This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by John Reed

Last week a notebook in which George Orwell kept a list of acquaintences he suspected of being communists—a list he eventually gave to a friend in the British government—went on display in London. MobyLives took the occasion to ask Orwell critic John Reed to comment.

10 November 2003 — To look at the history of the Saints, the question quickly arises—how many people must die in your name before you're canonized?

On this centennial year of his birth, George Orwell—who coined the term Cold War, and remains our faithful Cold War pedagogue after nearly sixty years—has apparently amassed the sufficient number. Virtue, in the hands of religionists, will often turn to vice. And in a time when political discussion has taken on fanatical polarity, Orwell, who despite his flaws sought to be reasonable, can be consistently located in the temples of intransigence. He is the champion of Trotskyite perpetual warriors, militant right–to–lifers, and fiercely defensive gun–toters.

Few would assert that Orwell the man is personally guilty of all the obtuseness that he is invoked to vindicate. Equally untenable is the position that Orwell was not responsible for his life and work. He did things, he wrote things, that can't be explained away as objects of misinterpretation.

From the New Yorker's Louis Menand, you won't find out what those things are. Despite his lengthy article of 1/27/03, Menand will not tell you—will not even mention—that Orwell penned a list of 35 names for the IRD, or Information Research Department (which was overseen by the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6), and that the degree to which those artists and writers were damaged by Orwell is still undisclosed.

Christopher Hitchens, the Grand Poobah of the cult of Orwell, demonstrates a similar inability to exercise what Orwell called "the power of facing." His general formula, on questions concerning Beastly George, is to concede any minor point—such as whether or not Orwell hit so–and–so with a walking stick, or Orwell's small mindedness on the metric system—but to outright dismiss any major point. Rival intellectuals are fools and liars.

When cornered, Hitchens will reiterate the age–old excuse—that Orwell was always trying to be right, even when he was wrong, and is therefore worthy of praise in any circumstance. One would think that after Hitchens' own attack on Mother Teresa, he would be immune to this Saint/Greatness argument, but it is the thesis of his aptly titled "Orwell's Victory" (a reference to Orwell's Cold War investment). Like Menand, Hitchens will spare no effort to contort himself into an omissionary position.

The Orwell canonization will grant you such tidbits as—Orwell had some unresolved sexual issues, didn't do too well with women, thought poor people smelled, didn't really live down and out all that often, dramatized his journalism, and never entirely escaped his colonialist upbringing.

It won't tell you that "Animal Farm" was very likely cribbed from "The Animal Riot," a story by a Russian historian, Nikolai Kostomorav, published in 1917. It won't tell you about Orwell's IRD snitch list, except to say Orwell enjoyed writing lists, like grocery lists, and playing games, like Scrabble. It won't talk about the content of Orwell's writing, much of which is so outdated as to hold appeal for none but the atavistic. "Shooting An Elephant," "Down and Out in Paris and London," "The Road to Wigan Pier"—the closer you look, the worse it is. And it's not just the colonialism, but the anti–Semitism, the sexism, the homophobia, the racism, the classism, and a Papal attitude to human reproduction.

Certainly, you won't find the idea that Orwell was a political opportunist. Yes, Orwell was always reassessing himself. Yes, in his essay "Why I Write," the number one reason was "Sheer Egoism." Yes, there were the flip–flops, such as Orwell's sudden turn–around on Hitler (against, laudably). But no, Orwell never considered personal consequence. He was just a bumbling Englishman who, in the end, was always right—and that he was always right had nothing to do with the fact that he'd switch teams if his was losing.

Orwell's defenders always look to contextualize Orwell's shortcomings in a historic moment. Whatever his infraction, he was a victim of circumstance—times were different then, and, for example, Hitler was looking really good for a minute there. Orwell never meant that his books should be employed to stultify schoolchildren.

And yet that's what "Animal Farm" is—an educational missile aimed at any healthy impulse towards reform. The argument that "Animal Farm" is a generalized indictment of totalitarianism is simply unsupportable by the text or any existing presentation of the text. Rather, the intelligence of the pigs as opposed to the stupidity of the other animals, and the ultimate hopelessness of revolution, renders "Animal Farm" a de facto endorsement of the status quo.

Orwell, with his master understanding of propaganda, did not accidentally exclude Germany, Italy and Japan from his allegory. He knew that he was writing against the East, for the West. But the assertion that the Cold War was won by the arms race, as fueled by the enemy–out–there equation of "Animal Farm," is as undemonstrable as it is unconvincing. Because the manufacture of weapons is far less expensive in a Communist state, it's more probable that the U.S. participation in the arms race delayed the inevitable collapse of a Soviet Union facing the superior economic model of the West.

Furthermore, Orwell's perpetual war model goaded American policy–makers into ill–advised forays all over the world. Trouble spots that pop into mind—Afganistan, Iraq, and Korea. The current environment within America, in which any criticism of U.S. policy is considered un–American, is precisely the McCarthy–esque inflammation we expect from such Cold War rhetoric—and it is no coincidence that George Orwell has been successfully drafted by Christopher Hitchens as a supporter of the George Bush "war on terrorism." No matter that this kind of unexamined forward march (and euphemistic lexicon) is exactly what rankled Orwell most. Judging from Orwell's stance on World War Two and Winston Churchill, it's likely that Orwell would have opposed military intervention in Iraq, and that even if he did support George Bush, it would be only with the utmost antagonism.

And, none of that is out of historical context.

But that's part of canonizing someone. To quote The Book Of Matthew's Jesus (23:25)— "Woe, unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess."

Despite all the lip service paid to the nuanced argument, that's exactly what we can't have, and especially not about great men. They are cast in bronze, and unassailable.

Not to say that Orwell, even if he did make his own bed, would have liked lying in it. To a large degree, Orwell's appeal is that it's hard to believe he'd stand by any political formulation 55 years old. (It's interesting to consider that if Orwell had survived another twenty or thirty years, in the light of his happy–frog type essays, he might have sought redemption in environmental issues.)

Orwell once said that writers "tell you a great deal about [themselves], while talking bout someone else." Raymond Williams, in 1955, turned this argument back on Orwell, noting that, "Orwell's reports are indeed documents, but largely of himself." With that in mind, Orwell's opinions on canonization ("Reflections on Gandhi," 1949) are particularly revealing.

"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent. . . . In Gandhi's case the questions one feels inclined to ask are: to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity—by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power—and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud?"

Orwell doesn't doubt that Gandhi was conscious of the Sainthood for which he lobbied—to Orwell, Gandhi's complicity and incentives are the primary question. That is to say—who was Gandhi on the inside?

Herein was Orwell's "commitment to the truth." So, with that same insistence, we look to Orwell's unspoken truth, and ask, what is it

Eric Blair, or "George Orwell," was a complicated man with complicated motivations, who did at least as many things wrong as he did right. And the best thing about him was that he probably would have agreed with that assessment, and that, for all his mistakes, he would have had nothing but uneasiness for his own supporters, and the fundamentalism of their smelly little orthodoxies.

John Reed received his MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University in 1994. He is author of the novels, SNOWBALL'S CHANCE (Roof Books 2002), "A Still Small Voice" (Delacorte Press 2000, Delta Books 2001), and the upcoming "Duh Whole" (MTV Books/Simon & Schuster 2004).

©2003 John Reed

Previous column; PECKED TO DEATH ... After reading a favorable New York Times profile of attack critic Dale Peck, MobyLives contributor Steve Almond finds himself in—well, attack mode....


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