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Considering George Orwell on the anniversary of his death

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
George Orwell died 65 years ago today at the age of 46

When we think of George Orwell, who died on this date in 1950 at the age of 46, it is primarily as a satirist. This is the legacy — the fault, really — of his last two novels, 1945’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” which was published in 1949.

Here, Orwell cemented what has become our lasting image of him, as the author of a certain type of political parable, in which totalitarianism, with its slogans (“War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” “Ignorance is Strength”) becomes a metaphor for the fallacy of social control. To be sure, that’s part of what he was after, although Orwell’s targets are quite specific: Stalinism on the one hand, and on the other, let’s call it the softness of the British Left.

In his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale,” he highlights the dichotomy: “With all its injustices, England is still the land of habeas corpus, and the overwhelming majority of English people have no experience of violence or illegality. … To people of that kind such things as purges, secret police, summary executions, imprisonment without trial, etc., etc., are too remote to be terrifying. They can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism.”

The same, of course, might well be said of the United States, which is one reason we remain, as a culture, so politically naive.

The key to Orwell (for me, anyway) are the essays; they are brilliant, unparalleled. At heart, his work is about language — how it can be twisted, certainly (in “Animal Farm,” “Four legs good, two legs bad” becomes “Four legs good, two legs better”), but also the precision it requires.

“This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence,” he writes in “Politics and the English Language,” among my favorites of his essays, “is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.”

And: “This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases … can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”

At the risk of oversimplifying, what Orwell was really getting at is the need to think for oneself. Not in the glib sense, but in the most engaged. “[F]reedom of the Press,” he argues in “The Prevention of Literature,” “if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.” He is referring not exclusively to journalists, but to everyone.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” he argued in 1946, a line that echoes the evaluation of his own talents, in the stunning “Why I Write,” as having “a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.” This, I’d suggest, might stand as any, every, writer’s credo, the only set of skills required.

I think of his first book, “Down and Out in Paris and London” (1933), a stirring investigation of poverty from the inside, or his brilliant early essays “Shooting an Elephant” or “A Hanging.” In all of them, the political is nuanced by the personal — or, perhaps it is more accurate to say, it grows out of the personal, out of a connection, a commitment that begins at the soles of one’s feet.

“And once,” he observes of the condemned man at the center of the latter essay, “in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path” — a moment so small and at the same time so universal, it cannot help but touch us at the heart.

“One wants to live, of course,” he writes in “How the Poor Die,” “indeed one only stays alive by virtue of the fear of death, but I think now, as I thought then, that it’s better to die violently and not too old.”

What Orwell is describing is humanity, which is, after all, the only thing we have to share. It is not enough, and yet, it has to be enough. That, as he understood and continually sought to articulate, is the burden not just of language, of literature, but also, fundamentally, of life.

twitter: @davidulin

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