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The Unfolded Lie

ORWELL IN SPAIN By George Orwell; Edited by Peter Davison, Penguin UK: 384 pp., 7.99 paper [available through]

July 15, 2001|CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | Christopher Hitchens is the author of numerous books, including "Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere." and

The grandeur of George Orwell, in our store of moral and intellectual memory, is to be found partly in his very lack of grandeur. He is remembered, with different and varying degrees of distinctness, as the man who confronted three of the great crises of the 20th century and got all three of them, so to speak, "right." He was right, early and often, about the menace presented by fascism and national socialism not just to the peace of the world but to the very idea of civilization. And he was right about Stalinism, about the great and the small temptations that it offered to certain kinds of intellectuals and about the monstrous consequences that would ensue from that nightmarish sleep of reason.

He brought off this triple achievement, furthermore, in his lowly capacity as an impoverished freelance journalist and amateur novelist. He had no resources beyond his own; he enjoyed the backing of no party or organization or big newspaper, let alone any department of state. Much of his energy was dissipated in the simple struggle to get published or in the banal effort to meet a quotidian schedule of bills and deadlines. He had no university education, no credential nor area of expertise. He had no capital. Yet his unexciting pen-name, drawn from a rather placid English river, is known to millions as a synonym for prescience and integrity, and the adjective "Orwellian" is understood widely and--this has its significance--ambivalently. To describe a situation as "Orwellian" is to announce dystopia: the triumph of force and sadism and demagogy over humanism. To call a person "Orwellian" is to summon the latent ability of an individual to resist such triumphs, or at least to see through them and call them by their right names.

Though he is best remembered for his satires upon, and polemics against, the big lie and grand illusion--he properly understood that it was both--of the "Great Soviet Experiment," Orwell acquired the necessary knowledge and insight for that task as a front-line fighter against the European right and its "crusade" (the term actually employed by Franco and his Vatican supporters) to immolate the Spanish Republic. It was while serving in Catalonia that he survived a fascist bullet through his throat while in the trenches, but he very nearly did not survive a Communist stab in the back while recuperating in Barcelona. From this near-accidental opportunity to bear witness came the body of work we now understand as "Orwellian." This work had been slowly begun in the sullen villages of colonial Burma and was refined in slums and coal mines and doss houses and on the picket lines of the Depression, but the crucible--or the point where the hammer met the anvil--was in Spain.

Introducing the American edition of "Homage to Catalonia" in 1952 (the first such edition, incidentally, because the book did not find a publisher in the United States until 14 years after it was written and two years after its author had died a virtual pauper), Lionel Trilling made the uncondescending observation that Orwell was not a genius. By this he meant and stated very finely:

"If we ask what it is that he stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one's simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do

This judgment strikes me as being simultaneously true and beautiful. Orwell was physically brave in Spain but not heroically so. He did no more than countless other volunteer soldiers and suffered very much less than many of them. But when he was put to the test and stumbled across an important chunk of evidence, he had to confront the strong pressure either to lie or to keep silent. Here again, he was exceptional rather than exemplary. He simply resolved that he would tell the truth as he saw it and would stipulate that he had only the vantage point of a bewildered and occasionally frightened but nonetheless determined individual. He repeatedly enjoins the reader, in effect, not to take him upon trust:

"It will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist. Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda. I myself have little data beyond what I saw with my own eyes and what I have learned from other eye-witnesses whom I believe to be reliable."

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