Cultural Cohesion, p.37Clive James
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As a journalist, Orwell had laboured long and hard for small financial reward, and overwork had never been good for his delicate health. Life was pinched, not to say deprived, especially after his wife and faithful helpmeet Eileen (he was an unfaithful spouse and she may have been as well, but they depended on each other) died as a result of a medical blunder. The success of Animal Farm, in 1945, could have bought him a reprieve. He upped stakes to a small farmhouse on the island of Jura, in the Hebrides, and cultivated his garden. Though he overestimated the strength he still had available for the hard life he lived there—he could grow vegetables to supplement his ration, but it took hard work in tough soil—the place was a welcome break from the treadmill of London. Mentally, however, he found no peace. A heightened anguish can be traced right through his last journalism until he gave it up to work on Nineteen Eighty-Four. The left-wing intellectuals, already promoting the revisionism that continues into our own day, not only were giving Stalin the sole credit for having won the war but were contriving not to notice that he had rescinded the few liberties he had been forced to concede in order to fight it; that his rule by terror had resumed; and that in the Eastern European countries supposedly liberated by the Red Army any vestige of liberty left by the Nazis was being stamped flat. Once again, crimes on a colossal scale were being camouflaged with perverted language, and once again the intellectuals, whose professional instinct should have been to sick it up, were happily swallowing the lot. It took a great deal to persuade him that reasoned argument wasn’t enough. But it wasn’t, so he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.
There are still diehards who would like to think that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not about the Soviet Union at all. Their argument runs: Animal Farm is a satire about what happened in Russia once upon a time, but Nineteen Eighty-Four is a minatory fantasy about something far bigger—the prospect of a world divided up into a few huge centres of absolute power, of which a Soviet-style hegemony would be only one, and the United States, of course, would be another. It is just possible that Orwell thought the Marshall Plan was meant to have the same imperialist effect in Europe as the Red Army’s tanks. He never actually said so, but people as intelligent as Gore Vidal believe much the same thing today. The late Anthony Burgess sincerely believed that Nineteen Eighty-Four, because the Ministry of Truth bore such a strong resemblance to the BBC canteen, had been inspired by the condition of post-war Britain under rationing. As Orwell said so resonantly in his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
He didn’t mean that all intellectuals are ipso facto fools—he himself was an intellectual if anybody was—but he did mean that verbal cleverness, unless its limitations are clearly and continuously seen by its possessor, is an unbeatable way of blurring reality until nothing can be seen at all. The main drive of all Orwell’s writings since Spain had been to point out that the Soviet Union, nominally the hope of mankind, had systematically perverted language in order to cover up the wholesale destruction of human values, and that the Western left-wing intellectuals had gone along with this by perverting their own language in its turn. To go on denying that Nineteen Eighty-Four was the culmination of this large part of Orwell’s effort is to defy reason. At the time, denying it was still not a wholly unreasonable reaction. After all, the democracies couldn’t have won the war without the Soviet Union, and the book was so bleak and hopeless. Maybe it was about something else.
If they didn’t get it in the West, they got it in the East. From the day of the book’s publication until far into the Thaw, it meant big trouble for any Soviet citizen who had a copy in his possession. In the years to come, now that the Soviet archives are opening up, there will be a fruitful area of study in trying to decide which were the Western cultural influences that did most to help the Evil Empire melt down. For all we know, the jokes were always right, and it was the Beatles albums and the bootleg blue jeans that did the trick. But it is a fair guess that of all the imported artefacts it was the books that sapped the repressive will of the people who ran the empire or who were next in line to do so. Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror might well turn out to be the key factor in the unprecedented turnaround by which those state organizations with a solid track record of pre-emptive slaughter somehow began to spare the very lives they would previously have been careful to snuff out: it is said that even the KGB read it, perhaps as the quickest way of finding out what their predecessors had been up to. (There is no doubt at all, by the way, that they eventually read Nineteen Eighty-Four. When head of the KGB, Andropov had a special edition printed and circulated.)
But for all we know they might have been just as much subverted by samizdat translations of The Carpetbaggers and Valley of the Dolls. Nor, of course, can the effect of the dissident literature, whether written in exile or home-grown, be dismissed as merely unsettling, although for the books written at home there will always be the consideration of whether they could have even been conceived of if the set-up were not already crumbling in the first place. What we are talking about is a contrary weather-system of opinion that eventually took over a whole climate, and to trace its course will be like following the dust of Ariadne’s crumbled thread back into a ruined labyrinth. But it will be a big surprise if Nineteen Eighty-Four, even more than The Gulag Archipelago, does not turn out to be the book that did most, weight for weight, to clear thousands of living brains of the miasma sent up through the soil by millions upon millions of dead bodies. It was a portable little slab of spiritual plastique, a mind-blower.
But if the part played by Orwell’s dystopian novels in the dismantling of the Sovietized monolith will always be hard to assess, there is less difficulty about measuring the effect of his last period of journalism on his own country. Self-immured on Jura, he was a Prospero running on the reserve tank of his magic. Orwell was only forty-two, but he had little physical strength left, and although many friends and colleagues sent him letters and books, and presents of rice and chocolate, and some even made the slow and tricky journey to visit him, he was short of love. A widower of some fame and no longer without means, he offered his affections to a succession of young women and found himself in the humiliating position of being respected and refused. When it emerged recently that he handed a list of fellow-travellers to a government propaganda unit, suggestions that he had conspired in a witch-hunt carried little force. McCarthyism was a non-starter in Britain, and most of those named on the list were already glad to have it known that they had aligned their prayer mats in the direction of the Kremlin. But if he lapsed from his own standards by tittle-tattling in school the most likely reason was that his Foreign Office contact was a noted beauty. He was sending her a bouquet.
The young woman who finally accepted him, Sonia Brownell (renowned in literary London as the Venus of Euston Road), married him practically on his deathbed: cold comfort. He kept a diary of what was happening in his garden—small things growing as the great man withered. For us, the only consolation is that he could speak so clearly even as the walls of his lungs were giving way against the tide of blood.
“Britain has lost an empire but has not found a role,” said Dean Acheson. Raymond Aron said something better: “L’Angleterre a perdu son empire, sans perdre sa civilization morale.” In helping Britain to maintain and extend its moral civilization, Orwell’s voice was surely crucial. The succession of magnificent essays he wrote as the harsh war wound down into an austere peace add up to a political event in themselves, the culmination of his journalism as a textbook example of how a sufficiently informed commentary on events can feed back into history and help to shape its course.
It takes nothing from Davison’s achievement to say that these last essays are probably best encountered in the Collected Essays, or even in a single small volume, such as Inside the Whale, where they will be found to have the effect of poems, as the paragraphs succeed one another with the inevitabi
But he had come a long way, and, by coming as far as the great last essays, he left a precious heritage to the country that he loved in spite of itself. Though the appeal to a totalitarian model of a just society (and the corresponding contempt for piecemeal solutions) was to remain possible in the academy, it became much more difficult in everyday political journalism, simply because Orwell had discredited the idea in a plain style that nobody could forget and everybody felt obliged to echo. The theoretical work that disenfranchised all total transformations was done by others, such as Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Leszek Kolokowski and Isaiah Berlin. Orwell never got around to figuring all that out in detail. But he felt it, and the language of his last essays is the language of feeling made as clear and bright as it can ever get.
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How clear is that? Finally, it comes down to a question of language, which is only appropriate, because, finally, Orwell was a literary man. Politics inspired Orwell the way the arts had always inspired the great critics, which gives us the clue to where he got the plainly passionate style that we are so ready to call unique. It is unique, in its flexibility of speech rhythms and its irresistible force of assertion, but he didn’t invent it; he invented its use. George Saintsbury had something of Orwell’s schooled knack for speaking right out of the page, and Shaw had almost all of it: Orwell isn’t often outright funny, but Shaw, in his six volumes of critical writings about music and theatre, deployed the full range of Orwell’s debunking weapons with a generous humour to drive them home. Orwell called Shaw a windbag, but had obviously taken in every word the old man wrote. And there are many other critics who could be named, all the way up to the young F. R. Leavis, whom Orwell read with interest, if not without a certain distaste for his joyless zeal.
Orwell was a superb literary critic himself: he is the first person to read on Swift, on Dickens, and on Gissing, and if he had lived to finish his essay on Evelyn Waugh it would have been the best thing on the subject, the essay that really opens up Waugh’s corrosively snobbish view of life without violating his creative achievement. Had Orwell lived to a full term, he might well have gone on to become the greatest modern literary critic in the language. But he lived more than long enough to make writing about politics a branch of the humanities, setting a standard of civilized response to the intractably complex texture of life. No previous political writer had brought so much of life’s lesser detail into the frame, and other countries were unlucky not to have him as a model. Sartre, for example, would have been incapable of an essay about the contents of a junk shop, or about how to make the ideal cup of tea—the very reason he was incapable of talking real sense about politics.
In one of the very last, and best, of his essays, “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool,” Orwell paid his tribute to Shakespeare. He was too modest to say that he was paying a debt as well, but he was:
Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity: he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life—which, it should be repeated, is not the same thing as wanting to have a good time and stay alive as long as possible. Of course, it is not because of the quality of his thought that Shakespeare has survived, and he might not even be remembered as a dramatist if he had not also been a poet. His main hold on us is through language.
A writer has to know a lot about the rhythms of natural speech before he can stretch them over the distance covered by those first two sentences. Each of them is perfectly balanced in itself, and the second is perfectly balanced against the first—the first turning back on itself with a strict qualification, and the second running away in relaxed enjoyment of its own fluency. They could stand on their own, but it turns out that both of them are there to pile their combined weight behind the third sentence—the short one—and propel it into your memory. It hits home with the force of an axiom.
And it isn’t true—or, anyway, it isn’t true enough. Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell shows signs of being aware that the relationship of Shakespeare’s language to the quality of his thought can never be fully resolved in favour of either term. But not even Orwell could resist a resonant statement that fudged the facts—a clarity that is really an opacity. Yes, Orwell did write like an angel, and that’s the very reason we have to watch him like a hawk. Luckily for us, he was pretty good at watching himself. He was blessed with a way of putting things that made anything he said seem so, but that was only a gift. His intellectual honesty was a virtue.
Orwell’s standards of plain speaking always were and still are a mile too high for politicians. What finally counts with politicians is what they do, not how they say it. But for journalists how they say it counts for everything. Orwell’s style shows us why a style is worth working at: not just because it gets us a byline and makes a splash but because it compresses and refines thought and feeling without ceasing to sound like speech—which is to say, without ceasing to sound human. At a time when ideological politics still exercised such an appeal that hundreds of purportedly civilized voices had ceased to sound human, Orwell’s style stood out. The remarkable thing is that it still does. Ideologues are thin on the ground nowadays, while any substantial publication has a would-be George Orwell rippling the keys in every second cubicle, but the daddy of modern truth-tellers still sounds fresh. So it wasn’t just the amount of truth he told but the way he told it, in prose transmuted to poetry by the pressure of his dedication. This great edition, by revealing fully for the first time what that dedication was like, makes his easy-seeming written speech more impressive than ever, and even harder to emulate. To write like him, you need a life like his, but times have changed, and he changed them.
The New Yorker, January 18, 1999
Even if our intention is the most abject homage, we can’t write in praise of heroes without taking their limitations into account, because unless we had noticed their limitations we wouldn’t be writing at all: they would have silenced us. While you are reading them, the great stylists make you want to give up, and in the case of Orwell, the stylist with the anti-style, the effect can last a long time after you have finished reading. I was in bed with a convenient nervous breakdown when I read the four volumes of his collected journalism that came out in 1969. I already knew the standard essays quite well, but the accumulated impact of reading them again, along with all the other material which had become generally available for the first time, would have kept me away from the typewriter for years if I hadn’t noticed something fundamentally wrong amongst everything that he got right.
He was wrong about the British Empire. He never gave up on the idea that it was a fraud, designed with no other end in view except to stave off rebellion at home by eking out the miseries of capitalism with the exploited fruits of coolie labour in the colonies. Born under the Empire myself, with few coolies in sight, I knew it to be a more equivocal thing. Orwell’s Procrustean notions on the subject might have served as a useful reservoir of polemical force, but their heritage was all too obvious. In 1902, G. A. Hobson’s book Imperialism promoted the idea that colonial possessions were critical for advanced, or “finance,” capitalism. In 1916 Lenin took the idea over for his Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism, and after the Revolution it became a standard item of Comintern dogma, working its worldwide influence even on those left-inclined intellectu
I was thus being as kind as I could to suggest, in my laudatio, that Orwell inherited some of his theoretical precepts from classic Marxism. He got at least one of them, and perhaps the most misleading one, from classic Leninism—a still more dubious patrimony. Even in Orwell’s own time, it should have been evident that the idea was a misconception. The mere existence of Sweden, for example, was enough to refute it. Sweden had a capitalist system, advanced social welfare and no imperial dreams that had not died with Gustavus Adolphus. After Orwell’s death, when the last of the British Empire was given up and the final accounts came in, it became easy to question whether colonialism had ever yielded a dividend, let alone supported Britain as a capitalist economy. But Orwell, who justly prided himself on his capacity to puncture received notions, should have questioned the assumption when questioning was hard. Had he done so, however, it might have made him a less effective speaker for the independent Left. It might have sapped the confidence that energized his style. Any successful style is a spell whose first victim is the wizard. Unless he is alert to the trickery of his own magic, he will project an air of Delphic infallibility that can do a lot of damage before the inevitable collapse into abracadabra. The obvious example is Shaw, but no master stylist has ever been exempt from the danger. It follows that there is always something useful to say, even about the man who appears to say everything. Orwell said what mattered, and will always matter, about totalitarianism. But he never got far with saying what mattered about democracy. He thought it was a capitalist trick. It’s a lot trickier than that.
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