Of all the early 20th Century writers, George Orwell continues to be an intriguing character. Despite being a socialist, his two most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984, caused him to become the darling of the modern libertarian, of the tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist, and of the perpetual adolescent of the Internet.
But this popular caricature of Orwell as the friend to the neo-con is difficult to reconcile with the Orwell who emerges from his essays. Books v Cigarettes — a collection of seven essays published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series — presents some of Orwells musings on society, particularly his relationship with the intelligentsia. The collection paints a picture of an Orwell who is at once both a self-conscious outsider — almost desperate to be acknowledged as a contrary, free, and independent thinker — and a painfully self-conscious product of middle class England.
This collection therefore makes it difficult to understand Orwell. In ‘How the Poor Die’, he writes about the brutality of the French medical system towards people who could not afford to be treated with dignity; but in ‘Books v Cigarettes’, he is a condescending snob, shaming the working class of England for spending ‘more on cigarettes than an Indian peasant has for the whole of his livelihood’. The defence of patriotism in ‘My Country Right or Left’ shows that, perhaps, Orwell had a similar struggle with his identity.
But the more fascinating revelation of the collection is what a cruel joke history played on Orwell. In ‘Bookshop Memories’, Orwell remarks that Dickens, ‘like the Bible, […] is widely known second hand. People know by hearsay that Bill Sykes was a burglar and that Mr Micawber had a bald head, just as they know by hearsay that Moses was found in a basket of bullrushes and saw the ‘back parts’ of the Lord.’ Orwell was in his forties when he died, and it would be strange to imagine how he would respond to the similar reception of his own works. You can’t talk about internet regulation without people muttering ‘Big Brother’ as if it, ipso facto, is an argument. You can’t talk about Communism without people gnomically reciting that some people end up ‘more equal than others’. For a large portion of the community, Orwell soundbites replaced the need to think independently about important issues. Even the word ‘Orwellian’ is a indefatigable placeholder for thought.
The theme is picked up again in ‘The Prevention of Literature’:
There were four speakers on the platform. One of them delivered a speech which did deal with the freedom of the press, but only in relation to India; another said, hesitantly, and only in very general terms, that liberty was a good thing; a third delivered an attack on the laws relating to obscenity in literature. The fourth devoted most of his speech to a defence of the Russian purges.
Orwell complains that there is a lack of intellectual seriousness to the debates, but didn’t know — couldn’t have known — that a mere fifty years after his death, his own novels would be used to deaden intellectual diversity of political discussions.
Collections of essays are a hard sell. I have several copies of Orwell on my bookshelf, so it was inevitable that there would be some overlap with pieces I had read before. On the other hand, reading a series in a particular sequence enlivens parts of the originals which weren’t as obvious upon the first reading.
For example, despite our modern fetish for glamourising scientists such as Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Orwell tries a number of times to motivate the scientific community to take an interest in social causes.
When one sees highly educated men looking on indifferently at oppression and persecution, one wonders which to despise more, their cynicism or their shortsightedness. Many scientists, for example, are uncritical admirers of the U.S.S.R. They appear to think that the destruction of liberty is of no importance so long as their own line of work is for the moment unaffected. The U.S.S.R. is a large, rapidly developing country which has acute need of scientific workers and, consequently, treats them generously. [… T]he German scientific community offered no resistance to Hitler. (‘The Prevention of Literature’)
About a dozen beds away from me was numero 57 — I think that was his number — a cirrhosis of the liver case. Everyone in the ward knew him by sight because he was sometimes the subject of a medical lecture. On two afternoons a week the tall, grave doctor would lecture in the ward to a party of students, and on more than one occasion old numero 57 was wheeled on a sort of trolley into the middle of the ward, where the doctor would roll back his nightshirt, dilate with his fingers a huge flabby protuberance on the man’s belly […] and explain solemnly that this was a disease attributable to alcoholism, commoner in the wine-drinking countries. As usual he neither spoke to his patient nor gave him a smile, a nod or any kind of recognition. (‘How the Poor Die’)
In an age where positivistic attitudes towards science and knowledge are reemerging, the essays of Books v Cigarettes as a sequence allows Orwell’s words to speak to contemporary debates.
Two plus two out of five.