Orwell's "Catalonia" Revisited

By Daniels, Anthony | New Criterion, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Orwell's "Catalonia" Revisited


Daniels, Anthony, New Criterion


Sainthood is a thing that human beings must avoid.

--George Orwell on Gandhi

In any political argument of philosophical significance, everyone wants George Orwell as an ally. To be able to claim that he is so, however, you must first place him on an ideological map and then discover that, by happy coincidence, you occupy precisely the same position yourself. Hey presto, Orwell is on your side, and your opponents are thereby reduced to persons of ill-will or bad faith!

Why should Orwell be so desired and desirable, in short so unanswerable, an ally? He is a secular saint, over whose relics everyone squabbles. There are good reasons for this, no doubt. In his essay, Why I Write, published in 1946, Orwell disarmingly tells us that all writers are to some extent egotistical: they desire to seem clever, to be talked about and admired, and to be remembered after their death. Of all the important writers or intellectuals of the last century, however, Orwell was the most modest and least egotistical, in short had the best character. This communicates itself in the writing itself, which is almost always lucid, never pretentious or wilfully obscure, and gives the impression that what the author is trying to communicate is more important to him than the mere fact that it is he who is communicating it. This is by no means as usual or normal as it ought to be among writers. Such details as he reveals of himself are always to make a larger or general point, not to impress upon the reader how complex or interesting he is.

Connected with this was his honesty and his refusal to deny the obvious. In Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote that "political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give solidity to pure wind." Although he was not, in fact, entirely free of these vices himself, he has the reputation for being so. At any rate, he was far less inclined than others who wrote on the same subjects as he to disguise uncomfortable facts by means of euphemism or dialectical legerdemain. He never embraced lies as truth, or brutality as mercy.

Of course, his reputation beyond the purlieus of the Left now rests mainly on his two last books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. They made him an honorary conservative, though in fact he was a conscript rather than a volunteer. His moral courage in exposing the evils of communism when the prestige of the Soviet Union among the leftist intelligentsia--and there was virtually no other--was at its height was very great, if not quite to be compared with that of dissidents under a totalitarian regime. Insofar as it is possible for an intellectual in a liberal democracy to be brave, Orwell was brave.

Perhaps the most genuine and moving encomia to him I ever heard were in Romania in the dark days just before the downfall of Ceausescu. Nineteen Eighty-Four circulated clandestinely, and several Romanians told me that they found it astonishing how an Englishman, who had never so much as set foot in a communist country, seemed to understand their own experience from the inside, as it were, and sometimes better than they understood it themselves, so that the meaning of their own experience became clearer to them as a result of reading him. And this they found immensely consoling, the very opposite of Primo Levi's terrible nightmare that after he was released from Auschwitz no one would listen to him or believe him because what he had to say was so utterly at variance with all previous human experience. Orwell's book reassured the Romanians to whom I spoke that, the Iron Curtain notwithstanding, they were not alone, and also that the political conditions under which they were living were highly abnormal and therefore, however apparently durable, historically temporary. Dismal and pessimistic as the book may have seemed to a reader in the west, it was read with immense joy in the east. Few authors have ever been loved and venerated as Orwell was loved and venerated by the people to whom I spoke in Romania. …

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