GEORGE ORWELL: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy

John Rodden

ISBN 978-0-691-18274-2

Princeton  £25.

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

Two sections, as in the subtitle, twelve chapters, a prologue, introduction, conclusion and notes. Rodden is a long-standing Orwell scholar. He has taught at the universities of Virginia and Texas (Austin) and published several books on his chosen writer. There are one or two mistakes, the most egregious being his belief that Wigan is in the English Midlands: the centre of the Midlands is Birmingham, some hundred miles south of Wigan. It isn’t merely a geographical mistake: the north-west and the Black Country share a similar history since the Industrial Revolution, but there are distinctions in culture. Manchester and Liverpool, for example, the two big cities of the north-west return, even today, no Tory MP. The Labour loyalty of Birmingham is not quite so secure. In chapter four he describes Orwell as a “free-thinking Tory radical.” Orwell was never any kind of Tory. In a note on literary lines which have entered the common consciousness he attributes “Attention must be paid” to Willy Loman. The words are spoken about Willy by his wife, Linda. In chapter six he lumps Alan Sillitoe in with the Angry Young Men, Amis, Braine, Osborne. Sillitoe wasn’t of their group and never identified with them. In chapter eight he describes Christopher Lasch as an “agnostic”. In The Revolt of the Elites Lasch makes specific reference to his faith in god. 

Rodden writes about himself as well as Orwell which brings a slightly uneasy feeling that he is trying to piggyback on his subject’s renown. His resumé of Orwell’s life is one of the best sections: clear and precise. To those familiar with the biography it’s quick reminder, to those who aren’t it paints in the major trajectory and background. The book isn’t literary criticism. It’s concerned with questions which surround literature: how do reputations get made and retained ?; how did this happen to Orwell?; who did he have contact with ?; what parallels are there between him and other writers?; who helped create his reputation?; is he important now and will he be in the future? Much of this contains fascinating detail culled from diligent research and the arguments are, by and large, well-made; but Rodden repeats himself often. Readers don’t need to be told more than once that Animal Farm and  Nineteen- Eighty- Four appeared at propitious times nor that had Orwell died a little earlier or later things might have been very different.    

Orwell had a distant relation to his father who he recalled as “ a gruff-voiced, elderly man, forever saying “don’t”. Possibly an incipient model of Big Brother. Rodden says that it was during his service as a colonial policeman in Burma that he decided he “wanted to be a writer”, something he had tried to hide from himself. The ambition to be a writer is foolish. When Harrison Birtwistle was asked why he became a composer, he said he had a music in his head he hadn’t heard before. That’s the true motivation. Real writers write because they are compelled to, which gives their work the hallmark of inevitability authentic art displays. It seems the young Eric Blair did harbour a desire for literary fame, but that is as jejune and fleeting as a boy’s desire to drive trains or play football for England. Taking the post in Burma was perhaps a way of curing himself of silly ambitions and finding his es muss sein. What he decided to do, most likely, was write because there was a prose in his head he’d never read before.  

Writing about Orwell’s essay A Hanging, (1931) Rodden praises him for including the “precise dimensions of the bleak cells.” What Orwell writes is: “Each cell measured about ten feet by ten..” Not precise, but approximate. Rodden’s enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of him. He argues Orwell’s gift was for literary invention rather than literary creation, but quite how these differ is not entirely clear.  

Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War was formative. Rodden quotes Christopher Hollis, Orwell’s acquaintance from Eton who wrote a study of him, that it was in Spain that Orwell first encountered organised religion as a powerful force and disliked it. Orwell fought with POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), the party founded in 1935 in opposition to the Stalinist communists. He went as an idealist to fight for republicanism and socialism and  encountered hope and despair: the former in the genuine and liberal egalitarianism of the republicans, inspired by anarchist thinking; the latter in the despicable machinations of the Stalinists whose sole concern was their own power. Henceforth, it could be argued, this division informed his view and his work. In writing about totalitarianism, he was trying to keep the hope alive. He was never anything but a democratic socialist. His concept of “double speak” almost certainly derives from the sordid hypocrisy of the Stalinists: proclaiming peace, equality, justice, while killing those fighting for it.  

Rodden is alert to the misuse of “Orwell”, as he distinguishes the legend from the writer. The right have appropriated him as an enemy of what he supported; part of the left has labelled him a traitor. Might this not be because the works which made his international reputation can be interpreted to make him all things to all men? Like the Bible, Nineteen-Eighty-Four can be made to mean what you want it to. Rodden is right, had he lived a few more years and spoken publicly about the Cold War, his reputation might be very different.  

Rodden judges Orwell to be the most influential writer of all time on the basis of sales and the entry into the language of his key phrases. Yet isn’t this rather a silly claim? Perhaps a typically American one. How could it be determined that Orwell is more influential than Aeschylus, without whom we might have no drama, or perhaps a somewhat different form? Aeschylus may be an obscure name these days, but every fan of film or soap opera owes him a debt. 

Rodden is sometimes rather lax in choice of bedfellows. His cites Koestler as an enemy of totalitarianism akin to Orwell, but Koestler was, at least for a time, an ardent follower of Jabotinsky, whose extreme nationalism was exactly what Orwell loathed. Jabotinsky’s doctrine played a significant role in the elaboration of Israel as a racist regime whose distorted version of “democracy” forbids parties which promote equal rights for non-Jewish citizens. Orwell was thoroughly democratic. Rodden also quotes Irving Howe positively more than once, but Howe supported what he called Chaim Weizmann’s “liberal Zionism.” This included Weizmann’s declaration that: “There is a qualitative difference between a Jew and an Arab”, as clear an expression of racism as you could wish, and his consequent denial of equal rights to Arabs within Israel. Howe also defended the feeble notion of the “legitimacy of Israel”. This is the common Zionist red herring: there is no guarantee of “legitimacy” to any country as part of the international order. States are granted recognition because they exist, not because they are “legitimate”. Donald Trump recognises the Chinese State, but he would never call China, in its present form a “legitimate” State. Both Koestler and Howe contributed to the oppression of the Palestinians through their attitudes towards Israel, an oppression not far removed from the totalitarianism Orwell sought to expose and deride.  

In his essay, Looking Back on the Spanish War, Orwell remarked, “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” These aren’t the most remembered, but they might be the most important words he wrote. The destruction of objectivity serves the needs of power. It leads to general confusion, atomisation and stupefaction. Whether you like it or not, it can be objectively demonstrated that the speed of light in a vacuum is c 300,000kms per second. It isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s right not to restrict freedom of opinion, but it works only if opinion is properly defined. If your opinion is that species arrived one after another in a stately progression, your right to hold it is absolute, but you are wrong, and can be shown to be. That is fairly uncontroversial. If your opinion is that Danielle Steele is as good a writer as Jane Austen, your right to your view is absolute, but you are wrong again, and can be shown to be. There are strict limits to opinion and a culture which doesn’t make them clear to its citizens is dishonest, and for a purpose. A culture which deliberately confuses opinion and objectivity makes manipulation of the population and the “manufacture of consent” easier. Millions in Rodden’s country believe the earth is six thousand years old, which keys into confusion about climate change. They have an absolute right to their opinions, but they are wrong and can be shown to be. Orwell was right to fear the loss of objectivity, it is an important defence against totalitarianism.  

Orwell believed, “We are living in a nightmare precisely because we have tried to set up an earthly paradise.” There are various versions of paradise. Is Orwell saying nothing in human life can be perfect? That begs the question: what is perfection? Perhaps a better question is: can anything be optimal? Is the concept of paradise, of any kind, maximal? Perhaps this is the meaning of Orwell’s observation: there is an optimal way of life , if we learn to live sensibly within limits, but we destroy it when we refuse those limits like a spoilt child.   

Animal Farm was turned down by Gollancz and Eliot, at Faber. A heartening fact for those serious writers today who find their work disdained by every agent and publisher. There is a long way to go before questions of literary merit determine what gets published and it will never happen while money rules.  

Orwell admired Dickens and wrote an essay about him in 1939. The best words about Dickens are these: “Dickens’ opulence and great careless prodigality but in consequence passages of awful insipidity in which he wearily works over effects he has already attained, leave one with a barbaric impression, because the whole does not make sense; there is a heartlessness behind his sentimentally overflowing style; these rude characterizations are stamped on everyone and without them, Dickens cannot get on with his story, even for a minute.” They were written by Kafka in a diary entry. Orwell is utterly unlike Dickens as a writer. In his prose he is restrained  simple and unsentimental. His conventional novels are flawed because he had no genius for characterisation (like Dickens who made up for it by producing a flood of caricatures) but have nothing of Dickens’ “great careless prodigality”. His two memorable works of fiction are allegories or parables, written out of his persistent preoccupation: how to change the world in the interests of the common people. Animal Farm is a brilliant, short satire on well-known historical events. Nineteen-Eighty-Four a dark broadside which drew on contemporary culture to point to a potential outcome. The latter, once the conceit is established, is fairly obvious. It’s huge popularity derives not from its literary quality but its power to ignite fear.  

Orwell wrote from fear. He committed his life to democratic socialism but his encounter with the ways of power terrified as well as outraged him. It was the traducing of “decency” which inspired his most influential works. He began from the assumption that democracy was honest and socialists principled. He discovered that power-seekers will seize every ideal, hide behind them and corrupt them for their nefarious ends. He understood this meant the common people he believed in could be robbed of their autonomy, brain-washed into conformity and made to believe 2+2=5 (an equation drawn from a Soviet poster promoting Stalinist labour). He wrote from an urgent desperation to warn them and save them. His two influential works operate at the social, political level. In this, he is less penetrating than Kafka who grasped the essential psychology of tyranny: the punishment seeks the fault. There is an element of bewilderment in Orwell: how can it be that a creed of democracy and equality whose aim is to dignify and humanise relationships, results in absolute power, thought control, double-speak, the Ministry of Truth and the memory hole? Kafka understood: there is something at work in the human mind which makes the punished feel guilty, even though they have done nothing wrong. No one knows quite how this operates but everyone intuits it and those who desire power exploit it. The question is, why do people want power?  

Rodden interpolates an embarrassing chapter called Why I Am Not A Socialist in which he explains how the scales of youthful utopianism fell from his eyes (he used to play Lennon’s Imagine to his classes, for example) as he realised that socialism’s aims were “at an altitude too high for the general public”. If he believed a song penned by a multi-millionaire who drove a psychedelic Rolls-Royce and spent more a month on drugs than the average family earned a year had anything to do with socialism, it’s barely surprising he cast it off, even though he remains a Catholic and believes, therefore, not in the future but the afterlife. Had he wanted a socialist song for his classes he might have tried Leon Rosselson’s We Sell Everything or The World Turned Upside Down, which might have made him wonder why Rosselson, a far better song-writer than Lennon, is obscure. The chapter is woefully confused and a foolish intrusion. The greatest achievement of democratic socialism in the world is the British NHS. It is not “at an altitude too high for the general public.” It is Britain’s single most popular institution and liberating not authoritarian. It is a State institution because at the time of its creation only the State had the resources to create it, given capitalists are hopeless at providing health care, education, social care etc; but it doesn’t need to be. The next step is to democratise, to socialise it. That can’t happen while the capitalists are on the prowl. The essential relation of capitalism is that of employer and employee. Once that is dissolved, our institutions can be socialised, which oddly, is what Rodden seems to believe in as he ends his chapter with the hope that, in long run, people will accept socialism.  

What comes across in Orwell’s discursive prose is that he was a nice bloke. The woolly definition fits. His sensibility was open, generous, friendly, charming, amusing, undemanding. He hated being a colonial policeman, despised high-handed behaviour, loathed hypocrisy and recognised that the interests of the common people weren’t served by the culture which relied on such things. He was also an excellent writer. Rodden compares him to Hazlitt and also draws out the similarities and differences between him and Jean Malaquais (better known than Rodden suggests, at least in France) and Albert Camus (whose existential nonsense – Meursault killing the Arab for example – he excuses). Orwell worked very hard to perfect his limpid prose style. It is the expression of his sensibility. Unshowy, straightforward, honest. Orthodox Marxists get worked up over the famous list which Orwell passed to his friend Celia Kerwin at the Information Research Department. Orwell wasn’t sending people to the gulag, he was simply pointing out that those willing to betray Britain (governed at the time by democratic socialists, of course) shouldn’t be handed influential positions. Orthodox Marxists, some nostalgic for the USSR, complete with its apparatus of oppression and thought-control, exemplify the flight into theory which compensates for the fluidity of thought in which Orwell delighted. The sound of a person thinking, to paraphrase Emerson, is quite distinct from the closure of thought in orthodoxy of any kind. Rodden mentions Raymond Williams’ turgid prose as an example of the baleful influence of orthodoxy on intellectual life. Orwell was a real writer, Williams a generator of verbiage.  

The question remains: why do people want power? Orwell risked his life for peace, equality and democracy only to come face to face with people pretending to stand for the same who were in fact vicious manipulators. He would have hated his dishonest and cynical namesake who became Prime Minister and now heads the aptly named Institute for Global Change. Straight out of Nineteen-Eighty-Four. What would be the purpose of a Global Institute for Keeping Things As They Are? He would have despised the cowardice of his deputy in putting his career first by supporting the probably illegal and morally despicable war in Iraq. He would have despaired over the traducing of Corbyn by a corrupt media and Labour Party bureaucracy and hierarchy and especially by the Big Brother Zionists for whom even the slightest criticism is racism. Orwell knew what power looks like and he warned us to watch out; but he didn’t know why people seek power. In that regard, Kafka is a much more disturbing writer. Orwell sites the threat outside us, in the State or big business, or organised religion, in institutions which seek total control. Kafka doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. He sites the threat within. Look into your deepest impulses and you will find there the same desire for domination which powers Big Brother and Ingsoc. That is where the real terror lies. Within ourselves. We are all potential tyrants because our identity is a relationship. If we can control the relationships, we believe we can shape our identity; but it’s a delusion. The fact is we must live with what Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being.” We really are such stuff as dreams are made of. Kafka knew that tyranny is a permanent possibility of all relationships, we resist it only by being willing to live with uncertainty. We can never know for sure what is going on in anyone else’s head. We make intelligent guesses on the basis of inadequate communication. That is what it means to be human.  

Power is self-defeating. Monarchs murder one another, their own offspring, their spouses, their fathers, brothers, mothers as paranoia builds. Power and paranoia are Siamese twins. The courage to let go of power, to not wish to control, that is what Orwell believed in and wrote for. Kafka too. But the world is ruled by Trumps and Putins. Big Brother is watching us more closely than ever. What we lack is not knowledge, but courage.