Eric Blair, alias George Orwell, wrote some of the 20th century’s most haunting and influential books. While best known for his fiction, Orwell also wrote brilliantly perceptive essays and produced some of the finest works of journalism ever attempted. His politics and writing have been debated and dissected for more than 50 years, yet there is one common theme running through nearly all of Orwell’s books that has yet to be seriously explored—the use of tobacco. Cigarette smoke so permeates Orwell’s stories it almost stains one’s fingers to read them.
Cigarettes, for Orwell, represent comfort, camaraderie and all that is essentially good about civilization. It’s a curious and ironic stance for someone as opposed to colonialism and predatory capitalism as Orwell was, as tobacco figures prominently in the history of both. Yet he used the act of smoking as a literary device almost compulsively, reaching for it hundreds of times over the course of his career in order to achieve a diverse array of effects.
In an age where cigarettes are routinely airbrushed from photos of famous people, and where smoking is now banned in most public places, Orwell’s over-invoked and often misused name has been appropriated by modern-day propagandists on both sides of the tobacco argument. With anti-smoking groups labeling Marlboro ads “Orwellian” and libertarians railing against the “doublethink” of anti-tobacco messages, Orwell’s constant overtures to nicotine seem quaint, glaring and odd.
Born in 1905, an age when the only serious opposition to tobacco came from schoolmarms and teetotalers, Orwell started smoking well before he adopted his famous pseudonym. As a middle class teenager at Eton College the young Eric Blair, who had always felt isolated and removed, played at radical politics and affected the air of a bohemian poet. Knowing that smoking was strictly forbidden at Eton, Blair took up the habit at his first opportunity—it evidently appealed to the rule-breaker in him.
Hand-rolling cigarettes from Turkish tobacco, smoking imbued the young Blair with an aura of rebellion and virility, two qualities he would self-consciously cultivate throughout his life and career. From the time he was 16 or so until his death at 46, Orwell could scarcely be photographed without a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Smoking, with its ephemeral and ritualistic qualities, might also have appealed to the mystic in Blair, who despite his Marx-inspired atheism and outward rationality, was by nature superstitious, a trait that led him to a series of flirtations with the occult. Smoking also went along with Blair’s pessimistic and existentialist view of life, showcased in the bleak settings and suicidal protagonists of his novels.
As we know today, heavy smoking can itself be considered a slow form of suicide. This was no less true for Blair, who suffered from lung ailments his entire life. Bronchitis, Pneumonia and at least one “lung lesion” made him “wheeze like a concertina” from an early age. Damp English winters, Burmese mosquitoes and a complete disregard for his own health brought bouts with dengue fever and Spanish Flu. At some point, Blair was also exposed to tuberculosis, a bacterial disease which attacks the lungs and which smoking is known to exacerbate.
It’s a cruel irony that Blair loved smoking so much, because for him, it was the deadliest of vices. He died of Tuberculosis in 1950, the year the American Medical Association published its first study on the link between smoking and lung disease.
To understand Orwell’s incurious attitude toward tobacco, it might help to understand the history of its use. For centuries, smoking was considered therapeutic. Tobacco’s first known application was as a medicine and a sacrament, enjoyed by South American Indians as far back as 5000 B.C. When Europeans first took up the habit in the 1500s, it was for medicinal purposes, as smoking was thought to cure dozens of ailments, from syphilis to “dropsy”.
Tobacco use eventually became common among European aristocracy, not specifically as a cure for anything, but as a “tonic” and a pastime. The demand for tobacco eventually became so high that entire forests in North America were cleared to make way for plantations. The cultivation of tobacco in the English colonies of the New World funded the American Revolution and initially provided the impetus for the expansion of African slavery in North America. (“History of Tobacco Use and Abuse”, Walter Reed Army Medical Center) Thus an addictive and unhealthy habit of upper-class whites brought misery to millions of black slaves, while at the same time providing the means for degrading the power of the British Empire.
The complicated role tobacco played in world affairs was not something Orwell chose to write about. If he had, he might have found commonality between the leaf he so enjoyed and another plant, one that came to represent his own divergence with the British Empire.
Orwell was born in India, to a father (Richard Blair) who worked his entire life as an imperial opium agent. A staunch if somewhat underachieving servant of the crown, the elder Blair’s job was to supervise Indian poppy farmers, ensuring they made efficient use of their land and resources. At that time, the British forced many Indian farmers to grow opium instead of food so it could be sent to China, where it kept the Chinese population both dependent on the British and complacent to their rule, allowing for easier exploitation of that country’s resources. Using an insidiously addictive drug to subdue the Chinese people was perhaps the most shameful abuse of imperial power in history, and his father’s role in it gave Orwell pangs of guilt that would haunt him his whole life.