George Orwell and the fight against ‘alternative facts’
“We are all drowning in filth,” George Orwell wrote on April 27, 1942, in his “War-time Diary,” included in Vol. 2 of The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters of George Orwell (four volumes,edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus; Nonpareil Books/David R. Godine). He continued, in words readily applicable to our own interesting times:
When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.
These words recall one of Orwell’s favorite books, Gulliver’s Travels, where in a preface to the “editor” of the book, Jonathan Swift has Gulliver write, “You have made me say the thing that was not.”
Saying the thing that was: That was Orwell’s mission. Which is why, when Kellyanne Conway suggested there were “alternative facts” about Donald J. Trump’s inauguration in 2017, a lot of people reached for (or went out and bought) Orwell’s best-known novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. They knew this kind of talk was not normal and that Orwell was the writer to help us. Even if the subject was as absurd as how many people attended an inauguration.
This fear of deceit became the foundation of Orwell’s work.
Orwell learned about “alternative facts” during his time fighting for the Republicans and against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Because of a childhood education that left him guilt-ridden and indignant at injustice, Orwell’s work often exposed an institutional wrong, but his experience in Spain clarified the issue. Although always outspokenly a man of the left, a democratic socialist who was resentful of the conservative attempt to co-opt him to its cause, he became the enemy of any party line, especially of the left, the one with which he was most familiar.
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As he wrote in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” (also in Vol. 2), “in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.” He admitted the lying was often about “secondary issues,” but added, “This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” Or that, as he also wrote, “The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it.”
This fear of deceit became the foundation of Orwell’s work. David R. Godine is to be commended for reissuing this four-volume set in a time when, again, “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” Each volume is a chronological arrangement of essays, letters and journal entries, and the whole work reads as an ad hoc autobiography (although one would have to add George Orwell: Diaries and George Orwell: A Life in Letters edited by Peter Davison and published by Liveright, to complete the picture).
Orwell could never stomach rich people telling working class people to say their prayers and be happy with what they had.
Orwell—his original name was Eric Blair—was born in Bengal to a father of English descent and a mother of French descent. Orwell, his older sister and his mother moved back to England when he was young; and he, along with his sister, was first sent to an Ursuline convent for his education. There, according to the biographer Gordon Bowker, Orwell’s sense of guilt was fostered and his anti-Catholicism engendered (though the anti-Catholicism would be qualified later).
But even more formative, at least as far as Orwell was aware, was his time at a school named St. Cyprian’s, where he was accepted only because of his potential scholarship abilities. The husband and wife team who ran the place—Sambo and Flip in Orwell’s scathing essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys”—regularly swindled the young Eric Blair out of the money his parents sent him and made him feel his lowly position, whereas boys from wealthy or titled families could do no wrong.
This was why Orwell could never stomach rich people telling working class people to say their prayers and be happy with what they had. He saw religion as a bludgeon rich people used to clobber poor people into their place. Or, as he wrote in his deathbed notebook, the perfect symbol of the Christian religion was a crucifix that concealed a stiletto.
After his schooling, Orwell joined the Imperial Police in Burma because he felt he was not qualified academically to go up to Oxford or Cambridge, but also, perhaps, because he was entranced by the East and was half in love with the idea of failure. In Burma, he participated in the evils of imperialism (thus giving him more guilt to expiate) and came away with the life material he would transform into two of his greatest essays, “Shooting an Elephant” and “The Hanging,” as well as his first novel, Burmese Days.
In “The Hanging” (Vol. 1), Orwell writes, “It is curious, but till that moment [when a condemned prisoner stepped around a puddle on the way to the gallows] I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.” Then Orwell recognizes his shared humanity with the condemned:
This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working—bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming—all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world, and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less.
This passage, especially the last line about the “one world less,” illustrates Orwell’s near-mystic sense of human brotherhood. I used to think I understood Orwell’s criticisms of Christianity, but then for him to believe in—what, politics?—seemed a terrible comedown on his part. But these four rich volumes show that what he believed in was not politics but human solidarity, a profound sense of which he got in his early days in Spain when Barcelona was held by the anarchists. There, shoeshine boys refused tips, and signs asked comrades to respect the prostitutes, who were also comrades. That is where, he wrote, he truly believed in democratic socialism, whereas before he had only thought he believed in it.
While fighting in Spain, Orwell was shot in the throat but survived because the bullet missed his carotid artery by a centimeter or two. After he apparently contracted tuberculosis in a Spanish hospital, he and his wife Eileen barely escaped from Spain. The Soviet-backed party was carrying out a purge, prompting Orwell, back in England, to write that the Soviets were in league with the Fascists to prevent real revolution. Why else would they quash the anarchist takeover of Barcelona—where true equality had been, for a brief while, achieved?
For the rest of his life he wrote journalism and novels that mostly warned the world about the dangers of totalitarianism of any kind.
Eileen died unexpectedly during surgery while he was in Europe after World War II had ended. They had a loving, devoted marriage, despite it being rather an “open” one. Eileen appears to have had a few real love affairs. Orwell had many flings, which hurt Eileen, who had subordinated her career for his. They had always wanted children and, when it appeared they never could, had adopted a son, Richard, not long before Eileen died.
These four volumes might be the perfect tonic for what ails our society.
Orwell wrote Animal Farm with her help, but had trouble getting it published, as its criticism of Soviet-style communism was too sensitive a topic while Stalin was still supposedly on the side of the Allies. Orwell then sought shelter from the storm of city life on the island of Jura in the Scottish Hebrides, where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four before having to return to sanatoriums to treat his tuberculosis. He died in London shortly after marrying Sonia Brownell, who, with Ian Angus, edited these four volumes.
One theme in Orwell’s writing I have never seen discussed is the importance of children. More than once he commented on the declining birthrate in England and the modern penchant for preferring affluence to children. He could see a demographic disaster in the future. This is one of the ways in which his writing cut against the grain of liberal thought in his time, and ours, and shows his courage in speaking what he thought.
But Orwell was not always criticizing injustice and declining birthrates. He loved English folkways, tobacco, tea and pubs; and he loved nature—characters delighting in favorite groves in their local countryside relieve the bleakness of his novels. In his “As I Please” columns, which he wrote for Tribune, a non-Stalinist leftist paper, he wrote on whatever topics he preferred. As Gordon Bowker noted, “The kind of short essay he produced followed in the long tradition of Hazlitt, Lamb, Stevenson, Belloc and Chesterton.”
He also wrote essays like “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” which include the following:
I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and...toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship…. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.
The phrase “the dictators nor the bureaucrats” shows how much Orwell distrusted the extreme products of both the right—dictators—and the left—bureaucrats.
This passage, though, in its love of nature, also points to the occasional resemblance of Orwell to Henry David Thoreau. Negatively, both writers can come across as judgmental writers who think they know better than everyone else. And this is one of Orwell’s faults, as well as a tendency to criticize in others what he himself practices fairly frequently. He complains when political writers use blanket terms and do not distinguish between different types of people or causes, yet he often uses terms like “pinks” for Communists and “Blimps” for conservatives.
But he writes about this too—he writes about everything!—and confesses his own biases, at least at times. He admonishes himself and other writers to work to know one’s own leanings and take account of them.
His views on Catholicism and Christianity in general were more complex than is often acknowledged. Yes, he severely criticized the church for its support of fascism in Spain, its reactionary tendencies and what he called the “silly clever” books of G. K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox and C. S. Lewis; but he also fairly represented the church’s point of view in reviews of books, including The Spirit of Catholicism, by Karl Adam, and Communism and Man, by F. J. Sheed (both in Volume 1).
He also broadcast a talk discussing a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., “Felix Randal” (“The Meaning of a Poem” in Volume 2), in which he said, “A Christian, I suppose, if he were offered the chance of everlasting life on this earth would refuse it, but he would still feel that death is profoundly sad.” His view, then, was divided: at the same time he commented on the crucifix-stiletto, he was also reading Dante.
These four volumes might be the perfect tonic for what ails our society. The essay “Notes on Nationalism” (Vol. 4) is especially telling. See if the following does not reverberate in your mind: “Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening.”