The Road to Sanctity: George Orwell and the NS

To celebrate George Orwell Day, we take a look back through the archive and republish five importance pieces this week.

For some reason, religious language sticks to George Orwell. The late historian Angus Calder, reviewing the collected non-fiction in the late 1960s, described Orwell’s decision to join the Imperial Police in Burma as “the first of those individualistic decisions which mark his life like the stations of the cross”. Unimpressed by the biographical “study” by George Woodcock (Orwell attempted to forbid authorised biographies), Tom Nairn invoked “Orwell the individualist, the angry man of conscience who wanted to battle against all ‘smelly little orthodoxies’, [who] ended up as the foremost literary apostle of anti-communism.” In 2012, New Yorker journalist Katherine Boo was described as “George Orwell’s greatest living acolyte”.

“No doubt alcohol, tobacco and so forth are things that a saint must avoid,” Orwell wrote in his final long essay, attempting to disentangle the apotheosis of Mahatma Ghandi. “But sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.”

Perhaps the root of the canonising instinct lies in V S Pritchett’s wistful eulogy, published shortly after Orwell’s death:

Orwell was the wintry conscience of a generation which in the thirties had heard the call of to the rather assumptions of political faith. He was a kind of saint and, in that character, more likely in politics to chasten his own side than the enemy. His instinctive choice of spiritual and physical discomfort, his habit of going his own way, looked like the crankishness which has often cropped up in the British characters; if this were so, it was vagrant rather than puritan. He prided himself on seeing through the rackets, and on conveying the impression of living without the solace or even the need of a single illusion.

Is this the man, the shambling ascetic set against the ordering of his house, who has been appropriated by Right, Left, liberal and indifferent? In an article entitled “What Would George Do?” (2 June 2003), Professor Scott Lucas noted the circularity of the claims made on his behalf: “For Noam Chomsky, he was the model of the ‘responsible intellectual’. For Bernard Crick he was, in post-imperial, post-welfare-state Britain, the ‘English socialist’. And since the events of September 2001 he has become, for Christopher Hitchens, a stalwart against ‘Islamic fascism’ and its pacifist accomplices (such as Noam Chomsky).”

The battle for Orwell’s soul raged bitterly in the New Statesman. Nobody can forgive the decision by editor Kingsley Martin not to publish reports sent from Barcelona, fearing they were “liable to be taken as propaganda against socialism.” But since the 1950s, the NS has produced crop after crop of aspirant political writers, imitators and champions for whom Orwell has provided both a model and night-watchman. A quick glance through the archive produces profiles by Edward Said, Bernard Crick, Christopher Hitchens, Francis Hope and Ben Pimlott. Now we have a feast on which to debate his life and legacy: 21 January, the day Orwell died in 1950. The event is being steered by the Orwell Prize and Penguin Books, who have published stylish new editions of his best-known works. For our own part, we plan to publish five important pieces from our archive throughout the week, both by and about Orwell, an index of which is at the bottom of this page.

Eric Blair

On 21 October, 1931, the NS published an assemblage of diary entries by the twenty-eight year old Eric Blair. Recently returned from Paris, Blair was encouraged by two lifelong guttersnipes to seek his fortune picking hops in Kent. “Holiday with pay,” they said, “Keep yourself all the time you’re down there, pay your fare both ways and come back.” So off he went, aping the example of Jack London, whose People of the Abyss (1903) was written from first-hand experience of dossing in east London workhouses. “[They] ought to have known better,” he concluded. “As a matter of fact, hop-picking is far from being a holiday, and, as far as wages go, no worse employment exists.”

The early novels were met with guarded praise, mingled with unguarded irritation and disdain. Burmese Days is “an extremely biased book” in which “the author lacks both the depth of Mr E M Forster and the detachment of Mr Somerset Maugham”, wrote Cyril Connolly in 1935. A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) was “ambitious yet not entirely successful” according to Peter Quennell. The author of Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) “hates London and everything there” Connolly wrote on his second encounter, “Hence the realism of one book was redeemed by an operating sense of beauty, that of the other is not.” Coming up for Air (1939), reviewed by the son of H G Wells and Rebecca West, Anthony West, “is a statement of present discontents made with all the persistent disagreeableness for which Mr George Orwell is renowned; he dislikes almost everything about England today, most of all the shabby genteel England where people who have very little pretend that they are wealthy and secure.”

The non-fiction was praised, though not without caveat. When Hamish Miles reviewed The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he applauded the “thwacks at Anglo-Communism, tinned food, Punch, the highbrows of ‘the snootier magazines,’ the ‘leisure’ Utopians, and much else”, but felt it necessary to shoot the elephant in the room, adding, “It may be hard for Mr Orwell to accept such praise from such a notoriously snooty quarter as Great Turnstile: it is fairly clear that The New Statesman and Nation is as a pink rag to his bull-wrath. But he must take it.” He had taken it before. In 1933 the NS commissioned an outside reviewer, the poet W H Davies, who had previously led a destitute life (though not from choice), to review Down and Out in Paris and London. Davies celebrated Orwell’s scrupulousness: “We make haste to assure him that his book is packed with unique and strange information. It is all true to life, from beginning to end.”

In spite of his disagreement with Martin, Orwell continued to review military non-fiction, historical novels, travel writing from the parts of Asia he knew, pamphlets and biographies for the New Statesman until 1943. He wrote an illuminating review of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940) – “What was frightening about [the Moscow show trials] was not the fact that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.”

Orwell’s own attempts to fictionalise autocratic conditions in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm raked up old resentments. In 1945, while Martin watched the tide turn against those who had defended Stalinism, he decided to review Animal Farm himself. “There is plenty in the USSR to satirise, and Mr Orwell does it well,” he wrote. “How deftly the fairy story of the animals who, in anticipation of freedom and plenty, revolt against the tyrannical farmer, turns into a rollicking caricature of the Russian Revolution. His shaft strikes home.” Though of course, just as Orwell was made to recognise “Nazi Germany was now an even worse enemy than the British Empire”, so too he is “compelled” to accept that “the new ruling class is really very different indeed from anything that Russia has known before.”

St George

Three years after Orwell’s death (aged forty-six, from a burst artery brought on by tuberculosis), his unsteady relationship with the NS ceased to be unsteady: he was claimed for common sense. The art historian Benedict Nicolson, reviewing the early collection of essays England, Your England (1953), proffered a mea culpa on behalf of the theorising Left: “We needed an Orwell, not a Conservative politician, to point out that the intellectual had no real understanding of working-class mentality, that he could never acquire it, that whatever he did he could not deny his bourgeois background.” And it is this Orwell, the Franciscan truth-teller, half-man, half-myth, whom warring factions have debated ever since. “Orwell’s opinions,” Nicolson wrote, “largely owing to the fact that he expressed them and we absorbed them, now read as common sense, whereas at the time they read as thrilling heresies. His mistrust, for example, of Soviet ‘democracy,’ once thought perverse, is now orthodox.”

In 1971 the political theorist Bernard Crick observed, “Eric Blair was perhaps one man, but there were several George Orwells – both of his own and others’ making.” Crick contributed his own eleven years later, collaborating with Orwell’s widow Sonia Brownell to produce George Orwell: A Life (1982; revised in 1992), and reviewing every book written about Orwell for the NS in the meantime. He recognised the allure: “So many writers have selected from him, almost re-written him, as if challenged by him to come to terms with themselves.” Unable to review his own, the attempt which came closest to defying Orwell’s prohibition on biographies, Christopher Hitchens stepped in. “In the Forties Orwell was lunching with Malcolm Muggeridge at the Little Akropolis in Charlotte Street. When Kingsley Martin came in, Orwell asked Muggeridge to change places so that he could be spared the sight of ‘that corrupt face’ all through the meal.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hitchens found Crick “bloodless”, lacking in anecdote, character, gossip.

Why Orwell Matters (2002) provided Hitchens every opportunity to reinvigorate Orwell the man (as well as to assert that he was neither Puritan nor saint). His chapters, “Orwell and the Left” and “Orwell and the Right” follow a long line of pieces published in the magazine with names like “My country Right or Left” (Francis Hope, 1969), “Look right, look left, look right again” (1999, Geoffrey Wheatcroft) and “The socialist fallacy: Orwell’s status as the secular saint of socialism is built on a myth” (Scott Lucas, 2000) – out of which emerged an exasperated populism grounded in decency and domesticity: the “perfect English cup of tea”. Journey’s end for Orwell and his biographers. Unlike the many men who tried to claim Orwell, or to argue he was stubbornly unclaimable, Beatrix Campbell in “Wigan Pier and Beyond” (1983) tried to shrug off his influence. Aligning herself with the matured “powerful but stupid” and “apathetic masses”, who had lately found a voice and learned to think, she writes: “Although much of his work is about ‘the masses’, we, the masses, are the objects of his narrative. He is the subject.”

For all his “orthodoxies”, Orwell got plenty wrong. In “Eternal vigilance” (2009), n+1's Keith Gessen writes: “First, Orwell declares that no great novel could now be written by a Catholic (or communist) perspective; late he allows that a novel could be written from such a perspective, in a pinch; and then, in his essay on Graham Greene, he comes very near to suggesting that only Catholics can now write novels.” Part of this is down to style. Just as school friends are all right on their own, but tend to act badly in crowds, Orwell’s plain style “so resembles someone speaking honestly and without pretence directly to you”, it makes you feel “there is no way on earth you could possibly disagree with him, unless you’re part of the pansy left, or a sandal-wearer and fruit-juice drinker, or maybe just a crank.”

“So who is Orwell for,” Campbell asked on the cusp of 1984 (there was a noted resurgence of interest in Orwell under Thatcher), “in this jamboree year, when both Right and Left will be slugging it out to claim him for themselves as if, like the Bible or Capital his books were necessary to their litany?” Rather than suppose an answer, twenty-first century reviews have often focused on the work, the context in which it was written, to recognise its irreducibility.

The 1998 Complete Works of George Orwell was schematised by its harrowed reviewer: “20 volumes, 3,755 items in the last 11 volumes of essays, journalism, letters, diaries; 7,460 pages in all, 30,000 entries in the cumulative index, with footnotes and annotations beyond measure”. It holds an otherworldly price tag too, RRP £750. The text requires reviewers to deploy extended metaphors. In 2003, Scott Lucas (who received the reviewing mantle from Crick) opted for the lone frontiersman: “He had patrolled the borders of socialism as a lone ranger of decency, the authoritative voice of dissent limiting the voice of others.” He left an unreadable (in terms of size) corpus behind, which justifies little, and criticises everything as part of its operating logic. In Orwell things are found. He is still repackaged and republished, and remains an enigmatic source: a commonplace book for political journalists (and essayists) on the make.

Monday: Eric Blair, “Common lodging houses” (3 September 1932)

Tuesday: W H Davies, “Confessions of a Down and Out” (18 March 1933)

Wednesday: George Orwell, “New Novels: Darkness at Noon” (4 January 1941)

Thursday: Christopher Hitchens, “What People do not Want to Hear” (28 November 1980)

Friday: Beatrix Campbell, “Wigan Pier and Beyond” (16 December 1983)

An illustration from Animal Farm, by Ralph Steadman.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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