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George Orwell smiling

George Orwell

In 1936-7 George Orwell fought in Spain against the Fascists and on the side of Republicans and Communists. He saw friends he loved killed, and innocent civilians massacred. Shot in the neck, he returned to England with a profound and permanent dislike of both Fascists and Communists. He had come to understand where he stood and why: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” We may quarrel with his support for socialism, but we are grateful for his courageous criticism of totalitarianism.

Orwell mastered a lucid and devastating style of writing essays and satirical novels. Down and Out in Paris and London is his firsthand report about living in poverty. Burmese Days is a fiercely anti-imperialist novel based on his experience working in the East as a policeman. Homage to Catalonia is his heartbreaking account of the men and women who died in Spain for a cause that had been corrupted. His genius was to include the ironic details.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming up for Air are elegies to the lost and civilised way of life he remembered living as a child in Britain. The Road to Wigan Pier is a sometimes grisly report of living with the unemployed working class. To write he had to live an experience first. It was his way of grounding himself.

Orwell freed himself from his family, and rooted himself in England by inventing a new name. Born Eric Blair in India in 1903, he took the name George from the patron saint of England, and Orwell from the River Orwell in Suffolk, one of his favourite country haunts.

We think it was his love of water and earth and trees that made him doubtful of unreal concepts masquerading under the mask of words. He accurately observed in Politics and the English Language, that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” In "Notes about Nationalism," he observed that "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that. No ordinary man could be such a fool." And he concluded, "as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged."

Orwell's writing expressed his political views, but his views did not compromise his artistic standards and love of truth. His artist's eye is evident everywhere in his work. He vividly sketches men, women and children. In two phrases, he evokes an elephant - "beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have."

Fierce defender of language and liberty

At the onset of World War II Orwell tried to join the Army to fight the Nazis, but his fatigue and persistent cough were diagnosed as tuberculosis. He served with the Home Guard and worked on war propaganda at the BBC. It was not the work he wanted to do, and he must have known he was dying. He began to write three remarkable books.

As the war ended, Orwell published the ferocious and unexpectedly tender fable called Animal Farm. The animals revolt against the farmer's tyranny, and win their freedom, but almost immediately they face betrayal by animals whose credo becomes:  “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Animal Farm is a psychological portrayal of the person and the party which insists on controlling us for their profit and power - all the while insisting that what they are doing is for our own good.

In 1946, Orwell published Politics and the English Language -

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’.

All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. . .

Orwell had written a great novel and a devastating critique. Despite the TB which left him exhausted, he struggled to write his masterpiece, a novel that would be the most damning indictment of tyranny ever written. He worked on it on the remote island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland. Racing against death, he managed to finish and publish 1984 just before he died in 1950 at the age of forty-six. 

In 1984, Big Brother uses Doublethink, a willful blindness to reality, and the violent Thought Police to manipulate the past and present and control the future. Men and women endure a grim and horrible world where no one can be trusted, and no one can truly love or be loved.

Orwell's love of freedom gave him the strength to write. With his dying breath he was a witness for the defence of each of us.


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