Why does Orwell matter? Honestly? How many of us have been truly impacted by his work, his character, or his ideas? How many of us are even aware that he’s written anything besides Animal Farm and 1984? I despise essays that begin with questions (it feels like over saturated pathos) but I must begin with these so that the reader may gain for themselves some perspective. Orwell is perhaps one of the most recognized authors of the twentieth century, and most likely for the wrong reasons. If a governmental regime is totalitarian or if a fictional young-adult novel feels the dreary impulse to adopt a dystopian environment, then inevitability Orwell is summoned. The term “Orwellian” has become synonymous with dictatorships characterized by employing psychological manipulation and brute force to attain its goals. In this way it might seem fair to suggest that Orwell matters because he established through two of his latter novels, an easily recognizable (and unfortunately for most of us, easily repeatable) system of tyrannical power. Orwell matters then because he demonstrated how that power arises and subsequently maintains said power.
Despite the recognition he seems achieved in contemporary society (then again I do not know how many children in school would be able to connect the name Orwell to any of his books let alone his other writings) we must remember that these “triumphs” of literature were considered failures by the writer himself and did very poorly in terms of sales. But it is not my intention to review his novels as proof of the man’s importance. I will end my commentary on them with a single statement. There is not a question of should one read Animal Farm or 1984, but when one should read them.
I genuinely feel that it is in Orwell’s essays that the man’s gift as a literary giant really shines forth, because his ability to express his convictions, experiences, and emotions are precise. The voice that emerges in the passages is not a literary snob (you know, someone like me). He conveys his writing clearly and seems only interested in presenting his material rather than flourishing his work unnecessarily. If we sample just a few first lines from his work we may (apart from becoming green with envy) observe a real craftsman.
When Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography.
First of all the physical memories, the sounds, the smells and surfaces of things.
In, Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.
As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.
The last sentence in the selection is the first line of his essay Marrakech. You’ll most likely find this line whenever you happen to purchase the mass produced opiates otherwise peddled as Self-Help writing books. There is a reason for this: It’s a damn good sentence. All of these invite the reader to share in the experience rather than be subjected to it. Right there is another talent of Orwell, his work, when read, never forces the reader into a sense of obligation. We have all unfortunately suffered through terrible writing. I will not mention any specific example here but we all know it when we read it (should we be fortunate enough to make such distinction). Bad writing requires us to push through a paragraph because there is nothing in the writing that we can either latch onto as aspects of experience, or because there is nothing that interests us aesthetically.
If we look at the first sentence of Marrakech we can examine each component that is working towards our attention or at least or concern. The words corpse and restaurant table combine to create a visceral contrary to the mundane. Most of us have visited a restaurant at some point in our lives and therefore we know the environment. The restaurant is a “clean” place both socially and physically. The phrase No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service is employed for a reason. In the public restaurant the patron is bringing foreign particles into their body and so this experience is not to be violated. It is as personal as coitus, however unlike the latter, eating is considered a social activity to be shared with as many people as you like without fear of social reprisal. Should a dead body be wheeled in while we devour our hamburger and chili cheese fries, it would be an offense to our sense of self. We would be horrified and for logical reasons. The festering process requires microbial organisms that can create serious health issues. The smell alone should be enough to make the point clear. Finally, the presence of familiar and yet all too strange “meat” would be too much for the devouring public to take in one sitting. Orwell combines this alienation to immediately catch our sense of pathos and logos without overloading us while also spinning the deeper allegory.
The “flies” that leave the table “in a cloud” and return moment’s later chase after the raw meat of what we later learn is the body of one of the local people’s. It is at that moment the symbolism of the language becomes clear and Orwell’s scathing attack of the imperialist system becomes clear. Scathing however may not be the correct phrase. It has been observed by his, many, biographers that Orwell came to loathe the imperialist system while serving as a policemen in India (a term of service that eventually lead to his contracting dengue fever which allowed him a reprieve and return to England). The system seemed to him a terrible farce that revealed a nasty side to the enterprise of empire that passed itself off as “noble.” This notion of attacking the powerful for their attitude towards the weak would probably not come as a shock to anyone who possesses at least dim knowledge of either Animal Farm or 1984. Who could forget Squealer’s early attempt to convince the animals that, “We pigs are the brainworkers. The whole management and organization of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink that milk and eat those apples.” It is often the voice spoken by those in power that any abuse of said gifted power is for the benefit of the masses. Orwell understood from his experiences in Burma as well as watching and even participating in the events of the Spanish Civil War (any interested in this should read his essay Looking Back on the Spanish War) that the manipulation of power over the weak requires a sense of natural superiority over those you rule. If we return to Marrakech he says, “When you walk through a town like this—two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in—when you see how the people live, and still more easily how they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact.” Empire is nothing but a cloud of flies feeding off of the death and chasing the next meal without remorse.
Why then does Orwell matter to me? The age of imperialism is gone. The components of the empires have been fragmented into either commonwealth’s (pathetic jokes of pseudo-National loyalty to the mother nation) or else have gained complete independence. Gandhi awoke peaceful protest in India and everyone has lived happily ever after.
If anything Orwell’s commentary on imperialism possesses crucial significance, not just for his age, but for humanity at large. While physical imperialism has become an outdated institution (despite continual praises of Churchill, that grand old defender of the empire) cultural imperialism has not. In fact the social disease lingers painfully in our human consciousness. Imperialism, basically defined, is psychological and/or physical domination over another people, race, or ethnic group. In order for this domination to succeed there must exist the dichotomy of the “other/us.” Simple observance of these words should explain enough. The “other” represents the people that stand opposed to the society or culture that you observe. The “us” is…well…you get it.
Still why does this matter? Because we live in an age of constantly flowing information and tender sensibilities. Our culture is changing.
Feminism is becoming a dirty word. White males are apparently in jeopardy of losing their “god-given” rights. Homosexuals have been tied to barbed wire fences and tortured. More and more the conversations governing these topics are being monopolized by loud mouthed bigots who possess no sense of rhetoric or concern for keeping the conversation “civil.” Where does this attitude come from? The obvious cause is narcissism and xenophobia, but at its core is a sense of the unbalancing of power structure.
We all have at some point observed films depicting the treatment of slaves and the most recent (at times unreal but all too real) example is the film Twelve Years a Slave. I will admit that viewing this piece I was not at first terribly impressed, however I cannot deny that the film mastered the realistic experience of the power dynamic that existed between black and white Americans in the mid 1800s. Slaves are beaten and eyes look away. Managers take unhealthy resentments that result in harsher and harsher treatments. Often there is debate in the film over how whites can treat blacks in such manner. Perhaps the most powerful line comes from the Slave master Ford played by the as-ever-brilliant-actor Benedict Cumberbatch, “Platt you are fine Niggar. But I am afraid that will come to naught.” Therein lays a conflict. Despite the worth of Solomon Northup (Platt), this man cannot accept him as an equal. That is because Ford, despite whatever virtue he possesses, has bought into the “other/us” dichotomy. This psychological outlook may seem outdated, but remember the great prophet Ray Charles, “There ain’t ever gonna be an end to racism.” A brief look out our contemporary times should confirm this.
We are living in a time that accommodates rape apologists. Planned Parenthood’s are bombed even if abortion services are not provided. In Houston Texas a twelve year old girl was gang-raped and chased out of her hometown because she “dressed-provocatively.” “Men’s rights” (perhaps the greatest philosophical farce in our human history) organizations have resulted in violent action culminating in mass murder.
Why does Orwell matter? Because despite the actions of his contemporaries, he remained a writer and observer. This is not to say Orwell never participated in the good fight (his time fighting in Spain contests any such notion). Orwell understood and attempted to communicate and report against this constant power imbalance. Rather than submit his will to the “other/us” emotional barbarism, he attempted to create a conversation and to maintain it until it action was absolutely necessary.
Psychological imperialism is the growing war in this new age of information and the internet is the forum/medium in which this war is currently being fought. We have all suffered through page after page of youtube video comment section battles and observed the dialogue that is forming. Apart from glaring grammar errors that would bring even the most illiterate yokel to tears, there is a rapid escalation of the rhetoric and arguments so poorly planned and executed they resemble a Scooby-Doo trap. If poor writing were the only result from such outlooks then perhaps we as a culture might be able to simply roll our eyes and resume behaving with decency but such is not the case. A new danger is arising as the few isolated assholes who believed in their own bullshit, now seem to be gathering to form philosophical manifestos and organizations designed to take their bigotry past their keyboards and out into the real world. Violent action is being justified and in some revolting cases, praised. Vile men and women manipulate the public discourse to portray themselves as victims should they suffer criticism, all the while those seeking basic human rights and dignity are being assaulted by a relentless tide of these fear mongering idiots.
Orwell matters because if we are to progress as a species, as a culture, we require a proper rhetorical approach to tackling the issues of the day. We cannot abandon our minds just because the urge to submit to our emotions and anonymity are more accommodating. Orwell existed in an age of fascism, in which men and women were jailed and denied the rights of habeas corpus for possessing fascist sentiments, and still he would be willing call the government out on such slights. That integrity of will is an admirable trait and one to be aspired too. Before we speak consider a segment from Marrakech when he says, “The people have brown faces—besides there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself?” They are. Orwell understood the farce of the “other/us” fallacy which allowed him to recognize the abuse of power and the dominance of ignorance in whatever form it took. The people we attack are ourselves and so we must make sure to take the proper course to never forget that.
If we are to criticize, we must do so properly. If action is considered, we must make absolutely sure we consider the consequences of action. If we are to behave, we should do so honorably. If we are to write, we must remember our commas, and most importantly, to avoid being an asshole.
That is why Orwell matters.