Ho Say Peng
As if to balance the yin and yang of the bad and the good, Christopher Hitchens composed an equal number of critically positive and reasonably caustic assessment of people who tore at his heartstrings in markedly different ways.
For a succinct and ‘objective’ (though not detached) biography of Thomas Jefferson, there is an unflattering examination of a political creature known to the world as Bill Clinton (the book is subtitled The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton: and so we are forced to consider how abjectly the 42nd President failed to live up to the name of the 2nd President who was also a Founding Father and principle author of the Declaration of Independence).
Of the religious fundamentalism and fraud of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, known to the world as Mother Teresa, we have, to combat such mediaeval superstition and trickery, Thomas Paine, a product of the Enlightenment/Age of Reason, a deist and close friend of fellow deist Thomas Jefferson (both men were mutual admirers of each other and it may have been Paine who coined the term “United States of America” in his pamphlet Common Sense, unquestionably granting Paine, a borne Englishman, who later wrote the inspirational series of pamphlets The American Crisis that was to turn the course of the revolution, the rightful status of Founding Father, contending with Jefferson to be the “Author of America”).
And finally, against the political cunning and inhumanity of Henry Kissinger, we are given to try to learn and understand and to intelligently appreciate and admire the man who used to be blandly known as Eric Arthur Blair before he transformed himself into a ubiquitous literary persona and champion of “common decency” and “window pane” prose, in a biographical study published in 2002, entitled in the US, Why Orwell Matters, and in the UK, Orwell’s Victory, which is the copy I am perusing and which I borrowed from Queenstown library.
It is curious that the same book is issued under two different titles in two countries that have between them a close but tumultuous historical relationship—”transatlantic cousins” we now call them. It further forces one to wonder why Hitchens should especially remind Americans that Orwell matters and the British that Orwell has been victorious. It seems the world, least of all America and Britain, has recognized that, for if not, why is Animal Farm a common staple in the literature classes of secondary/middle schools and why do we continually employ Orwellian neologisms and his namesake adjective, Orwellian, to describe oppressive and totalitarian behavior?
George Orwell had something of a love-hate attitude towards America. Unlike his beloved Charles Dickens, he never set foot on the United States and showed little curiosity about it. Orwell was, Hitchens wrote, “suspicious of its commercial and mercenary culture, somewhat resentful of its imperial ambitions, and somewhat fastidious about its sheer scale and vulgarity.” Part of America’s sheer scale was the result of a proposal by Thomas Paine and negotiation under the authority of President Jefferson that culminated in the Louisiana Purchase, a real estate deal with Napoleon that more than doubled the land mass of the United States.
Orwell was an admirer of Paine “as all English pamphleteers and radicals were” and, as Hitchens believed, had studied and appreciated the American Revolution. In the Appendix of Nineteen Eighty-Four, entitled The Principles of Newspeak, as an example of something that could not, or at least be “quite impossible” to, be bastardized into Newspeak, Orwell held up the Jeffersonian preamble to the Declaration. There is no Newspeak version of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”
Orwell’s attitude towards American literature is microcosmic of his mixed attitude towards America. He hated “Yank Mags” and American comic books and certain novels for their cruelty and violence, writing that “In the old-style English novel you knocked your man down and then chivalrously waited for him to get up before knocking him down again; in the modern American version he is no sooner down than you take the opportunity of jumping on his face.”
He did, however, love Mark Twain, Jack London, and Walt Whitman. He particularly loved Twain’s semi-autobiographical tramping novel Roughing It and Huckleberry Finn (which takes place about the Mississippi River—one place in America Orwell evinced any wish of visiting) and London’s adventure stories, and was inspired enough by London’s People of the Abyss to trudge a similar path, to start his own investigations into the condition of the working class in London and Paris, beginning as London did by changing one’s clothes and appearance in a second-hand shop. (London’s The Iron Heel partially inspired Ninety Eighty-Four.) At his death, Orwell had with him a copy of Whitman’s poetry that his father had gave him on his sixteenth birthday. But in the end, said Hitchens in a Econ Talk podcast interview with George Mason Professor of Economics Russ Roberts, “most of what he writes about America is either rather slight or rather condescending, it has to be admitted. He didn’t have enough of a historic sense of its rise and importance.”
His failure to comprehend the rising influence of the United States excepted, Orwell has been right, according to Hitchens, about the “three great subjects of the twentieth century”: imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Perhaps the British edition of the book is entitled what it is to remind the Brits that Orwell had not only been right in presciently anticipating the coming fall of the British Empire, but he was also right in his rooted opposition to imperialism and the domination and exploitation of colored peoples by white men—Orwell had essentially repudiated the Kipling-esque notion of The White Man’s Burden. Hitchens believed that Orwell’s intimate experiences with imperial oppression—he was borne in an Indian colony and had worked as an imperial policeman in Burma—gave him insights into the “psycho-dramatic” nature of domination and the thrill of not just dominating but being dominated—the master-slave morality—and the “sexual warp” that comes about; these perceptions would be useful in aiding Orwell’s later comprehension of fascism and totalitarianism.
For the time being, Orwell’s Burmese experience would suffice for a novel—Burmese Days—and several essays. Orwell, who everyone thinks is “quintessentially English” (Hitchens devotes a chapter to address this), as you already know is borne in India, and one of his first few articles were written in French (Brave New World author Aldous Huxley was briefly his French teacher), which included Comment on exploite un peuple: L’Empire britannique en Birmanie (How a Nation is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma), published in Le Progrès Civique, which was edited by the novelist and communist Henri Barbusse. Two of Orwell’s most moving essays also came out of this experience: A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant.
Following the publication of Burmese Days, “some old Burma hands” felt that Orwell had “rather let the side down”. It will not the only time that Orwell’s so-called allies or “comrades” felt the same way about him. When Orwell returned from Spain and wanted to write and publish his first-hand experiences and opinions, which were harshly critical of the Communists who upended the revolution and installed a police state in Barcelona, he was accused by fellow leftists of undermining the anti-fascist movement, of which the Communists were part. Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, rejected Orwell’s reportage on Barcelona, as did his publisher Gollancz when Orwell proposed an outline of a book that we now have as Homage to Catalonia. Orwell was warned that he might “harm the fight against Fascism”.
Orwell was one of the few to see through Stalin and the Soviet Union, while most of the socialist intelligentsia were waxing lyrical about a new Utopia. Following in the timeless tradition of Aristophanes and Aesop, Kafka and Kipling, Beatrice Potter, and especially Jonathan Swift (all of whom he had read and reread), Orwell sought to expose the gigantic Soviet lie, as we know, through the allegory Animal Farm. The manuscript was rejected by several publishers who were afraid to upsetting the Russians in a time when the United States, allied with the Soviet Union and Great Britain, was engaged in a world war against the Third Reich and believed that Orwell’s book would undermine the anti-Nazi front. Following the immediate and ranging success of Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four encountered less publishing hindrances. But faced another problem. The Right tried to turn the dystopian novel into anti-socialist propaganda and Orwell had to issue a statement denying that Nineteen Eighty-Four was an attack on socialism and the Labor government. At any rate, we may look at this as part of Orwell’s victory.
But, as Hitchens states in the Introduction, “this is not a biography”. The purpose is to “extricate” Orwell from “a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies; an object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise, employed to stultify schoolchildren with his insufferable rightness and purity.” But Hitchens’ book is less about all that than an attempt to right what he sees as the wrongs committed by people from various quarters on George Orwell. At the receiving end of most of Hitchens’ criticisms are people from the Left. He gathers quotations—”not easy meat” but “core statements”—from E. P. Thompson, Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Isaac Deutscher, Raymond Williams, and Conor Cruise O’Brien, and promptly knocks them down one by one.
Hitchens does a better job in attempting to correct the Right’s efforts of selectively expropriating the legacy of Orwell, but he fails unfortunately to clear up what many on the right-libertarian spectrum believe to be Orwell’s doublethink which is that Orwell was anti-totalitarian on one hand and for a socialist economy on the other; Orwell, as Hitchens noted, had read and understood the classical liberal F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and even gave an intelligent review of it. There is also a chapter in defense of Orwell against certain feminist criticisms, which is not really convincing. But most importantly I want to ask Hitchens, where is the chapter entitled Orwell and Homosexuality?
Such an apologetic type of book as Hitchens’ would be more useful and valuable if it was published in, say, 1950, one year after Orwell’s last book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was published. It is uncontroversially easy to openly profess admiration for Orwell today and everyone roughly knows what to admire or admonish in Orwell, what Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are actually about, etc. As Andy Croft said in his review of Hitchens’ book, “… it hardly needs saying again. Who is going to disagree? You can’t argue with a monument.” Which is a bit true. But what Hitchens has done is to make us stand closer to the monument to examine the details as he dusts off the dirt. For something this short it is satisfying but it leaves one pining for more and it is a loss for us all that Hitchens is no longer here to continue in the essayistic tradition of Orwell.