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Orwell's Example

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Christopher Hitchens.
Why Orwell Matters.
Basic Books. 208 pages. $24.00

 

Christopher hitchens is always contrary about something, so it is with no great surprise that we find him attacking his reviewers. “There’s always an early paragraph,” he moans, “usually written in a standard form of borrowed words that says, ‘Hitchens, whose previous targets have even included Mother Teresa and Princess Diana as well as Bill Clinton, now turns to . . .’” So there it is.

Hitchens’s concern over the beleaguered state of modern letters was also of more than passing notice to another contrarian type, George Orwell. Orwell was perhaps even less kind to the press than Hitchens; when he was not censuring their mangling of proper English (he was once “upset for days” when the Tribune printed “verbiosity” in one of its articles), he was abusing them as “professional liars” and “halfwits.” “Early in life,” he wrote, “I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.”

Hitchens has long taken Orwell to be a kind of intellectual father, and so like father, like son. The similarities between the two men are numerous: To name just the most obvious, they are both English liberals with socialist sympathies, who nonetheless depart from liberal orthodoxy on key subjects. But most importantly, both have long wrestled with questions regarding the relationship between politics and language, between the political life and the literary life. In Hitchens’s past writings, the figure of Orwell remained in the background of this larger discussion — the source of a quotation or two — but now in his latest offering, Why Orwell Matters, Hitchens’s mentor has become both the work’s subject and its pervading spirit.

In his discussion of Orwell, Hitchens again plays the advocate, but unlike his other works (The Trial of Henry Kissinger, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice), this time he is squarely on the side of his subject. His treatment of Orwell can be most properly described as an appreciation, though he avoids the extremes of the cult of “St. George” — fans of Orwell who, in Hitchens’s words, turned his prickly hero into the “object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise.” Hitchens does manage to register some minor arguments with Orwell — he was often anti-Semitic and homophobic; he was too prone to pessimism — but the whole of his argument is mainly devoted to demonstrating Orwell’s superlative qualities: his integrity, his intellectual independence, and his honesty.

And indeed, there is much to admire about the man. He fought bravely in the Spanish Civil War and was wounded in the throat. He stuck by his convictions even when they kept him unpublished and in the poorhouse. And even at the end of his life, dying of tuberculosis, Orwell’s courage and tenacity never deserted him. In the hospital, when his right arm was impaired, he learned to write with his left hand. Still, there is something about Hitchens’s treatment that suggests the bubbly enthusiasm of a student for his mentor. This is, after all, a study of Orwell which begins with a quotation about genius by Proust.

Yet Hitchens has not gone all warm and fuzzy on us. The angry young man is still in rare form — though his exasperation is most often directed at Orwell’s critics. There is a particularly delightful chapter titled “Orwell and the Postmodernists,” in which Hitchens castigates those doublethinking deconstructionists in a fit of fury worthy of Orwell himself. Hitchens, though, is as always an equal-opportunity offender. Everyone — left and right, progressive and traditionalist, warmonger and pacifist — is at one time or another the object of his pointed wit. His topics are as wide-ranging as his subject; in a little over 200 pages, he touches on Nazism, feminism, Soviet apologists, imperialism, boys’ weeklies, poetry, the proper way to make English tea, and the metric system. It seems at times there is no subject upon which Hitchens (or Orwell) has not opined.

Hitchens presents Orwell as a “profane and humorous writer,” who was constantly at odds with the orthodoxies of his day. A freethinker, he eschewed religion; politically, he was something of a maverick. An anti-Soviet when everyone else was hand-shaking with Uncle Joe, Orwell nonetheless sympathized with the socialists. All his life, he was to claim “democratic socialism” as his watchword. What the content of that credo was, though, is still something of a mystery. Orwell perhaps more accurately described himself when he only half-jokingly offered up the label “Tory anarchist.” He always had about him something of the curmudgeon (as a child, his first recorded word is said to have been “beastly”), yet he is also known for his generosity and his compassion toward his fellow men. A contradiction in terms, Orwell was (as Hitchens has elsewhere written) “the lonely dissident who set his whole grit and fiber against the ‘smelly little orthodoxies’ that are the pox of the twentieth century” — that is, a proto-Christopher Hitchens. Orwell once noted that writers often “tell you a great deal about [themselves] while talking about someone else.” And indeed, one often gets the impression that Hitchens is speaking not so much about Orwell as about himself. Yet Hitchens’s subject is also larger than both himself and Orwell; at the center of the book is Hitchens’s discussion of his intellectual vocation as the eternal drag, the naysayer, the critic — in short, the contrarian. Why Orwell Matters is something of a Letters to a Young Contrarian, Part Two — a guide to what it means to be a permanent dissenter as seen through the prism of George Orwell’s life.

Why Orwell Matters deals with mentorship, and like Hitchens’s earlier Letters to a Young Contrarian (Basic Books, 2001), it ends with a call to its readers to throw off the shackles of common opinion. Summing up Orwell’s life, Hitchens states what he believes to have been the core principle behind Orwell’s writing:

[W]hat [Orwell] illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that “views” do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.

The gist of this is obvious: The “few irreducible individuals,” like Orwell and Hitchens, are the outsiders, the nonbelievers in relation to all the “smelly little orthodoxies.” Indeed, the language describing Orwell here is almost verbatim Hitchens’s definition of the contrarian: “[W]hat really matters about any individual,” he writes in Letters, “is not what he thinks, but how he thinks.”

Still, there is something hollow in Hitchens’s image of the intellectual as contrarian — and his image of George Orwell. The contrarian thinker as Hitchens envisions him becomes a kind of poseur; it is enough for him simply to adapt a certain air of worldliness and skepticism. As Orwell said of Dickens in a slightly different context, one must describe him by the things that he is not. The contrarian is all form and no content: Above all, he is anti-authority and nonconformist, but behind his mask of unconventionality there is little in the way of substance.

Hitchens states that Orwell made language a partner of truth, but in asserting that “what an individual thinks” does not matter so much as “how he thinks,” he effectively empties truth of all meaning. While the attitudes (the “how”) that Hitchens prescribes to his young contrarians — honesty, independence, and skepticism — are valuable, they alone are not enough. One must do more than think with honestly or with integrity, one must also apply that “principled” mindset to defending the truth, the “what” of one’s views. As an example of Orwell’s independent thinking, Hitchens explains that after learning Stalin had not fled German attack, Orwell changed his manuscript of Animal Farm from having Napoleon the pig throw himself on the ground during an attack to having him stand proudly. Orwell, as Hitchens sees it, could do this only because he was not a slave to orthodoxy. Even when writing about a man he knew to be the worst of tyrants, he could still acknowledge when that man acted honorably.

But Orwell didn’t change his manuscript simply out of a commitment to thinking independently; Orwell was motivated by his attachment to the truth. After the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was horrified by the number of lies about the fighting he had read in English newspapers: “This kind of thing is frightening to me because it gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.” His scrupulousness in presenting an accurate history of Stalin’s ussr was as much motivated by his belief in objective truth as by his independence of thought.

Hitchens’s emphasis on Orwell’s contrarian attitude is misleading, moreover, because it is clear that Hitchens admires Orwell precisely because he was right about so many things. Orwell was anti-imperialist, anti-Soviet, anti-fascist, and also pro-socialist, pro-democracy, pro-equality — all views of which Hitchens himself heartily approves. Indeed, Hitchens is gleefully triumphant when he shows that Orwell’s critics’ views often come up short in comparison to Orwell’s. On the French postmodernist Claude Simon, who fought on the side of Stalin during the Spanish Civil War, Hitchens writes, “M. Simon . . . must at some point have believed that ‘History’ . . . was indeed on his side. Subsequently lapsing in that belief — though not in his attachment to the ussr — he opted for indiscriminate relativist promiscuity, where nothing can be taken as certain except the bad faith of those with whom he disagrees.”

Hitchens’s aside here is revealing, for what Hitchens hates about Simon — and all the other Orwell critics — is not their beliefs so much as their fanaticism. As Hitchens sees it, the catalyst behind all the horrors that Orwell had to face was dogmatism. There is a great deal of truth in this. When we look at the history of the ussr or even the “smelly little orthodoxies” contending for Orwell’s soul in Hitchens’s book, there is something in us that wants to chuck the entire lot of them out the window.

Yet in his revulsion for orthodoxy, Hitchens goes too far; the contrarian view almost becomes an orthodoxy itself. Orwell saw the error of this clearly. One cannot simply be contrary for the sake of being contrary; one should only be contrary when the other side is wrong. The independent freethinker, Orwell knew, could be as dangerous as the most obstinate stickler if he was not first schooled in the hard lessons of real life. About the radical leftists of his day, he wrote, “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know fire is hot.” Orwell’s writing was a warning to his contemporaries to look around them and see the dangers in playing with fire. It is why he, like Hitchens, made himself a mentor to his readers through his writing. But he did not teach them to be contrarians, he taught them to be truth-seekers.