I can thank the writings of George Orwell for fortifying my interests in philosophy and political science. My initial exposure to his brilliance was during my sophomore year of high school. It was at a time that I had jettisoned my youthful experiments and investigations of ultra-conservative political study and activity. It was during the revolutionary 1960s.
I had just finished reading William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. My sensibilities tore me away from the political right wing in the aftermath. I was horrified at man’s inhumanity to man. A search for a more sensible and sensitive approach to politics left a void in my mind. I was on a collision course with my English teacher’s syllabus for first semester coursework.
The second book on the list was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I fell in love with the book. George Orwell’s writing was simpatico with my youthful yearnings. The book hit home. As someone who was often the scapegoat among my peers, I found it personalized in Animal Farm. “Whenever anything went wrong it became usual to attribute it to Snowball.” An alert, sober reader could see how ridiculous the scapegoating was. It was Squealer’s mission to ecourage a subjective attitude within the minds of the animals. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” It was easy to see the fascism that was embodied within the environment of the farm.
On my own, I searched the school library for more of Orwell’s work. It was then that I came across his most famous novel, 1984. The book encapsulated exactly what I saw happening in the United States of America. My youthful mind already pictured the course that the nation was travelling to the future, my future. The nature of political parties was revealed to me in Orwell’s 1984.
“Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.”—1984
I “got” it but it still took me many years to actually believe the truth of Orwell’s statements. It was by the second semester that I decided to write my research essay on the life of George Orwell because I wanted to understand how he came to write so eloquently and with such farsightedness.
I found out that George Orwell was actually the pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair. He was born on June 25, 1903 in Bihar State in India. His father, Richard Blair, was employed by the British Opium Department in the Indian Civil Service. Young Eric was the middle child between older and younger sisters. At the age of five his mother moved Eric and the older sister to England. He attended Catholic and then public schools, both of which he hated. He received his higher education at Eton. At the same time, he collaborated with a classmate to publish the magazine, “The Election Times”.
In 1922, Blair sailed to Ceylon to join the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. As an imperial policeman he was responsible for the security of 200,000 people while his contemporaries in England were still at university. In 1924, he was posted to a location near Rangoon near the Burmah Oil Company refinery. It was during one of Blair’s furloghs to Rangoon that he visited Insein Prison, the second largest prison in Burma. His sense of justice was solidified by that contact. In 1926 Blair moved to Upper Burma where he was infected with dengue fever the following year. He was allowed to return to England due to his sickness. It was while he vacationed in Cornwall that Blair resigned from the police force and set about becoming a writer.
His experiences in Asia led to the writing of his novel Burmese Days. He later confessed that he felt guilty working for the British Empire and felt sympathy for the oppressed people of Burma. He also stated that he looked at England and noticed her own oppressed masses.
Reading about Blair/Orwell was an engaging experience for me. I found out that he went incognitio in London to “slum” and live the experiences of which he wanted to write. Those experiences are recounted in the second half of Down And Out In Paris And London. In 1928, he was in Paris and became successful as a journalist who published his stories in “le Monde”. His stories also appeared in several English papers and tabloids. Orwell became quite ill in early 1929 and was taken to a training hospital. His experiences there were told in his essay, “How The Poor Die”.
The spring of 1932 saw Blair/Orwell teaching a a boys prep school in Hayes, Middlesex (West London). It was there that the writere met Victor Gollancz who had recently founded a publishing company. The publisher printed mostly social commentary and leftist works. It was at this time that Blair adopted the nom de plume, George Orwell because “It is a good round English name”.
In 1936, Orwell came as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War in an effort to help fight the right wing threat of Francisco Franco’s fascist movement. During one of his assignments on the war front, Orwell was wounded in the throat by a sniper’s bullet. He survived after treatment near Barcelona but was declared medically unfit for service.
During World War Two, Orwell’s wife Eileen worked in the Censorship Department in London. Orwell, himself, was turned down for army service because of his medical condition. It was at this time that he wrote for the “Tribune” newspaper. He also composed several essays and began work on his novel, 1984. He also kept a wartime diary. Even though he was unfit for formal military service, he did join the “Home Guard”. He was instrumental in advising about street fighting, field fortifications and the use of mortars.
Orwell’s Animal Farm: A Fairy Story was published on August 17, 1945 in England. The book was very popular among the postwar crowd and made Orwell famous.
In 1947, Orwell was proclaimed seriously ill. At the same time he resumed work on 1984 and made good progress. During a boating expedition, Orwell received a “good soaking” and once again became ill. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was in a very weak condition. Despite his illness, he finished the manuscript for 1984. In early 1949 he moved to a sanatorium in Gloucestershire. Meantime, in June of 1949, 1984 was published and enjoyed instant popular kudos.
“On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.” —from Orwell’s, “All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays.”
By Christmastime of 1949, Orwell had become deathly ill and in continual decline. Early in the morning of January 21, 1950 a pulmonary artery burst, killing him.
Aside from Orwell’s brilliant novels, his ethos regarding writing and journalism remains for all aspiring writers. “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”
The Blue Jay of Happiness found this important saying: “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”–George Orwell