When Orwell Society member Christopher Angel let us know that he would be attending the exhibition and lecture by Professor Peter Stansky at the University of New Mexico we asked him for a report.
Here is Christopher Angel‘s account of a time well spent.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, with its dry, dusty chaparral, may seem to outsiders the opposite of the verdant meadows and running streams of Orwell’s “golden country”. And, upon my arrival, this past Thursday, October 3rd, 2019, I was asked repeatedly if I had come to Albuquerque to see the annual hot air balloon festival taking place in the desert. Restraining myself from making any witticisms about rhetorical hot air (and looking forward to trenchant, grounded conversations), I was excited to arrive at the campus of the University of New Mexico to meet up with two other members of the Orwell Society in the U.S. Southwest for a day devoted to George Orwell.
The backdrop for our gathering was a special exhibit that has been mounted by the University of New Mexico library, celebrating the recent donation of a superb Orwell collection to the University by Orwell Society member and Albuquerque resident Russ Davidson. This inviting and intriguing exhibit begins with a mock-up of the “door to room 101” and a black-suited figure with a surveillance camera for a head, representing the iconic “thought police” from Nineteen Eighty-Four. The rest of the exhibit features a timeline of Orwell’s life, and examples of beautiful and interesting editions of many of his most famous and important publications. Keeping with the theme of how interest in Orwell is global today, most notable in the collection are some very interesting works of Orwell in translation in many different languages. Russ, in his characteristically under-stated way, let us know that the books on display were only about 10% of the total collection which he has donated to the university. Also on display were some of Russ’s copies of “Orwell Studies,” as well as past issues of the Orwell Society Journal. The exhibit runs until April 20th, and there will be a catalogue with some intriguing essays, including an essay on Orwell and food, as well as a look at Peter Stansky’s process in writing his biography of Orwell by OS member Darcy Moore, among others, that is to be published in the next few months. The exhibit has a website where you can browse what’s on display.
After a visit to the exhibit, it was time for the evening’s special guest, Peter Stansky, Professor emeritus of English history at Stanford, to give his talk on the subject of “Orwell and War”. The talk took place in the beautiful west wing of the UNM Library, and after a welcome from Tomas Jaehn, the director of the library’s special collections, Peter was introduced by one of his former students, Professor Caleb Richardson, now on the faculty of UNM. Caleb recounted Peter’s warmth and kindness as a professor, including making his entire class black velvet cocktails (Guinness and champagne) after a particularly tough English history exam.
A central theme of Peter’s talk was the question of fact versus fiction, and how central it was to Orwell’s writing. The poster for the talk used Robert Capa’s famous picture of a dying Spanish solider as its motif, and Peter spoke about the controversy over this picture – was it a document of a real moment, or a staged tableau? Either way, it’s a powerful image of the conflict. Likewise, in Orwell’s own work, there is debate about whether he really wet his bed at St. Cyprian’s, or whether Orwell appropriated the experience of a fellow student. Again, Peter suggested that if it was appropriated, it was in service of a greater truth.
Peter’s talk covered Orwell’s experiences of World War I (his youthful poetry, and the generational guilt at missing the war, plus the post-war cynicism that arose), the Spanish Civil War (as the crucible where Orwell’s experiences transformed him into the writer of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four), the Second World War (and Orwell’s hope that the Home Guard might be the start of a very English revolution), and finally the Cold War (a term that Orwell himself coined in his essay, “You and the Atom Bomb”, but as Peter points out, he may have grown to dislike as a slogan had he seen how overused it became).
Peter also managed to include a special mention of Dione Venables and the founding of the Orwell Society itself, and invited interested audience members to consider joining.
It was clear from the engaged audience that Interest in Orwell continues to grow worldwide, and is particularly strong in the USA today – as citizens here grapple with partisan politics, a surveillance economy, and a fraught political landscape dominated by outright lies and “alternate facts”. The audience was diverse, a mix of all ages and backgrounds, and it was very engaged and eager to learn more. The questions were themselves quite varied, covering such topics as Orwell’s writing style, as well as what would Orwell say about the world today. Peter answered that perhaps the question might be the wrong way to look at our modern world and Orwell. It is impossible to know what Orwell would say, or to speak for him. The important thing, however, is to read his work, and use it as a way to help us interpret and question the world around us. For example, Peter pointed to the issue of truth versus lies from our politicians or the dangers of accepting a surveillance society. These are issues that we should question and examine in our own lives, and not accept as faits accomplis.
Finally, the evening concluded with the three society members retiring to dinner, and, of course, the conversation about Orwell (and also our desire to travel more of the world) continued over a fine meal. No black velvet cocktails were available, but we did enjoy a fine gin cocktail or two. The night concluded with a rare but dramatic thunderstorm over Albuquerque – a fitting end to a memorable day for three western US members of the OS.
Photographs by Christopher Angel
Our thanks to the Professor Peter Stansky and all the organisers at the University of New Mexico
Uploaded 10th October 2019