Orwell everywhere

Truth-telling in a post-truth age

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EVERY NOW AND then a sort of morphic resonance overtakes the world of literature. For reasons that are far from obvious, a number of books about (or around) the same broad subject will suddenly materialise in a way that itself transforms public interest and even shapes public sentiment. In 2023, for example, the name of a certain English radical began to appear in the literary pages – the subject of fresh biographies, critical reappraisals and even fictional reimaginings. Meanwhile, and completely out of the blue, my teenage son set aside the Game of Thrones series and began to read said radical’s greatest novel – a futuristic, dystopian satire on the prospects for English socialism, written in the middle of the twentieth century. Now he’s moving on to the essays. It’s all a bit mysterious. George Orwell is trending. But why?

No doubt the answer is complicated, but one reason, perhaps, is that Orwell anticipated the deepening epistemic crisis signified in the phrase ‘post-truth’. We are living through a time of thoroughgoing confusion as to what kind of information counts as evidence, and this is something Orwell came back to time and again in his novels and essays. ‘The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,’ he wrote in Looking Back on the Spanish War. ‘Lies will pass into history.’ In Nineteen Eighty-Four (yes, that was the novel my son picked up), the Party’s paradoxical slogans – ‘War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength’ – can feel at times like a prophecy of the kind of intellectual contortions that characterise the populist wave. (Trump, it has been persuasively argued, is a categorically different beast to the garden-variety lying politician: while the latter cares enough about truth to want to hide it from the public’s gaze, the former has no interest in it at all.) The adjective ‘Orwellian’ has two definitions: totalitarian in character and intellectually rigorous. Mundane as it is to talk in terms of Orwell being ‘more relevant than ever’, my sense is that we’re turning to Orwell partly because he embodies the rigour that our own time so conspicuously lacks.

The question of what kind of rigour that is, however, remains rather undeveloped in the minds of many who value Orwell, or at any rate say they do. A recent demonstration of this came from a highly unlikely quarter. Of the Orwell and Orwell-adjacent titles mentioned in my opening paragraph (which include, inter alia, a big new biography, a rewriting of Nineteen Eighty-Four from the point of view of Julia, a post-Brexit retelling of Animal Farm and a book on Orwell and gardening), one was Wifedom by Anna Funder – an original and very readable memoir that accuses Orwell of misogyny and neglect towards his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy. That’s interesting in itself, of course, but far more interesting, to me at least, are the terms and tones in which various commentators have leapt to Orwell’s defence in response, describing Funder’s take on Orwell as unwarranted and unhistorical, and erecting in the process an image of the latter as an exemplary and even saintly figure. It’s this response that gets Orwell wrong; indeed, my sense is that it gets him backwards. If we are to come to a proper appreciation of the kind of writer Orwell was, we need to push back against those pushing back at interventions such as Funder’s.

It’s a measure of how much Orwell got right about the world, and of the lucidity with which he set out his ideas, that he has achieved the status he has. The trouble with all prophets, however, is that they are eventually canonised as saints, whose aura of infallibility can be borrowed by any intellectual nonentity looking to spice up a dreary paragraph. Thus, for the commentator Peter Hitchens, valiantly defending Orwell from Funder in the pages of the Daily Mail, Orwell is the hammer of the sandal-wearing, tofu-eating wokerati, while for Peter Dutton, Orwell’s observation that some people are ‘more equal than others’ is to be marshalled as an argument against the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the Australian constitution. The man who asked us to regard the cliché as a second-hand thought in second-hand language is now pressed into service as a cliché himself. The avatar of truth-telling is the dissembler’s pet.

It follows that it is the mantle of sainthood, not the charge of sinfulness – of misogyny, antisemitism and so on – that is destructive of Orwell’s achievement as a writer. One of the things that made Orwell Orwell was his (sometimes studied) self-effacement: we know that he had racist and sadistic impulses because he told us as much! In his writings on the north of England, and in The Road to Wigan Pier especially, Orwell does not disguise his disgust at the communities through which he moves. Sometimes he even makes a show of it, in a way that not only dramatises those feelings but locates them in a set of middle-class prejudices that is at least as important as a policeman’s truncheon in keeping down the working class. Those who treat Orwell as infallible forget that fallibility was part of his shtick.

TO ARGUE IN this way is not to insist that Orwell was a Good Man after all. I have zero interest in ushering Orwell to sainthood by a backstairs route. The point is that his self-effacement was inseparable from his truth-telling. He knew where he was coming from, and knowing where he was coming from was central to his politics (which, right-wingers might like to reflect, remained committedly socialist and revolutionary until his death in 1950). ‘Marxism may possibly be a mistaken theory,’ he wrote in a review of two forgettable books, ‘but it is a useful instrument for testing other systems of thought, rather like one of those long-handled hammers with which they tap the wheels of locomotives. Tap! Is this wheel cracked? Tap! Is this writer a bourgeois?’ If Orwell failed to tap his own wheels on the matter of his attitude to women, it’s not because of a reluctance on his part to unearth the smelly little prejudices to which he himself was susceptible but a sign of how deep the misogyny went. Funder’s revelations on this topic are not so surprising as many seem to think; but to the extent that they come as revelations can only deepen our appreciation for the kind of writer Orwell was by reminding us that all writing – Funder’s included – is sublimated narcissism, inseparable in the end from the people we are. 

Again, such a take is only possible if we accept that Orwell was a limited writer, and it’s in his attempts to transcend such limitations that his greatness as a writer resides. ‘An intellectual,’ wrote Albert Camus, ‘is someone whose mind watches itself.’ Notwithstanding that he had significant blind spots – feminism, yes; homosexuality, even more so – Orwell watched his own mind carefully, and implored his readers to do the same. His admirer, Lionel Trilling, said it well:

[I]f we ask what it is he stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do… He is not a genius – what a relief!

If I’m correct that one reason why Orwell is trending is because we are currently in the market for perspicacity, then this is surely part of the point. It’s not that Orwell was always right, though he turned out to be right an awful lot of the time; it’s that he approached the world as one who knew he could be wrong, with a commitment that never wavered for a second. He wasn’t a Great Thinker, and not being a Great Thinker was one of the things that made him great.

In ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, Orwell wrote: ‘All saints should be judged guilty until proven innocent.’ I am not the first writer to note the irony that Orwell himself ended up canonised: Peter Hitchens’ brother, Christopher, did a solid job of rescuing Orwell from the ‘sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise’ heaped on him by his dozier admirers (before losing sight, it must be said, of his own mind on the question of the War on Terror). But as the bombs fall around Al-Shifa Hospital, and the bodies of dead children are devoured by dogs in the street, it’s worth remembering, and worth repeating, that what made Orwell an effective writer was not his virtue or even his insight, but what he called his ‘power of facing unpleasant facts’ – about the world, but also about himself.

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