January 21, 2013

Orwell Day

Filed under: Books, Britain, History, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:04

To mark Orwell Day, History Today posted a short account of the publication of Orwell’s last book, 1984:

George Orwell’s forty-sixth birthday was less than a month off when his last novel was published in London by Secker & Warburg, and five days afterwards by Harcourt Brace in New York. The socialist author of the twentieth century’s most devastating critique of left-wing totalitarianism had less than a year left to live. The idea for the book had come to him in 1943 and themes in an early outline included, ‘The system of organized lying on which society is founded, the ways in which this is done (falsification of records, etc), the nightmare feeling caused by the disappearance of objective truth, leader-worship, etc…’. No one who knew London in the years immediately after 1945 will need to be told where the appalling shabbiness of the book’s setting came from. The shortages, the bombsites, the regular failure of things to work properly, the prevailing dreariness — were drawn from real life.

Update: History Today also posted a link to an earlier article comparing Orwell to Edmund Burke:

Both Orwell and Burke consistently mistrusted their fellow intellectuals. Orwell wrote, in his great wartime essay The Lion and the Unicorn, that ‘the Bloomsbury highbrow with his mechanical snigger is as out-of-date as the cavalry colonel’. His was not just an abstract dislike — he had seen how the blind worship of Stalin’s Russia by many on the left had given credence to the purges, paving the way for Communist repression of the non-Stalinist Left in Barcelona, to which he is a blistering eyewitness in Homage to Catalonia (1938).

[. . .]

Orwell hymns it differently. In Nineteen Eighty-Four history and memory are the subversives of a totalitarian order that has made grim flesh of the old Soviet joke ‘only the future is certain … the past is constantly changing’. But as Simon Schama has recently reminded us, ‘For Orwell, to have a future, at least a free future, presupposes keeping faith with the Past’. It is to the Past’s potential to undo Big Brother that Winston Smith proposes his rebel’s toast.

In The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell writes that it is patriotism that is ‘the bridge between the future and the past’. Bernard Crick’s description of him as a ‘revolutionary patriot’ whose ‘socialism embraces both memory and nature’ is spot-on. And in Orwell’s sense that the ‘privateness of English life … this strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency’, would eventually win through to victory over Fascism and a better world he is not all that far from Burke’s ‘idea of a liberal descent which inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity’ — an untidy Britain but one where ‘the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it almost always acts right’. Orwell saw his future Socialist Britain as an inconsistent Utopia: ‘it will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical … it will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere … but it will never lose touch with the tradition of compromise and the belief in a law that is above the State’. Burke might not have approved the Utopia but he would have appreciated its untidiness. In his view, ‘the circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind’.

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