Praising George Orwell for His Honesty, Stands against tyranny.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Praising George Orwell for His Honesty, Stands against tyranny.(BOOKS)


Byline: Roger Kaplan, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The reason George Orwell, the pen name of Eric Blair, matters today is that political writing, writing in general I should say, is as fuzzy and, in consequence, as mendacious as it was in his own time. Fuzzy writing is writing that does not say clearly what it means. It is writing that misses the important aspects of the issue the writer addresses, deliberately or not. Misleading, obfuscating, sentimental, silly, misinformed - there are many ways a writer can miss the point, of course. Sometimes he does so deliberately. Sometimes he does so because he really does not know better.

The thesis of Christopher Hitchens' new critical essay on Orwell is that he is the one outstanding writer of his times (the 1930s and '40s) who never compromised on clarity and honesty. He could not write a crooked sentence. Mr. Hitchens' point is that this was so because he was a good writer and an honest man, and the two things are closely related.

That is to say, even a master of the language will not be a good writer if he uses his skill to write dishonestly. This is the kind of elementary truth that always bears repeating, and it is surely the right central idea for an essay on the novelist and essayist who, with a few others - one thinks of Arthur Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Albert Camus - demonstrated in his work and life that literature is a moral as well as a professional calling.

"Why Orwell Matters" is a good introduction to Orwell's work. Mr. Hitchens gives us a chapter on Orwell and the feminists and complains about his attitude toward homosexuality. These matters seem unimportant in the context of the large themes that preoccupied Orwell in his short life (he died in 1950), but if they interest Mr. Hitchens, he is of course free to have his say. Still, if you are going to talk about a man's attitude toward women and sex, you have to talk about his life, or at least provide some biographical context.

Discussion in the book of the big themes - fascism, communism, the British Empire - is well informed, insightful, and sensible, and Mr. Hitchens shows how Orwell easily outlasts his critics and body snatchers of both the left and the right. Like Koestler and Mr. Solzenitsyn, Orwell's ability to express the fight between freedom and totalitarianism is not smudged by ideological cant. Anyone interested in the passions Orwell provoked, and continues to provoke, will profit from reading Mr. Hitchens.

Orwell was a conservative man and an English patriot. He was on the left politically. Opposing Stalinism all his life - indeed, Orwell is the most insightful critic of Stalinism in English literature - he remained a committed socialist. But Mr. Hitchens argues that the principles he stood for, rather than the particular positions he took in the great political controversies of his time, are what make the author of "Homage to Catalonia," "1984, "Animal Farm" and "Politics and the English Language" the most influential English political writer of his time.

The principles Orwell lived by can be defined simply: honesty and refusal of tyranny, a belief in human dignity. He did not despise people. This is a rare quality. What made Orwell a genius as a writer was his ability to apply these principles in every situation he encountered, from the coal mines of England during the depression of the 1930s to the battle fields of Aragon in the Spanish civil war.

Orwell's one serious failure, Mr. Hitchens argues, came when he criticized W.H. Auden's poem "Spain" for its reference to the "necessary murder" that comes with political engagement. …

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