my favorite Orwell moments comes early in his autobiographical account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, when he weighs his own reaction to revolutionary Barcelona. Surveying the looted churches, expropriated taxis, militant shoeshine men, and democratic sheet music, he breathed the spirit of 1936--and coughed. "There was much in it that I did not understand, in some way I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for."
Defending things you don't like is standard operating procedure for the eclectic contemporary left--imagine the laughter among Wedge shoppers if they were to read of Orwell's disdain for the "fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, Nature Cure quack, pacifist and feminist." (Hey, he missed "piercing enthusiast.") Orwell could have used a little sex mania, judging from 1984. But at least he stayed within smelling distance of the orthodoxies he hated--and paid people the compliment of arguing with them. Theory fans "never bother to discover what is going on inside other people's heads," he observed. Better to just do away with the heads, Stalin might add, as putsch came to shove in Spain.
George Orwell was many things that he did not like, argues Christopher Hitchens, in his heroically researched new appreciation, Why Orwell Matters (Basic Books). That's what made him a great journalist of himself and the Communist betrayal, what helped him be right so early and often. The author formerly known as Eric Blair was an Eton-educated son of an opium flogger for the Empire. He got a job as a colonial policeman in Burma--the LAPD of its era. Yet Orwell went on to become a seminal anti-imperialist, satirist of police states, soldier against Spanish fascism, and socialist who coined the expression "cold war."
Orwell wrote and argued his way out of his prejudices, in other words. He took positions at odds with his viscera--or just as often, tested his mind against them--becoming a more athletic thinker for it. That the guy wasn't a genius only demonstrates what ordinary people can do with courage, honesty, and humor. "One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality," Orwell wrote.
This was the "power of facing unpleasant facts" Orwell counted as his strength--and the singular quality Hitchens hopes to pass along as a model. It was the gift that allowed Orwell to see through the Moscow show trials before the Spanish version came to town. And he combined with this a rare sensitivity to language, a gift so (posthumously) celebrated that a synonym for the debasement of meaning bears his name: "Orwellian." (It can also be used to connote "in the tradition of Orwell" or "Big Brotherly.") Himself a writer of surgical grace, Hitchens wisely quotes his subject on the dangers of received phrasing: "When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning."
This match of minds is a provocative one. Having read Christopher Hitchens in The Nation since the seventh grade, and 1984 in the titular year, I can safely say that both writers have been a part of my conversations for longer than my entire adult life. Yet where the ascetic and self-deprecating Orwell died impoverished in 1950, Hitchens is the closest the left has to its own Hunter S. Thompson--a celebrity Rosa Luxemburgist and Vanity Fair columnist whose prose suggests a partisan "stoutly manning a barricade made of hotel minibars" (to quote Tom Carson). "Hitch" was the open-shirted British expat and insistent secularist who suavely dismembered the cults of Princess Di and Mother Teresa. (When both died in the same week, a friend of mine imagined an upbeat Hitchens beginning his next column, "I am naked as I write this...") Now his published case for trying Henry Kissinger as a war criminal has become a documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which opens Friday at Bell Auditorium.
If Orwell's great subject was language, Hitchens's is religion. "Even when I'm not writing about it, I'm writing about it," he once told me in an interview. In Orwell, then, Hitchens sees the antithesis of the believer's mind. "What he illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that 'views' do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think."
"How Orwell thought" might be the key to "why Orwell matters" now--and not only because public beheadings in Iraq and "Dear Leader" sing-alongs in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea owe a royalty to the author of 1984. How Orwell faced the unpleasant facts of World War II poses a challenge to his anti-imperialist and anti-fascist inheritors--particularly now that they are divided over the urgent question of American intervention.
Much as Orwell became a patriot as bombs rained down during the blitz, Hitchens became an American on September 11. On a day when the existing dialect rushed in with appalling inadequacy, he felt something unexpected: exhilaration. "Here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated," he wrote. "On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan....On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism."