Orwell, right or wrong?
If the past 17 months have taught us anything, it is that some ideas and the people who hold them are worth fighting over.
That’s what lends the dispute over George Orwell now playing out on the pages of the New Yorker and New Republic magazines both interest and urgency. Orwell coined the term Cold War and there is a certain tendency to fix his life and work within the great struggle between left-wing totalitarianism and democratic egalitarianism that raged across the 20th century. More recently, new scholarship--and, particularly, Christopher Hitchens’ “Why Orwell Matters"--has argued for the author’s vital relevance.
Orwell’s fiction and journalism, this assessment holds, have a permanent place in the literature of solidarity and resistance. More important, Orwell’s example stands for the proposition that, given courage and fortitude, decent men and women can discern the facts about the world around them and reach moral conclusions that stand above the passions and fashions of their particular era. It is over this proposition that New Yorker staff writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Louis Menand and Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic’s formidable literary editor, eloquently divide.
In the New Yorker’s Jan. 27 issue, Menand, also a professor of English at the City University of New York, published an extended reconsideration of Orwell’s work titled “Honest, Decent, Wrong: the Invention of George Orwell.” In part, Menand’s essay is a persuasive denunciation of the left- and right-wing pieties that have attached themselves like barnacles to Orwell’s legacy. “Orwell has acquired an army of fans,” Menand writes, “all eager to suggest that a writer who approved of little would approve of them.”
From there, the contrarian assault proceeds on a number of fronts. Menand argues that the honesty upon which Orwell insisted was a question of viewpoint rather than facts: “ ‘He said what he believed’ and ‘He told it like it was’ refer to different virtues,” Menand writes, arguing that while Orwell was scrupulous about the former, he was programmatically supple about the latter.
“The point is not that Orwell made things up,” Menand writes. “The point is that he used writing in a literary, not a documentary, way; he wrote in order to make you see what
he wanted you to see, to persuade.”
As Menand sees it, “Here we arrive at the challenge presented by the ‘Orwell Was Right’ button. Hitchens says that there were three great issues in the 20th century, and Orwell was right on all three: imperialism, fascism and Stalinism. What does this mean, though? Orwell was against imperialism, fascism and Stalinism. Excellent. Many people were against them in Orwell’s time, and a great many more people have been against them since. The important question, after condemning those things, was what to do about them, and how to understand the implications for the future. On this level, Orwell was almost always wrong.”
Menand taxes Orwell with only a halting support of decolonization for the Indian subcontinent; of being initially soft on Hitler and of totally misreading -- in “1984" -- the potential consequences of a world divided between competing ideological blocs, both of which, he imagined, would be totalitarian.
Running just beneath the surface of Menand’s essay are the preoccupations of his 2001 prize-winning intellectual history “The Metaphysical Club:
A Story of Ideas in America.” In it, Menand delineated the U.S. Civil War’s impact on the circle of New England intellectuals -- William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Pierce and John Dewey -- that gave rise to American pragmatism.
As Menand wrote in that volume, “The lesson Holmes took from the war can be put in one sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence.”
It is to this subtext -- and to its implications for our conduct in the current situation -- that Wieseltier takes such strong exception in the Washington Diarist column of the current New Republic: “Menand sneakily makes Orwell over in his own diffident, perspectivist, mildly anti-intellectual image, so as to relieve us of Orwell’s obligations. ‘He is not saying, This is the way it objectively was from any possible point of view. He is saying, ‘This is the way it looked to someone with my beliefs.’ This is madly incorrect....
“This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” Wieseltier writes. “I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.... Orwell plainly regards the eclipse of objective truth as a decline and a danger.”
To Menand, Wieseltier argues, “the danger lies not in the fading of the concept of objective truth, but in the clinging to the concept of objective truth. Menand thinks that truth is merely a warrant for terrorism, that objectivity is just an early form of fanaticism, that certainty only kills ....Menand has risen above substance. He is indifferent and afraid. His fear is understandable: When one has renounced the inquiry into truth and falsity, certainty must seem terrifying.... There is no distinction between a just war and a holy war. What a haul of irony!”
When Menand’s philosophical explorations and his objections to Orwell are taken as whole, Wieseltier concludes, “There speaks the pragmatist: fascinating at dinner, useless in a struggle.”
This is a dispute of consequence; it’s not only about Orwell, but the way in which ideas are being used to shape our response to Islamic and state terrorism. So, who has the better of the argument?
Hitchens, whose work on Orwell Menand generally cites with approval, also happens to be the author of a book on the delicate art of journalistic dissent, “Letters to a Young Contrarian.”
He comes down on Wieseltier’s side.
Menand, Hitchens said, “either misread or is misreading Orwell. The motive here is: ‘Who wants to write another piece saying Orwell is a great guy?’ Orwell’s reputation does involve a certain kind of piety. Therefore, there’s a certain itch or temptation toward iconoclasm that is just about excusable. To say this guy is overrated is also to implicitly say you have the courage to challenge the consensus.”
But, according to Hitchens -- who recently has completed a major introductory essay to a new single-volume edition of “Animal Farm” and “1984" -- what Menand wrote was closer to distortion than misunderstanding.
“Orwell’s attitude toward war with Hitler initially was shaped by his anxiety that the Tories would not wage a total war on fascism, but a half-hearted war of empire. He wanted a people’s war.
“It only slowly came to him that the Churchill wing was willing to make a real fight of it. I think that’s a perfectly honorable evolution. Menand represents him as a bit of an appeaser, which is disgraceful.”
Hitchens also takes strong exception to Menand’s dismissal of Orwell’s opposition to imperialism, fascism and totalitarianism: “Actually, very few were against all of it at the same time. It was quite rare then -- and still is, as a matter of fact.
“To sum it up, Menand had a contrarian itch, the integrity of which is compromised by his failure to read Orwell with attention and by misrepresenting him on this crucial matter of the war.”