Orwell and Bohemia

By Heptonstall, Geoffrey | Contemporary Review, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Orwell and Bohemia


Heptonstall, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review


IN Cyril Connolly, George Orwell had a lifelong friend -- from early days at school until forty years on when Orwell died in 1950 in the week that the last edition of Connolly's magazine Horizon came out.

Even when they had drifted apart for a time they were closer than they knew. Orwell in Paris is a famous experience because of the few weeks he spent washing dishes, raw material for the myth he created of his life. It was an experience banal in itself -- the tyro writer in bohemian Paris, or Berlin, or Zurich. Though they didn't know it at the time, Connolly was there, a few streets away. There are times when the coincidences which don't quite happen are more telling than those which do.

Of those Paris years (about 1930) both were later to write up a memory of a public event which each was privileged to witness. For Connolly it was the first screening of Bunuel's L'Age d'Or. For Orwell it was the funeral of Marechal Foch, where he saw Petain whom he ironically remembered as looking distinguished, even heroic.

Bohemian Paris gave Connolly the impulse which directed his life, not only in his own writing and travels, but in what has been called |the world of Horizon'. It was Connolly who prompted Aragon, Camus and Sartre to the English-speaking world. And it was Connolly who was the motor of Fitzrovia, a conscious attempt to create a bohemia which was possible in the especially rootless conditions of wartime.

Orwell's relation to Fitzrovia was as distanced as his relation to the political left in the Thirties. We are familiar with the problem of the revolutionary socialist, active in Spain, who regarded Marxism as armchair thinking turned sour. We are less familiar, and perhaps less comfortable, with Orwell's attitude to bohemia.

The political Orwell has become prophetic and visionary in a way, so to speak, which he did not foresee. His political writing is essentially a series of humane intuitions from personal observation. He wasn't a sophisticated thinker and was largely unaware of political or social ideas outside of the pamphlets -- barely that with intellectual landscapes beyond a narrow range. Orwell was an imaginative writer, sensitive to the human dimension in political vision. Orwell's gift was his ability to imagine how it must feel to live in worlds so perfect they are uninhabitable.

His own socialism was idealistic within a human frame. This would seem contradictory, and so it would have been had he not been guided by a self-irony which placed limitations on his hopes. He wanted a new order, but would settle for a new deal. He wanted socialism, but would settle for the welfare state.

Without this self-irony his ideals would have been corrupted. Tyrants begin as dreamers. The great tyrannies of Orwell's time began in the bohemian cafes among talkers who didn't expect in any serious way to achieve. His political insight in that respect was profound, though not singular in the way it is claimed sometimes. Camus, Koestler, Malraux, Silone and Weil all had perceptions resembling the Orwell position of personal integrity within a public commitment. The arguments for a transformed community were taken, broadly speaking, as understood. The task was to plea for the individual within the community. The significance of Orwell as a political writer was his exceptional position in an Anglo-American culture which had no direct experience of tyranny.

His socialism was forged in the Spanish Republic where there really does seem to have been a spontaneous communication across the traditional social divides. His testament is weak in so far as he derides the raping of nuns, and ignores the desecration of churches. These are established facts which he could never accept. We cannot take even so honest and frank an account of life as Orwell's at face-value.

Yet his descriptions of tyranny are accepted. It is by them that he is known to a wider public. …

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