George Orwell's Legacy

In the age of Ashcroft, the author of 1984 is as important as ever

| November / December 2002

NO ONE WHO HAS endured the agony of self-employment as a scribbler can afford not to read George Orwell's essay "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," first published in 1946.

In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides, somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is a cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. There are also letters with addresses which ought to be entered into his address book. He has lost his address book, and the thought of looking for it, or indeed of looking for anything, afflicts him with acute suicidal impulses.

More and more sharply, Orwell etches the picture of degradation ("He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time") while never losing sight of the lofty aspirations that brought the wretched hack to this terminus of shame. It's unusual, as a sample of his style, in being humorous. But it is a very telling description of the way he actually existed, in poverty-stricken interludes and adverse conditions and in a continuous struggle to be published. At the time he wrote this, he had survived the refusal of innumerable editors, including T.S. Eliot on the right and Victor Gollancz on the left, to publish Animal Farm, and was engaged on the first draft of 1984, for which he had no great expectations. Then age 43, he had less than four years to live.

Having confronted the world with little except a battered typewriter and a certain resilience, he can now take posthumous credit for having got the three great questions of the 20th century essentially "right." Orwell was an early and consistent foe of European imperialism and foresaw the end of colonial rule. He was one of the first to volunteer to bear arms against fascism and Nazism in Spain. And, while he was soldiering in Catalonia, he saw through the biggest and most seductive lie of them all-the false promise of a radiant future offered by the intellectual underlings of Stalinism.

As he once wrote of Kipling, his own enduring influence can be measured by a number of terms and phrases-doublethink, thought police, "Some animals are more equal than others"-that he embedded in our language and in our minds. In Orwell's own mind there was an inextricable connection between language and truth, a conviction that by using plain and unambiguous words one could forbid oneself the comfort of certain falsehoods and delusions. Every time you hear a piece of psychobabble or propaganda-"people's princess," say, or "collateral damage," or "peace initiative"-it is good to have a well-thumbed collection of his essays nearby. His main enemy in discourse was euphemism, just as his main enemy in practice was the abuse of power, and (more important) the slavish willingness of people to submit to it.

Lionel Trilling in his introduction to Homage to Catalonia made the point that Orwell was by no means a genius. He was just a reasonably good writer with a fair bit of moral courage. His work does not afflict me with the sense of uselessness that I feel when I read George Eliot or Marcel Proust. It shows, rather, what anybody with average integrity can do, as long as he does not give a damn what anyone else thinks of him.

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