George Orwell: War of Words

THE ORWELL READER, edited by Richard Rovere. STUDY OF GEORGE ORWELL: the Man and his Work, by Christopher Hollis.

Shortly before he died George Orwell asked that no one write his biography. Though much of his writing, even fiction, had been autobiographical, he valued privacy most of all the English virtues; and perhaps he felt he had himself made enough public use of his own life. In spite of his request, the six years since his death have left us three biographies and countless articles about his life.

Christopher Hollis' Study of George Orwell, suggests to me that Orwell's request may have been well-founded. Hollis finds in Orwell's work a basically Christian figure whose life "only makes sense within a religious framework." While this may be a correct statement of the way Hollis sees things, it provides an incomplete picture of his subject, who was use to calling the next world a "bribe."

Since his death Orwell has become a kind of paragon to many writers. Those who have not stopped with Lionel Trilling's conclusion that "He was a virtuous man," have used this conclusion to vindicate the cherished suspicions that each has imputed to Orwell's now-protean figure. Hollis' attempt to Christianize Orwell is no more mistaken than the projections of R. J. Voorhees, for instance, who writes about Orwell's "Secular crusade," or of John Atkins who calls him a "social saint," forgetting perhaps that Orwell had written in his essay on Gandhi, "Sainthood is a thing human beings must avoid."

Critics have tried to proselytize Orwell's shade, I think, because there is not much else they can do with him. His work does not lend itself to criticism. His prose style is better read than read about; there are few meanings in his novels beyond what he consciously put there; and aware of his limitations, he seldom ventured beyond them.

The finger-waving, prophetic, Victorian, virtuous, gloomy, saintly, fanatical, guilt-ridden, tubercular, self-righteous, animal farming but essentially Christian down-and-outer was, before these things, a writer. He believed that writers have messages. In spite of the grand variety of prejudices social critics now project at him, his I think was simple.

Orwell believed clear thinking is both possible and important, and that clear writing fosters it. His design was to foster both. In several essays he made his plea for clear writing quite explicit, even listing the habits that make good style. But I think Orwell's message was best where less explicit; as a preacher he seemed to nag. I find his example more gracious than his sermons. If you believe it is important to write clearly, it makes much more sense to start by writing clearly than to talk about clear writing. That was what he did.

I don't mean by these obvious remarks to offer any key to Orwell's works, but rather to suggest that they need none. His main presupposition was one that most people make. He supposed things have a real, knowable order, and went on to suggest that the greater art of the world's ills come from attempts to disguise that order. The most transparent disguise was the slovenly language that he found practiced unconsciously by his contemporaries and deliberately in 1984's Newspeak. He did not thing of language as a natural growth, but as a tool whose careful use was incumbent on all thinking people.

In "Politics and the English Language" he analyzed its abuses, observing that cliches "perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself." The abuse of language by recourse to ready-made phrases is the most obvious and often the first of attempts to create the "reduced state of consciousness" which, Orwell later wrote, "is favorable to political conformity."

Orwell first discovered that there is no genuinely non-political language when he went to Spain in 1936. "Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.... This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world."

In Homage to Catalonia he attempted to write an objective account of the Spanish War. In this book--I think it was his best--his conclusions were sparse, but they seemed to come as discoveries. They exemplified the message that his later works elaborated: that if you make words only out of what you know to be true, and if these words are more often short than long, concrete than abstract, active than passive, the craziest-seeming truth may become clear.

Although the war found the Government revolutionary, the Fascists rebellious, and the Communists both anti-revolutionary and bourgeois, Orwell's book didn't deal with these complexities. They were poorly known at the front where firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy were important, in that order. There, the majority of the casualties were accidentally self-inflicted. "If I remember rightly," Orwell wrote, "the first five men I saw wounded in Spain were all wounded by our own weapons." The pass-words were of such an elevating and revolutionary nature that the illiterate sentries usually forgot them and got shot at, escaping only thanks to the consistently poor aim of their comrades.

If the war was absurd, that was why. The larger designs of the Communists, Fascists, Anarchists, and Syndicalists were realized in their reports where history appeared "not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various 'party lines'."

The difference between what Orwell saw in 1937 and his vision of 1948 seems slight. In the Spanish War he saw words become the instrument of many lies. In 1984 he imagined a time when, no longer an instrument, language might become the exemplification of a lie that had gotten beyond any man's control.

Perhaps without reason, Orwell never thought to call the Spanish War a joke because so many people were deceived by it. "Curiously enough," he wrote, "the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings." In following years he kept railing at the verbal beginnings of political dishonesty: Auden's talk of "necessary murder" in Spain, the Munich-era optimism of the Chamberlinian press (described in Coming Up For Air), Pig Napoleon's famous motto that "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." He kept emphasizing that there is a truth to all things, that this truth is often so simple that it is we who are too sophisticated to see it, "that however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind you back." And he would tolerate no suggestion that consciousness might be an ambiguous blessing.

Orwell sought a style of writing in which it would be impossible to lie without knowing it. He worked with what was conscious, to keep it that way. Quick as he was to name any attempt to adjust, manipulate or remove the thoughts of people, he was no psychological writer. He preferred to stay near the surface of things, things like the aspidistra, the London crowds, loved collectively with their bad teeth and knobby faces, his own origin in the "lower-upper-middle-class" where one's gentility was mostly theoretical and people had "nothing to lose but their aitches."

He knew where clear writing would not get him. At the end of Homage to Catalonia Orwell wrote, "I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feelings they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing." It was a part of his respect for privacy--his own and others'--that Orwell made no claim to go farther