a pleasure to read.
Archive for February 5th, 2007
Of all the important writers or intellectuals of the last century, however, Orwell was the most modest and least egotistical, in short had the best character.
Connected with this was his honesty and his refusal to deny the obvious.
Insofar as it is possible for an intellectual in a liberal democracy to be brave, Orwell was brave.
Perhaps the most genuine and moving encomia to him I ever heard were in Romania in the dark days just before the downfall of Ceausescu. Nineteen Eighty-Four circulated clandestinely, and several Romanians told me that they found it astonishing how an Englishman, who had never so much as set foot in a communist country, seemed to understand their own experience from the inside, as it were, and sometimes better than they understood it themselves, so that the meaning of their own experience became clearer to them as a result of reading him. And this they found immensely consoling, the very opposite of Primo Levi’s terrible nightmare that after he was released from Auschwitz no one would listen to him or believe him because what he had to say was so utterly at variance with all previous human experience. Orwell’s book reassured the Romanians to whom I spoke that, the Iron Curtain notwithstanding, they were not alone, and also that the political conditions under which they were living were highly abnormal and therefore, however apparently durable, historically temporary. Dismal and pessimistic as the book may have seemed to a reader in the west, it was read with immense joy in the east. Few authors have ever been loved and venerated as Orwell was loved and venerated by the people to whom I spoke in Romania.
Then, it goes on to mention his shortcomings:
…he was full of contradictions, his powers of analysis were very deficient, he often lacked the imagination to see the consequences of what he said, he accepted political clichés uncritically, notwithstanding his brilliant essay on that very subject, and though he made much of what he saw as the quintessentially English quality of decency (I don’t think anyone would make that mistake nowadays after half an hour in any English town or city), which he contrasted with the cruelty promoted by ideology, he was not himself entirely immune from the latter, at least in the abstract.
This is followed by some close reading of his Homage to Catalonia to showcase the most vicious sentiments expressed by him and why his self-proclaimed favour for democratic socialism is not to be uncritically accepted.
I admire Orwell greatly: I think he was a decent man (he himself liked decency), but he was blinded and stupefied by ideological abstractions born of self-hatred. He wrote a couple of very great books and other novels that are semi-classics. Some of his essays are among the best English prose of the twentieth century. His genuinely anti-totalitarian books did incomparably more good than Homage to Catalonia ever did harm. But I do not admire his uncritical admirers. Orwell it was who said of Dickens, in his great essay on that author, that he was a type hated with equal hatred by all those smelly little orthodoxies that are contending for our souls. Unfortunately, for quite a lot of his life, Orwell was a purveyor of some of those orthodoxies.