Review: Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens

Happy 2012. In a tribute to the late, ever-admirable Christopher Hitchens, I’m reviewing his book (an extended essay, really), Why Orwell Matters, because a.) I will always think Orwell matters and b.) Hitchens was one of Orwell’s more eloquent championers, ready to take on the people who accuse the Greatest Writer of the Twentieth Century of being simplistic, uncompromisingly right or left wing, sanctimonious, racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and/or all of the above. Hitchens provides a thorough and fair-minded assessment of Orwell’s oeuvre and what his work reveals about his political convictions. While the book is above all an academic encomium to one of Hitchens’s literary and political idols, the book’s larger point is that Orwell the thinker was constantly evolving, always willing to challenge himself and reevaluate beliefs that a contemporary audience would find quite off-putting. (While Orwell’s prejudices are not defensible as such, he certainly questioned his visceral leanings and was willing to recalibrate them. And he was a product of his time, of course, though I usually hate falling back on that as an excuse.)  

Hitchens aso points out that a man with such an outsized reputation is bound to be misinterpreted and, indeed, pundits on the political right and left claimed him indiscriminately without much thought to intellectual veracity. In a particularly amusing and admittedly quite shocking example, Hitchens ridicules American neoconservative Norman Podhoretz for taking Orwell obscenely out of context to advance the point that Europe should sublimate itself to one of the two competing Great Powers (then the US and the USSR), when in fact Orwell had made the prescient point that without political union, Europe would be forced against its will to submit to American hegemony, since no postwar European nation was strong enough to combat the extant bipolar order on its own.

One can forgive a modern audience for, upon first glance, viewing Orwell as a relic. His three main bêtes noires—imperialism, fascism and Communism—have all been tossed into the dustbin of history, and I’ve listened to friends casually refute my protestations that Nineteen Eighty-Four is just as relevant today as it was in 1948 (or in 1984). Hitchens uses the North Korean regime (the book was published in 2002) to illustrate the fact that bootheel-stamping-on-a-human-face brand of authoritarianism still exists (“It’s the only time in my writing life when I have become tired of the term ‘Orwellian,’” Hitchens says)—but of course the larger point of Nineteen Eighty-Four is not simply condemn totalitarianism but to point out the hypocrisies inherent in its so-called antithesis. The following passage is worth quoting in full, to emphasize Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s ability to encapsulate what Orwell (and Hitchens) believed to be a sad, profound truth about mankind: “With a part of themselves, humans relish cruelty and war and absolute capricious authority, are bored by civilized and humane pursuits and understand only too well the latent connection between sexual repression and orgiastic vicarious collectivized release. Some regimes have been popular not in spite of their irrationality and cruelty, but because of it. There will always be Trotskys and Goldsteins and even Winston Smiths, but it must be clearly understood that the odds are overwhelmingly against them, and that as with Camus’s rebel, the crowd will yell with joy to see them dragged to the scaffold.” This theme has been expounded on since Homer, of course, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say it’s never been immortalized so well as in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Hitchens admits that Orwell’s two greatest novels (Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm) were his two final novels, and is disdainful of Orwell the prose stylist in earlier efforts like Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air. Orwell’s strength as an author, the conventional wisdom goes, really lay in his nonfiction, and the more of Orwell’s essays I read ( “Shooting an Elephant,” “Such, Such Were the Joys,” “Future of a Ruined Germany”) the more convinced I am that he was one of a kind, a true crusading intellectual, as committed to basic principles of human decency as he was to his craft. (I mean this, of course, without any religious undertones whatsoever.) Basically, to read Orwell is to be exposed to a sincerity sorely lacking in modern political discourse—and not just a sincerity, but an intellectual sophistication and a a true grasp of how high the stakes are for the future. I’ll spare you the snide remarks about the Mitt Romneys and Rick Santorums of the world, but I will say that the lack of contemporary Orwells, at least in the American political sphere, is conspicuous and sad.*

Hitchens closes the book with the following passage, which sums up the enduring influence of Orwell’s life and work far better than I ever could:

“[Orwell] took some of the supposedly Christian virtues and showed how they could be ‘lived’ without piety or religious belief. It may also be hoped that, to adapt the words of Auden on the death of Yeats, Time itself deals kindly with those who live by and for language. Auden added that Time ‘with this strange excuse’ would even ‘pardon Kipling and his views’. Orwell’s ‘views’ have been largely vindicated by Time, so he need not seek any pardon on that score. But what he 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.”

* Two caveats: George McGovern is probably the closest there is; and yes, I realize Orwell wasn’t American, so to draw an immediate parallel between a quintessentially British author and the US polity speaks to a particular breed of American myopia. Duly noted. My de facto political framework is America-centric, but I don’t think I’d be wrong in making the same cheapening-of-the-discourse claim about Great Britain, either.

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