If ideas are the “characters” of essays, then the main characters of Orwell’s essays could be said to be four heavyweights: Freedom, Socialism, Totalitarianism, and Language. Just as no family ever agrees on any one point or takes one clear line, these four ideas also never work themselves, in Orwell’s writing, into some clear and consistent pattern, easy to summarise and propagate. To learn what he is saying – and we are thinking of a world in which the two World Wars, the Russian revolution, and the rise of Hitler were the main trends through which he was thinking out his ideas – we have to read Orwell, to witness a mind thinking its way through a political and moral minefield (As George Packer perceptively notes in his introduction, "In his best work, Orwell's arguments are mostly with himself."). A good way of beginning such a project would be to go through some of the pieces recently brought together in a sleek new volume called Critical Essays. This title is apt, for it as a critic of trends and currents in the immediate world around him that the essayist wields the most power.
The strongest of Orwell’s stresses (and hence the easiest argument to reproduce) was against totalitarianism, both of the communist and fascist varieties. As early as any other observer of his time, he grasped how the Soviet state was far more evil than the system which it claimed to refute, and that its management of thought and opinion could only end up making automatons of both the bureaucracy and citizens. We know well today the truth of Orwell’s argument that the organised deception practised by totalitarian states is not a temporary expedient, but is rather “something integral to totalitarianism”. In the same way, his observation that, in totalitarian states, “history is something to be created rather than learned” is something that historians of dictatorships from the Third Reich to Saddam’s Baathist Iraq have repeatedly demonstrated. Orwell gives us a lens that lays bare the deceptions of an entire brand of politics.
Orwell’s interest in language as an instrument of politics – as a means not for expressing but “for concealing or preventing thought” – is what animates his most famous essay, “Politics and the English Language”. Here, Orwell’s attack on bad, vague, overwrought or obfuscatory English is made not just as a writer concerned with declining standards. Orwell also sees that such language can be a result not just of plain incompetence or laziness, but of a deliberate intent to distort or mask the truth. Orwell proves that it is often in the interest of the state – or else a class within the state, such as the bureaucracy – to only pretend to be giving information or to be demonstrating intent, or empathy, or solidarity (he cites the classic bureaucratic cliche “we will leave no stone unturned”). But the very vagueness and woolliness of the words being used give the game away, and we would know this only if we have a conceptual awareness of how language is working, or can be made to work.
Orwell’s argument is of course aimed against the state – whether the propaganda machine of totalitarian states, or the hedging and inffectuality of democratic states – and against the peculiar jargon of ideologies like Marxism, of which he was a relentless opponent. But we could easily apply it today to many forces in our times. The hysterical shrieking, pervasive sexualisation, and bad faith of so much advertising and PR-speak today are a conscious debasement of language, as are the peculiar argot of management schools, political parties, and academia, the deliberate hysteria and melodrama of our media, and the many short-cuts of chatspeak when it infects more traditional forms of written communication. (I don’t know about you, but many emails and letters I get address me as “u” rather than “you”, and to me even this apparently harmless and innocent misdemeanour seems not just a diminishment of me, but of language and thought itself.) All these currents, under the aegis of the so-called forces of freedom, threaten our selfhood and independence in the free world as much as oppressive political power might; freedom cannot be something that is bestowed upon us, but is something that emerges actively from our own thought, language, and actions. And for Orwell, where thought is put to sleep, there begins the road to subjugation. Language as a means not of stimulating but of stupefying thought – that is Orwell's target. Writing of totalitarian propaganda, he speaks of how such thought can debase language and hollow it out completely from within, but he is perceptive enough to see that this kind of degradation can work both ways: that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." We have in our culture today an abundance of shallow language that corrupts thought.
Orwell is one of the most quotable of writers, and the pleasures of his ringing sentences can only be communicated by direct quotation. From a long essay on Dickens, in which Orwell takes Dickens to task for criticising society without ever offering a constructive program, before concluding, more sympathetically: "The vagueness of [Dickens's] discontent is a mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, 'an expression on the human face'." From a review of TS Eliot's late poems, which Orwell judged negatively: "If one wants to deal in antitheses, one might say that the later poems express a melancholy faith and the earlier ones a glowing despair." Here, in one of the most moving passages in all of Orwell, are his criticisms of Gandhi and his religiosity in an essay called "Reflections on Gandhi":
Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because 'friends react on one another' and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one's preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconciliable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi — with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction — always gave the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the decision had been solely his own, he would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risks might be. There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which — I think — most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.
And here is the first paragraph of Orwell's review of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which, through a brilliant summary that is content to leave all analysis for later, summons up an unforgettable image of Chaplin's comic genius:
France, 1918, Charlie Chaplin, in field grey and German steel helmet, is pulling the string of Big Bertha, falling down every time she fires. A little later, losing his way in the smoke screen, he finds himself attacking in the middle of the American infantry. Later he is in flight with a wounded staff officer, in an aeroplane which flies upside down for such lengths of time that Charlie is puzzled to know why his watch persists in standing up on the end of its chain. Finally, falling out of the aeroplane into a mud-hole, he loses his memory and is shut up in a mental home for twenty years, completely ignorant of what is happening outside.
These vigorous and combative essays have dated only slightly; both as a record of their time and as advice for our own time, they still have much to say.
And a recent post that takes up Orwell on the question of writerly depictions of working life: "On Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work".