Books

George Orwell: Forgiving and Championing Bad Art

Orwell's essays remind us that better than our best intentions is our inescapable nature, our shared ordinariness, which will always have the potential to redeem us all if only we will embrace it.

It's a shame that the word Orwellian now signifies totalitarian surveillance and remodeling reality with lies. Judging by the persona George Orwell establishes in his essays, of which Harcourt has recently issued two new collections, Orwellian could easily have come to mean a bluff impatience with pretentiousness, or the tendency to evoke the ordinary person's point of view as a defense of one's own tenacious positions, or the no-nonsense voice he achieves by preferring to risk overstatement rather than waste words.

The two new volumes are a welcome and long overdue overhaul of the earlier A Collection of Essays, which now seems skimpy and inadequate in comparison. By including more of his shorter efforts, reviews and occasional journalistic pieces, editor George Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, gives a more complete picture of Orwell's preoccupations while making palpable the pressures he wrote under. Not only was he sickly -- he was wounded in the throat during his Spanish Civil War stint and long struggled with tuberculosis, which would kill him at age 47 -- but he was entirely engrossed by the Second World War from its origins to its aftermath.

His acute awareness of the moral crisis into which it cast Western civilization colors every word he wrote, whether he was eviscerating antiwar novels and the politics of literary poetasters, trying to rationalize the popularity of obscene popular culture, or assessing his own war experiences both during the Blitz and as a soldier abroad. Reading these essays, you always have the sense that for Orwell, the end of civilization was palpable, that a fog had settled on the world that he and his peers had all taken for granted, and when it lifted, they would find themselves in unknowable circumstances, wherein no received truths, no former certainties about the inherent goodness of human nature and the benevolence of technological progress, could be taken for granted

In compiling the two volumes, Packer smartly divides Orwell's essays into narrative pieces (Facing Unpleasant Facts) and critical pieces (All Art Is Propaganda). This useful arrangement keeps the confrontational bluster of his criticism separate from the occasional sanctimony and grandiosity in the autobiographical material to reveal the underlying consistency of his thinking throughout. The critical essays are anchored in his belief that first-hand experience of misery, war, and despotism is virtually mandatory for a writer to have any credibility in an age such as he wrote in: "So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot," he notes in "Inside the Whale". In his narrative essays, he is often out to demonstrate his own bona fides on this point and show readers just how hot the fires he has known were.

Calling the essays in Facing Unpleasant Facts "narrative" is something of a misnomer, however. It's not as though he's telling stories, except in well-known pieces like "Shooting an Elephant", and even then he is often baldly interested in illustrating a point. Orwell is not an essayist who is content to describe an incident that's redolent with metaphoric possibility and let readers work it out if they choose. Generally he comes right out and states his purpose, as in "A Hanging", when he declares, "It is curious but until that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man." Even so, what he relates evokes much more than the conclusions he draws or the motives for writing that he shares. He is enamored and mystified enough by things as they are, in and of themselves, that in describing them, he conveys some of that ineluctable mystery that allows human life to persist in the face of wrenching misery and innumerable examples of our unrelenting capacity for cruelty toward our own species.

Rather than tell open-ended tales, Orwell does what essayists since Montaigne have always done -- use scraps of personal experience to illustrate concise conclusions, which then are presented as though they are being discovered as the essayist is writing. Whether discussing secondhand bookstores, English cooking, or Luftwaffe bombs raining on London, Orwell will make a sharp point based on a personal hunch and then try to disavow anything unusual in his observation, hoping it will pass as something that would have occurred to anyone with open eyes. He reveals the essence of his method when in his essay about Marrakech he states plainly an attitude that is implicit throughout the book: "I am not commenting, merely pointing to a fact."

Of course, the facts one chooses to point to, the details we decide to acknowledge, are usually comment enough. The essays make plain that Orwell relishes describing corpses, stenches, and squalor, even if he usually refrains from becoming sensationalistic about it. Such things, clearly, seemed indicative to him of the world as it was. But they more clearly indicate what Orwell thinks his audience doesn't know or accept about their world. "To survive you have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself," he notes in "Looking Back on the Spanish War", but the "intelligentsia" -- possibly Orwell's favorite pejorative -- prefers not to understand this. "The fact that such a platitude is worth writing down," Orwell says of his own observation, "shows what the years of rentier capitalism have done to us."

Considering how concerned Orwell was with clear expression, it's tricky to write about his work without lapsing into a pastiche of it. You want to follow the guidelines he lays out in his famous "Politics and the English Language", particularly since he is uncharacteristically optimistic about the chances of saving the language from its devolution into Newspeak. Generally, he's successful in being his own best example of he thinks writing should be -- free of slippery, lazy phrases and showy literary flourishes.

That's not to suggest his essays are free of rhetorical figure; rather when he deploys a metaphor, you can visualize it immediately and its meaning is always unmistakable. And when he shifts to abstractions, it's usually with an air of apology. He was constitutionally allergic to all forms of orthodoxy, which he viewed as inherently indicative of the absence of thought. "To write in plain, vigorous language," he writes in "The Prevention of Literature", "one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox."

Thus wary of insufficient boldness, Orwell often favors provocative hyperbole and isn't afraid to contradict himself, sometimes within the span of a few phrases. He often seems to argue with himself, as if he had too much momentum to go back and cross out something ultimately insupportable. Instead he tries to reason with whatever side of himself could have committed such an idea to paper. What results from all this is an occasionally lumpy but always lively prose with a blunt matter-of-fact rhythm that's hard to argue with and extremely tempting to imitate.

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