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Obscuring Orwell.

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984, Dorian Lynskey, Doubleday 346 pages

Liberty, Equality, and Humbug, David Dwan, Oxford University Press, 302 pages

Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy, John Rodden, Princeton University Press, 264 pages

The word "Orwellian" has two opposite meanings. It defines his character: decent and honest, and his style: witty and humane. It also stands for any oppressive and brutal totalitarian regime. In The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984, Dorian Lynskey attempts to discuss both meanings and explain "what Orwell's book actually is, how it came to be written, and how it has shaped the world, in its author's absence, over the past seventy years." But his discussion of Orwell's life is very familiar from many biographies. Orwell's reputation and influence are well known from John Rodden's four previous books. And the literary sources of Nineteen Eighty-Four--H.G. Wells's The Sleeper Awakes, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World--are familiar from many critical studies. Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon also revealed that Stalin needed false confessions and groveling repentance during the Purge Trials of the 1930s to morally destroy his enemies and confirm his victory over reality. (It's worth noting that Stalin the Georgian, like Napoleon the Corsican and Hitler the Austrian, was a ruthless outsider.)

Lynskey frequently loses his focus and strays far from his ostensible subject in many long digressions, including an irrelevant chapter on Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. Completely ignoring Orwell, Lynskey states, "There's no ambiguity about where the Canadian rock band Rush got the idea for their 1976 concept album 2112, which they...dedicated to 'the genius of Ayn Rand.'" Orwell would have hated the protest of counterculture rock stars (Lynskey's hobbyhorse), who crudely stole Orwell's ideas about Big Brother in their revolt against paternal authority. Lynskey undermines the significance of Orwell's influence on popular culture by admitting that "Nineteen EightyFour has become a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future," and by quoting Paul Johnson's observation that since everyone "hijacks the wretched man for every conceivable political purpose, the net result is almost exactly nil."

Linskey denies that Nineteen EightyFour was influenced by Orwell's serious illness. But he contradicts himself by stating that Orwell's health declined dramatically when he was writing the novel and that Winston Smith "embodies Orwell's horror at his own physical decay." Lynskey also unconvincingly tries to rehabilitate the spoiled and selfish Sonia Orwell. In 1949 she was over 30, had no money of her own, and didn't want to remain a typist. She'd rejected Orwell when he was well, didn't visit him on Jura or in his Scottish hospital, didn't type his manuscript, married him on his deathbed, was drinking with friends the night he died, and then queened it up as the rich widow of a famous writer.

Also, Lynskey doesn't realize that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a nightmare vision of the future, but a concrete portrayal of the present and the past, and that its great originality comes more from a synthesis of familiar material than from any prophetic or imaginary speculations. Lynskey claims that Orwell "did not lose faith in the future" and that his novel is not "devoid of hope." But O'Brien definitively asserts that in Nineteen Eighty-Four punishment, like Hell, is permanent: "a boot stamping on a human face--for ever". Winston Smith says, "If there is hope, it lies in the proles," but the proles are so ignorant and oppressed that they have no will to revolt and (Lynskey concedes) "have immense power but fail to use it." Readers who know nothing about Orwell wouldn't want this book. Readers who know a lot about Orwell don't need it.

While Lynskey's book is superficial and slapdash, David Dwan's is ponderous and plodding. His study "aims to do two distinctive things: a) to test the coherence and abiding value of Orwell's political opinions by subjecting them to a more philosophically oriented analysis than they have so far received, and b) to make sense of his views by situating them within wider traditions of political thought." But in a one-paragraph bombardment of boredom he piles on a series of quotations that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a "philosophical" analysis: "As William Morris urged," "According to the Fabian Graham Wallas," "as Laski explained" and as "G.D.H. Cole put the case."

Dwan's academic style--a turgid contrast to Orwell's lucidity--reads like a dissertation. He has the irritating habit of repeating, at least 40 times, "I'll say more," "as we shall see," "will be addressed later," as if the reader cannot possibly wait for his revelations. Though Orwell disliked abstract thought, Dwan unconvincingly claims that Animal Farm is "a series of moral scenarios that easily expose the limits of the Kantian imagination." He maintains in an opaque manner that Nineteen Eighty-Four "tends to confirm an epistemological thesis: coherence is a constitutive principle of thought itself and a reality that has no need for it is largely unthinkable." He also states, rather obviously, that Orwell was "gloomy" and that he was not an "orthodox follower of Marx." The only Marxists left today are Albanians, North Koreans, and comfortably tenured professors.

Dwan summarizes the contrasting stages of Orwell's career: "his transformation from the disgruntled policeman who returned from Burma, to the ambivalent socialist who went to Wigan, to the radicalized figure who came back from Spain, to the war-time patriot who felt that England's victory would entail its social revolution, to the happy (sic) but politically chastened man who worked for Tribune, to the hermit of Jura who tended his garden and predicted a future of horrors." It was impossible for Orwell to maintain a consistent worldview during the extreme changes in his life and the political upheavals of his time. Only communists could do that. Dwan doesn't seem to realize that Orwell was an effective novelist, journalist, and polemicist who never tried to be a systematic thinker. Orwell would agree with Emerson that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," and could boldly declare with Walt Whitman, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself."

But Orwell was consistent in his anti-imperialism. Guilty about his father's work exporting opium from India to China, his own elite education at Eton, and his five years as a policeman in Burma, Orwell rarely acknowledged the benefits of imperialism: hospitals, schools, roads, trains, agriculture, factories, laws, the English language, Christianity, and the abolition of slavery, cannibalism, and genital mutilation. Orwell's sympathy extended to both the victim in "A Hanging" and to the fascist with his trousers down whom he refused to shoot in Spain.

Dwan misses the humor and irony in Orwell's deliberately provocative statements about fruit-juice drinkers, sandal-wearers, Nature-Cure quacks, sex maniacs, and nudists. He doesn't see the crucial difference between Orwell's autobiographical fantasy in "Shooting an Elephant" about the joy of bayoneting an aggressive Buddhist priest and his fictional fantasy about Winston Smith's desire to rape, torture, and kill Julia. George Bowling in Coming Up for Air is not a "supreme individualist," but a conventional conformist. And the muddled, weak, and pathetic Middleton Murry was certainly not a model for the omnipotent O'Brien. I suggest, more usefully, that Orwell's disapproving father--whom he called "A gruff-voiced elderly man forever saying 'Don't'"--was an early avatar of O'Brien.

Ruthlessly hostile to Orwell, Dwan calls him confused, platitudinous, naive, snobbish, mendacious, cynical, crude, thuggish, brutal, prejudiced, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, morally perverse, and a powerful hater. It's depressing to find, 70 years after his death, that Orwell studies have deteriorated to name-calling and, according to Dwan, that his political ideas are worthless.

Dwan disappointingly concludes: "Orwell nursed deep convictions about liberty, equality, solidarity, truth and happiness, but these commitments did not produce a unified view of justice or the good." But it's pointless to blame Orwell for what he did not intend to do. It would be more illuminating to explain that as a self-styled "Tory anarchist" he was both conservative and radical--intent on preserving the past while changing the present. As his friend Malcolm Muggeridge perceptively observed: "He loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future." In one of his rare poems he nostalgically imagined himself as a preacher in the age of belief: "A happy vicar I might have been/ Two hundred years ago."

In 1989 John Rodden published a brilliant book on Orwell, The Politics of Literary Reputation, the fertile source of four more of his blatantly recycled books (including the present one) on the same subject: Scenes from an Afterlife (2003), Every Intellectual's Big Brother (2006), The Unexamined Orwell (2011) and Becoming George Orwell (2019). His current, all-too-familiar theme, is "the metamorphosis of a man of letters, the writer George Orwell, into a titanic totem, the icon 'Orwell.'"

Rodden is often misleading. Orwell and his Etonian contemporary Christopher Hollis certainly did not "share a similar social and economic background." Hollis's father was an Anglican bishop, Orwell's father sent opium from India to stupefy the Chinese. Rodden criticizes Hollis for "attempting to pressgang Orwell for the papists" but does the same thing himself. He follows the political body-snatchers by pretending to know that Orwell "would voice anew," "would also have" and "would have sanctioned." Rodden accurately states that Orwell was "an avowed atheist who expressed nothing but contempt for Catholicism," but contradicts himself by maintaining that Orwell "possessed a religious sensibility" and that "religion was central to his outlook."

Rodden's discussion of "A Hanging" (1931), Orwell's first important literary work, is disappointing. He calls it a "prose gem" and indictment of capital punishment, then shifts from the banal to the farfetched. The hanged victim, an Indian Hindu in Burma, could not "be you or me," and since he is neither Christian nor crucified, he does not suggest Christ on Golgotha. Though a dog cannot judge guilt, Rodden fatuously asks "how bad can someone be if . . . [a dog] wants to play with him?"

Rodden's forced comparisons of Orwell to Don Quixote and to Jean Malaquais are completely unconvincing. Quixote is ludicrous and pathetic, Orwell heroic and admirable. Quixote, deluded by reading chivalric romances, foolishly tilts against windmills he thinks are giants and idealizes the peasant Dulcinea. Orwell (though also tall and thin) was completely realistic, fought and was wounded in war, and adored his wife who came to Spain to help him.

The chapter on Rodden's hobbyhorse, Jean Malaquais, like other previously published chapters, doesn't belong in this book. Malaquais was a Polish Jew who emigrated and wrote in French. Varsovie was not Jean Malaquais's "native town" but the French name for Warsaw. He was in POUM for only eight weeks, despised his fellow soldiers, lost his idealism and deserted. He did not overlap with Orwell, who joined two months later. Orwell admired his comrades, remained at the front till he was wounded, fought against the communists in Barcelona and barely escaped from Spain with his life. Orwell died at 46, wrote until death, and became world famous; Malaquais lived to age 90, remained silent for his last 50 years, and is completely forgotten. Rodden's comparison disintegrates when he concedes that the old Etonian and poor Jew were "different emotionally," "could hardly have been more different," and had a "yawning gulf between them."

Though books on Orwell, a riveting subject, will continue to pour out, these three disappointing works suggest a dead end. Nevertheless, I can offer two new insights. Winston Smith hopelessly yearns for freedom but is trapped by the oxymoronic slogan "Freedom is Slavery." Unlike Winston, Anton Chekhov, the son of a freed serf, suggests a ray of hope by describing--in a letter from January 7, 1889--how he escaped from slavery to freedom: "he squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and on awakening one fine morning, he feels the blood coursing through his veins and is no longer that of slave but that of a real human being."

The Last and First Men (1930) by the British science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon, influenced Nineteen EightyFour, whose original title was The Last Man in Europe. Stapledon's novel is filled with strange premonitions and endless conflict, with destruction and doom. He imagines a planet provoked by a crescendo of radio hatred and rent by global battles that will destroy Europe and reduce it to a cycle of Dark Ages. Stapledon's Last Men, speaking to our chaotic century in a book written 15 years before the atomic bomb, warn that the earth will be destroyed by radiation.


Jeffrey Meyers has published four books on Orwell. His latest work is Resurrections: Authors, Heroes--and a Spy.
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Title Annotation:Arts&Letters
Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Publication:The American Conservative
Date:Sep 1, 2019
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