How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?
Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000) of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.
By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.
Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.
The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.
Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.
We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge. ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’
Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.
What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.
(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)
Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.
‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’
Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?
Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.
He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:
‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’
Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.
One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language. Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:
‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’
There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.