Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens

I prefer the title of the English edition of this book: Orwell's Victory. That title more accurately covers Christopher Hitchens' purpose. The book consists of a series of rebuttals to Orwell's critics and their respective 'camps:' the Left, the Right, Feminists, Colonial apologists, Americans, literary critics, and others. Each one of these respective schools are targeted by Hitchens, and their arguments against Orwell the writer and the man are addressed.

The description of the book on Goodreads and Amazon contained a blurb which said that Hitchens removes the image of Orwell as a plaster saint, and draws a portrait of the man as he was.

This is not strictly accurate. Instead of a biography that meticulously details Orwell's life and writings Hitchens here instead writes a defense of Orwell's basic positions on the various above topics. In doing so he highlights how Orwell's comments and writings, were co-opted, misinterpreted, or in some cases even blatantly misquoted and used to support arguments and positions he never supported The book digs down through the actual writings and shows what it was Orwell actually said or wrote, as opposed to what he is rumored or others claimed he wrote.

Hitchens is like a Homeric Fighter defending the fallen Orwell's body from all who would 'strip him of his armor.' The fights with some of Orwell's detractors are bloody, as in the section where he defends Orwell from an allegation that he supplied a blacklist of English civil servants who might be communists to the BBC(he didn’t. It was an entry in his journal of a parlor game he and his friends played as to who they suspected were communists or collaborators and who would most quickly cave in the face of a dictatorship or invasion).

What emerges more than anything else in these pages is the idea that Orwell's great enemy and the great evil of his time was Stalin and Stalinism. Orwell witnessed first hand during the Spanish Civil War the lies and propaganda and atrocities committed by the communists against other left leaning groups fighting alongside them. The communists ruthlessly attacked and tried and executed all other groups who had been united in fighting Franco's Fascists. Orwell recognized the need to write of what happened. He saw Stalin's agents everywhere subverting, destroying, and attacking all non communists. This zero toleration of other's political views is what most galled him. And later, during WW2 when the allies saw Stalin as the savior against the Germans Orwell was quick to point out the record of the man, and what his regime had done. There were members of the British government who were working with and for Stalin and some had an active hand in repressing Orwell's books.

Orwell's supposed unflattering portrayal of women as a significant of his anti woman attitude is addressed and effectively demolished. He wrote of a certain type of female in certain type of settings(bossy, domineering, with a hint of cruelty) but this is, as Hitchens points out through letters, journals, and others accounts of Orwell, not representative of how he felt about women in general. He did in fact marry several beautiful, intelligent, and independent women through the course of his life.

Hitchens is fair though. In the book he shows that Orwell did indeed dislike homosexuals and homosexuality and often raved about them. Hitchens acknowledges this but also is quick to point out that perhaps his experiences at English prep schools might have created this.

As a defense for those familiar with Orwell's writings against those who would misuse him the book is worthwhile. There are some intriguing biographical details, but the book works better as a history of Orwell's ideas during and after his death. Hitchens is pugnacious and stubborn enough to go toe to toe with respected literary figures, politicians, and critics, and like a Homeric hero he permits no quarter and gives no mercy.