George Orwell: An Imperfect Genius

It is ironic that sixty years after Orwell’s death, the famous socialist pundit is perhaps more appreciated by conservatives than anyone else. This fact highlights his ambivalent political legacy. But something should also be said about Orwell’s literary legacy, lest we overlook the shortcomings of an otherwise brilliant author.

Liam Julian in his article in Policy Review gets to the heart of the English social critic by revealing him as essentially idiosyncratic and reactive. It is also interesting because what he says about Orwell’s style applies to authorship in general. Art does not just imitate life, it interprets it. Very little writing presents reality in photographic exactitude, and when it does, it is usually bad. With that in mind we should take Orwell’s narratives, like the famous anti-imperialist piece “A Hanging,” with a grain of salt. While the incident described probably never happened, it is the carefully fashioned “authenticity” of Orwell’s prose that gives it didactic power.

The problem is not that he was emotional. Like too many opining “fact-finders,” however, Orwell presented subjective judgment and experience as the truth. The lesson we can take home is that

Bias exists even in the most self-righteously self-proclaimed unbiased people, and individual observations, unguided by accumulated wisdom, are but assorted bits that lack cohesion. It is worth remembering that facts can be dangerous, for when they are unmoored, untethered to past experience and a larger worldview, they can bolster the very theories and systems that violate decency.

Orwell’s saving grace was not only that he was articulate in his outrage, but that he frequently leveled his indignation at worthwhile targets. For example, he was impatient with the sanctimoniousness of the animal rights advocates: “there seems to be good reason for thinking that an exaggerated love of animals generally goes with a rather brutal attitude toward human beings.” He had a healthy distrust of pacifism, reacted instinctively against effeminacy and perversion, and candidly discussed the tragedy of abortion. According to Julian

Orwell struggled because his hostility to tradition deprived him of a way of ordering the situations he encountered and concocting lessons from them. He was too beholden to the visceral: His emotive reactions dictated his predictions and proposed solutions and even biased him against accurately rendering the facts he saw.

This contradictory intellectual was a radical in his ideas and respectably bourgeois in his tastes. Fortunately for us, his common sense transcended political boundaries. If alive today, he would no doubt be venting his spleen at the Republican Party. But he would just as likely be ridiculing the glib and perplexing “newspeak” of Democratic operatives. After all, Orwell was a pungent adversary of  ideological conformity, whether on the part of plodding Communist hacks or smug establishment liberals.

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