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James R. KellyJuly 08, 2014
George Orwellby Robert Colls

Oxford University Press. 352p $34.95

We know for sure that someone is permanently relevant when his or her name becomes an adjective. In the week—last week of March 2014—I finished the most recent of the very many intellectual biographies of George Orwell, his adjectived name appeared twice in Brooklyn (in our diocesan newspaper and in the Playbill for a performance of “King Lear” at the newly completed Polanski Shakespeare Center), as well as in a New York Times op-ed essay. In this respect at least, Brooklyn could be anywhere in the Anglo-Saxon-influenced world. The writer most quoted (the count went up to 2004) in Supreme Court decisions—easily beating out Shakespeare, 61 to 35—is Orwell, born George Blair in India in 1903.

Before we look at this most recent biography, an example of Orwell becoming Orwellian is appropriate. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language, he wrote:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Sixty-five years after Orwell’s death in 1950 at the age of 47 from tuberculosis, his criticism of these deliberate reality-hiding abstractions evoke what a little while ago we were told about Vietnam, more recently about Iraq and just yesterday about torture being an enhanced interrogation technique.

Robert Colls places this intellectual biography in the framework of Orwell’s “Englishness.” But that shouldn’t much bother the American reader, especially one open to some Briticisms like “Here’s hard cheese to you.” His approach is to interweave Orwell’s life, his writings, his admirers, his critics and his other biographers, making his a kind of “if you only read one book about Orwell” contribution. Colls himself seems to be constantly readjusting his own reactions to Orwell, and this encourages the reader to do likewise.

Orwell’s life was indeed a process of steady revision as he tried to keep faithful to his own credo, expressed in his 1946 essay “Why I Write.” One of his four reasons is a historical impulse—a “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” A second is a political purpose—“using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. A desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

This not quite socialist, not quite Tory, not quite disbeliever, whose root principle was to expose the contradictions between what the powerful said and what they intended, was himself a not-so-tightly-bound bundle of seeming contradictions. Orwell’s legacy is claimed (here we will have to break an Orwell rule and resort to abstractions) by the “left,” the “right,” “progressives,” “conservatives” and by anyone else claiming principle over political advantage. Orwell’s two best known works, which regularly appear in courses in critical writing, are the dystopian fictions Animal Farm (which at last brought him some financial security) and 1984. Although the first resoundingly demolishes the promises of Marxism and the second the assurances of “the welfare state,” Orwell continued to characterize himself as a man of the left. But he was usually highly critical of the left and more often chose intellectual friendships and affinities with conservatives and even, though he remained antagonistic toward institutional Catholicism all his life, with some Roman Catholic writers and intellectuals.

For an example of his hard-to-categorize judgments, take a look at his critical-appreciative “Reflections on Gandhi” in Partisan Review (1949), where he characterizes Gandhi’s pacifism both as a tool of British colonialism and as the major factor in Indian independence. While he described himself as an atheist, he was familiar with, and sometimes attended, Anglican services and in his will left instructions that he be buried according to the rites of the Church of England at All Saints Church in the village of Sutton Courtenay. Colls characterizes Orwell as embracing “a God-less Protestantism” and writes “there is no ‘key’ to Orwell.”

But in describing the parallels in Orwell’s writing and the twists and turns of his life as an unhappy scholarship boy at Eton, in his Burmese Days as a disillusioned British Imperial police officer in India, as a reporter of lives ignored in poverty in Down and Out in London and Paris, as a chastened Trotskyite mercenary fighting against the Franco regime in Homage to Catalonia and as a critic of pacifism and supporter of Britain’s entry into World War II, Colls uses the Briticism “belly to earth writing,” and then repeats the phrase four more times. For me, that gets the core of Orwell: Look behind the authorities and the words to see and then to say what the human beings before us—“their bellies to the earth”—are enduring and say about themselves.

In the book’s last chapter “Life After Death: A Bibliographical Essay,” Colls deftly and critically considers the Anglo writers who explicitly employ an Orwellian touch. In the United States, whom might we call an “Orwell for our times”? Noam Chomsky, for example, certainly qualifies as a kindred spirit. Manufacturing Consent, his 1988 analysis of media misrepresentation through uncritical reiteration of political authorities’ claims with Edward S. Herman, shares Orwell’s teeth but lacks his tongue. Check out any dictionary of political quotations: Many of Orwell’s, few of Chomsky’s.

Colls is worth the reading. But if you haven’t done so yet, first download Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” I don’t think Orwell would like becoming an adjective (see his rule No. 1). What he would like is to become an adverb, as we get better at doing Orwell in our seeing and writing and talking and thinking.

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