"Hitchens presents a George Orwell fit for the twenty-first century." Boston Globe
In this widely acclaimed biographical essay, the masterful polemicist Christopher Hitchens assesses the life, the achievements, and the myth of the great political writer and participant George Orwell. True to his contrarian style, Hitchens is both admiring and aggressive, sympathetic yet critical, taking true measure of his subject as hero and problem. Answering both the detractors and the false claimants, Hitchens tears down the façade of sainthood erected by the hagiographers and rebuts the critics point by point. He examines Orwell and his perspectives on fascism, empire, feminism, and Englishness, as well as his outlook on America, a country and culture toward which he exhibited much ambivalence. Whether thinking about empires or dictators, race or class, nationalism or popular culture, Orwell's moral outlook remains indispensable in a world that has undergone vast changes in the seven decades since his death. Combining the best of Hitchens' polemical punch and intellectual elegance in a tightly woven and subtle argument, this book addresses not only why Orwell matters today, but how he will continue to matter in a future, uncertain world.
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About the Author
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Slate, and The Atlantic, and the author of numerous books, including the international bestsellers God Is Not Great, Hitch-22, and Arguably.
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Why Orwell Matters
By Christopher Hitchens
BASIC BOOKSCopyright © 2002 Christopher Hitchens
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOrwell and Empire
It was once written of George Orwell that by consorting with the unemployed and destitute of England he 'went native in his own country'. The remark is even truer than it appears, as I hope to show, but one should notice for now that the expression 'going native' originated as a term of contempt for white men who cracked under pressure. 'Native' was a colonialist term for wogs or niggers or gyppos; a lazy generalization about subject peoples. Every now and then, a young chap shipped out from home would prove unsuitable, and would take to drink or to siestas or - this being the extreme case - to concubinage with a local woman or boy. The older and steadier officials and businessmen would learn to recognize the symptoms; it was part of their job.
An old radical adage states that the will to command is not as corrupting as the will to obey. We do not know with absolute certainty what impelled Orwell to abandon the life of a colonial policeman, but it seems to have involved a version of this same double-edged slogan. The word 'brutalize' is now employed quite wrongly to mean harsh or cruel treatment meted out by the strong to the weak ('the Russian army brutalized the Chechens' etc.). But in fact it means something subtler, namely the coarsening effect that thisexercise of cruelty produces in the strong.
'In Moulmein, in Lower Burma,' wrote Orwell at the opening of his essay 'Shooting an Elephant', 'I was hated by large numbers of people - the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town ...' It's a nice coincidence that Moulmein is featured in the first line of Rudyard Kipling's wonderful and nonsensical poem of imperial nostalgia 'Mandalay' ('By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,/ There's a Burma girl a-settin', an' I know she thinks o' me'). But there was little romance in Orwell's account of the place; he clearly worried at some level that the experience of being a cop was turning him into a sadist or an automaton. In 'A Hanging' he describes the dismal futility of an execution and the terrible false jocularity of the gallows humour, his honesty forcing him to confess that he had joined in the empty laughter. In 'Shooting an Elephant' he gives a sketchy account of the sordid side of the colonial mentality:
I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically - and secretly, of course - I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos - all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.
This private animosity and confusion did not by any means translate into sympathy for the 'natives', who made Orwell's job a misery whenever they felt strong enough, and it is at least pardonable to speculate that he resigned the service as abruptly as he did because of the fear that he might indeed get too used to the contradiction. In the later novel Burmese Days, the central character Flory (who anticipates the sweltering banana-republic cosmos of Graham Greene by a few years) is compelled to live in a 'stifling, stultifying world ... in which every word and every thought is censored ... Free speech is unthinkable ... the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies.' That this is a strong prefiguration of the mentality of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four will be obvious; that it is no exaggeration is confirmed by the memoir of Orwell's friend and contemporary Christopher Hollis, who visited him in Burma in 1925 and discovered him mouthing the platitudes of law-and-order: 'He was at pains to be the imperial policeman, explaining that these theories of punishment and no beating were all very well at public schools, but that they did not work with the Burmese ...'
Four years later, in the pages of Le Progrès Civique in Paris, a certain 'E. A. Blair' contributed an essay in French entitled 'Comment on exploite un peuple: L'Empire britannique en Birmanie' ('How a Nation is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma'). The article could justly be described as workmanlike; it commences with a careful account of the country's topography and demography and proceeds to a meticulous examination of the way the colonial power fleeces the Burmese of their natural resources and the fruits of their labour. It is, in all essentials, a study in deliberate underdevelopment and the means by which raw materials are used to finance another country's industrial progress. But one may also notice the emergence of another trope: the author's keen and sad interest in the passivity and docility of the victims, who know little or nothing of the wider mercantile world from which their nation is being excluded.
This article was the latest in a series of occasional pieces written by 'E. A. Blair' - his Etonian and Burma Police name, not to be abandoned for Orwell until 1933 and the publication of Down and Out - for the Parisian radical press. The very first such essay was a study of censorship in England, published by Henri Barbusse's weekly Monde, a sort of cultural-literary front-publication of the French Communist Party. This article, also, was a thorough study of a given question which also contained a psychically interesting undertone. The British authorities, wrote 'E. A. Blair', were not so much censorious as prudish, and had not felt the necessity for censorship until the rise of the Protestant and capitalist ethic. A rather ordinary point even for its time, but it did presage a lifelong interest in the relationship between power and sexual repression (a theme not absent from Flory's own sweaty reflections in Burmese Days).
It is never pointed out that Orwell's journals from the lower depths, his narratives of dish-washing in Paris and hop-picking and tramping in England, also show a sensitivity to what might be called 'the native question'. Algerian and Moroccan and other French-African characters are a strong element in his account of the Parisian underclass, while back at home and hanging about between Wapping and Whitechapel the author noticed that: 'The East London women are pretty (it is the mixture of blood, perhaps), and Limehouse was sprinkled with Orientals - Chinamen, Chittagonian lascars, Dravidians selling silk scarves, even a few Sikhs, come goodness knows how.' Not every young English freelance scribbler of twenty-eight or so would have been able to tell a Dravidian from a Sikh, let alone give a name to the home-port of the lascars.
In May 1936, Orwell wrote to his agent, Leonard Moore, in order to discuss, among other matters, a proposal from an American producer to make a dramatized version of Burmese Days. 'If this project comes to anything,' he said, 'I would suggest the title "Black Man's Burden."' I do not know if this is the earliest version of a joke on Kipling that has been played many times since - most recently in Basil Davidson's superb histories of pre-colonial Africa - but it exemplifies Orwell's ambivalence about the poet and his lack of ambivalence about the subject; an indication of his lifelong refusal to judge literature by a politicized standard.
There seems no doubt that his insight into the colonial mentality informed Orwell's dislike of the class system at home and also of fascism, which he regarded as an extreme form of class rule (albeit expressed paradoxically through a socialistic ideology). In 1940 he began an essay by recalling an incident of odious brutality he had witnessed at Colombo harbour on his first day in Asia. A white policeman had delivered a savage kick to a local coolie, eliciting general murmurs of approbation from the onlooking British passengers:
That was nearly twenty years ago. Are things of this kind still happening in India? I should say that they probably are, but that they are happening less and less frequently. On the other hand it is tolerably certain that at this moment a German somewhere or other is kicking a Pole. It is quite certain that a German somewhere or other is kicking a Jew. And it is also certain (vide the German newspapers) that German farmers are being sentenced to terms of imprisonment for showing 'culpable kindness' to the Polish prisoners working for them. For the sinister development of the past twenty years has been the spread of racialism to the soil of Europe itself ... racialism is something totally different. It is the invention not of conquered nations but of conquering nations. It is a way of pushing exploitation beyond the point that is normally possible, by pretending that the exploited are not human beings.
Nearly all aristocracies having real power have depended on a difference of race, Norman rules over Saxon, German over Slav, Englishman over Irishman, white man over black man, and so on and so forth. There are traces of the Norman predominance in our own language to this day. And it is much easier for the aristocrat to be ruthless if he imagines that the serf is different from himself in blood and bone. Hence the tendency to exaggerate race-differences, the current rubbish about shapes of skulls, colour of eyes, blood-counts etc., etc. In Burma I have listened to racial theories which were less brutal than Hitler's theories about the Jews, but certainly not less idiotic.
Not long ago, I was reading some essays by the late C. Vann Woodward, the great American academic chronicler of the Old South. He had once investigated the parallels between American slavery and Russian serfdom, and found not entirely to his surprise that the Russian aristocrats did hold the belief that serfs were a lower order of being. (Their bones, for example, were believed to be black ...)
During this period, Orwell was following developments in North Africa very intently, and wishing that the British and French governments would have the imagination to intervene in Spanish Morocco and help to establish an independent anti-Franco regime there, headed by exiled Spanish republicans. In a form somewhat adapted to wartime conditions, this had been the formula proposed by the Spanish left-revolutionaries during the Civil War. They favoured Moroccan independence on principle, but also felt that, since Franco's military-fascist rebellion had originally been raised in Morocco, such a policy stood a good chance of taking him in the rear. The official Left, especially the Stalinists, had opposed the strategy on the grounds that it might offend the British and French authorities who had interests of their own in North Africa. Not content with this pusillanimity, they had made chauvinistic propaganda against the barbaric 'Moors' who fought as levies in Franco's Catholic-run crusade. Though the Moors were credited with many atrocities, and it was felt particularly important on the republican side not to be taken prisoner by them, there is no trace in Orwell's writing of any xenophobic or - as we would now write the term - racist attitude towards Spain's colonial subjects. (Indeed, he spent a season or two composing a novel in Morocco just before the outbreak of the Second World War, and wrote a journal highly sympathetic to its inhabitants, including the Jews and the Berbers.)
His rooted opposition to imperialism is a strong and consistent theme throughout all his writings. It could take contradictory forms - he was fond of Kipling's line about 'making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep', because he thought it captured the hypocrisy of much well-fed liberalism - but in general he insisted that the whole colonial 'racket' was corrupting to the British and degrading to the colonized. Even during the years of the Second World War, when there was a dominant don't-rock-the-boat mentality and a great pressure to close ranks against the common foe, Orwell upheld the view that the war should involve decolonization. The 'Searchlight' pamphlet series, of which he was an originator, included his demand (in The Lion and the Unicorn) that India be promoted from colony to full and independent ally, and also his introduction to Joyce Cary's booklet African Freedom. In his work in the Indian Service of the BBC, where he struggled, as he put it, to keep 'our little corner' of the airwaves clean, he worked alongside declared supporters of independence, including Communists and nationalists.
Actually, he did rather better than keep his corner clean. His radio magazine 'Voice' was a high-standard uncondescending journal of literature and ideas, keeping an audience of educated Indians in touch with the work, and the tones, of E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, William Empson and Herbert Read. In a series of war commentaries, Orwell stressed the forgotten 'fronts' that made this a World War: the colonial and anti-colonial engagements in Abyssinia, Timor, Madagascar, Java, Morocco and other territories where the claim of the Allies to be on the side of freedom was being put to the test. When invited to broadcast to India using his own name, because of his high reputation in the sub-continent, he replied that he would only do so if his anti-imperialist opinions could be expressed without dilution. In correspondence, he repeatedly attacked the British government's failure of nerve and principle on the central question of Indian self-government, never ceasing to argue that independence was desirable in itself as well as being a sound tactical move in the face of Japanese aggression. He made use of his knowledge of some Asian languages, and kept closely in touch with developments in his beloved Burma.
In 1938, without his knowledge, he had been 'vetted' by the India Office. A liberal editor in India wanted to employ him as an editorial writer on the Lucknow Pioneer, and had written to the authorities in London seeking their advice. He received in return a masterpiece of bureaucratic elegance composed by A. H. Joyce, Director of Information at the India Office:
There is no doubt in my mind about his ability as a leader-writer, though I think you may have to be prepared, in view of what I assess to be not merely a determined Left Wing, but probably an extremist, outlook, plus definite strength of character, for difficulties when there is a conflict of views ...
This tribute to Orwell's 'power of facing' was not released by the Foreign Office until 1980; there is still a closed section of the dossier that was kept on him. And it was this same A. H. Joyce who helped supervise the India broadcasts at the Empire Section of the BBC. Much of Orwell's time was spent circumventing such surveillance and interference. At one point he was compelled to advise E. M. Forster not to mention the work of K. S. Shelvankar, on the grounds that his book had been banned in India. However, not many months later we find Orwell writing in person to Shelvankar and asking him to do some broadcasts on the history of fascism under his own name. A Burmese colleague (from Moulmein) named M. Myat Tun was severely reprimanded by Joyce for a broadcast on 'What Trade Unionism Means to the Worker'; Joyce's angry note about the talk suggests that he suspected Orwell to be the mischief-maker.
There seems no doubt that Orwell made use of his BBC experiences in the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The room where the editorial meetings of Eastern Services were held was Room 101 in the Portland Place headquarters, itself one of the likely architectural models for the 'Ministry of Truth' (Mini-true). Moreover, the concept of doublethink and the description of vertiginous changes in political line clearly owe something to Orwell's everyday experience of propaganda. In August 1942, just after the British had interned the leadership of the Congress Party, he wrote the following in his diary:
Horrabin was broadcasting today, and as always we introduced him as the man who drew the maps for Wells's Outline of History and Nehru's Glimpses of World History. This had been extensively trailed and advertised beforehand, Horrabin's connection with Nehru naturally being a draw for India. Today the reference to Nehru was cut out from the announcement - N. being in prison and therefore having become Bad.
Excerpted from Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens Copyright © 2002 by Christopher Hitchens
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