Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Orwell's inherently human contradictions embraced (Books - Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens)

I decided to read the late Christopher Hitchens's Why Orwell Matters less because I have a driving interest in political essayist and novelist George Orwell than because I had never read a book by Hitchens and many a sharp reading friend had praised his work. I was vaguely aware of Orwell being lauded and derided alternately by the left and the right. I knew he had become a hero of the neo-cons and I didn't know why. There's no reason to read at all if you're only going to stay in your ideological comfort zone, so I picked up Why Orwell Matters this weekend to see what they were all about.

This slim volume is not a biography. It is a corrective polemic of others opinions of Orwell - either critics of him, or those who idolized Orwell by appropriating
him as a symbol for their cause. This book means to set the reader straight on Orwell's thought as can be inferred from his writing. Hitchens assumes a lot of his reader. There is scarcely a word spent to orient one to Orwell's biographical details. If you wish to know the year of his birth or how he was treated by his parents, this is not the book for you. We learn that he had traditional English schooling, joined the British colonial service in Burma, and volunteered to serve in the Spanish Civil War - a right of passage for many an anti-fascist in the 1930s. Hitchens offers the reader no plot summaries of Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Animal Farm, or Nineteen Eighty-Four even as he liberally references them. He will not do your homework for you. If you are not familiar with V.S. Pritchett, George Bernard Shaw, J.B. Priestly, Stephen Spender, or Rochefoucauld, tough. He strides right out across the muddy fields so either get your wellies on and keep up, or turn around and go home.

He is a writer of admirable economy. In a one-page Acknowledgement we know that Hitchens respects text, enjoys dialectical argument, is a gracious guest, aims to maintain a scholarly distance through breadth of knowledge, and is not afraid to apply his erudition to that cause:
He also helped me to recognize a certain 'Orwellianism' as a thread of Ariadne in the writing of our time.
It is fair to say that Hitchens's writing also has a bombastic streak.
The three great subjects of the twentieth century were imperialism, fascism and Stalinism. It would be trite to say that these 'issues' are only of historical interest to ourselves; they have bequeathed the whole shape and tone of our era.
I could argue for Fredianism or Keynesianism, but no matter, we know the ground rules and can engage with Hitchens on his terms.

What comes through most in this scholarly argument is Hitchens's appreciation for Orwell's intellectual independence.
'I knew,' said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, 'that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.' Not the ability to face them, you notice, but 'a power of facing'. It's oddly well put. A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact. [Who could he mean?] So, for that matter, may a priest with 'doubts'. The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the 'power of facing'. Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoubling of efforts to overcome the obvious.
More than a simple admiration of iconoclasm for its own sake, Hitchens's recognizes that examining evidence that is contrary to one's opinion and changing one's mind because of it, is an act that requires fortitude. Frankly, I admire it too and wish it was a characteristic we saw in more American politics.

While many leftists in the 1930s could only find expression for their political values in socialism, many became blind to the horrors Stalin perpetrated because they were so focused on the cause. Hitchens presents Orwell as a man who, though he was in Spain to fight fascism, saw the police regime that developed to enforce the power of the socialists as its own sort of totalitarianism. He refused to represent that otherwise in order to conform blindly to socialist ideology, merely because he had supported it up until this point.
This was where Orwell suffered the premonitory pangs of a man living under a police regime: a police regime ruling in the name of socialism and the people. for a Westerner, at least, this epiphany was a relatively novel thing; it brushed the sleeves of many thoughtful and humane people, who barely allowed it to interrupt their preoccupation with the 'main enemy,' fascism. But on Orwell it made a permanent impression.

Coincidence, said Louis Pasteur, has a tendency to occur only to the mind that is prepared to notice it. He was speaking of the kind of openness of mind that allows elementary scientific innovation to occur, but the metaphor is a serviceable one. Orwell, was, to an extent, conditioned to keep his eyes open in Spain, and to register the evidence.
Orwell's critics, according to Hitchens, were largely motivated by their own frustration with what they saw as inconsistency, but was really Orwell's unwillingness to be a symbol for their ism. He was neither a conforming lefty, nor was he completely against the ideals of socialism. Neither was he a hard-line Conservative. Though he may have coined the term Cold War, he was a critic of maintaining a permanent war economy and war rhetoric as a manipulative political tool.

What I enjoyed most in this little book is Hitchens intellectual rigor in closely examining Orwell's essays, novels, and correspondence, rather than blindly accepting the existing glib characterizations of him. Even more, I admire the humane portrait of the man, Orwell, that Hitchens draws, one which embraces the polarities found in most human beings rather than rubs them out due to ideological convenience or discomfort. People are inherently contradictory and Hitchens recognized Orwell's strength in writing openly from that quality and admired him for it.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Wonderful to read your thoughts, ted! I tore thru this book. I miss Hitchens tremendously. I love his political stuff - as you know, I was lined up with him on many issues, much to the horror of my liberal friends - and his example helped me keep my backbone stiff enough and not be BULLIED - but for me it is really his book reviews where he goes to TOWN. This isn't quite a book review, but still: his writing on other writers is nothing less than superb. I had somehow never read Evelyn Waugh - and then I read a review of Scoop by Hitchens and the REVIEW made me laugh out loud - so I ran right out and read it. This one is very special, though - because of his examination of the "Orwellian" thing, and the co-opting/rejecting of him, and how that all went for him. I found it utterly fascinating. Hope you are well.

Ted said...

I have you to thank for getting me interested in Hitchens and this was a terrific read. It would be good to catch up with you in person soon!

Ryan said...

Sounds hefty (intellectually, rather than physically). I'm a fan of both Christopher Hitchens work and Orwell. I'll have to keep an eye out for this little gem.

Ted said...

Ryan - His critical analysis is acute but the prose moves like wild fire.

Marie Cloutier said...

sounds like a really interesting take on a very important literary figure!