LITERATURE – George Orwell


George Orwell was an English intellectual who died in 1950 and used literature for the only reason it ultimately really exists – to try to change the world for the better. He was, in the deeper sense, a political writer, someone who wanted art to help us grow kinder, fairer, wiser. In 1946, a year after the publication of his momentously popular fable, ‘Animal Farm’, he wrote an essay titled, ‘Why I Write’, which laid out his approach with a characteristic clarity. What I wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship. A sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I don’t say to myself, “I’m going to produce a work of art.” “I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” To understand why Orwell matters, we therefore have to understand what this most political of writers loved, and what he hated. What he was in rebellion against, and what he championed. This is what will give us the keys to understanding his remarkable work, and painful yet deeply fulfilled life. George Orwell always hated the social group of which he was, despite everything, an exemplary member: Intellectuals. From an early age, he had wanted to be a writer. But George Orwell excelled at never quite belonging. He was born in 1903 in India, which was then part of the British Empire, to economically fragile civil servant parents, who fought for him to have a classic upper middle class English upbringing. And then hoped he might become a doctor, or a lawyer. They sent him to what turned out to be a crippling, mean spirited English prep school at the age of eight. From where he won a scholarship to Eton. But he turned against the values and spirit of the English public school system. He never went to university, and after a stint as an imperial policeman in Burma, he settled into the life of the odd-jobbing literary intellectual. Working in a Hamstard book shop, reviewing other people’s books, and eventually, writing some of his own. Nevertheless, Orwell’s disdain of intellectuals was a constant. He accused them of a range of sins, a lack of patriotism, resentment of money, and physical vigor. Concealed sexual frustraion, pretension, and dishonesty. He knew it all form the inside, but Orwell’s greatness emerge from the rye determination with which he recognized and came to triumph against such tendencies in himself. “The really important fact about the English intelligentsia,” he once wrote, “is their severance from the common culture of the country. In left wing circles, it’s always felt that there’s something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman, and that it’s a duty to snigger at every English institution from horse racing to suet puddings. Orwell’s generation of intellectuals, which had witnessed the First World War and the Great Depression, was obsessed with airy, abstract, large schemes to redeem human kind. Some were fanatical communists, others staunch defenders of radical capitalism, a few admired the new authoritarian regimes of Italy, Spain, and Germany, and wanted something similar to take hold in the anglophone sphere. Orwell listened, and was for a time, a little seduced. But he came gradually to champion something far more radical: The tastes, opinions, needs and outlook of someone he called “the ordinary person”. A knowledge of ordinary life came rather late to Orwell. As a typical product of an English public school, he was a little exposed in anyone below his own social class. A tendency compounded by a naturally aloof, bookish and different manner. A friend described him in age 25 as, “remarkably muff eaten for one his age” But Orwell set out to make up for his lack of knowledge and gradually came to be the great defender of what he repeatedly called ordinary life. Life of people, not especially blessed with material goods, but people who work on ordinary jobs who don’t have much of education, who won’t achieve greatness and yet, nevertheless, love, care for others, work, have fun, raise children, and have large thoughts about the deepest questions, in ways that Orwell thought especially admirable. Orwell’s journey into ordinary life, began in the spring of 1928. When he left the privileges of his class behind, and went to work in series of menial service jobs in the French and English capitals experiences he was to recount in his book, “Down and Out in Paris and London” published in 1933. The book is filled with affection and portraits of life behind stairs in hotels and restaurants and revels and camaraderie, humor and warmth. of an assortment of cleaners or shoe rubbers, waiters, chefs and the occasional prostitute tramp. It was a side of life Orwell was further to investigate. In a book chronicling his journeys around the industrial coal mining of Northern England In a 1937 book titled, The Road to Wigan Pier again, without sentimentality or reverse snobbery, Orwell casts the generous complex eye over the people he met, and concluded that the average pulp in a coal mining village. contain more intelligence, wisdom than the British cabinet or the high table of an Oxbridge College. Orwell especially liked the lack of prudishness and hypocrisy among the ordinary people he met. One thing one notices when he writes, if he looks directly at the common people especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are in veteran gamblers, drink as much as their wages will permit, and devoted to boardy jokes and use, probably, the foulest language in the world. Then, as now, there was plenty of information in the news about ordinary people. But Orwell understood that these news tended to turn people into abstractions. And he saw it as the role in his craft, literary journalism, to flesh out the human beings behind the statistics. And so, correct the prejudice and casual racism that circulated all around. In an essay written on a trip to Marrakech Orwell wrote sarcastically are the typically neo-colonial attitude of travelers towards the local inhabitants. The people here have brown faces “There are so many of them, are they really the same flesh as yourself?” “Do they even have names? or they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff?” about as an individual as bees or coral insects. All people who work with their hands are partly invisible. And the more important work that they do, the less visible they are. Orwell’s love of the ordinary inspired his curiosity about a range of themes not often considered in literature. He thought about and wrote in praise of comics and country walks dancing and flowers. He wrote bravely in defense of English cooking kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devon shire cream, muffins and crumpets he wrote. And then asked, where else other than English cooking do you see potatoes roasted under the joint? which is far in a way the best way of cooking them. Orwell wrote tenderly in defense of Charles Dickens at the time when this great writer was considered low brow and too popular to win the esteemed intellectuals. In a great essay of 1946, Politics and the English Language, Orwell stood up against the pros typical of intellectuals high blown and full of long fancy words and defended a simple, almost naive way of writing. He outlined the list of rules for how to write well, which included a complete ban on fancy words like phenomenon, categorical, utilize, inexorable and veritable. Orwell revealed a hatred of foreign words like status quo and deus ex machina. And concluded, There is really no need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. George Orwell is today extremely famous for two books which played a very small part in his life. if measured simply in terms of years he wrote Animal Farm in 1945 when he was 42 and he published Nineteen Eighty-four in 1949 when he was 45. but he was dead in January 1950 at the age of only 46. In other words, he had just four short years being the Orwell we know today. Nevertheless, these two books are anchored in deep thinking that Orwell had done all his adult life about how literature should be written in an age of movies and mass communication. In short, he knew that the task of a writer was to ensure that the most serious ideas should achieve mass popularity. A double act, which required particular skill and intelligence. Animal farm is a political trapped about how revolutions fall prey to counter-revolutions. and turn their backs on their own original ideas. It fairly maps out the progress of French Revolution. the European Revolutions of 1848 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. But, described like this, no one outside of the few academics would ever bother to read it. Orwell’s genius was to hit upon of form the fable which would carry his story to a mass audience and could be understood as he put it by more or less, anyone. So Orwell did what Aesop, Walt Disney, La Fontaine and Beatrix Potter among many others have done. Which is to tell a story about humans via animals. In the process, Orwell revealed, the sins of the revolutionaries are not limited to people involved in actual revolutions. Indeed, that it’s a permanent human possibility to believe when he’s guided by high ideals and then go on to betray them all. Every time a revolution now goes wrong, people bring up Animal Farm. And declare it to be ahead of its time. So prescient. This is the genius of Orwell’s fable. By cutting out all contemporary human references, Orwell found a way to tell us about ourselves for all time even for the future. Having successfully reinvented the fable, Orwell, in an astonishing burst of creativity, then reinvented the science fiction novel. As a boy, he’d loved the novels of H.G. Wells. Especially, the Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Like Wells, Orwell seized upon trends in his own time and try to imagine how they might develop over the long term. His science fiction novel is set in Airstrip One. A place once known as Great Britain, but now a province of the super state of Oceania. And locked in perpetual ideological conflict with two other blocks, Eurasia and East Asia. Like all great dystopian novels, Orwell’s book was an attempt to warn his own society about its own alarming trends. For example, he could see that what can terrorize a country is not so much outright torture or clumsy covert restrictions on free speech, but a lulling of the citizenry through sophisticated entertainment and empty-headed news reports. all wrapped up in a constant reference to freedom. So, In 1984, society is full of intriguing new machines omnipresent screens which both addicted, and at the same time watch over their citizens. Julia, the leading female figure in the novel, works in the department of government known as “Mini True” which systematically distorts access to information in highly subtle ways. To blind the citizenry to their enslavement, Julia operates a machine that turns out porn novels. alongside, films oozing with sex, rubbishing newspapers containing almost nothing but sport, crime and astrology. The people, however, don’t feel they are enslaved. As Orwell so well understood, the really clever and scary regimes of the modern world aren’t the obviously dictatorial ones. they are, the apparently, democratic ones that give their citizens the distinct feeling that they are free. Well in fact, blinding them with constant sexual titillation, and sentimental distractions. George Orwell had the wisdom to make himself remarkably future-proof. He was weary of economic and political abstractions. He start close to the truth of ordinary life. The realities of sex, food, money, love and pleasure. and he wrote with total clarity about enduring eternal themes on human nature. He is, perhaps, the most successful serious English-language writer of the 20th century. and gives us the tools to continue to imagine what writing should be in our own time. Ultimately, Orwell’s message is the same as the plea that he discerned in all of Charles Dickens’ books. in the essay he wrote on him namely, that human beings should behave better. This, as he pointed out, is either a terrific cliche or just about the most important instruction in the hole of life. It was Orwell’s genius to remind as that it is, of course, very much, the latter.

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