George Orwell’s Legacy

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.

A good writer and critic must be able to change his or her mind and be honest about the fact: Orwell despised Mahatma Gandhi for years as a stooge for British rule in India but later re-versed himself and made restitution. Anyone engaged in political and cultural wars should be wary of party-mindedness and party allegiance: Orwell did briefly join a small leftist party but never wrote as a loyalist or mouthpiece and often published self-criticism of his previous positions.

In his entire output I can find only one piece of genuine unfairness: a thuggish attack on the poetry of W.H. Auden, whom he regarded as a dupe of the Communist Party. But even this was softened in some later essays. The truth is that he disliked Auden’s homosexuality and could not get over his prejudice. But much of the interest of Orwell lies in the fact that he was born prejudiced, so to speak, against Jews and the colored peoples of the empire, and against the poor and uneducated, and against women and intellectuals-and managed in a transparent and unique way to educate himself out of this fog of bigotry. (Though he never did get over his aversion to “pansies.”)

Orwell was an egalitarian and a socialist but thought of Stalin’s great “experiment” (what a revealing word) as the negation of socialism and not as a Russian version of it.

In The Captive Mind, written in the early 1950s, Czeslaw Milosz wrote that Eastern European intellectuals, reading 1984 in clandestine editions, were amazed to find that its author had never visited the Soviet Union. How then had he captured its mental and moral atmosphere? By reading its propaganda, and by paying attention, and by noticing the tactics of Stalin’s agents in the Spanish Republic. Anybody could have done this, but few had the courage to risk the accusation of “giving ammunition to the enemy.”

Orwell wrote easily and well about small humane pursuits, such as bird watching, gardening, and cooking, and did not despise popular pleasures like pubs and vulgar seaside resorts. In many ways, his investigations into ordinary life and activity prefigure what we now call “cultural studies.” His style as a writer places him in the category of the immortals, and his courage as a critic outlives the bitter battles in which he engaged. As a result, we use the word Orwellian in two senses. The first describes a nightmare state, a dystopia of untrammeled power. The second describes the human qualities that are always ranged in resistance to such regimes, and that may be more potent and durable than we sometimes dare to think.


English-born and Oxford-educated, Christopher Hitchens has lived in Washing-ton, D.C., for 20 years, writing regularly for Harper’s and Vanity Fair. He was a columnist at The Nation for 20 years but recently resigned, claiming the leftist journal had become an “echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” Hitchens has made a career of deflating prominent reputations. Henry Kissinger (whom Hitchens calls a war criminal), Bill Clinton (a liar), and even the late Mother Teresa (a “fanatical fundamentalist”) have felt the wrath of a scathing and witty polemicist with a special animosity for what he calls “liberal illusions.”

Though he’s been a frequent critic of American foreign policy, Hitchens responded with outrage to the attacks of September 11-and denounced other leftists who in his view were too soft on the terrorists. As he said in an interview for the Conversations with History cable TV series produced at the University of California in Berkeley, “I personally find when there’s a confrontation between everything I love-scientific inquiry, reason, cosmopolitanism, secularism, emancipation of women . . . and everything I hate-Stone Age fascism, religious bullshit, and so on-it’s a no-brainer. I know exactly which side I’m on, and I knew right away.”

Hitchens is the author, most recently, of Why Orwell Matters, published this fall by Basic Books.

From L.A. Weekly (May 3, 2002). Subscriptions: $70/yr. (52 issues) from Box 4315, Los Angeles, CA 90078.

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