The most influential English author of the 20th century may well have been Eric Arthur Blair, a.k.a. George Orwell, the subject of Jeffrey Meyers's fascinating biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. This is the kind of book that forces one to evaluate its subject afresh; Mr. Meyers manages to separate Orwell the man from Orwell the legend, while allowing the reader to trace the development of both. Given what had already been written about Orwell, it is a tribute that nearly every page contains some fresh revelation about Orwell's life or some new insight into the significance of his work.
Orwell's most influential novels (Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four) were sometimes dismissed by critics as Cold War polemics but it is fascinating how they yield fresh insight into, say, the war in Afghanistan.
Each time I hear terms such as "collateral damage" or "holy war," I recall the Ministry of Information in Oceania.
Eric Arthur Blair was born in Motihari, India, in 1903. His father, Richard, was a low-ranking bureaucrat in the Opium Department whose basic responsibility was to collect and send Indian-grown opium into China. Keeping the dope dens of China well-supplied had proved to be an important tactic for Britain in winning two 19th-century opium wars with China. Richard Blair's tasks implanted in his son a deep and early contempt for colonialism in all of its bizarre manifestations.
When Eric was three, his mother returned to England and enrolled him at St. Cyprian's school in Eastbourne, then, later, at Eton. Blair hated his school days, as evidenced by his embittered memoir Such, Such Were the Joys.
When he finished at Eton, Eric signed on with the Burmese police, partly because his father had influence at the Colonial Office, partly because he was seduced by Rudyard Kipling's poem Mandalay (which Orwell bizarrely considered to be the finest poem in the English language), with its promise of "a Burma girl a-settin' " by the old Moulmein pagoda. As it happened, Blair's first posting was to Moulmein, but he found Burma girls to be scarce on the ground. He was not a particularly effective policeman but he witnessed several incidents about which he would later write, A Hanging (1931) and Shooting an Elephant (1936).
To many who came of age in the 1930s, the promise of communism proved irresistible; Blair succumbed and went off to fight with the Communists against Fascists in the Spanish Civil War where he was twice wounded. Afterward, as Eric Blair disappeared, and the recognizable literary voice of George Orwell emerged, he took as his credo a mistrust of all ideologies ("the smelly little orthodoxies which now contend for our souls"), and an abiding hatred of totalitarianism.
"We are moving into an age of totalitarianism," Orwell wrote in 1940, ". . . an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction. The autonomous individual is going to be stomped out of action."
Orwell achieved literary success with Animal Farm, rejected for political reasons by many publishers, including Victor Gollancz who had published Orwell's previous novels; the novel was finally accepted and brought out in 1948 by Secker and Warburg, an act of courage that put that publisher on the map.
In the Cold War years, I made it a practice to read Animal Farm aloud to my children every year; it is the kind of fable that inoculates a reader of any age against the seductive viruses of 20th-century ideology.
In 1949, as Orwell lay dying in a TB sanatorium at Cranham in Gloucestershire, he was correcting page proofs of his last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
For years, scholars have speculated about the significance of the title-date. Two decades ago, when I was writing the first biography of Malcolm Muggeridge, I came across a cache of letters between Orwell and Muggeridge; in one 1948 letter, written from the Isle of Jura, Orwell told Muggeridge that he was stumped for a title for his new novel (which Muggeridge had called "Utopia in reverse"). "Perhaps I might just reverse today's date," Orwell had written -- 1948 to 1984. The mystery was solved.
By 1955, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four had together sold more than 40 million copies in 60 languages. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell invented words and phrases that have passed into our language: "Big Brother is watching you"; "thought-police"; "double-think"; "the memory hole" and "Unperson." Living in the Canadian nanny state, with human-rights commissions to function as official straighteners, how could we make sense of life without such terms?
But Orwell's achievement is much greater than just bequeathing us a vocabulary: He was also an uncannily accurate seer. Jeffrey Meyers writes, "Orwell was acutely prophetic . . . about many problems of the postwar world: the breakdown of the family, the legions of homeless people, environmental pollution, deforestation, addictive drugs, fanaticism and violence in international sporting events, the decay of language, proliferation of atomic weapons, and the permanent state of war between superpowers, who provoke a great number of minor conflicts but never actually fight each other."
Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four succeeded both as novels and as prophesies. What happened before and after the breakdown of the Soviet Union proved Orwell right countless times over.
"The problem of the world is this," Orwell once told a friend, "Can we get men to behave decently to each other . . . ?"
While some might argue that the jury is still out on this question, since Sept. 11, 2001, the portents are less than encouraging.
Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the University of Western Ontario law faculty.
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