Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 405-406
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Orwell's Victory. Christopher Hitchens. London: Allen Lane (Penguin), 2002. Pp. 150. £9.99 (paper).
Christopher Hitchens's short book constitutes a mission to rescue Orwell from the attempts of sundry opponents to bring him down; it is a mission pursued with characteristic robustness. That he begins his Acknowledgements by thanking an English master for first acquainting him with Orwell is telling because ultimately it is Orwell's writing style even more than his politics that Hitchens most successfully champions, though of course the two cannot be considered in isolation. He reminds us of Orwell's recognition of his own "facility with words and a power of facing facts" (10). 1 This is not the same as confronting unpleasant facts, attempting to deal with them, or trying to wish them away. Rather it is the ability to recognize them, to bring them to life and to force them upon our attention. Hitchens's encomium is reminiscent of Lionel Trilling's famous observation, that Orwell's strength lay in his not being a genius and of fronting the world with nothing more than his "simple, direct, undeceived intelligence." 2 Orwell depicted himself as playing exactly this kind of rôle. He claimed that he wanted to create a "prose like a window pain" looking out onto the truth about those unpleasant facts. 3 Like Trilling, then, Hitchens takes Orwell's self-image at face value and so he does not discuss the plausible possibility that the "Orwell" of the undeceived intelligence was in fact the writer's finest literary achievement. 4
The book's substantive chapter concerns Orwell's experiences as a guardian of the British Empire. Hitchens takes as genuine Orwell's hatred of the "pox Britannica." 5 He finds strong evidence for this in the short story "Shooting an Elephant"; it is, of course, the central theme of the novel Burmese Days. Orwell was offended above all by the fact that British people and politicians—including many of those on the left—accepted no responsibility for the inhumanities committed in their name; neither did they acknowledge that their standard of living depended upon this exploitation. His experiences as an imperialist were subsequently to shape his politics; he brought back the categories of power and powerlessness to structure his analysis of politics in Britain. Orwell's victory here, we learn, is that his prose might have played a part in establishing English as a "non-imperial lingua franca" (25). Well, this claim would be impossible to substantiate, and Hitchens does not substantiate it. Reading Orwell as one of the founders of the discipline of post-colonialism too seems far fetched, if the word "discipline" is to be taken seriously. 6 Nevertheless Orwell was a consistent, powerful and very prescient enemy of imperialism; victory enough, surely, for a man whose father had worked in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service.
Orwell's next victory is against the fellow-traveling left. Hitchens is ruthless in defending Orwell against Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson. He trains his guns especially on Williams's short book on Orwell, dissecting some of Williams's arguments with swash and buckle and exposing them as "surreptitious and gutless" (51). He measures Orwell's achievements as an enemy of totalitarianism against Williams's and rightly declares: no contest. It should be remembered, though, that Orwell had attacked the fellow-traveling left before they attacked him; he would have expected retaliation. Indeed Hitchens himself acknowledges that Orwell could be as unfair in his criticism of those on the left whom he despised as they could be to him: his snide, unprovoked comments on W. H. Auden when criticizing his poem "Spain" were as hostile as anything he himself received (146-48).
Hitchens is dismissive of those who saw Orwell as essentially a conservative or a traditional English patriot. Here, it might be argued, he doth protest too much. Whilst no serious argument could be mounted claiming Orwell for Conservatism, there is much in his moral make-up that is conservative. I shall return to this is...