Orwell: The cultural icon of today. An introduction to the newly published anthology of critical writings, Orwell Today, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and published by Abramis – available to order via Amazon
George Orwell is today nothing less than a cultural icon. I typed Orwell into the newspaper database LexisLibrary and over a three-month period alone in the national newspapers he had been mentioned 153 times – and he’s been dead more than 60 years: Salman Rushdie could only manage 130 mentions; Martin Amis 46; Angela Carter 39.
Significantly, Timothy Garton Ash in his ‘Introduction’ to Orwell and Politics (2001: xi) describes Orwell as the most influential political writer of the twentieth century. But Christopher Hitchens, who joined the Odd Squad after his post 9/11 conversion to the gospel according to George Bush, was right when he said:
George Orwell requires extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies; since he’s become an object of sickly veneration and sentimental over-praise, employed to stultify schoolchildren with his insufferable rightness and purity (Hitchens 2002: 3).
Hardly a saint
Let us also be clear: Orwell was far from being a saint nor the entirely decent chap he is constantly portrayed as. There was a sadistic, misogynistic, permanent public school boy side to his personality. His attitudes to women were, indeed, pretty dodgy: and his constant affairs during his marriage may well have contributed to the sudden death of his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, in 1945 from a broken heart. Orwell certainly had many secrets: perhaps this was why he stressed in his will that no biography of him should ever be written. As his best biographer, Gordon Bowker, comments (2003: 3): ‘While in many ways he could be brutally honest about himself, some aspects remained concealed behind a carefully constructed persona, secret sides he seems to have feared and which he may have hoped would remain hidden, even beyond the grave.’
All that said, Orwell is today an inspiration for many – a model of a committed, radical, intelligent, witty, wonderfully imaginative writer who deployed the tools of journalism for their best purpose – as a crucial, morally urgent intervention in politics. Indeed, as Garton Ash highlights (op cit: xi-xii): the very word ‘Orwellian’ is everywhere – used as a perjorative adjective to evoke totalitarian terror, the falsification of history by state-organised lying; the use of euphemistic language to camouflage morally outrageous ideas and actions. Occasionally ‘Orwellian’ is used as a complimentary adjective to mean something like ‘displaying outspoken intellectual honesty, like Orwell’. I typed ‘Orwellian’ into LexisLibrary for the same period and it came up 71 times.
Orwell – and the importance of confronting failure
Yet still, too often today Orwell is portrayed as a boring old socialist grumbler. His novels certainly tend to end rather gloomily: Flory, in Burmese Days (1934), ends up disgraced and committing suicide. Dorothy, the anti-heroine of A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), escapes from her prison to a new dawn only to find herself back in the soul-destroying routine from which she thought she had freed herself. George Bowling, in Coming up for Air (1939), ends his trip down memory lane, finds the pond where he used to fish built over – and the site of a rubbish dump. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) ends with the terrible rat torture scene and with Winston Smith meekly submitting to his torturer, O’Brien, and these grim words: ‘He loved Big Brother.’
Géraldine Muhlmann even highlights the way in which Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) ends in the failure of his remarkable exercise in participant observation:
I should like to know people like Mario and Paddy and Bill the moocher, not from casual encounters, but intimately; I should like to understand what really goes on in the souls of the plongeurs and tramps and Embankment sleepers. At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty (2008: 201).
But Orwell knew that stories which end on a down-note are far more likely to provoke thought than those which end up-beat. Stories with happy endings (as Hollywoodknows only too well) so often leave you feeling OK with the world, the status quo. Orwell constantly challenged and questioned the status quo. And he knew instinctively that society was largely built on narratives of success, finding it difficult to confront and speak about failure. For Orwell failure was an intrinsic, important part of life.
At the same time, Orwell was, indeed, a great humorist. To take one example: much of his writing in Homage to Catalonia (1962/1938), his brilliant account of his time on the frontlines in the Spanish civil war of 1936-1937 (which actually sold only 700 copies during his lifetime), is infused with a droll, self-deprecating humour, military cynicism mixed with military know-how. Of his time on the frontline fighting for the Trotskyite POUM militia against Franco’s forces, he wrote: ‘It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy’ (ibid: 21).On the Russian gun he wrote: ‘Its great shells whistled over so slowly that you felt certain you could run beside them and keep up with them’ (ibid: 83). Of the fat Russian agent, he says: ‘I watched him with some interest for it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies – unless one counts journalists’ (ibid: 135).
And notice his brilliantly down-beat, anti-heroic description of being shot through the neck on 20 May 1937, a model of journalistic clarity and conciseness drawn from personal experience:
The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail. … Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. .. Not being in pain I felt a vague satisfaction. This ought to please my wife, I thought, she had always wanted me wounded which would save me from being killed when the great battle came (ibid: 177).
He assumed he was about to die and continued: It is very interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time. My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well (ibid: 178). He adds: ‘No one I met at this time …failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all’ (ibid). He describes a cathedral as ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the world’. ‘I think the Anarchists showed bad faith in not blowing it up when they had the chance’ (ibid: 214).
His invention of the discipline of cultural studies
Moreover, in his political and cultural essays Orwell did nothing less than invent the discipline of cultural studies as he examined such everyday artefacts as boys’ weekly magazines and the seaside postcards of Donald McGill in their broader political, economic and cultural contexts (Orwell 1980). All of Orwell’s writings have been collected in 20 substantial volumes by Peter Davison, making up almost 2 million words. Since Orwell was writing essentially for just 21 years – from 1928 when his first article La censure en Angleterre, was published in the French journal, Monde, until 1949 when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in the UK – this is nothing short of being a fantastic achievement. All the more so since for much of this time Orwell was suffering very poor health.
Orwell: The personal and the political
Most of the essays in this volume (though not all) emerge from a symposium on Orwell, organised by John Webb, which was held in Letchworth on 17 September 2011 as part of a week-long Orwell Festival. Such an event – and the formation of an Orwell Society in 2011 (see orwellsociety.com) – are still further confirmations of his enduring popularity and importance. Moreover, the wide range of perspectives and subject matters in the essays collected here indicates the vitality of Orwell scholarship today.
Firstly, Kristin Bluemel examines the way some of the women who were intimately, romantically and sexually involved with George Orwell wrote about him and how other women’s concern with those writings and representations have influenced scholarship on Orwell. She focuses on a number of works which should be more widely known: such as Stevie Smith’s The Holiday (1949), with its sly, nearly slanderous portrait of Orwell, Jacintha Buddicom’s memoir Eric and Us: A Remembrance of George Orwell (1974) and Hilary Spurling’s 2002 biography of his second wife Sonia, The Girl from the Fiction Department.
Feminist critiques of Orwell have until recently been dominated by women: Deirdre Beddoe, Leslie Tentler, Daphne Patai and Beatrix Campbell. But Bluemel has particular praise for Ben Clarke’s feminist-informed critique of 2007. She concludes: ‘It is encouraging to have arrived at a point when a male critic’s trenchant analysis of Orwell and sex, gender and women can contribute to the history of feminist criticism on Orwell.’
Nick Hubble focuses his study on Homage to Catalonia arguing that it should be considered a prime example of the genre of autobiografiction which not only brings together two established forms but also provides a connection between Victorian, modernist and postmodernist forms of literature. Hubble actually takes issue with Ben Clarke arguing:
Contrary to Clarke’s argument, he did not achieve this principally by means of rhetorical homophobia, although he did undoubtedly lapse into this, but through an innovative formal approach that … emphasised both the sameness and the difference of himself as the writer (and, by implication, of his readers, irrespective of their social class) from the working class he was writing about. In other words, Orwell promoted a type of understanding that was dependent on being fully able to apprehend subject and object position simultaneously. Such a consciousness is inherently pluralistic…
Next, Adam Stock argues that Orwell’s complex conception of ‘nature’ was bound up with his aesthetic sensibility, his politics, as well as the darker aspects of his character. He suggests that Orwell wrote with a post-Darwinian awareness of the ruthless cruelty of the natural order. Stock concludes:
Studying Orwell’s engagement with the politics of nature today suggests that not only should we approach ‘nature’ with care, always with an eye on the values implicit in our use(s) of the term, but that it is vital that we take up the challenge in pursuit of an endurable and equitable politics. If it is impossible to overcome the contradictions in the concept of nature or the divide between ‘human’ and ‘non-human’ nature, we can question how a world formed in the human image should be treated for the mutually interdependent benefit of the human and the non-human alike.
The literature examining Orwell’s writings is vast – and yet still important aspects of his work have gone missing. Here, further exploring the ‘personal and political’ theme of this section, Beci Dobbin argues that Orwell’s squeamishness is an intriguing (and usually over-looked) feature of his writing. She says: ‘Orwell’s essays and fiction teem with repulsive objects of one kind or another, but the accusation of unhealthy interest never arises because his distaste is always so vivid.’
Orwell and the media
Orwell has been primarily considered as a novelist, diarist and essayist – and only then as a journalist. Perhaps it’s not surprising: journalism retains a precarious position within literary culture and the academy. Journalism and literature are too often seen as two separate spheres (one ‘low’, the other ‘high’). Complex factors (historical, cultural, ideological) lie behind the marginalisation of the journalistic imagination. Since their emergence in the early eighteenth century in Europe’s cities, particularly London, the ‘news media’ (variously known as corantos, diurnals, gazettes, proceeding and mercuries) have been associated with scandal, gossip and ‘low’ culture (Keeble 2007: 3).
John Tulloch suggests that another reason for the low status of journalism has been its perceived lack of creative control by the author compared to the control allegedly associated with the ‘artist’. He argues: ‘Arguably one of the malign effects of Romanticism in British culture was to define the “true” artist’s status as not having a patron but a soulful relationship to the audience that precluded anything as vulgar as the market’ (Tulloch 2007: 60).
Orwell certainly always looked down on his journalism as mere pamphleteering and a ‘lesser’ form of literature. He had a horror of hack reporting and despised the ‘dreary subworld of the freelance journalist’ (see Bromley 2003: 125). Here John Tullochpresents the first study of the film reviews Orwell bashed out for Time and Tide, the vaguely right of centre periodical edited by the eccentric Margaret, Lady Rhondda. Over 20 months from January 1940 until August 1941, when he joined the BBC, Orwell produced an extraordinary 204 reviews – 123 book, 38 theatre and 43 film – or more than ten reviews a month. Tulloch comments:
For Orwell, Time and Tide, although edited by the eccentric Lady Rhondda, had the merit of being a respectable berth for a writer of the left, as opposed to a Gordon Comstock style sell-out, and reliable in its payments. However, despite (or perhaps, because of) the bread-and-butter nature of his commitment to Time and Tide, which was literally paying the rent in the flat he shared with his wife, there is a lack of engagement in his reviewing – a understandable sense that the activity is irrelevant, compared to the extraordinary events unfolding daily.
Tulloch concludes that the film reviews ‘contain some valuable insights and embody a developing vision of the possibilities of film, both in its degraded form as a mass-produced mechanism for propaganda and escapism and an agency through which contrary, humane perceptions can be articulated’. Next, through a detailed analysis of the first US radio production of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, Tim Crook argues that it managed to express the author’s independent position and intellectual integrity. It was thus ‘probably a more potent weapon of cultural public relations against the vagaries of oppressive, free-market liberal capitalism, fascism, Stalinism and imperialism than any CIA-funded or covertly-backed Cold War cultural enterprise’. And Crook adds:
It might be an almost self-evident analysis that George Orwell’s allegorical and satirical prophecies in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four represented his own struggle and self-awareness of the sadistic, authoritarian, doublethink and newspeaking tendencies present within all human beings and the recognition and expression of that degree of honesty is usually the starting point for taking any path towards liberty and freedom.
Orwell’s politics – paradoxes, appropriations and problematics
The final section of the book concentrates on some of the paradoxes and problematics associated with Orwell’s politics. Extremely well-versed in the work of his left-wing contemporaries, Orwell absorbed ideas from anarchists, Trotskyists, members of the Labour left and a range of other thinkers. Here, Philip Bounds highlights an intriguing aspect of Orwell’s politics which has tended to go largely unrecognised in the scholarly literature: namely that he was also deeply influenced by the talented and highly prolific group of intellectuals around the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Bounds adds:
As much as Orwell distrusted the communists, he never shrank from appropriating, reworking or challenging what he took to be their most distinctive assumptions. The paradoxical truth is that his biggest enemies were always among his most fertile sources of inspiration.
And he concludes: ‘Many of Orwell’s most celebrated ideas about English anti-intellectualism, the class system and the decline of the ruling elite had their roots in communist texts he had either cited or reviewed.’ In Britain, the Right (the Daily Telegraph, card-carrying members of the Conservative Party, the bankers’ friends and so on) are as keen to appropriate the legacy of Orwell as the Left. As James Winter highlights here, the same is true inCanada. In North America, he says, socialists and even liberals are now lumped together with ‘communists’, truncating the ideological spectrum and, as Orwell pointed out, political debate itself. He continues:
The reasons for doing this are simple: it reduces matters to the Manichaean, ‘black and white’ terms which are an essential element of propaganda and manipulation. If liberalism and its alleged bedmates are ‘bad’, then capitalism, democracy and neo-conservatism, which are also equated, and are the only alternative, must be ‘good’. During the Cold War, this could simply be represented as a choice between the Russian Bear and the American Eagle, as repression versus freedom, or by the popular catch phrase: ‘better dead than red’.
Finally Richard Lance Keeble exposes another largely over-looked paradox – this time at the heart of Orwell’s relationship to the intelligence services. For while he had, through his friendship with the millionaire and editor of the Observer, David Astor, probably joined the spooks in some capacity, he was still until his death in 1950 the subject of close Special Branch surveillance – begun during his time as a journalist in Paris in the late 1920s.
Moreover, while his now highly controversial submission of the ‘little list’ of ‘crypto-communists’ to the recently formed propaganda unit, the IRD, as he lay on his death bed is often seen as an out-of-character act, it is perhaps best seen as consistent with the behaviour of a man already caught up for a number years with intelligence – and paradoxically the author of the most chilling warnings of the threat of the emergent secret state: Nineteen Eighty-Four. But then, Orwell was the master of irony…
Reproduced by kind permission Richard Lance Keeble. Not for general unauthorised dissemination. All rights reserved. BUY this book
Bowker, Gordon (2003) George Orwell,London: Little, Brown
Bromley, Michael (2003) Objectivity and the other Orwell: The tabloidisation of the Daily Mirror and journalistic authenticity, Media History, Vol. 9, No. 2 pp 123-135
Clarke, Ben (2007) Orwell in Context: Communities, Myths, Values,New York andBasingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Garton Ash, Timothy (2001) Introduction, Orwell and Politics,London: Penguin pp xixviii
Hitchens, Christopher (2002) Orwell’s Victory,London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press
Orwell, George (1962/1938) Homage to Catalonia, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books in association with Secker and Warburg
Keeble, Richard (2007) Introduction, Keeble, Richard and Wheeler, Sharon (eds) The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote and Carter,London: Routledge pp 1-14
Muhlmann, Géraldine (2008) A Political History of Journalism,Cambridge: Polity Press
Orwell, George (1980) The Art of Donald McGill, Decline of the English Murder and Other
Essays, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books (first published in Horizon, September 1941) pp 142-154
Tulloch, John (2007) Charles Dickens and the voices of journalism, Keeble, Richard and Wheeler, Sharon (eds) The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote and Carter,London: Routledge pp 58-73
Cover image added 25 August 2019