In defense of Orwell

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Mar 02, 2007 12:01 AM
In defense of Orwell

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.

The Spain of 1937 comes alive in "Homage to Catalonia," which reads like a diary written by someone intent on describing just what that time and place was like - in prose clear as a window pane, which was Orwell's goal.

It's as if a member of the Nazi Party, first exulting in its seizure of power in Germany, had come to realize, experience by harrowing experience, what a terrifying society he was helping create. And he rebels. Imagine what a valuable record and revelation so honest a book would be, as "Homage to Catalonia" is.

It was Orwell's esthetic - his love of the beauty and discipline of the English tongue - that would save him from all his left-wing newspeak and that, generations later, still enlightens the rest of us.

The incandescent quality of Orwell's his language, his instinctive honesty and decency, is evident on almost every page of "Homage to Catalonia," and renders his ideology at the time inconsequential. Yet, hard as it is to believe, Anthony Daniels seems almost oblivious to Orwell's window-pane prose.

The roots of Orwell's masterful "Animal Farm" and "1984," and of his disaffection for communist utopias - indeed, with the idea of any utopia at all - can be discerned in the simple decency of "Homage to Catalonia." As was his habit, Orwell was testing his ideological assumptions against actual experience. And because the reader knows what Orwell would become, he can sense those assumptions being undermined as the writer takes on what he would call the "smelly little orthodoxies" of his time.

Orwell would leave Spain still some kind of off-brand Marxist revolutionary, but also nobody's man but his own. He would go on to become a man of neither left nor right but a critic of both, saved by the clarity of his prose and therefore of his thought. He would start to see through his own left-wing illusions with the same clarity he brought to bear on the Communists' lies in 1937. And he would do so with a purity that makes the rest of us, with our ideological certainties, reflexes and tics in general, look sick.

To judge "Homage to Catalonia" without considering what Orwell would write later, or the insights he had acquired before, or the luminous quality of his prose, and to emphasize only the agitprop he parroted at the time, is to miss the larger picture. It's to ignore context, and wind up losing sight of what matters most.

Orwell was regularly attacked from the left for his unorthodox views, and now Anthony Daniels has done him much the same service from the right. It turns out there's a knee-jerk right, too.