Share this article

print logo


Why Orwell Matters

By Christopher Hitchens

Basic Books

211 pages, $24

A couple of years ago Jeffrey Meyers, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, wrote a fine biography of George Orwell, born Eric Blair (1893-1950), and author of "Animal Farm," a severe criticism of Soviet Russia and "Nineteen Eighty-Four," a bleak exposition of totalitarian "doublespeak."

In "Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation," Meyers concluded that "Orwell never could -- perhaps never wanted to -- resolve the contradictions in his elusive character: Etonian prole, anti-colonial policeman, bourgeois bum, Tory anarchist, Leftist critic of the Left, puritanical lecher, kindly autocrat."

A biography is not a polemic, however. If you'd prefer being grabbed by the lapels and made to listen, the intellectual equivalent of this gruff activity is the hallmark of Christopher Hitchens' new book, "Why Orwell Matters." Hitchens, Gore Vidal's appointed dauphin in all things provocative, is fresh from his success d'estime, an indictment of Henry Kissinger for war crimes in his last publication, "Kissinger in the Dock."

Hitchens doesn't waste a minute getting to the heart of Orwell's kaleidoscopic oeuvre in "Why Orwell Matters." He has much to say about Orwell and Empire, the Left, Right, America, "Englishness," feminists, his novels, and deconstructing post-modernists. Here is Hitchens on Orwell:

Resistance to terrors: "To describe a state of affairs as 'Orwellian' is to imply crushing tyranny and fear and conformism. To describe a piece of writing as 'Orwellian' is to recognize that human resistance to these terrors is unquenchable. Not bad for one short lifetime."

Contrary traits in the service of mankind: "If Lenin had not uttered the maxim 'the heart on fire and the brain on ice,' it might have suited Orwell, whose passion and generosity were rivalled only by his detachment and reserve."

Contemporeity: Orwell's writings touch upon European integration, the importance of language, popular culture, fascination with the problem of objective truth; his influence on fiction, concern for the environment and his awareness of the dangers of "nuclearism."

The importance of principles: Hitchens writes that Orwell "-- illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, that 'views' do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them."

Hitchens is scholarly in the most unscholarly way; he gives no specific citations of quotes or listing of books that he's consulted. He presumes you already know these things. Of this arch expectation, conservative writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote recently in the Times of London. Wheatcroft illustrates the importance of shared knowledge in the description of a tiff between Hitchens and his literary chum of Oxford and New Statesman days in the '70s, Martin Amis. "Their cockiness and conceit were hard to take many years ago, what with their self-important pomposity, with their pub bore buttonholing manner and with their assumption that we are all as obsessed with them as they are with themselves."

By now you'll know whether you can take this English arrogance and, more importantly, whether it's worth it. Frequently, bright folks, sometimes irascible themselves, don't suffer mere mortals lightly.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News contributor.