George Orwell is one of the few 20th-century writers whose name evokes our barbarous age. "Orwellian" has entered the language as an adjective for describing all those tyrannical ideologies that made the last century the bloodiest in history. If you think "Big Brother" when a surveillance camera stares down at you; if you sense the "double-think" of political promises; if you recognize the "newspeak" of bureaucratic obfuscation; then you have been inoculated with George Orwell's prescient imagination. It is this "Orwellia" influence that Jeffrey Meyers explores in his fine new biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation.
The English writer V.S. Pritchett once described Orwell as "the wintry conscience of a generation"; Meyers does an admirable job affirming the aptness of this description. He is particular good at showing the intimate connection between Orwell's art and his life. "His literary qualities, vigorous style, engaging honesty, sly wit, immediately engage us," he writes. "And his personal qualities¨integrity, idealism and commitment¨shine through his writing like pebbles in a clear stream." Most importantly, Meyers correctly identifies Orwell as one of few modern intellectuals¨among others like Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus and Alexander Solzhenitsyn¨who genuinely understood the totalitarian impulses of the 20th-century ideologies, whether of the Right or Left.
George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, born in 1903, a child of the British Empire. His father was a minor official with the Indian government. As a youth, Eric was sent to boarding school in England and later to Eton College, where he developed a contempt for bullies and the petty tyranny of teachers. At 20, he enlisted in the Indian Imperial Police and served for five years in Burma, where he again observed the effects of tyranny: hanging, flogging and humiliation. But it was only in 1936, when he joined the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, that Orwell fully penetrated the dark heart of ideology. What he learned first-hand was how ideas can be perverted for political ends by those who see power as an end in itself.
Out of this experience, came Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia," his 1938 book that exposed what the Communists were not¨not the democrats or idealists they they hoped to be perceived as. According to Orwell, they were power-hungry nihilists, willing to eliminate those they could not control, including Orwell. As Meyers notes, it was only the happenstance of being in hospital with a bullet wound that saved Orwell from the firing squad. That experience brought Orwell his life's calling: "Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism."
In 1944, Orwell finished one of his most famous books, "Animal Farm," a satirical beast fable that bitterly mocked the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin. In telling the tale of what happens when the animals take over Mr. Jones' farm, Orwell depicted the utopian dream turning into a dystopian nightmare; revolution in the name of justice, equality and fraternity become slaughter benches for human dignity and freedom.
During the Second World War, Orwell worked for BBC, writing political commentary to counter Japanese propaganda in India. That wartime experience taught him that even in democracies, bureaucrats and politicians can support totalitarian policies. In fact, Orwell's work inspired his notion of "newspeak," the truth-distorting language of Big Brother in his most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Rightly regarded as an attack on communist totalitarianism, this 1949 book, is also an ironic indictment of the tendencies inherent in all political movements to abuse language for purposes that are fundamentally tyrannical. "All power," Orwell wrote, "is in the hands of paranoiacs." Central to his thinking was also the fear that "totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere."
In accounting for Orwell's life and work, Meyers generally follows the orthodox line that Orwell was at bottom rebelling against his own class and background. The word "guilt" is ubiquitous in this book. As a modern biographer, Meyers makes full use of psychology to explain Orwell's overwhelming guilt and, naturally, traces it to his upbringing. "His family inspired his most striking characteristic: a deep sense of guilt that pervaded his personality and his writing. He felt guilty about his colonial heritage, his bourgeois background, his inbred snobbery and his elite education."
However, Meyers is not content to rest on shallow psychologizing. True, we get the requisite references to Orwell's sex life (depressing) and his misogynist attitudes. And we are told that Orwell's life was unhappy: His health was always poor, his first wife died suddenly at age 39, and he himself died of tuberculosis at age 47 because he was a masochist who never took care of himself, always traipsing off to some dangerous place (despite his tuberculosis, he isolated himself on an island off the Scottish coast, thereby removing himself almost entirely from medical assistance).
Thankfully, Meyers does not try to reduce Orwell to mere psycho-babble syndromes. Indeed, what elevates his book is Meyers' emphasis throughout on the spiritual dimension of Orwell's character. What ultimately emerges in Meyers' portrait is the sense that Orwell was more interested in trying to understand the world than in hiding from it in comfortable middle-class ignorance. Throughout his adult life Orwell was striving for a kind of expiation, and not so much to escape his background and circumstances as to comprehend and thereby transcend them. Orwell's publisher, Fred Warburg, captured this characteristic attitude when he said, "Orwell wrote without regard to being popular and without fear of being detested." The Orwellian mindset is conveyed through one of Orwell's best lines: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."
To place oneself among the poor of Paris, the tramps of London or the partisans of Republican Spain, as Orwell did, or to refuse to cower before the communists' efforts to brand him "an enemy of the people who deserved to be shot," is to show not just courage but also integrity. It is this same willingness to portray honestly and accurately the real nature of ideologically-inspired political movements (and demonstrate the ever-present danger posed by ideology in general) which have made and will continue to make Orwell and the Orwellian metaphor so significant. Meyers' biography reminds us just how rare is Orwell's kind of intellectual honesty and moral courage. Where would we be without men like Orwell when most of us are all too willing to sacrifice our conscience for our comfort. ˛
Robert Sibley is a member of the Ottawa Citizen editorial board.