Best known for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, George Orwell's mastery of clear language is nowhere more evident than in his essays. New Yorker staff writer George Packer, who has compiled some of these shorter works into two volumes, says Orwell's voice was irascible and witty and, above all, direct.
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Here’s a passage from George Orwell’s The Sporting Spirit, originally published in The London Tribune in December, 1945.
“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.”
New Yorker staff writer George Packer says Orwell’s essays are where one finds the real Orwell, Orwell at his most Orwellian. And so, Packer has assembled a collection of his favorites in two volumes, Facing Unpleasant Facts, and All Art is Propaganda, published this fall.
Now, many of us never got past 1984 and Animal Farm, long-time staples of the high school curriculum, and that’s a shame, because, as Packer observes, the term “Orwellian” has become synonymous with dark depictions of government eavesdropping and mind control when the word should, in fact, conjure up the clarity and power of Orwell’s prose.
To me, “Orwellian” is the quality of his thinking and his voice on the page. It’s so direct. It is so much a recognizable human voice speaking quite intimately, quite directly to the reader, and never more so than in these essays, because that’s where you find Orwell in his irascibility, his exaggerations, his poignancy, his wit. So it’s the fullest Orwell, the most Orwellian Orwell in the essays.
In that list you might also add his range. He didn't just talk politics by any means.
He wrote about being a homeless guy in a shelter. He wrote about being a colonial policeman in Burma. He wrote about a good cup of tea. He wrote about English cooking. He wrote about the return of spring. He wrote about Gandhi. He wrote about Kipling. He wrote about T.S. Eliot. He wrote about cigarettes. He wrote about book reviewing.
It sounds like a kind of a random compendium of interests. It’s not. They really do come together in these volumes, and I think the key to them is he’s always interested in the sort of moral and social consequences of the subjects that he’s taking up. It’s never a free ride. It’s never just for fun.
I mean, even his essay on sort of pornographic postcards that were sold at the seaside in his youth has a point, and a pretty powerful point about the need for human beings to have both a higher and lower self, a Don Quixote and a Sancho Panza, as he says in the essay.
You know, the Cliff Notes version of Orwell is of a political ideologue, always railing against totalitarianism and always for his beloved democratic socialism. That’s an impression certainly you'd draw from his novels. But what about his essays? Were his politics fully formed from the start? Can you cite an essay in which he expresses doubt or admits a mistake?
I think the key essay for this, and it’s in the volume of narrative essays called Facing Unpleasant Facts, and that title comes from an essay called Why I Write, which is his clearest statement of what his purpose is as a writer.
And in it he describes how his coming to political consciousness was kind of slow. He started out wanting to be a novelist, basically wanting to be a 19th-century novelist. Dickens was his hero. But events, such as the Depression of the '30s, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the rise of fascism and Communism, sort of pushed him into political writing, and that’s where he really shone.
He’s always the observer who, you know, misses nothing and sees these little moments that capture a whole world. I mean, in A Hanging, for example, he is one of a party of executioners escorting a Burmese prisoner to the gallows, doing their job, except at one moment the prisoner steps aside to avoid a puddle in their path. And that’s the moment when it turns into a great essay, because it’s then that Orwell suddenly realizes they're about to kill a living man, and what that means.
So that’s the trademark of his narrative essays are those moments when a small observation leads him to some rather large and powerful thought.
And in that instance, of course, he didn't set that situation up, but it’s fair to say that several times he did. I mean, in The Spike, he was tramping along the roads to stay in these shelters with actual unemployed, poverty-stricken humanity. He didn't have to be there. And in another essay he explicitly sets out to get himself arrested by being drunk and disorderly.
Yeah, that one’s called Clink. It was never published, but it’s one of favorites because it’s just this long, crazy account of a night spent trying to get really drunk and get thrown into jail, which he succeeded in doing, at least for a short time.
That period of his life is very strange and hard to understand, and the best that I can say is he came back from Burma guilt-ridden about having been in the business of executing Burmese prisoners, etc., and he had to expiate it somehow, and he did it by identifying with the dregs, with the submerged classes.
But I think what’s wonderful about the essays in these two volumes is they're about so many other things. There’s an essay called The Case for the Open Fire. [BROOKE LAUGHS] You know, that’s Orwell’s – sort of the reactionary, the guy who really didn't love the age of the machine and who kind of wanted the England of his childhood where everyone sat around the coal fire and read the newspaper to each other.
[LAUGHS] You say that Orwell spent a lot of his time trying to distance himself from a privileged childhood, and he called out his fellow writers in more than one essay for being out of touch with the common man.
Well, he was at a class level where he was acutely aware of class; that is to say, he was not upper class but he really wasn't low or even middle. He was what he once called “the lower-upper-middle-class,” which means kind of sliding down from the level at which his family had been accustomed to living, and full of the anxieties and terrors of that position.
And what he did in his life, which is unusual, is he decided to slide down even farther. He assumed the guise of a tramp, of a dishwasher in a Parisian restaurant. He went down coal mines. He fought in the Spanish Civil War – in the trenches. He was not just signing pamphlets like W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, whom he liked to call the “pansy left,” not very nicely.
Orwell was quite tough and even brutal in some ways, and over and over again he insulted them, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not, but I think out of the resentment and envy of someone both less privileged and less successful.
In his 40s, which was the 1940s, he became a famous writer, and his essays became less cantankerous and more generous, and actually more upbeat. I mean, even as he was writing 1984 he was also writing little essays like Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, which is an essay about the return of spring and how it’s free, and the dictators and the bureaucrats can't keep you from enjoying it.
So it’s as if he was able to celebrate life a little bit more, even as he was dying of tuberculosis and writing the bleakest novel of the 20th century, 1984.
In Such, Such Were the Joys, he talks about his youth and his experiences in public school. Do you want to read from that?
This is at the beginning. He has just been summoned to the headmaster’s office. He’s age seven. He is going to be published for the crime of wetting his bed repeatedly. When he’s flogged, he doesn't cry, and, in fact, he even sort of says to another schoolboy, didn't hurt, which prompts the headmaster to summon him again for another, more brutal flogging, which causes the riding crop to break across the Orwellian buttocks and fly across the room. And here’s what follows.
“I had fallen into a chair, weakly sniveling. I remember that this was the only time throughout my boyhood when a beating actually reduced me to tears, and curiously enough I was not even now crying because of the pain. The second beating had not hurt very much either. Fright and shame seemed to have anesthetized me. I was crying partly because I felt that this was expected of me, partly from genuine repentance, but partly also because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.”
You've got this powerful but rather simple incident, and then this amazing opening out to a statement about the world of a child, which is the mark of a great essayist.
George, thank you so much.
My pleasure, Brooke.
New Yorker staff writer George Packer edited two collections of Orwell’s essays, Facing Unpleasant Facts and All Art is Propaganda. To hear more of our conversation about Orwell, go to Onthemedia.org.