Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why Orwell Matters

"Thus he faced the competing orthodoxies and despotisms of his day with little more than a battered typewriter and a stubborn personality."    -- Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters

Christopher Hitchens is very much an Orwell for our times, only more caustic and with sharp edges. He wrote a book back in 2002 entitled, Why Orwell Matters. It's a great introduction to Orwell for those who may only be familiar with his two greatest works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four.

George Orwell was many things: A brilliant essayist who was considered a mediocre novelist who ended up writing two of the 20th century's most gripping novels; a socialist who was an anti-communist; a hater of war who warned his fellows about the dangers of pacifism; a champion of the poor and benighted who could suddenly provide uncanny insight into the mind of the overlord.

George Orwell was completely unencumbered by received ideology and orthodoxy, a rare genuine freethinker. He faced life as it presented itself to him, and that's what makes him such a compelling and authentic figure even today.

He was a truly independent man, holding views anathema to both left and right. Disdained by both, until the other side deploys one of his arguments, then they fight over who the true Orwellites are. Truth is, nobody owns him. Like God, he is not on anyone's side; we can only hope to be on his side, because he was unwaveringly on the side of liberty over tyranny, humanity over bureaucratic mechanization, natural beauty with warts and all over ginned up fripperies packaged by elites and sold to the rubes.

Best of all, he was a keen analyst of life, using his experience and the light of reason to draw logical inferences that bore themselves out with frightening accuracy.  Yes, communism really was slaughtering millions.  Orwell knew it, years before the truth slipped out, even as useful idiots on both sides of the Atlantic sung the praises of Uncle Joe Stalin and wrote glowingly of strong men making the trains run on time.

If you're looking for a short and well-written introduction to George Orwell, Hitchens' book is just the thing.

18 comments:

Ducky's here said...

a socialist who was an anti-communist

--------

Does anyone recognize a ifference any longer?

Ducky's here said...

The jury is still out whether he or Huxley had the prescient view of the end.

America seems to be saying Huxley.

Mark Adams said...

"a socialist who was an anti-communist...we can only hope to be on his side,"
I can say I wouldn't be on his side as a socialist.

Silverfiddle said...

@ Ducky: The jury is still out whether he or Huxley had the prescient view of the end.

America seems to be saying Huxley.


I agree.

Jack Camwell said...

Orwell and Huxley were probably two of the most important writers of the 20th century.

Animal Farm and 1984 were amazing, but his essays are just as awesome. I've got a compilation of all his essays, and the entire volume is more than 1,000 pages. He was incredibly prolific.

One of the things that made him great was his willingness to criticize his own camp. He was a guy that saw the conventions of the time for what they were, and he strived to get people to break themselves free of the chains of convention.

Jersey McJones said...

I read Huxley again recently and have to say I do not agree with Ducky. I see a conservative contraction in America, not what anyone could misconstrue as progress. We are receding, becoming more primitive - ripe for the corporatocracy's pickin', without totalitarian control, but just as bad.

Huxley proposed that we are out-accommodating ourselves in various ways. I say we are going in reverse, in a misplaced belief that we are out-accommodating ourselves at all, especially among the working class.

JMJ

Anonymous said...

By the way, since Communism and Socialism head towards the same goal -- Central Command -- I see no appreciable difference between them. So, how anyone could claim to be both "Socialist" and "anti-Communist" I can't imagine.

Perhaps Orwell considered himself a Fabian? Fabianism wants to achieve virtually the same goals as Marxism, but without the bloody revolution and widespread destruction that accompanied the dirty deeds of the Bolsheviks.

Would it be more accurate then to say that Orwell was anti-Bolshevism, but pro-Marxist in his sentiments? Or, did he simply not realize that the two different means were bound to lead to the same dismal ends?

I love the way Hitchens refers to "the orthodoxies and despotisms" of Orwell's time -- as though there was any real difference among the various forms of tyranny we've subjected ourselves to throughout history.

Monarchy, Feudalism, Theocracy, Marxism, Communism, Naziism, Fascism, Socialism, Progressivism, Liberalism, Corporatism, Crony Capitalism -- are all permutations of the same thing -- the attempt to dominate, subjugate, enslave, and exploit. Every one of them is as evil as any of the others. Whatever differences there may be among them are purely academic.

~ FreeThinke

Anonymous said...

Anyone who watches TV, uses a cellphone or communicates via the Internet ought to read E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops -- a chillingly prophetic novella about the role technology would come to play in human affairs and how it would transform society.


First published in 1909, this small masterpiece is as relevant today as the day it first saw publication. Forster’s insight and vivid imagination came up with several prophetic visions including television, instant messaging, phone conferences, the world of virtual reality, and the horrifying effect these things were to have on our sense of community and personal interrelationship.


Forster’s work appeared long before Huxley’s and Orwell’s. He foretold most of what each of them said later in The Machine Stops -- proving once again that insight, imagination and sensitivity to the human condition are better guides to Truth than any compilation of data or accumulated knowledge.
The complete text is available at the following link:


http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

~ FreeThinke

Jersey McJones said...

FT, no sane person wants "central command."

JMJ

Most Rev. Gregori said...

Orwell had a keen might and, I believe, a direct hot line to the future.

Leticia said...

I have to be honest and say I have never read any of Orwell's books. But see if I can find the two books and also look up Hitchens as well. Sounds like they are right up my alley.

Thanks!

KP said...

Brilliant article, SF.

Finntann said...

"FT, no sane person wants central command."

Funny, we seem well on our way towards achieving it.

Anonymous said...

"FT, no sane person wants "central command."

Well then, Jersey, I guess you have finally admitted that no sane person would be a liberal, because that is what liberalism is all about -- achieving a deathgrip on Absolute Power so that every move you make and every breath you take can be monitored, measured and supervised "for your own good -- and for the Greater Good of Society as a whole."

"What fools [we] mortals be!"

~ FreeThinke

Anonymous said...

Leticia,

Do read The Machine Stops before you read either Huxey or Orwell. It was published first, makes the same points, and it's shorter. Also, it's a gripping read.

http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

After that please read Orwell's Animal Farm. It too is short an to the point, but it will haunt you for the rest of your life once you've read it.

I'm not sure Huxley's Brave New World is all that important in light of these other two works. It's too full of the literary equivalent of "special effects," seems contrived and rather shallow compared to Forster and Orwell, and just doesn't read as well -- at least not in my never humble opinion.

My impression of all three is that Forster and Orwell were genuinely concerned with the plight of humanity. Huxley appears to be more of a showoff -- quite full of himself and a great admirer of his own brilliance -- or so it seems to me.

All the best,

~ FreeThinke

Magpie said...

I first read 1984 when I was 14 – though I did not entirely understand it then - and it has haunted me ever since.

About the difference between Communism and Socialism… we can debate that till the cows come home but Orwell’s assumption during WW2 was that Britain would lose its old order and become a positive socialist state. He was wrong about that and perhaps not a little disappointed.

“English Socialism” was a mostly positive concept to him. The IngSoc of 1984 was his idea of what would happen if this process failed and a perverse version of it developed instead.

Magpie said...

1985 by Anthony Burgess is worth a read too.

Leticia said...

FT, thank you for the link and now I am officially intrigued to read Animal Farm.