FIVE MYTHS ABOUT OR­WELL

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Gor­don Bowker out­look@wash­post.com Gor­don Bowker is the author of “Ge­orge Or­well,” a bi­og­ra­phy.

No, he wasn’t that pro­gres­sive.

With “al­ter­na­tive facts” air­ing on the evening news and omi­nous warn­ings of “Amer­i­can car­nage” is­su­ing from the White House, it’s no sur­prise that the author Ge­orge Or­well has been the sub­ject of re­cent es­says across Amer­i­can publishing, from the Huff­in­g­ton Post to the New York Times. Or­well’s clas­sic novel on to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism and sur­veil­lance, “1984,” has again be­come a best­seller thanks to the strange af­fairs afoot in Wash­ing­ton, with its pub­lisher rush­ing to print fresh copies to meet de­mand. As we re­con­sider Or­well’s work, how­ever, it’s worth reeval­u­at­ing what we know about the man him­self, around whom many mis­con­cep­tions and leg­ends have grown up over the years.

MYTH NO. 1 ‘Or­wellian’ refers to as­cen­dant gov­ern­ment con­trol.

In a 2013 es­say for the con­ser­va­tive Catholic pub­li­ca­tion Cri­sis Magazine, Sean Fitzpatrick wrote that the most fright­en­ing thing about Or­well’s “1984” is “how many as­pects of our demo­cratic na­tion re­sem­ble his dystopian nightmare.” Fitzpatrick de­scribed many fea­tures of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics (such as the Af­ford­able Care Act and the war on ter­ror) as sig­nals of the ad­vance­ment of “the ide­olo­gies of big gov­ern­ment.” Other writ­ers of­ten equate Or­well’s dystopias with gov­ern­ment over­reach: “Maybe, ‘lib­er­als’ to­day will re­dis­cover their roots and reignite a deep sus­pi­cion of a large, all-pow­er­ful gov­ern­ment,” Charles Hurtwrote in an Or­well-cen­tric Wash­ing­ton Times col­umn this month.

Yet Or­wellian­ism isn’t just about big gov­ern­ment; it’s about au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism cou­pled with lies. Newspeak, as Or­well de­scribed it in “1984,” is lan­guage that means the ex­act op­po­site of what it says. Con­tem­po­rary ex­am­ples in­clude the la­bel­ing of news or­ga­ni­za­tions as “fake news” and false­hoods as “al­ter­na­tive facts.” “The whole aim of Newspeak is to nar­row the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime lit­er­ally im­pos­si­ble, be­cause there will be no words in which to ex­press it,” one of Or­well’s char­ac­ters says.

More­over, Or­well did not see op­pres­sion is­su­ing strictly from gov­ern­ments. In “Keep the As­pidis­tra Fly­ing,” Gor­don Com­stock’s land­lady spies on him, mak­ing him feel a loss of pri­vacy and lib­erty. In the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Or­well writes that in board­ing school, he sus­pected that a spy had been set on him by his head­mas­ter and de­picted the en­vi­ron­ment as in­sti­tu­tion­ally op­pres­sive. An equiv­a­lent to­day might be mass sur­veil­lance via so­cial me­dia: Face­book log­ging your pur­chases, Skype eaves­drop­ping on your calls and the ubiq­ui­tous mobile phone cam­era’s all-see­ing eye. A sur­veil­lance so­ci­ety can have many Big Brothers and Sis­ters watch­ing us, rather than just a sin­gle all-pow­er­ful one.

MYTH NO. 2 Or­well was hos­tile to re­li­gion.

Or­well’s work con­tained strong skep­ti­cism of re­li­gion. In “A Cler­gy­man’s Daugh­ter,” he has a Satanic priest recit­ing the Lord’s Prayer back­ward. In “An­i­mal Farm,” faith is rep­re­sented cyn­i­cally as “lies put about by Moses, the tame Raven,” about a sup­posed an­i­mal par­adise. “Even in An­i­mal Farm,” John Rossi and John Rod­den wrote in a 2016 Com­mon­weal Magazine ret­ro­spec­tive on its author, “Or­well found time to ex­press his hos­til­ity to re­li­gion.” A 2011 ar­ti­cle by Robert Gray in the Spec­ta­tor ti­tled “Or­well vs God” noted that “though he might ac­knowl­edge the ne­ces­sity of re­li­gion in the­ory,” Or­well’s gen­eral at­ti­tude to­ward faith was one of “un­blink­ing hos­til­ity.” He once said that he did not sub­scribe to “doc­trines which no one se­ri­ously be­lieves in,” such as “the im­mor­tal­ity of the soul.”

Yet Or­well re­tained a last­ing af­fec­tion for the Angli­can Church, choos­ing to be mar­ried and buried, per in­struc­tions in his will, “ac­cord­ing to the rites of the Church of Eng­land.” And he main­tained a re­li­gious imag­i­na­tion, es­pe­cially dur­ing his fi­nal days. In a last let­ter from his hospi­tal bed, Or­well asked a friend whether an ad­ver­tise­ment he’d found in a news­pa­per might be blas­phe­mous. An­other friend, who vis­ited him just be­fore he died, found him read­ing the first vol­ume of Dante’s “Di­vine Com­edy,” rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that he was pre­par­ing him­self for some kind of after­life.

MYTH NO. 3 Or­well in­sisted on sim­ple, straight­for­ward prose.

In his es­say “Why I Write,” Or­well rec­om­mended keep­ing prose sim­ple, posit­ing that “good prose is like a win­dow pane” in its clar­ity. In­deed, Or­well has been noted for this qual­ity in his writing. In a 2006 NPR ar­ti­cle, for in­stance, author Lawrence Wright claimed that “Or­well wasn’t in­ter­ested in dec­o­ra­tive writing, but his straight­for­ward, declar­a­tive style has a snap in it that few other writ­ers have ever ap­proached.”

It was not al­ways so. In his early novel “Burmese Days,” for ex­am­ple, we find the fol­low­ing: “In the bor­ders be­side the path swaths of English flow­ers — phlox and lark­spur, hol­ly­hock and petu­nia — not yet slain by the sun, ri­oted in vast size and rich­ness. The petu­nias were huge, like trees al­most. There was no lawn, but in­stead a shrub­bery of na­tive trees and bushes — gold mo­hur trees like vast um­brel­las of blood-red bloom, frangi­pa­nis with creamy, stalk­less flow­ers, pur­ple bougainvil­lea, scar­let hibis­cus and the pink Chi­nese rose, bil­ious­green cro­tons, feath­ery fronds of tamarind. The clash of colours hurt one’s eyes in the glare. A nearly naked mali, wa­ter­ing-can in hand, was mov­ing in the jun­gle of flow­ers like some large nec­tar-suck­ing bird.” And he raved to his girl­friend Brenda Salkeld in 1933 about “my dear ‘Ulysses,’ my great­est dis­cov­ery since I dis­cov­ered Vil­lon,” re­fer­ring to James Joyce’s labyrinthine novel.

It was only when he turned to po­lit­i­cal writing in 1936, af­ter liv­ing with un­em­ployed min­ers in Wi­gan, in north­ern Eng­land, and fight­ing in Spain, that he de­cided that, for hon­esty’s sake, he must write prose that was trans­par­ent — de­void of jar­gon, mis­lead­ing metaphors, foreign words and phrases, and cliches.

MYTH NO. 4 Or­well was po­lit­i­cally and so­cially pro­gres­sive.

One 2014 bi­og­ra­phy of Or­well de­clared him a “so­cial real­ist” and “sec­u­lar saint”; a Guardian ar­ti­cle by John Carey in­sisted that “Or­well was a truth-teller whose courage and sense of so­cial jus­tice made him a sec­u­lar saint”; and Ge­of­frey Wheatcroft once wrote in the In­de­pen­dent that “the sec­u­lar saint of our time par ex­cel­lence was Ge­orge Or­well.” As a pro­gres­sive in pol­i­tics, he wanted the kind of egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety he’d glimpsed in Barcelona in 1936, where, he wrote in his book “Homage to Cat­alo­nia,” “human be­ings were try­ing to behave as human be­ings and not as cogs in the cap­i­tal­ist ma­chine.”

Or­well was a so­cial­ist, but he was also a real­ist. He thought that in 1940, af­ter the Bri­tish de­feat at Dunkirk, Bri­tain was on the brink of rev­o­lu­tion. In­stead, the mo­ment passed, and at the end of the war he threw his sup­port be­hind the Labour Party, whose pol­icy was one of sober grad­u­al­ism rather than vi­o­lent rev­o­lu­tion.

In other ways, he was an out­right tra­di­tion­al­ist: His at­ti­tude to­ward women and gay peo­ple was boor­ish and ret­ro­grade. Or­well’s friend and con­tem­po­rary Stephen Spen­der noted that ‘‘Or­well was very misog­y­nist . . . a strange sort of ec­cen­tric man full of strange ideas and strange prej­u­dices. One was that he thought that women were ex­tremely in­fe­rior and stupid. . . . He really rather de­spised women.” Or­well also op­posed mod­ern ur­ban sprawl and ma­chine tech­nol­ogy. And most of his fic­tion, as well as his non­fic­tion, re­veals a yen for Ed­war­dian Eng­land, though stripped of some of its cru­el­ties and in­equal­i­ties.

MYTH NO. 5 Or­well was sadis­tic.

Or­well’s room­mate Rayner Hep­pen­stall once de­scribed the author as hav­ing moods “of sadis­tic ex­al­ta­tion,” dur­ing which he would be­come vi­o­lent in ar­gu­ments. Oth­ers have lo­cated sadism in Or­well’s books, es­pe­cially “1984,” which in­cludes a tor­ture scene. Given Or­well’s re­marks on his own his­tory (for ex­am­ple, he once de­scribed in an ar­ti­cle how, as a boy, he cut a wasp in half out of cu­rios­ity; and in the es­say “Shoot­ing an Ele­phant” wrote that as a po­lice of­fi­cer in Burma he took great plea­sure in imag­in­ing stick­ing a bay­o­net into the guts of a Bud­dhist priest), one might rea­son­ably sus­pect he had a vi­o­lent streak.

Yet Or­well be­longed for a time to the paci­fistic In­de­pen­dent Labour Party, de­plored the sadism of com­mu­nists in Spain and felt un­easy with gra­tu­itous vi­o­lence in me­dia. He dis­par­aged what he called “the Yank Mags” (“There is the frank­est ap­peal to sadism,” he wrote of these mag­a­zines in his es­say “Boys’ Week­lies,” “scenes in which the Nazis tie bombs to women’s backs and fling them off heights to watch them blown to pieces in mid-air, oth­ers in which they tie naked girls to­gether by their hair and prod them with knives to make them dance, etc.”) and Amer­i­can films like “High Sierra,” which he felt en­cour­aged and glo­ri­fied cruelty and vi­o­lence, as did nov­els such as James Hadley Chase’s “No Orchids for Miss Blan­dish.” Re­view­ing “High Sierra” in the lit­er­ary magazine Time and Tide, Or­well dis­mis­sively wrote, “For any­one who wants the ne plus ul­tra of sadism, bully wor­ship, gun play, socks on the jaw and gang­ster atmosphere gen­er­ally, this film is the goods.”

Or­well might have had a tem­per and some mor­bid cu­riosi­ties, but he cer­tainly did not ap­prove of in­flict­ing suf­fer­ing on oth­ers without rea­son.

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