Just to mess with your head a bit…still cold here in the Great Lakes; trust me. Today is the 52nd anniversary of the lowest daily high temperature ever recorded in the Detroit area: -26 below. Let’s hope that record is never quite met.
Today, though, we’re going to talk about a most extraordinary writer, a scrivener of ideas and thoughtful prose. George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair) was born in India 25 June 1903, the son of an Englishman in Indian Civil Service and a Frenchwoman raised in Burma. Orwell and his older sister were taken to England when the boy was a year old. Though his father visited from time to time, he would not live with his father again until 1912.
As a boy, Orwell was attracted to writing poetry, stories and historical essays, earning prizes and scholarships, including one for Eton. Still too broke to graduate, he took a job with the Imperial Police in Burma in 1922. While there Orwell learned Burmese, grew a mustache, had his knuckles tattoed, started his path towards socialism, and caught dengue fever. After returning to England in 1927, he resigned from the Imperial Police to take up writing full time.
His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) was an homage to Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1903), describing the seamier side of the largest European cities, its poverty, and degradation of people less fortunate than others. Working a number of odd jobs while writing essays and articles, Orwell associated with some of the organized labor and growing socialist movements in central Britain while writing The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which brought him to the attention of Britain’s Special Branch until the publication of his landmark–and last–book, 1984.
From late 1936 until mid-1937, Orwell participated in the Spanish Civil War primarily as a fighter, but also as an observer of the political chaos that drove the many factions in Spain to cut each other’s throats with charges and counter-charges of “fascism” and “counter-revolutionary thought.” Wounded, he left Spain somewhat disillusioned about the future prospects of socialism if not even the socialists could agree with each other.
After a long recovery, Orwell published a novel, Coming Up for Air (1939), partly based on his childhood and partly not. Rejected for military service with the outbreak of WWII, he kept writing essays, reviews, poetry, stories and a journal, where he often spoke of his disillusionment with the socialist movement in practice but never in theory. He got work supervising BBC broadcasts for India, countering German propaganda.
In 1942 or thereabouts Orwell started writing his breakout book, Animal Farm, that would eventually be published in 1945. Along the way, he suffered many shocks, not the least of which was the death of his parents, losing his lodgings to a V-1 bomb, and the death of his wife. While it was in process with his publishers, it was rejected by his first publisher on the advice of Peter Smollett, a Ministry of Information official in charge of producing pro-Soviet propaganda during the war who turned out to be a Soviet agent. How this affected his later work is speculative since the connection only came after Orwell was dead. Nonetheless, 1984‘s Ministry of Truth did have a duty to change yesterday’s history to fit today’s reality.
Animal Farm won Orwell international acclaim, and without a family he submerged himself in work, producing over 130 essays and reviews in less than a year, and publishing a collection of his review essays. A boating incident in 1947 resulted in tuberculosis, which he barely survived by early 1949 while finishing his last book, published in June–it was an instant best-seller. On 21 January 1950, Eric Blair/George Orwell died at age 46.
In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell set out six simple rules for writers:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
With his impressive published output, I can’t possibly disagree with these rules, but break them most of us do, and regularly. But they come from a man of contrasts, an atheist who embraced and thrived on traditional Church-of-England values, who provoked arguments endlessly but was a loner, aloof from even his most intimate friends. Sickly for much of his adult life, his views on humanism never wavered, while he raged at the humanitarians who didn’t–or couldn’t–provide enough relief for the downtrodden. He hated the idea of dictatorship, yet understood it better than nearly anyone else. He rejected the Soviet Union but embraced socialism all the more fervently. While the Special Branch of London’s Metropolitan Police maintained a file on Orwell as a possible subversive, the Home Office’s MI-5 was just as convinced that he was not only not a communist, the communists didn’t want anything to do with him.
Reading any of Orwell’s writings after reading 1984, however, is difficult because the haunted quality of his last novel almost feels as if he knew his end was coming sooner than later. Animal Farm, which I read first in the 1960s, was spectral but not with the same feeling of doom. Reading Burma Days about his life as an Imperial Policeman or Down and Out in Paris and London recalls Jack London’s desperate despair, but contains none of the feel of death that his last works have.
For those of you who know nothing of Orwell’s prodigious body of work, you should read the significant books in the order they were published.
And if you have read him already, pause today in memory of the late Eric Blair…when the clock strikes thirteen.
One of the most extraordinary things I get to do on this blog is making pithy observations about what people expect versus what is–ahem–real. It is with the height of irony that Friday, 25 February is called by some National Opposite Day. I say “by some” because not everyone agrees that 25 February is National Opposite Day; some insist that it’s 7 January, yet others demand recognition of the “fact” that the 25th of every month is Opposite Day. Several sources speak about “experts” in the field of national days.
Orwell would have loved/hated it. “Experts on national days”–there are such things? And the idea of opposite days–where you say one thing and do another–would have fit into his Oceania very well.
No one knows when or where “opposite days” started, but the earliest reference is in the 1920s when Calvin Coolidge declared “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” At this, the punditocracy began debating if he was running or not (he didn’t).
Opposite Day is a self-referential paradox, and the perfect way to commemorate the death of George Orwell. Declare Opposite Day, and there can never be one–Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth will ensure it. Declare an orgy on Opposite Day and Julia of the Junior Anti-Sex League will spend hours deciding if she should or not.