Thursday, 12 January 2012

'Why Orwell Matters’ by Christopher Hitchens

(Basic Books, $15.95)

Why does George Orwell matter?  Frankly it depends who you listen to.  Was he hero or villain, socialist or conservative, patriot or traitor, modernist or misogynist?  It has become as fashionable for the Left, feminist, postmodernist and contrarian alike to denounce him, as it has been for those on the Right to claim him as their own.  It is into this confused and contradictory mess that Christopher Hitchens provocatively steps to recue Orwell in a brilliant and logical book.

For many journalists Orwell has become a revered figure, the patron saint of factual writing.  The sycophancy that surrounds his name would have appalled him.  He was a man who never shied from criticising his own heroes, and he was wary of any saint.  Indeed, Orwell once said of Mahatma Gandhi that “saints are always to be adjudged guilty until proven innocent.”

Orwell may have been equally amused with those who have attacked his works as with those who revere it.  Hitchens does not hesitate to destroy some of the fawning mythologies that have built-up around Orwell’s memory.  Instead he attempts to rebuild a more honest and rational legacy for perhaps the most influential of Twentieth Century writers.  One cannot help but feel that while Orwell might not have always agreed with Hitchens, he would have approved of both his techniques and the endeavour.

As a man of the Left who was denounced by his fellow travellers, Hitchens must have felt some empathy for the treatment Orwell received from his ideological brethren.  As an advocator of socialism whose roots lay in what he describes in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ as “an upper middle-class” upbringing, many of Orwell’s contemporaries viewed his politics with some scepticism.  Being an Eton Old Boy would only have added to the mistrust.  Such a background undoubtedly left Orwell with some intellectual baggage, however perhaps it was these contradictions as the perpetual outsider which gave his writing its concise, analytical, compassionate and balanced style.

Hitchens describes “The sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion that appears to ignite spontaneously when Orwell’s name is mentioned” by some from the Left.  Maybe it was the scathing attacks on fellow socialist thinkers, who he described as so awful that they were likely to put off the working man, which has made him an ‘enemy’ to some.  The most common mistake made in order to denounce Orwell, is to take the phrases spoken by characters in his fiction and then attribute them as if he was speaking himself, a literary error that schoolchildren should know not to make.  Hitchens takes these critiques and refutes them in a very compelling way.

Of the Right, Hitchens explains the numerous attempts made by conservative intellectuals to use or annex Orwell’s works.  As a writer who pioneered the opposition to Communism, championed individualism, disliked the instruments of government, believed in popular wisdom and who possessed a strong patriotic sense; it is easy to see how Orwell could be crudely painted as a Tory.  Hitchens dismisses these claims in what he refers to as the ‘body-snatching’ of Orwell.  While he may have had some conservative tendencies he fought intellectually against them all of his life.  You could by no stretch of imagination define his politics as being conservative.

A brief but interesting chapter outlines Orwell’s dysfunctional relationship with women.  Hitchens attributes this partially to an upbringing with a stern Mother and patriarchal Father, but generally concedes to the feminist arguments, except to show where they are overblown.  It is also fair to say that condemning authors of the past for failing the standards of today is a fruitful, but intellectually pointless pastime.

‘Why Orwell Matters’ is not only a well written, stimulating and informative book, it is also a necessary book, as his works needed to be rescued from his admirers and critics alike.  As Hitchens eloquently puts it, “Orwell requires extricating from under a pile of saccharine and moist hankies.”  With some of the ridiculous claims exposed as intellectually defunct or mere humbug, we can perhaps exhume Orwell’s truthful legacy.  It is one of insightful observations from the past which are so valuable to understanding the present.

This book also reminds us of Hitchens’ great strength as a literary essayist, something that is too easily overlooked because of his controversial polemics.  Gore Vidal once declared Hitchens to be his dauphin.  However there is a stronger case that when his work is viewed with perspective, Hitchens will be Orwell’s successor.

I cannot recommend this book enough.  

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