Orwell's Significance for Intellectuals Today: "A Presence in Our Lives"

Article excerpt

In May 2003 I co-chaired the George Orwell Centenary Conference at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the largest gathering of Orwell readers ever held, with nearly 400 participants and auditors. I had the great pleasure to interview numerous attendees for a documentary film about Orwell's relevance both to their personal lives and to the twenty-first century. My interviewees cooperated fully, despite some awkward moments with our sound equipment and other inconveniences of the filmmaking process. I found it interesting to converse with them about Orwell's legacy, and in virtually every case they credit him with exerting a strong formative influence on their thinking--and even leaving a deep imprint on their intellectual lives. One could say, then, that they are among Orwell's intellectual progeny.

Since the George Orwell Centenary Conference featured those I interviewed and other leading students of Orwell's work, some of whom are prominent intellectual voices in their own right, their responses to Orwell's work today illuminate his standing among present-day intellectuals. Their views play a crucial role, I believe, in helping Orwell's current readers to understand his ongoing significance in political and cultural affairs. One of the distinctive features of their remarks is that, despite the enormous sea change in world affairs and Anglo-American culture in the last half-century, Orwell continues to be a presence in their lives as well as in political debate. The angle of responses also shows that everyone has his or her own Orwell. Still, the diversity of the responses notwithstanding, virtually all of the respondents speak of Orwell's skepticism and readiness to go against the prevailing wisdom.

I can credit Orwell himself with furnishing me a good precedent for the interviews with these public and academic intellectuals. Orwell's "Interview with Jonathan Swift," which he conducted as a BBC broadcaster in 1942 (and collected in Davison's Complete Works of George Orwell), was his own attempt to give a dead man a contemporary voice. There he gets Swift to comment on the state of Britain and of world affairs in the 1940s.

Still, one might ask: What is the ultimate value of listening to numerous contemporary intellectuals discuss their responses to Orwell--especially when one could simply turn to the writings of Orwell himself and hear in his own resonant voice, his opinions about all sorts of political questions?

The main reason is that Orwell never wrote about September 11th and its aftermath, nor about Saddam Hussein, the Internet, MTV, and cable television, and a host of other developments that occurred long after his death in 1950. Nor is it easy to interpret, let alone extrapolate, how Orwell's views on subjects such as World War II and Hitler's Germany relate to the war on terrorism and Saddam's Iraq.

The fact is that George Orwell, quite simply, never wrote about twenty-first century technology or about the newly emergent geopolitical situation in the post-Cold War era. The world has changed quite radically since the 1930s and '40s, when he penned his brilliant political essays and journalism as well as his two great works of fiction, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Moreover, diverse views exist today as to the applicability and relevance of his work to current events. Certainly, the three great enemies that he combated--imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism--have altered forth, if not substance, drastically and in some ways beyond recognition.

Moreover, Orwell himself does not directly influence events today, even if he is highly respected among contemporary intellectuals and continues to have a wide audience of readers. Rather, intellectuals and readers alive today are those who immediately shape the current events. Nonetheless, the fact that they read Orwell and readily admit that their thinking is filtered through his work is significant and worthy of attention. …