- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

WHY ORWELL MATTERS
By Christopher Hitchens
Basic Books, $24,150 pages
REVIEWED BY ROGER KAPLAN

The reason George Orwell, the pen name of Eric Blair, matters today is that political writing, writing in general I should say, is as fuzzy and, in consequence, as mendacious as it was in his own time. Fuzzy writing is writing that does not say clearly what it means. It is writing that misses the important aspects of the issue the writer addresses, deliberately or not. Misleading, obfuscating, sentimental, silly, misinformed there are many ways a writer can miss the point, of course. Sometimes he does so deliberately. Sometimes he does so because he really does not know better.
The thesis of Christopher Hitchens' new critical essay on Orwell is that he is the one outstanding writer of his times (the 1930s and '40s) who never compromised on clarity and honesty. He could not write a crooked sentence. Mr. Hitchens' point is that this was so because he was a good writer and an honest man, and the two things are closely related.
That is to say, even a master of the language will not be a good writer if he uses his skill to write dishonestly. This is the kind of elementary truth that always bears repeating, and it is surely the right central idea for an essay on the novelist and essayist who, with a few others one thinks of Arthur Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Albert Camus demonstrated in his work and life that literature is a moral as well as a professional calling.
"Why Orwell Matters" is a good introduction to Orwell's work. Mr. Hitchens gives us a chapter on Orwell and the feminists and complains about his attitude toward homosexuality. These matters seem unimportant in the context of the large themes that preoccupied Orwell in his short life (he died in 1950), but if they interest Mr. Hitchens, he is of course free to have his say. Still, if you are going to talk about a man's attitude toward women and sex, you have to talk about his life, or at least provide some biographical context.
Discussion in the book of the big themes fascism, communism, the British Empire is well informed, insightful, and sensible, and Mr. Hitchens shows how Orwell easily outlasts his critics and body snatchers of both the left and the right. Like Koestler and Mr. Solzenitsyn, Orwell's ability to express the fight between freedom and totalitarianism is not smudged by ideological cant. Anyone interested in the passions Orwell provoked, and continues to provoke, will profit from reading Mr. Hitchens.
Orwell was a conservative man and an English patriot. He was on the left politically. Opposing Stalinism all his life indeed, Orwell is the most insightful critic of Stalinism in English literature he remained a committed socialist. But Mr. Hitchens argues that the principles he stood for, rather than the particular positions he took in the great political controversies of his time, are what make the author of "Homage to Catalonia," "1984, "Animal Farm" and "Politics and the English Language" the most influential English political writer of his time.
The principles Orwell lived by can be defined simply: honesty and refusal of tyranny, a belief in human dignity. He did not despise people. This is a rare quality. What made Orwell a genius as a writer was his ability to apply these principles in every situation he encountered, from the coal mines of England during the depression of the 1930s to the battle fields of Aragon in the Spanish civil war.
Orwell's one serious failure, Mr. Hitchens argues, came when he criticized W.H. Auden's poem "Spain" for its reference to the "necessary murder" that comes with political engagement. Mr. Hitchens feels that Orwell unjustly attacked Auden's apology for ruthlessness.
This argument can be made, but I always thought Orwell's point here, like Camus' when he attacked Jean-Paul Sartre's defense of terrorism, was that it is sentimental and phony for intellectuals far from the battlefields to justify shedding "le sang des autres." Mr. Hitchens is right that it is uncharacteristic of Orwell to get sentimental about front-line engagement he who knew so well the importance of the war of ideas in the rear but I cannot see why he terms Orwell's critique of Auden thuggish.
Orwell was born in India in 1903, at the apogee of the British Empire; he died as it was waning, and as the United States was beginning, with the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and military engagements in Korea and elsewhere, to take its place. Ambivalent toward the United States during most of his adult life, Orwell was not happy with the polarization of the world between two "blocs," as used to be said, and he hoped a "socialist United Europe" would emerge as an alternative to the two superpowers.
This may or may not have made sense in the last years of Orwell's life in the late 1940s, and there is no need to speculate on what might have been Orwell's evolution as the socialist Europe he favored tarried. What matters, as Mr. Hitchens writes, is the relentless honesty of the mind and the clear simplicity of the prose. Orwell, in other words, gave us a method a way of approaching the world and a style to go with it that remains valuable, invaluable I should say, in the world we now live in.
Mr. Hitchens believes Orwell was right on Stalinism, and is very interesting on how a lingering Stalinism still causes left-wing critics to distrust Orwell, misrepresent his ideas and misquote his writings.
Orwell was acquainted with British imperialism, due to his upbringing and his early career in the imperial police in Burma). It is virtually certain that he would have been appalled by many of the post-colonial regimes in Asia and Africa, with their grim catalogs of tyrants and thieves, simply because he was appalled by such regimes in his own lifetime that emerged in Russia, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Just to say this is to see Mr. Hitchens' point. What matters today is not whether Burma was "better off" under British rule than the regimes that followed (each more repressive than the last), but whether you could see clearly what British rule meant. In "Burmese Days" (1937), Orwell showed the moral ravages of colonialism for the British as well as the Burmese.
Of course, he did not make the mistake of placing these on the same plane. It might be more morally corrupting to be an oppressor, but it was more unpleasant to be oppressed. Orwell did not waste time feeling sorry for the world's tyrants, but even toward them he tried to apply the same relentless honesty with which he viewed his own country and his own times.
This absolute refusal of the propagandistic, or if you will the manipulative use of language, is Orwell's greatest legacy and the reason, as Mr. Hitchens well shows, that he matters and will matter as long as our language lives.

Roger Kaplan is a writer in New York. He teaches at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx.



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