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Back to the Future

Looking Back at the Two Writers Who Shaped Our Dim View of What's to Come

Why Orwell Matters

Author:Christopher Hitchens
Publisher:Basic Books
Pages:211
Genre:Non-Fiction

By Scott Carlson | Posted 12/11/2002

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley shared a talent for prescience, but little else. Orwell, the son of a civil servant, worked as a colonial police officer, was wounded while fighting in a revolutionary war in Spain, eked out a living as a Leftist journalist, and died broke and relatively young of tuberculosis. Huxley, on the other hand, came from a distinguished intellectual family, was nearly blinded by an eye disease, hung out with D.H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell, wrote for big magazines like Esquire, and spent his last decades in California, where he experimented with psychedelic drugs.

But the two are bound by their speculative, dystopian novels, which defined and frightened generations. Nearly everyone has forgotten that Shakespeare came up with the phrase "brave new world," which now garnishes discussions of mysterious technology, dehumanization, and mass production. The adjective "Orwellian" handily conjures the bleakness and paranoia of 1984, and its use has been an effective scare tactic in politics. The works of both authors are frequently misunderstood and taken out of context. The Right frequently uses Orwell, who was a progressive Leftist, for its agenda. For example, in describing policies that promote multiculturalism, Paul Craig Roberts recently wrote in The Washington Times: "The U.S. government has transmogrified from an accountable government into an intrusive therapeutic administrative state with many Orwellian overtones."

Christopher Hitchens intends to stop this sort of hijacking of Orwell's good name in his slim new book, Why Orwell Matters, which works as a biography of Orwell, an apologia meant to restore the novelist's reputation among liberals, and a hearty slam of conservatives who have appropriated and twisted Orwell's writing.

Orwell's reputation is unfairly battered, Hitchens says. The novelist didn't stick to the party line of the Left's leaders--he fought for the oppressed and the working class, yet, unlike some of his comrades, realized early on that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state. And for his Leftist ideals and his clear-eyed pragmatism, organizers and pundits on both sides of the political spectrum criticized, ignored, and suppressed him. "There isn't much room for doubt about the real source of anti-Orwell resentment," Hitchens writes in the chapter "Orwell and the Left." "In the view of many on the official Left, he committed the ultimate sin of 'giving ammunition to the enemy.'"

Of course, it's not difficult to see the parallels between Orwell's life and the recent events in the career of Hitchens, who has sharply criticized liberal heroes like Bill Clinton along with conservative villains like Henry Kissinger. Hitchens quit The Nation this fall on ideological grounds. While he expresses no love for George W. Bush, Hitchens has supported the war in Iraq as an effort to liberate the oppressed Kurds, and he's been fed up with Leftists who "truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden," as he put it in his final column. And like Orwell, he has paid. "Hitch is no longer the beautiful slender young man of the Left," wrote Alexander Cockburn, another Nation regular, in reply. "Now he's just another middle-aged porker of the Right."

And so, given the identification between the writer and his subject, there's a certain fire driving Hitchens' prose in Why Orwell Matters, especially portions that deal with Orwell's treatment by the Left. Without regard for political and personal friendships, Hitchens trots out comrades like Salman Rushdie and Edward Said--whose blurb promotes Hitchens on the dust jacket--and criticizes them for misreading Orwell. Hitchens goes after denizens of the Right here, too--among them the neoconservative and Zionist Norman Podhoretz, who claimed in a Harper's essay that Orwell, had he lived long enough, would have been a conservative in the end.

Through all of this Hitchens might lose some American readers. Hitchens is a Brit, and Why Orwell Matters was published first in Britain. As a result, the book would seem to matter most to the English, with the book's many references to and discussions of British intellectuals, politicians, and pundits. Even reasonably well-read Americans will probably miss the full import of some discussions, like one about the political maneuvers of former British Prime Minister John Major, who has used Orwell's good name for political gain.

Thus, the chapter titled "Orwell and America" is disappointingly lean, especially in the hands of a writer as good as Hitchens. Although Orwell resented American imperialism and commercialism, he never visited America, "exhibited a curious blind spot" for the nation, and "showed little curiosity about it." Hence the short chapter, which focuses mainly on American writers Orwell admired, like Mark Twain and Henry Miller.

If Hitchens' goal was to illustrate "why Orwell matters," especially to Leftists, he could have written more here. In the new millennium, Americans seem to have a selective sensitivity to government control. They grouse about regulations that don't allow them to ride snowmobiles in a national park or that don't allow them to own assault rifles. Yet since Sept. 11, 2001, downright Orwellian events--the passage of the invasive Patriot Act, the installation of surveillance cameras in public places, the Justice Department's encouraging Americans to spy on their neighbors, and the administration's jingoistic march to war--have passed without too much alarm. They give 1984 new significance in America.

Until now, it was Huxley, not Orwell, who really nailed the dystopian undercurrent in America. But Huxley, a scientist at heart, understood that our need for primal comforts, susceptibility to subtle suggestions, and pack mentality could be used to enslave us indefinitely. In his Brave New World, goods are cheap and disposable, sex is easy, society is strictly stratified, and "history is bunk." And so it is here in America, too.

Perhaps Brave New World endures because Huxley was such a remarkably versatile thinker, who seemed as comfortable discussing the arts as he was politics or science. A new and comprehensive six-volume set of essays captures the full range of his intellect. Although most of the essays were written more than 50 years ago, they're surprisingly topical today--especially on political and social topics. Incandescent moments happen often in the Complete Essays, on topics as varied as "Shakespeare and Religion," "Archaeology in A.D. 5000," and "A Case for ESP, PK, and Psi," taken from Life magazine in 1954. "The Doors of Perception," which was such an influence on Jim Morrison, begins when a young researcher arrives at Huxley's California home with a hit of peyote. "I was on the spot and willing, indeed eager, to be a guinea pig. Thus it came about that, one bright May morning, I swallowed four-tenths of a gram of mescaline dissolved in half a glass of water and sat down to wait for the results." He careens through an essay on consciousness that discusses Zen Buddhism, existentialism, Christianity, modern art, and anthropology.

The editors, Robert S. Baker and James Sexton, both Huxley scholars, have made minimal intrusions on the text, explaining obscure references with a footnote here and there. And they seem to have truly included everything, warts and all. Huxley is occasionally ponderous, most often in his early essays of the 1920s. In more troubling passages, Huxley's scientific bent leads him astray, especially on issues of heredity and race. In "What Is Happening to Our Population?" he advocates sterilization for the "mentally deficient." In an essay that criticizes a white-supremacist historian, Huxley overlooks his own prejudices. "[T]here is evidence to show cross-breeding between individuals of widely different race is biologically unsound," he writes.

But more often, Huxley is solidly progressive for his day--and even for ours. He rails against fascism and war when such things enveloped the world. He worried about the environment and world population when there was a mere 2.7 billion people on Earth. And he thought about the condition of the poor, though he lived among the rich.

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