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Orwell Exposed

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
p. 13 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0049

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

If alive today, George Orwell would have recoiled in horror at this publication of his diaries from 1931 to 1949. For Orwell, an intensely private man who begged friends and comrades not to write a biography of him, regarded diary writing differently from Winston Smith, who addressed his entries to a sympathetic archaeologist.

Diaries is the closest readers may get to the private Orwell. Editor Peter Davison has included the mundane with the politics (gardening matters, the number of birds that flew over that day). But even this gives a portrait of the type of thinking behind his political stances. Orwell the empiricist was in evidence not only when he draws up atrocity tables but also when he records the weather (down to the wind speed and temperature). Nothing was exempt from his analytical mind, and even pleasurable activities were collated, measured. He celebrates finally being allowed by his Home Guard Unit, a group of volunteers whose purpose was to help repel a Nazi invasion of England during WWII, to dismantle a Sten gun, and then immediately notes its weight (5 and ½ pounds) as well as its price. Even toward the end, when he was dying by inches, he still couldn’t turn his analytical brain off. He complained that his illness made it impossible for him to write, yet he recorded the process by which this was happening in minute detail.

Such a scientific bent on everything could be hard to live with (“pass me the mashed potatoes, I wish to weigh them”), but this constant contact with physical reality over theory is one of the reasons Orwell’s political writings wears better today than his colleagues’. His opinions stemmed from observation, evidence (Orwell emulated Sherlock Holmes who said “data, data. I cannot make bricks without clay”). He based his portrayal of the navel-watching proles of 1984 on the attitudes of their counterparts in WWII (“very little interest in the war,” he writes of pub-dwellers during the Blitz. “Doubt even the bombs dropping would wake them up”). Nor did he have much hope in their intelligence. He wrote of how they would be bamboozled by a speech merely because of the announcer’s voice rather than what was conveyed. Even fellow socialists such as H.G. Wells was subject to an empirical barrage from Orwell. Against Wells’s lofty solutions to the preventions of war, such as universal control of the air and peace summits, Orwell irritatingly asked Wells for details on how he would bring this about (such demands for realism prompted Wells to call Orwell “a little shit”).

Even when wrong about such matters as England having to go Socialist to win the war, the reader can admire the logical attempts behind this conclusion. Planned economies, even fascist ones, were superior to free enterprise, since Big Business was selling arms to Mussolini right up to the start of the war.

Orwell’s dislike of capitalism was a blind spot regarding the U.S. joining the war. Of this ally, Orwell forecast, “there will never be sufficient control of either the business or labor to speed up armaments,” but as history showed, even as early as 1942, it was U.S. industrial might that met armament needs of all the allies.

Orwell was not so empirical as that he would overlook his gut instincts. He recorded that the “Russian purges never surprised him” since he “could feel it in their literature.” As when the broken Winston Smith tells his torturers that “something will defeat you” and saw this something in the proles, Orwell never wavered in his belief that the working classes would one day come to their senses and overthrow not only the conscious fascists but the unconscious ones as well. This was a desperate belief in 1942, with half of Europe imprisoned.

But Orwell never romanticized the working class or colonial subjects. He saw the British proletariat as being “moved by a speech in solemn language which they don’t actually understand but feel to be impressive.” He stated that if India was absorbed by the Russians, they would come to the same valid conclusion as the British: that the Indians were inferior.

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