Famed English author George Orwell continually questioned all “official” or “accepted” versions of history. As World War II drew to a close in Europe, Orwell had his own doubts about the Allied account of events and he posed the following question in his book Notes on Nationalism, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear… Is it true about the gas ovens in Poland?”
Most people know of George Orwell for his anti-utopian work 1984 and for the political fable Animal Farm. Few know that he struggled for years to find his voice, living as a vagabond, and writing with small success and in considerable poverty. Like Jack Kerouac he found success late in life and then died not long after. And like Kerouac, he ‘dropped’ out of society and would often vanish, wandering across the English countryside in his journey of self-discovery. As a voice of dissent during wartime, Orwell’s literary attack against oppressive society — both on the Right, but especially on the Left — was a precursor to the later Beat Movement that rose to challenge the reigning American culture during the later postwar Eisenhower years.
George Orwell (1902-1950) was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, born to English parents living in India. As a young boy, he was sent to England and schooled at Eton on a scholarship. In his school days memoir, Such, Such were the Joys, he recounts the class-borne tirades unleashed by tyrannical instructors and the snobbery and jeers of his much richer peers. Upon reaching adulthood, Orwell returned to the East, becoming a member of the Imperial Police Force. Because he wanted to write and because over five years time he came to see up close that European colonialism was “very largely a racket,’ Orwell quit the police department. An explanation of his disgust is neatly summed up in perhaps one of the best essays written in the English language, Shooting an Elephant.
In the story’s famous opening lines, Orwell recounts “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people–the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” The 25-year-old Englishman finds himself at the mercy of a hooting crowd of Burmese villagers eager to see him shoot an elephant gone “must”. But Orwell, for various reasons, recoils at shooting such a “large beast”. However, feeling the pressure of the villagers as well as that of having to live up to the code of the British Raj — where the white man must never be laughed at by natives — Orwell ends up shooting the elephant to avoid looking like a fool. Having to perform such “dirty work of the Empire” embittered Orwell as his true sympathy was with the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Shortly after this incident, Eric Arthur Blair quit his post, renounced king, empire and his father, and returned to England. There he assumed a new literary identity, George Orwell. He chose the penname Orwell after a river in England near where his parents had resettled upon his father’s retirement. He chose George because of its commonality as an English name — the everyman of society.
Upon landing on British shores, and struggling to achieve his literary voice, Orwell dropped out of middle class bourgeois society so that he could live in the company of the working class and poor. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, documents the years he lived in utter poverty. It is a darkly, comical memoir about learning how to survive on just a few francs or shillings a day. There are parts that remind one about Jack Kerouac’s scrupulous attention to hoarding sandwiches for the bus journeys in On the Road.
A series of novels and memoirs followed, such as The Road to Wigan Pier, a narrative of time Orwell spent living in an English mining town trying to get a close look at the travails the miners faced in their workaday, hand-to-mouth existence. Other books appeared in the years right before World War II, including “Burmese Days”, “A Clergyman’s Daughter”, and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.” It was in these years that Orwell became a leftist — albeit its sharpest critic — when civil war broke out in Spain. Orwell traveled there and fought on the Loyalist side against Franco in Spain. Homage to Catalonia is the result of his experiences there. Seeing firsthand the deception and human betrayal of the communists turning on one another in the name of brotherhood, and his early understanding of the paranoid totalitarianism of Stalin, Orwell became an avowed anti-Communist. He was no conservative however, and swore allegiance to no party. He considered himself a socialist until his death, yet other socialists would have nothing to do with him. He considered politics a hoax and politicians liars who speak out of both sides of their mouths.
Shocked at how easily the West embraced communist Russia as an ally shortly after the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany during World War II, Orwell encapsulated the duplicity of world leaders in “Animal Farm,” a work that was suppressed until just after the war ended, for fear of angering the Soviets. It became an instant best seller and catapulted Orwell onto the world stage. He followed up in 1949 with the anti-utopia “1984,” a warning to the world that blind faith in our leaders will rob mankind of its soul. Orwell wrote the novel while living on the wild Scottish island of Jura, in a house that had little comforts like running water or electricity. An inveterate smoker, he died of tuberculosis, his health ruined from his days in the Burmese jungle, worsened by years of poverty, and aggravated by a bullet wound to the throat during the Civil War in Spain.
Orwell’s importance was not as a clairvoyant, but as a writer. A broader discussion about concepts like “double-speak” and “Big Brother” would be better expanded elsewhere. Rather than parse what Orwell means in relation to the current state of world affairs since the September 11 terrorist attacks, I would prefer to leave you with some good advice Orwell gives to all writers. One of his most important essays is “Politics and the English” language. In this essay he attacks the rhetoric of politics. The real value is not so much his entreaty to be skeptical about supposed saviors and panaceas, but how to be a good writer. In short, here is Orwell’s admonition to keep language in thought and action pure and honest — something that would especially make our friend Jack Kerouac smile:
I. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
II. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
III. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
IV. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
V. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
VI. Break any of these rules than say anything outright barbarous.