Sunday, October 6, 2019

Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens

Orwell has a complicated legacy. He was a democratic socialist who fought against faciscm in the Spanish Civil War. Yet he was fiercely anti-Stalinist before most leftists in the west. He saw first-hand how Stalinists tried to purge the communist resistance of non-Stalinists in Spain while the fight against facism was still going on. This was disputed by many on the left, but later confirmed. This illustrates his reputational issues on the left. The right has in some ways adopted him, understandable on cultural grounds, but he was clearly of the left politically.

Hitchens wades through nearly a century of reactions to Orwell in an attempt, largely successful, to show both why Orwell has had such a mixed legacy and to argue that his voice should not be set aside for that reason. Orwell, Hitchens says, was on the right side of the arguments against the three great evils of his day, Facism, Stalinism and Imperialism. This is a difficult trick to pull off; often fighting one of those would place a person beside one of the others. I appreciate that Hitchens doesn’t make him some paragon, though. Orwell is clearly conflicted at times. In the essay Shooting an Elephant, it is easy to see both Orwell’s disdain for Empire, and the ingrained prejudice he has about the ‘natives’. Orwell recognizes this in himself; Empire is bad for both the subjected people and those of the empire. He himself is a prime example of this.

Hitchens makes a strong case that the left of Orwell’s time misjudged him in deliberate bad faith, committed as they were to defending Stalin long past the time that was justifiable. He’s nearly as successful in demonstrating why the Right is misguided in claiming him as one of their own. In doing so, he does admit that culturally speaking (especially with regards to homosexuality) he does fit there somewhat, though politically he was far removed from them. Hitchens is not a voice I give too much credence to on Feminism, but he does a decent job of cataloging feminist reaction to him over the years. Both authors have a fraught relationship in that area.

Orwell was constitutionally incapable of not saying what he actually thought, and Hitchens uses that tendency as a blunt instrument against what he sees as the intellectual dishonesty of postmodern critical theory in a later chapter. I don’t know that theory well enough to say for sure, but this ventures into the area in which the book is as much about Hitchens as Orwell. Both authors see themselves as against cant wherever it can be found, an admirable trait. In this case I would largely agree that critical theory does contain much bullshit. But the observation that uncertainty is warranted is a valid one. Hitchens admits to this in the text, but tends toward a type of dogmatism that I find offputting. This is my third Hitchens book, after his memoir and his book against Kissenger. The latter convinced me that the idea of Kissinger being a war criminal is not leftist exaggeration. Hitchens can turn a phrase and I really love aspects of his writing. His absolute certainty that religion is always evil is troubling. I agree with him that the postmodernists are wrong about the nonexistence of capital T truth, but that does not mean that one can fully understand truth, or that certainty on religious issues is attainable (an issue I have with many Evangelicals as well).

Where I find myself agreeing with Hitchens most is on a relatively minor issue; Orwell’s attitude toward WH Auden. Auden is my favorite poet (on the days that distinction doesn’t belong to Yeats or Robinson Jeffers), and Orwell dismissed him out of hand. Hitchens posits that this was likely partially wrapped up in Orwell’s feelings on homosexuality, which, after reading some of the essays rings true.

This is a “warts and all” examination of Orwell’s work. I read a collection of Orwell’s essays before this and Hitchens does an excellent job of expressing what was great in Orwell’s work while being relatively honest about his shortcomings. He occasionally overstates himself in Orwell’s defense. I do like this approach to historical authors, though. It’s important not to hand wave away problematic aspects of beloved writers because we value aspects of their writing. It is equally important, though, to contextualize the work, and think about what is valuable in them. Here you can almost hear Hitchens begging some future writer to do the same for him. Like Orwell, he is a leftist who has a checkered reception with the left. One might quibble about particulars, but Hitchens succeeds, to my mind, demonstrating why Orwell is an important voice, and giving voice to some of my misgivings about him. I can’t help but hear Hitchens’ voice in the subtext saying, “Me too!”

Recommended, though I'd recommend reading some of Orwell's essays first.

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