Much More to Orwell Than '1984'

Much More to Orwell Than '1984'
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George Orwell`s Nineteen Eighty-Four marked its 70th anniversary as an unstoppable bestseller in June 2019.   This publishing event was widely acknowledged by the world literary community — and justly so. For no other book has ever so utterly both staked claim to a date and repeatedly risen to the very top of international bestseller lists for decades after its original publication.  (Orwell`s novel has stood at No. 1 a mind-boggling four times, most recently during the weeks following Donald Trump`s presidential inauguration in January 2017. I fully expect it to reclaim that position during the course of the upcoming American presidential primaries and conventions, once President Trump is on the campaign trail full-time).   

Certainly Orwell`s literary fame chiefly rests with the near-universal public recognition accorded his two prose fiction satires of the later 1940s, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  The incessant quotation of those books, along with the shaping force of their visions on the mindscape of the West since World War II probably makes George Orwell the most frequently quoted writer (in more than five dozen languages) writer who ever lived.  

And yet, as we pass this week beyond the anniversary of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the 70th anniversary of Orwell`s death (on January 21), it is inviting to look more widely at his work as a whole.  When we do so, I would contend, we become more fully aware of a fact that the media hoopla obscures, namely that the effluence of his influence on the political and cultural imagination owes to far more than just his ingenious little beast fable and nightmarish anti-utopia. His impact is based not only on the worldwide circulation of his last two works of fiction, but also on the tremendous impact of some of his essays and even his journalism—that is, to Orwell as an incomparable nonfiction writer.  

Orwell and the Left: ``There You Go Again``

It is impressive enough that several book-length studies have been devoted each to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, which in itself is an exceptional tribute to their importance. Yet how often are entire books by leading scholars devoted to exhaustive analysis and far-ranging application of a single essay in a full-length book by a leading American publisher? I know of no other example besides Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” arguably the most widely discussed modern (and anthologized) essay ever written.  

Case in point: What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics.

Sponsored by the Open Society Institute, which is funded by the politically progressive financier George Soros, this volume attacks what its contributors deem the right-wing political agenda of the George W. Bush administration and the Christian Right by drawing on the prestige and intellectual pedigree of Orwell and his celebrated essay. Published by a prestigious university press (Chicago), the collection consists of proceedings from a 2007 conference organized by “the deans of five prominent journalism schools [who] were worried about what was happening to political language.”  Its 18 chapters feature contributions from prominent political philosophers, cognitive scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, and journalists, including an epilogue by Soros himself. Although the thrust of the book is rather presumptuous and even contradictory—the title dismisses Orwell even as the contents acknowledge him as a visionary—the overt gesture of tribute to his essay is obvious: What other essay could possibly attract this range of thinkers, none of whom are English professors or men and women of letters? 

In an implicit acknowledgment of the imaginative power and inventive genius of Orwell as a political prophet, What Orwell Didn’t Know addresses topics ranging from nuclear proliferation, global warming, and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the “carnivalesque” infotainment industry, the role of metaphor in cognitive linguistics, research in neuroscience and the psychology of emotion, and even the “Orwellian” Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 (which hiked mailing rates for journals of opinion and “little magazines”). Several contributors argue that the United States has adopted a permanent “war” footing like that of the three superstates in Nineteen Eighty-Four, attesting to the propagandistic success of the allegedly endless, fraudulent War on Terror, which functions (as in Oceania) to keep the masses (i.e., us “proles”) in a fixed state of fear and passivity.

It is ironic that this group of left-wing critics and theorists should invoke Orwell’s name and pedigree for the very purpose of chastening him for his supposedly lamentable combination of liberal-empiricist naiveté and politically regressive ideological outlook.  Indeed the condescending conference title (“There You Go Again: Orwell Comes to America”) --which draws on a famous Ronald Reagan repartee in a presidential debate against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in 1984—makes it sound as if paleo-Reaganite George Orwell had “come to America” and was spreading his lies and obfuscations ``over there`` again.  This confusion exemplifies how the author Orwell and the bogeyman behemoth “Orwell” of “1-9-8-4” infamy—a Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, as it were--are regularly blurred and even inverted. 

 “Politics and the English Language” is not the only Orwell essay to have exerted spectacular influence across several decades.  Let us consider the treatment by British intellectuals of a different essay. Generations of British leftists have regarded “Inside the Whale” (1940) as a forerunner to Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the two fatalistic tracts of political pessimism together delivering one-two knockout blows to the radical, activist spirit of the 1930s. These readers charge “Inside the Whale,” which addresses the climate of ennui in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1939) and its endorsement of political resignation and private hedonism, with undermining the radical spirit of the 1940s and 1950s. Because of this essay, which expressed a qualified admiration for Miller’s “honest” embrace of a politics of withdrawal, contended E. P. Thompson, Britain’s leading historian of the early postwar era, “the aspirations of a generation were buried; not only was a political movement, which embodied much that was honorable, buried, but also the notion of disinterested dedication to a cause.”

What other essay of the 20th century could possibly occasion such an observation-fully 20 years after its original publication?

I regard this breathtaking claim as utterly outlandish. But that is beside the point. That such a sophisticated historical methodologist as Thompson, the author of The Making of the English Working Class, attributes such catastrophic political effect to a single literary work (a “mere” essay at that) is remarkable. Equally remarkable is that Britain’s premier novelist of the next generation, Salman Rushdie, could follow up Thompson’s argument a quarter century later in his own essay (also titled “Outside the Whale”) to condemn Orwell in similar terms for his “quietist passivity” and its damaging consequences for generations of leftists since the war years.

 To return to my larger point, however, we can see that the reception of these two Orwell essays, “Inside the Whale” and “Politics and the English Language”—completely apart from the impact of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four on the course of the cultural Cold War—represents interesting evidence from Orwell’s nonfiction that buttresses my claim to the unique influence of Orwell.  Astoundingly, the case can be made by reference to both the prose fiction and the nonfiction of England’s Prose Laureate.      

Let us note, however, that E.P. Thompson assails the authoritative, august, already legendary St. George “Orwell” of 1960, not the inglorious Blair-Orwell of 1940.  The notoriety of the title essay of Inside the Whale (1940), along with the broad recognition and high regard for Orwell’s other pieces in both this collection and Critical Essays (1946), should remind us that his influence as a cultural critic—especially his pathbreaking role as an evangelist of cultural studies—warrants prominence in any final assessment of his career. (Orwell’s chief impact has been in cultural criticism, and more specifically in British cultural studies, far more so than in aesthetics, cultural theory, and literary criticism per se.)

Orwell’s signal achievement as a cultural critic was to craft what he called “semi-sociological” essays on artifacts of popular culture never before taken seriously, such as comic postcards, British and American murder mysteries, English cooking, the habits of toads, the names of English flowers, brewing recipes for good tea, and numerous other “popcult” topics. Orwell thereby introduced a new subgenre of literature—the serious essay about seemingly ephemeral matters of popular or mass culture—marking him as a forefather of the academic field of cultural studies.  His essays in literary sociology such as ``Boys` Weeklies`` and ``Raffles and Miss Blandish`` gave rise to what has become known as popular culture studies; meanwhile, popular culture critics have noted the ubiquity of Orwell`s coinages from Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm throughout popular and mass culture.

No other writer’s work has both so decisively contributed to the development of popular culture studies as a formal domain of academic inquiry and so widely penetrated the international imagination (especially his neologisms from Nineteen Eighty-Four) that it qualifies as a substantial body of material for popular culture analysis.   

Legacy of the Laureate

Will Orwell the Prose Laureate ultimately be remembered more for his nonfiction than for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four? That prospect seems unlikely. And yet, as the British critic David Ramsey Steele acknowledges, among those readers “who have really fallen under Orwell’s spell, his essays and reviews, assembled in various collections, usually become the most loved of his writings.”   He is ever more widely recognized, both within and beyond the literary academy, as one of the greatest essayists in the English language, a figure equal in stature to Johnson, Burke, and Hazlitt. Orwell’s seminal essays on popular culture represent one of the noteworthy differences between his oeuvre and the works of that literary triumvirate, and it is doubtless one of the tallest pillars of his reputation. 

As we pass the seventieth anniversary of Orwell`s untimely death in 1950 at the age of 46, it should be widely acclaimed that it is not just for his fiction that he merits the sobriquet “England`s Prose Laureate.”


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