Stephen Jay Greenblatt’s Three Modern Satirists (1965) is an obscure but insightful volume that I found while browsing the increasingly depleted shelves of the public library. It examines the careers of English authors Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. While the discussions of Waugh and Huxley are essentially protracted book reviews, with little personal detail, we get a much clearer idea of Orwell’s life and intellectual formation (no doubt because he provided so much autobiographical writing to draw upon).
Greenblatt offers some important clues to the paradoxes of the writer’s outlook. Here was a man who formulated a quaintly English notion of socialism, which aspired not to strident slogans and political conformity, but a cozy and rather traditional utopia in the fashion of William Morris. Ironically much of what Orwell railed against was considered acceptably progressive by contemporaries—contraception, abortion, industrialism, mass entertainment, etc.—themes explored in his satirical novels Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939).
On a subtler level Orwell’s fiction evinces the frustration of a man who can discern no purpose beyond this life even as he feels obliged to wage a seemingly futile battle against deception and injustice. His pessimism was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that he could only view art and life in political terms (see his essay “Why I Write”).
Interestingly, Orwell could turn his criticism on his own trade. Greenblatt points to Gordon Comstock, the protagonist of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, as “a bitter satire on the satirist.” Comstock is preoccupied with evil, “besmirching himself with the dirt he wished to the fling” at his enemies. While Orwell often pilloried traditional authorities, his most scathing commentaries are reserved for fellow leftists. No doubt this is because he knew them best and perhaps felt betrayed by their failings.
The really reprehensible figures in Orwellian literature are champions of power masquerading as idealists, like Napoleon in Animal Farm or the vehement leftist speaker in Coming Up for Air. (The latter characterization presages the articulate brutality of O’Brien, head of the Thought Police in 1984.) The narrator imagines the anti-fascist orator “smashing people’s faces with a spanner” with sanctimonious delight. Orwell himself had fought the nationalists in Spain, and had long denounced fascism; yet his later political rhetoric is largely devoid of personal animus. No doubt it was his bitter experience in Spain, witnessing the ruthlessness and opportunism of Communists toward supposed allies, which lent nuance to his political estimations. According to Greenblatt
The simplicity and lucidity of Orwell’s vision is at once breathtaking and, as the author himself came to realize, hopelessly naive. In the last years of his life, while never wholly renouncing socialism, Orwell learned that political problems are rarely simple and that the greatest social evils are never eliminated by the various panaceas of socialism…. The injustice, lies and poverty that he once viewed as the product of a few evil men and institutions now seemed to Orwell a bitter but inevitable portion of human existence.