Wednesday, 4 April 2012

George Orwell; Life and Writings: part two

(This follows on from my previous entry, which deals with Orwell's life before 1939; especially his life-changing experiences in the Spanish Civil War)

1939 Orwell declared unfit for military service because of bad condition of lungs. Joins Home Guard
1941 Works for the BBC, especially on broadcasts to India
1943 Resigns from BBC; becomes literary editor of “Tribune”
1945 His wife Eileen dies. Publication of “Animal Farm”
1946 Goes to Jura, a remote and thinly-populated Scottish island
1949 Publication of “1984”. Now very famous, but in very poor health. Marries Sonia Bromwell in University College Hospital
1950 Dies from a burst artery in the lung

“Animal Farm” hardly needs an introduction: millions of people are familiar with the novel; half parable, half fairy story; of how the farm animals drive out their human oppressor and attempt to set up a utopian society, only for it to decline into a totalitarian dictatorship run by the pigs, and by one pig in particular, named Napoleon. The story follows the history of the Soviet Union very closely, though this sometimes looks contrived; the revolution and civil war, the struggle for power within the Communist Party, the Five Year Plan and the Great Purge, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Second World War, at which stage the book ends.
I am sure Orwell, a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party, would have been surprised to have found himself adopted by conservatives, because the message of “Animal Farm” is not that revolution is wrong, but that this revolution has been betrayed. There is nothing in “Animal Farm” implying that the animals should have stuck with their human masters, and Snowball, the hero of the first part of the book, is fairly obviously modelled on Trotsky, just as Napoleon is modelled on Stalin. In the end the pigs betray the revolution by behaving more and more like the old human masters. Recall the final scene, when Napoleon and the other pigs meet with the neighbouring farmers and it is difficult to tell them apart. I have always wondered what this represented: Stalin meeting Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta, perhaps?

Orwell never departs from the ideas he formed in the Spanish Civil War: he supports the working classes, but is disgusted by the way the Communist Party has turned revolution into dictatorship, and also by the way the British Left sucks up to Stalin. This view would have been intensified by his difficulty in getting the book published: most publishers fought shy of making any criticism of the Soviet Union during the wartime alliance. (There is an interesting parallel here in the way the cartoonist David Low was urged to tone down his attacks on Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. Orwell sees this type of behaviour as cowardly appeasement and moral blindness, whether exercised by the Right or the Left)

“1984” is a novel written by a dying man, which must at least partly account for its despairing note. Orwell captures and intensifies the greyness of London in the later 1940s, with the nation bankrupted after the Second World War, everything rationed and bombed areas not yet rebuilt; but even under these conditions he can hardly have imagined Clement Attlee’s Labour government degenerating into totalitarian dictatorship. Once again, a revolution appears to have been betrayed, though we do not know the circumstances (Britain in 1984 appears to be merely an offshoot of the United States, so perhaps there had been a revolution in America too, though nothing is said about this). Orwell’s nightmare vision is of an entirely paranoid world, dominated by spying, denunciations and lies, where citizens are in perpetual danger of arrest and torture. Again we are harking back to Stalin’s purges (“Big Brother”, the dictator who appears only as a picture, bears a strong physical resemblance to Stalin, and his opponent Goldstein, the hate-figure, is clearly based on Trotsky). The purges were about to be renewed in the “Leningrad affair” in the Soviet Union and a series of treason trials in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. Orwell did not, of course, live to see that this situation was not destined to last much longer. Stalin died in 1953, and Khrushchev denounced his memory three years later; and when Khrushchev defeated the last of the old communists, Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich, he did not have them shot but merely exiled them to managerial positions in remote areas. Although the Khrushchev reforms were not followed up, the long, dreary Brezhnev years that ensued merely saw low-level oppression and economic inefficiency rather than full-scale totalitarianism. History continued to be rewritten in an Orwellian fashion under Brezhnev, by the simple process of avoiding mentioning Trotsky, Stalin and Khrushchev whenever possible.
Orwell also imagines a world of permanent war, but with ever-changing allies and foes. What he doubtless had in mind here, which was developing even as he wrote, was the way the Second World War was being succeeded by the Cold War, and America and Britain, fresh from having been allied with the Soviet Union against Germany, were now rapidly rebuilding Germany for alliance against the Soviet Union. I wonder what he would have made of the present situation, where the western powers abruptly switched from supporting militant Islam against the Russians in Afghanistan to supporting post-communist Russia in its bombing of Islamic rebels in Chechnya! The book ends with a short philosophical comment on the 1984 language of “Newspeak”, which is designed to reduce the ability of humans to communicate complex ideas: Orwell had already written on this theme in an essay, “Politics and the English Language”. Some of his Newspeak coinings, like "doublethink" have now entered our language, though there is a curious reluctance to use the word "prolefeed", meaning low-grade entertainment aimed at the lower classes!

Orwell was a much better essay-writer than he was a novelist; and it is there that he reveals an astonishing width of reading and interest. His early essays were straightforward accounts of personal experiences, but he then diversified into long critical discourses on Dickens, Kipling, Swift and others, into surveys of such diverse topics as literature between the wars, boys’ comics and murder stories, and into thoughts on the state of England. What he has to say is always worth reading, and I would strongly recommend anyone to read a collection of his essays.

1 comment:

  1. Peter, you wrote in Part One that you thought Homage to Catalonia was Orwell’s best book, and I was going to disagree, citing his books of essays, especially Inside the Whale. Here, you seem to be in at least partial agreement. His essays are worth reading not only for what he has to say but also for the clarity with which he says it.