The Real Orwell

A new volume of George Orwell’s letters brings the legendary writer down to Earth:

If Peter Davison’s refulgent new volume, George Orwell: A Life in Letters, isn’t dish_orwell altogether de-sanctifying, it is certainly humanizing, a reminder that Orwell the Saint and Seer was also a lowly man named Eric Blair, a man whose fingernails were dirt-crammed from gardening, whose bank account was perennially bereft, and whose health was forever threatened by the tuberculosis that would eventually claim him. It’s always necessary to remember that our heroes are human—Orwell, above all others, would have insisted on that. He witnessed and reported on what blood-wet havoc stems from our maniacal making of heroes, from our masochistic need to be herded and lead. This is the real warning of Nineteen Eighty-Four: the danger comes not from our suppressors but from our ovine willingness to be suppressed.

Jason Diamond agrees that the letters have a humanizing effect, praising Orwell’s often dark sense of humor:

For all the worrying Orwell did about the future, he still had a sense of humor about what might come: “It is just as well to get all this cleared up, what with the atomic bombs etc.” he writes in a letter dated November 2, 1945 — a little over three months after the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also had some humorous things to say about literature; in one of his letters to Henry Miller, he explains what he liked about Miller’s controversial book, Tropic of Cancer: “the fact that you dealt with facts well known to everybody but never mentioned it in print ( eg. when the chap is supposed to be making love to the woman but is dying for a piss all the while[.]“

Below is an excerpt from a 1944 letter in which Orwell speaks of his hopes and fears for the British people in the face of totalitarianism:

Whatever the pacifists etc. may say, we have not gone totalitarian yet and this is a very hopeful symptom. I believe very deeply, as I explained in my book The Lion and the Unicorn, in the English people and in their capacity to centralise their economy without destroying freedom in doing so. But one must remember that Britain and the USA haven’t been really tried, they haven’t known defeat or severe suffering, and there are some bad symptoms to balance the good ones. To begin with there is the general indifference to the decay of democracy. Do you realise, for instance, that no one in England under 26 now has a vote and that so far as one can see the great mass of people of that age don’t give a damn for this? Secondly there is the fact that the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side. Indeed the statement that we haven’t a Fascist movement in England largely means that the young, at this moment, look for their fuhrer elsewhere. One can’t be sure that that won’t change, nor can one be sure that the common people won’t think ten years hence as the intellectuals do now. I hope they won’t, I even trust they won’t, but if so it will be at the cost of a struggle. If one simply proclaims that all is for the best and doesn’t point to the sinister symptoms, one is merely helping to bring totalitarianism nearer.

Previous Dish on Orwell here, here, and here.