George Orwell: The Critical Heritage

By Jeffrey Meyers | Go to book overview

41.

Stephen Spender, World Review

June 1950, pp. 51-4

Stephen Spender (b. 1909), English poet and critic, Professor of English at University College, London, author of The Destructive Element (1934) and his autobiography World Within World (1951).

George Orwell was not a saint—although he was one of the most virtuous men of his day—and he was not a hero—although he was a man of outstanding courage. He was an Innocent, a kind of English Candide of the twentieth century. The Innocent is ordinary because he accepts the values of ordinary human decency; he is not a mystic, nor a poet. Ordinary, and yet extraordinary, because his faith in qualities of truth and decency drives like a drill through the façade of his generation. He is a drill made of steel driving through ordinary things. He happens to believe that two and two make four; and that what happens, happens. The consequences of really believing this are shattering. Christ was brought up as a carpenter in a carpenter’s shop.

Orwell was really what hundreds of others only pretend to be. He was really classless, really a Socialist, really truthful. The rule of his authenticity is made clear perhaps by the exceptional thing which might make him appear to be an upper-class moral adventurer who had neurotically strayed into the camp of the opposing class: the fact that he was an Etonian. For his Eton background was utterly irrelevant. He was what he was simply out of good faith and honesty, not out of neurosis or ecstasy or a sense of mystery. He was perhaps the least Etonian character who has ever come from Eton. He was a tall, lean, scraggy man, a Public House character, with a special gleam in his eye, and a home-made way of arguing from simple premisses, which could sometimes lead him to radiant common sense, sometimes to crankiness.

The Spanish Civil War was a situation which seemed almost designed for this instrument to act upon. And bore into it he did, cutting a hole clean through it (it also cut a bullet-hole through his

-134-

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