The other day I picked up my favorite little magazine, The New Criterion, and was delighted to spot the name of Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, in the table of contents.
I turned with anticipation to his appraisal of a classic work of George Orwell's, "Homage to Catalonia." Oh, boy, one of my favorite critics of the knee-jerk left was going to re-examine Orwell's classic memoir of the Spanish Civil War - a model of the kind of reportage an honest writer can produce in times that may be anything but.
Though I began reading Anthony Daniels' article eagerly, I had to force myself to finish, the piece turned out to be so wrong-headed, so one-noted, so just plain undiscerning. And so uncharitable. It was like watching an automobile accident unfold in slow motion, going from bad to awful.
Mr. Daniels has mistaken the vaguely Trotskyite notions that Orwell brought to Spain, and which he would eventually outgrow, as the essence of the book. Orwell's ideology at the time was just part of his book, and the least important part of it at that. It's certainly not the part that has endured for 70 years, continuing to shed light on what that struggle was about, and showing how the cause of the Spanish republic was taken over by Stalin's agents.
The reader who comes to Orwell's "Homage of Catalonia" only after he's read Orwell's later, famous "1984" and "Animal Farm" has to marvel at how Eric Blair became George Orwell - by putting away his young, more-leftist-than-thou theories and relying instead on direct, personal experience. That's how he would become the conscience of his generation. And often enough of ours.
No wonder there's an Orwell cult. As a member of it, I can assure Mr. Daniels that those of us who admire Orwell do not mistake him for a saint, any more than he himself did. Quite the opposite. It is Orwell's ability to tell quite ordinary truths that continues to stun.
You don't run across beautifully plain, simple writers very often in an entirely too sophisticated age, as Anthony Daniels almost grudgingly notes. Or plain, simple people, for that matter. When you do, they stick in the mind.
But in this look back at "Homage to Catalonia," the simple purity of Orwell's language is largely dismissed. Instead of seeing a diamond, Anthony Daniels is fascinated by all the flaws in its setting. He's so absorbed in making his own ideological points that he's largely ignored how Orwell rose above his - simply by telling what happened to him in Spain.
Anthony Daniels winds up despising Orwell's book as much as the Communists and their fellow travelers did when it came out, and for much the same reason: It fails to meet an ideological test.