One of the better memories I have from my 1970s high school years are the hours I stole for myself by ditching an English class I despised. I hid out in the stacks of the library, sneaking along the lonely aisles and scanning shelves until a title caught my eye. Then I would sit on the floor reading and thinking about writing, rather than sitting in a class hearing about it instead.
George Orwell’s novels were well-known of course, but I hadn’t read any of them yet. I recognized his name on a book spine however and pulled out a collection of his essays. I might as well have pulled a lever on a trap door under my own feet.
Here was “A Hanging,” published in 1931 under his own name, Eric Arthur Blair, an entirely unknown 27-year-old. It was printed by a pacifist magazine he once habitually used for target practice as an Imperial Police Officer in Burma.
His evolution was obvious, even to me at 14, in “Shooting an Elephant,” “Politics and the English Language” and “Why I Write,” where in 1946 he said “I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.”
His name comes up in the news almost every day, evoked by politicians and pundits all over the spectrum conjuring dystopian dread. But his novels “1984” and “Animal Farm” obscure the fact that George Orwell made his living as an essayist. He wrote reviews, critiques and analyses of ordinary life and people in plain language that split open the heart of the matter to reveal something extraordinary, and often dangerous, inside.
This two-volume collection reproduces many overlooked pieces, dividing them into narrative essays — events from his own experience — and critical essays, where he holds something or someone up to examination.
Orwell examines the work of his contemporaries: H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, Henry Miller. He punches above his weight at Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy and Gandhi. In the first sentence of his review of a performance of “The Tempest” with John Gielgud and Jessica Tandy, Orwell writes “If there is really such a thing as turning in one’s grave, Shakespeare must get a lot of exercise.” He even reviews other reviewers.
It is all for a greater purpose.
Analyzing W.H. Auden’s poem “Spain” in 1940 about the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell fought and was wounded, he writes “notice the phrase ‘necessary murder.’ It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word … It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men — I don’t mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore, I have some conception of what murder means — the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells … Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.”
Orwell uses the point to illustrate the drifting denial England fell into as war engulfed it, and how.
“With all its injustices, England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the overwhelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality. … To people of that kind, such things as purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial, etc., etc., are too remote to be terrifying. They can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism.”
This thinking begins with “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), Orwell’s recollection of that event in Rangoon where, even as the local authority with a rifle in his hands, he felt powerless against the collective will of people who hated the colonial British Empire, and therefore him. “I perceived in this moment that when a white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”
And in “My Country Right or Left” (1940), he writes “Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism. It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same… To be loyal to both (Prime Minister) Chamberlain’s England and the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility, if one did not know it to be an everyday phenomenon… It is exactly the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of the Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes.”
But in “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” (1946), Orwell defends the petty bourgeois custom of enjoying nature, asking “is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song? … If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labor-saving utopia?”
It is a long view and a thoughtful one many would not attribute to the author of “Animal Farm” (1945) and “1984” (1949). But Orwell, who took his pen name from the serene River Orwell in East Anglia, concludes the essay by saying “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the Earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”
Orwell’s many criticisms of his society did not make him a defeatist. That gives his words even greater power as we discern the lessons he wrote in his time for our own — like how to face unpleasant facts.
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS