Facing Unpleasant Facts
Compiled and with an Introduction by George Packer
Harcourt: 308 pp., $25
All Art Is Propaganda
Compiled by George Packer and with an Introduction by Keith Gessen
Harcourt: 374 pp., $25
It’s a source of no small irony to read George Orwell’s essays in the closing days of this election season -- although not for the reasons one might expect. Sure, there have been plenty of Orwellian turns these last few months (a Washington insider running as an agent of change, political rallies reminiscent of the Two Minutes Hates from “1984"). But for all that, the presidential race remains less ideological than pragmatic as each candidate tries to lay claim to the center ground.
Even more, it oversimplifies Orwell to boil down his sensibilities to sound bites, to the allegorical starkness of “Animal Farm” or “1984.” Nearly 59 years after his death of tuberculosis at age 46, Orwell’s legacy now seems shackled by those novels, his restless intellect reduced to slogans: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength,” “Big Brother is watching you.”
For Orwell, “Animal Farm” and “1984" were distillations; written late in his career, they represent a summing up. Far more fundamental is how he came to their perspective, how the worldview they portray arose. Like many of his books, they have roots in the pieces he contributed, beginning in the early 1930s, to newspapers, anthologies and journals -- essays, columns, criticism, observations, the efforts of a working writer, which, more than anything, is what he was.
“Orwell’s writing began with essays, and his essays began with his experience,” notes George Packer in his introduction to “Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays.” “Before ‘Burmese Days’ there was ‘A Hanging,’ and before ‘A Hanging’ there were ‘five boring years within the sound of bugles’ as a colonial policeman in Burma. Before ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ there was ‘The Spike,’ and before ‘The Spike’ there were months spent incognito as a dishwasher and tramp. In ‘Why I Write’ Orwell reports that he wanted to be a writer from ‘perhaps the age of five or six,’ but it was only in the hard, self-inflicted experiences of his twenties and thirties -- imperialism, poverty, coal mines and miners, the Spanish civil war -- that his power as a writer was forged.”
“Facing Unpleasant Facts” is one of a new two-volume set, compiled by Packer, gathering many of Orwell’s essays; the other is “All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays.” Taken together, these books reaffirm the author’s status as one of the definitive essayists in English literature. This is hardly a new assessment, but it’s worth restating, especially at a moment when Orwell’s achievement -- to state directly, and in plain language, what he thought and experienced -- seems like the most radical of notions, a political and aesthetic stance so unfiltered as to be naive. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” he wrote in a 1946 column dissecting cultural truisms, and that’s as good a summing up of his perspective as you’re likely to find.
Courage of his convictions
Whether he’s discussing the dangers of totalitarianism or framing an unlikely defense of English cooking, Orwell stands by the courage of his convictions, even if that means criticizing friends like Stephen Spender for not being sufficiently political or taking on the intellectual left (of which he was a member) for its inability to understand realpolitik. “Many intellectuals of the Left were flabbily pacifist up to 1935, shrieked for war against Germany in the years 1935-9, and then promptly cooled off when the war started,” he writes in the 1941 piece “England Your England.” " . . . [U]nderlying this is the really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia -- their severance from the common culture of the country.”
A related idea emerges in “Inside the Whale,” the landmark critical essay published in 1940. “With all its injustices,” Orwell writes, “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.”
This is a key point, one to which Orwell returns consistently; it is his literary anima. In “Why I Write,” (1946) he makes the case explicitly: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it. . . . The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” He’s right, of course, and yet, in such a statement lies the seeds of his being misunderstood. It’s the same effect as “Animal Farm” and “1984" -- to make Orwell seem like a polemicist rather than, as he puts it, someone who has “a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.”
What Orwell’s after is less diatribe than dialogue. In his writing, politics and literature are in constant conversation, framing reactions to what he has lived through, what he has read. Throughout these essays, we are confronted with his humanism, which, as much as his intellect, motivates his work. This emerges most clearly in his personal essays, although as Packer notes, these “could not be farther from the kind of autobiographical writing that has been fashionable over the past ten or fifteen years, in which a writer puts the reader under the spell of pure novelistic storytelling, all emotional vibration without an insight anywhere.”
For Orwell, it was all about the details
For Orwell, the key is clear-eyed observation; "[O]ne can write nothing readable,” he suggests, “unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a window pane.” It’s about the smallest details: the condemned man sidestepping a puddle on his way to the gallows in “A Hanging,” the sight of a dead German -- a dead human -- in “Revenge Is Sour” that drives home “the meaning of war.”
In “How the Poor Die,” Orwell describes the death of a fellow patient in the public ward of a Paris hospital. “There you are, then, I thought, that’s what is waiting for you, twenty, thirty, forty years hence: that is how the lucky ones die, the ones who live to be old,” he writes. “One wants to live, of course, 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.”
There’s a certain wishful air to be inferred here; Orwell published “How the Poor Die” in 1946, less than four years before he, too, died in a hospital. Again this illustrates his transparency as a writer, the clarity of his vision and his voice. Such qualities mark the 50 essays here, which range from the well-known -- “Shooting an Elephant,” “Politics and the English Language,” “Such, Such Were the Joys” -- to the offhand, and share a pragmatic directness, a willingness to see things as they are. “What is really at issue,” he writes in “The Prevention of Literature,” “is the right to report contemporary events truthfully or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.”
Yes, indeed, that’s it exactly, not just for Orwell but for all of us.
Ulin is book editor of The Times.