9 January 2012
I am editing a new anthology titled The Orwell Brigade. On a twist to the usual noir collection of short stories, this anthology will feature non-fiction essays by a number of leading international novelists. The response to the venture has been overwhelmingly positive and there is a reason: George Orwell.
Orwell, who is remembered for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, was also one of the great essayists of the twentieth century.
Orwell’s essays about colonial rule in Burma, the Spanish Civil War and World War II used plain language to discuss in everyday words a set of universal values that were under political attack. Orwell introduced into our daily conversation the ideas of “Big Brother,” “doublethink” and “newspeak” — terms that continue to be used today.
Timothy Garton-Ash in The New York Review of Books, 22 October 1998, wrote, “Orwell is the most influential political writer of the twentieth century.”
What is Orwell’s legacy? And why should we care more than sixty years after his death?
The simple answer is that Orwell’s worldview transcended his time. His essays remain relevant for us and those around us. Finding a way to revive the tradition of a novelist/essayist in the Orwell tradition is a way of keeping those in power honest, accountable, and actionable. Lying is a not just a way of political life; it is a way to control people’s interests, desires, motives and memories.
A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant are incredible firsthand essays. They are personal accounts of Orwell’s time as a petty colonial official during the British administration of Burma. Here was a writer who wrote about what he had experienced, shaped and honed, and refined the emotions of the day of both the hanging and shooting: the condemned man being led to the gallows and being mindful not to step in a puddle on the way to his death.
In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell drew upon his six months of fighting in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. In that book, Orwell wrote: “It was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies — unless one counts journalists.”
What troubled him most, having been at the front of the street battles in Barcelona, was how the British press had used falsehood, rumors, and distortions to describe the events in Barcelona in a fashion that pandered to the left wing in England. Anyone who has ever been a witness to violence at or near a frontline and later reads the press reports and statements from officials who were far removed from the action, will understand Orwell’s anger.
The lies and duplicity that once shocked Orwell may no longer shock us. With scandals like the phone hacking by reporters at the News of The World, we have become cynical about “facts,” “reality” and “truth telling.” We are less innocent about the way the media and others use images and words to “sell” a position and as a collateral obligation to describe what happened on the ground. We read or watch media that mirrors our prejudices rather than confronts them. Experience has been downgraded to below junk bond grade. This is our world. But every generation has to claim the world back for truth telling. It doesn’t happen on autopilot. And Orwell was a very experienced “pilot.”
In 1984, Orwell described the country of Oceania as founded on rewriting the past. It was the power to control what people were told had happened that was most disturbing to Orwell. Governments uploading memories and pretending they had a counterpart in reality was the nightmare, the horror of 1984.
Orwell found a voice that allowed him a way to turn politics into literature. His use of metaphor and cleverly invented new terms to describe oppressive power captured the plight of the powerless. He handed down a warning for our time, perhaps for all times: “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Clive James in The New Yorker wrote, “It wasn’t just the amount of truth he told but the way he told it, in prose transmuted to poetry by the pressure of his dedication.”
Orwell’s personal history may also suggest why more writers have not followed his path. Timothy Garton-Ash tells us that Homage to Catalonia sold only around 50 copies a year during Orwell’s lifetime (it now sells more than 10,000 copies a year).
When Timothy Ash-Garton and Clive James were writing about Orwell’s legacy, we still hadn’t entered the age of the Internet, a full-blown 24/7 information machine where false information, lies and manipulation battle to secure territorial rights over our memory and thinking.
In The Orwell Brigade, I’ve gathered a group of modern truth tellers, writers who write fiction, but also share a vision that writers should reach with their words to contemporary political issues in the form of an essay. Their passion and experience will use plain words to shape politics into the words normally reserved for literature, drawing upon some of the great Orwellian themes of our times:
The economic collapse in America and Europe, a trend for capitalism and totalitarian elites to find common ground, anti-rational/science populists who use religion to push back the Enlightenment, the growing inequalities among people in the same country and the rise of technological means of control, surveillance and destruction.
Ministries of Truth roam the Internet on behalf of governments in a way that Orwell would never have guessed.
In 1984, Winston Smith is taken to the dreaded Room 101 for memory replacement: 2 + 2 = 5. Room 101 is a metaphor for the final destination for all of us who fail to speak plainly about the distortions in the relationship between those who cling to power and those who hunger to replace them, and the rest of us wedged in the war zone, caught in between.