Monday, November 3, 2014

Coming Up for Air



My favorite writer, as anyone who has done more than glance at this blog will know, is George Orwell. Although he wrote novels, a few of which are of considerable literary importance, I prefer to read his essays and journalism, in which Orwell speaks in his own voice, even though he hid behind a pseudonym. At the close of his wonderful essay on Charles Dickens, he wrote that "When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. . . . What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have."

The face that I see behind the pages of Orwell's writing is not Eric Blair's (which was one of the reasons why he assumed another name), one that endured five years as a subdivisional officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, living in extreme poverty for awhile in England and France, and otherwise straightened circumstances once he had chosen to live by his writing alone, was shot in the throat while fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and suffered tubercular hemorrhages for the last fourteen years of his life. It is a sour face, pushed inward like so many English faces, but particularly withdrawn like a stubbed-out cigarette - of which Blair smoked his share, even after being diagnosed with TB.

But the face of George Orwell, the pen name he adopted in 1933, is that of an utterly fearless and tireless pamphleteer - a compassionate, knowing but never mocking or pompous face, an unwavering realist whose gaze is often on the horizon where he can plainly see the just society, in which not only rubber truncheons (a term he repeated almost compulsively) and secret police are things of the past but in which private property and personal gain are no longer the primary motives of life.

If I were to choose from his writings one line that comes closest to a testament of his political faith, I would use this, from his 1944 essay on Arthur Koestler: "It is quite possible that man's major problems will never be solved. But it is also unthinkable!"(1) Orwell had little patience for lazy thinkers, for reactionary thought in general, that pretended that progress was an illusion, that there are no new ideas, or that, if a Golden Age is real, it existed some time in the past, and that we have degenerated from it. For Orwell, progress is a matter of demonstrable fact, and society itself is evolving, bettering itself. The goal is not a perfect society, which Orwell rightly asserted is a figment, but that there is plenty of room for improvement - which humanity is slowly making.

He was bitterly disappointed that, when they returned from the war, the millions of British soldiers who had seen what their guns could accomplish didn't use them to demand immediate and sweeping changes to British society. In fact, Orwell struggled with the realization that socialism was becoming a Utopia that might never be established in what was left of his lifetime:

"A socialist today is in the position of a doctor treating an all but hopeless case. As a doctor, it is his duty to keep the patient alive, and therefore to assume that the patient has at least a chance of recovery. As a scientist, it is his duty to face the facts, and therefore to admit that the patient will probably die. Our activities as socialists only have meaning if we assume that socialism can be established, but if we stop to consider what probably will happen, then we must admit, I think, that the chances are against us."(2)

In 1942, when "Looking Back on the Spanish War," Orwell speculated:

"Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight, sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later - some time within the next hundred years, say, and not some time within the next ten thousand years."

The biggest problem with predicting the future is, almost every prediction gets way ahead of itself. Advances that are predicted to take twenty or forty years take a century to come to pass. Look at Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It predicted that, in thirty-five years, we would be flying on commercial spacecraft to vast - and beautiful - space stations, colonizing and mining the moon and exploring one of the moons of Saturn. Almost fifty years later, we have one relatively tiny space station, the moon remains unvisited since the last Apollo mission, and the first manned mission to Mars is still years away.

Orwell spent what he perhaps couldn't have known were his last years writing feverishly. In 1948, his health failing on an island in the Hebrides, he couldn't find someone to type his manuscript for Nineteen Eighty-Four, so he typed it himself. He spent most of 1949 in hospital, but visitors found him, despite his skeletal appearance, hopeful of his future and bursting with ideas for future essays and novels. It wasn't so much political advancement that let him down as medical advancement. D. J. Taylor takes up the narrative:

"He believed that a writer who has a book left in him to write will not die. The new American wonder drug streptomycin had been tried on him the year before, and Fred Warburg [of Secker and Warburg] had petitioned his U.S. publishers to help in speeding up a delivery of auromycin, but these were early days for TB cures." (3)

The determination of Orwell's doctor to treat him was that of a physician who administers his treatments with an expectation of positive results. When all the treatments failed, early on the morning of 21 January 1950, and Orwell succumbed to a final, massive hemorrhage, his doctor didn't resign his post and take down his shingle. He applied the experience of treating - and losing - his patient to every one of his subsequent cases. Every physician believes in progress, in the slow but steady advancement of learning.

Within a year of Orwell's death, tuberculosis was curable. The prognosis for socialism remains guardedly optimistic.


(1) "Arthur Koestler," 11 September 1944.
(2) "Toward European Unity," Partisan Review, July-August 1947.
(3) D. J. Taylor "Last Days of Orwell," The Guardian, 15 January 2000.

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