In "Why Orwell Matters," author and controversialist
Christopher Hitchens takes a lot of detours on the way to fulfilling the promise
of his title. Hitchens, the man who knocked Mother Teresa's halo askew, is
concerned here with straightening the halo over George Orwell -- a writer
who some have referred to as a secular saint, one who entered the canon decades
ago with politically themed novels such as "1984
and "Animal Farm
To those who have revered Orwell for qualities that have seemed unassailable
-- his writing, moral outlook, fierce independence in thought and political
stance -- it might come as a surprise to read that the halo needed straightening.
It appears that while many of us we have been happily reading his essays and
novels and nodding in agreement, others have been trying to undermine his
The efforts began during his lifetime. Orwell (born Eric Blair in 1903)
was a committed, if idiosyncratic, socialist, and the only people who hated
that more than non-socialists were socialists of competing stripes. To this
day, attacks continue from a motley collection of postmodernists, feminists,
deconstructionists, right-wing ideologues and what-have-you.
So Hitchens, who takes Orwell as his mentor, rides to the rescue. Thing
is, it's not clear that the victim was in all that great peril.
Thus there is about this account an almost risible sense of Hitchens' settling
scores that he takes personally as a proxy for Orwell, risible because the
principals are safely dead and mostly forgotten -- or, if not dead and forgotten,
certainly far less well-known, and far less in print, than Orwell.
It begins to sound much like the doctrinal disputes of premillennialists
and postmillennialists, splitting abstruse hairs over Jesus' return and maliciously
consigning one another to the outermost hectares of hell. In the three major
Orwell biographies that have come out in the last two decades, these spitting
matches, while serious and important to understanding his times, do not loom
so large as a threat to his standing.
Nonetheless, Hitchens' book is a worthwhile study. You can extract from
its arguments a sense of why Orwell "matters." Anyone who attracts this much
attention must matter. Anyone whose enemies on all sides have vilified him
for being correct, matters.
Hitchens' book touches on much that makes Orwell a key historical figure:
the honesty that would not let him dilute his opinions; the unblinkered exposure
of Stalin, when all others on the left were swallowing the Soviet line; his
understanding of totalitarianism, which helped frame the way we thought about
politics -- which is to say our very existence -- during the Cold War, and
which added words and phrases permanently to the language and culture, such
as Big Brother, thought police, thought crime, doublethink and unperson.
And, most of all, the marvelous clarity of his thought and writing, especially
in the landmark essay "Politics and the English Language," which could legitimately
have been titled "Why Words Matter."
-- Roger K. Miller reviews for the Star Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia