August 15, 2008


If there is a more influential or often quoted writer of the 20th century than George Orwell I can’t say who it might be. His most famous work, “1984” of course led to the term Orwellian to describe the decline of western civilization into the dystopia world of Oceania. Both ends of the political spectrum often quote Orwell’s work to highlight the transgressions real or imagined of the other. In fact I recently stumbled across a C-Span panel discussion featuring George Soros clutching a copy of “1984” to prove his point that the Bush administration is Big Brother incarnate. You could argue that Orwell’s world was the result of “Ingsoc” ,English Socialism, which seems closer to the ideology of Mr. Soros.

Orwell also produced a body of work beyond “1984” during his career, insightful commentary on the turbulent 20th century. "Animal Farm" is of course the most prominent but his other works are also historically relevent. In "Why I Write" (1946) he noted that his goal was, “ to make political writing into an art”, this is particularly evident in his essays. Here are exerpts from a few personal favorites.

On Jews:

When you go through the Jewish quarters you gather some idea of what the medieval ghettoes were probably like. Under their Moorish rulers the Jews were only allowed to own land in certain restricted areas, and after centuries of this kind of treatment they have ceased to bother about overcrowding. Many of the streets are a good deal less than six feet wide, the houses are completely windowless, and sore-eyed children cluster everywhere in unbelievable numbers, like clouds of flies. Down the centre of the street there is generally running a little river of urine.

In the bazaar huge families of Jews, all dressed in the long black robe and little black skull-cap, are working in dark fly-infested booths that look like caves. A carpenter sits cross-legged at a prehistoric lathe, turning chair-legs at lightning speed. He works the lathe with a bow in his right hand and guides the chisel with his left foot, and thanks to a lifetime of sitting in this position his left leg is warped out of shape. At his side his grandson, aged six, is already starting on the simpler parts of the job.

I was just passing the coppersmiths’ booths when somebody noticed that I was lighting a cigarette. Instantly, from the dark holes all round, there was a frenzied rush of Jews, many of them old grandfathers with flowing grey beards, all clamouring for a cigarette. Even a blind man somewhere at the back of one of the booths heard a rumour of cigarettes and came crawling out, groping in the air with his hand. In about a minute I had used up the whole packet. None of these people, I suppose, works less than twelve hours a day, and every one of them looks on a cigarette as a more or less impossible luxury.

As the Jews live in self-contained communities they follow the same trades as the Arabs, except for agriculture. Fruit-sellers, potters, silversmiths, blacksmiths, butchers, leather-workers, tailors, water-carriers, beggars, porters—whichever way you look you see nothing but Jews. As a matter of fact there are thirteen thousand of them, all living in the space of a few acres. A good job Hitler isn’t here. Perhaps he is on his way, however. You hear the usual dark rumours about the Jews, not only from the Arabs but from the poorer Europeans.

“Yes, MON VIEUX, they took my job away from me and gave it to a Jew. The Jews! They’re the real rulers of this country, you know. They’ve got all the money. They control the banks, finance—everything.”

“But,” I said, “isn’t it a fact that the average Jew is a labourer working for about a penny an hour?”

“Ah, that’s only for show! They’re all money-lenders really. They’re cunning, the Jews.” (Marrakech, 1939)

On Atrocities:

I have little direct evidence about the atrocities in the Spanish civil war. I know that some were committed by the Republicans, and far more (they are still continuing) by the Fascists. But what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence. Recently I drew up a table of atrocities during the period between 1918 and the present; there was never a year when atrocities were not occurring somewhere or other, and there was hardly a single case when the Left and the Right believed in the same stories simultaneously. And stranger yet, at any moment the situation can suddenly reverse itself and yesterday’s proved-to-the-hilt atrocity story can become a ridiculous lie, merely because the political landscape has changed. (Looking Back on the Spanish War 1942)

On Facism:

It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come. (What is Fascism? 1944)

What brought this subject to mind was that this week the “Orwell Prize” is releasing entries from Orwell’s personal diary on a daily basis which should over the long term prove to be an interesting insight into one of histories most prodigious writers. I can only imagine that he would have made a hell of a blogger.

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