'Why Orwell Matters' is relevant now more than ever before
By JOE HILL
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) actually shared many characteristics with Orwell. Both were journalists who produced a depth and breadth of works, covering politics, religion, culture and literature. Both consistently spoke their minds without regard for their own advancement or material gain. Part of what makes this book so insightful is this shared lineage, producing a more intimate and human portrayal of Orwell than others have achieved. One way in which they differ is in their writing style; Orwell’s vocabulary tended to be limited and accessible. Hitchens, as anyone who’s read any of his work will attest, draws on a wide and sometimes befuddling lexicon – his prose is voluptuous and grandiose. In short, keep a dictionary nearby while reading.
It is important to stress that this is not a biography of Orwell; this book has a clearly stated goal, that of illuminating ‘Why Orwell Matters’. Hitchens tackles this by focusing each chapter on different aspects of Orwell’s work drawing on examples from across his life. For instance, Chapter 2 focuses on his tangled relationship with the ideological Left – exploring his interactions with contemporaries and his steadfast refusal to support Stalinism. This point, in particular, is one of the strongest in the book. During the turbulent period in which Orwell wrote his most influential works there were many other social critics, such as J.B. Priestley and E.H. Carr, calling for social change. However, Orwell was almost unique in his unwavering defence of his egalitarian principles, never ‘getting-into-bed’ with or receiving financial support from authoritarians of any political persuasion. This is most notable (and laudable) in his participation in the Spanish Civil War. Hitchens explains how Orwell was perspicacious in refusing to join the Stalinist elements of the Left in this chaotic conflict. Even in such dire circumstances, Orwell never took the ‘party line’ or acted in a cynical, Machiavellian manner. For Orwell, the enemy of your enemy is not, necessarily, your friend. As we are now in an age of increasing hyper-partisanship, this message of staying true to the basic principles of decency and respect for every person is all-too relevant.
Orwell recounted his time fighting the fascists in Spain in ‘Homage to Catalonia’. Even for readers well-acquainted with Orwell, Hitchens will provide interesting additional insights. For example, near the end of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell mentioned his concern for a friend who had been detained by Stalinist NKVD agents, and how this occurrence had pushed him to leave Spain. In his commentary, Hitchens adds the ominous detail that Orwell, unknowingly, left while under investigation by the NKVD, and could very well have been subjected to a Show Trial and all its subsequent horrors had he not escaped earlier. Hitchens is also clearly knowledgeable, and critical, of many works attempting to denigrate Orwell’s achievements. He is particularly scathing in his rebuttal of the Marxist academic Raymond Williams. Williams attempted to paint Orwell as one of many ideological saboteurs of the Left in the Spanish Civil War. Hitchens, brutally but fairly, deconstructs Williams’ argument and highlights the intellectual dishonesty and warped sense of morality it requires to suggest that opposing murder and corruption can ever be morally unjustifiable.
All this is not to say that Hitchens bats away all criticism of Orwell. Rather, he accepts examples where clearly Orwell was lacking. While most people will be introduced to Orwell through his novels, Hitchens notes that, aside from ‘1984’, Orwell produced little work of literary value. He even criticises the generally revered and widely studied ‘Animal Farm’ for being too simplistic in its allegory; the most egregious simplification being the combination of Marx and Lenin into one character, which loses all of the nuance of the ideological corruption of Marxism that Leninism introduced. Orwell himself was self-deprecating about his literary ability, so Hitchens is less challenging Orwell than challenging the perception of what Orwell achieved. More importantly, Hitchens challenges Orwell’s regressive conservative social views. In particular, Orwell made many problematic statements about homosexuality and women. He regularly used homophobic epithets to convey his contempt; referring to left-wing poet W.H. Auden as a ‘nancy’, for example. He was openly homophobic – Hitchens condemns this aspect of his character clearly and unreservedly. He also, crucially, explores where such a prejudice may have come from, especially in a man who is generally accepted to have had a strong moral instinct. Hitchens, with unexpected sensitivity given the acerbic wit running through most of the book, considers how Orwell may have been insecure in his sexuality, and in response was blinded to the injustices that homosexuals faced in his time. Additionally, Hitchens considers how Orwell’s misogyny may have been a manifestation of his life-long difficulty in naturally conversing with women, owing to a deep-seated feeling of unattractiveness. While this is all speculation, Hitchens does support his argument well, and most importantly does not let these potential causes of prejudice absolve Orwell of responsibility for holding these opinions.
In an age where we are rightly beginning to question the ‘heroes’ of our society, ‘Why Orwell Matters’ shines as an example of how to fairly judge a controversial individual’s achievements and failures. George Orwell certainly wasn’t correct about everything, he wasn’t a saint, but he also wasn’t a monster. This book masterfully conveys Orwell’s dedication to egalitarian ideals even in the face of adversity and uncertainty. What is perhaps most impressive about Hitchens’ work is it can either act as an introduction to Orwell, or a meditation on him, depending on the reader. Orwell’s writings will continue to be influential because of his unbending, and generally accurate, moral instinct. Ultimately, that is ‘Why Orwell Matters’.