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Eternal vigilance

Throughout the 1940s, George Orwell was formulating the ideas about language and politics that found

By 1940, George Orwell had behind him four conventional “social” novels and, more significantly, three books of documentary reportage, each one better than the last, culminating in his classic account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia.

Gradually in the others but culminating in Homage, Orwell perfected his signature “plain” style, which so resembles someone speaking honestly and without pretence directly to you, and he had more or less settled on his political opinions: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” So he said in 1946.

But while this may have been settled, there were other matters Orwell was still working out in his mind. The subjects of the essays Orwell wrote in the 1940s are almost all, in one way or another, things Orwell doesn’t like. The essays are incessantly self-contradicting. First, Orwell declares that no great novel could now be written from a Catholic (or communist) perspective; later 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.

In his essay on T S Eliot, he writes that it is “fashionable to say that in verse only the words count and ‘meaning’ is irrelevant, but in fact every poem contains a prose-meaning, and when the poem is any good it is a meaning which the poet urgently wishes to express. All art is to some extent propaganda.” Several years later, in “The Prevention of Literature”, in arguing for the idea that poetry might survive totalitarianism while prose would not, he writes that “what the poet is saying – that is, what his poem ‘means’ if translated into prose – is relatively unimportant even to himself”.

What is particularly frustrating about these contradictions is that at each successive moment Orwell presents them in his great style, his wonderful sharp-edged plain-spoken style, which makes you feel that 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.

In a way I’m exaggerating, because the rightness of Orwell on a number of topics has been an albatross around his neck for 60 years. In truth, Orwell was wrong about all sorts of things, not least the inner logic of totalitarianism: he thought a mature totalitarian system would so deform its citizenry that they would not be able to overthrow it. This was the nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In fact, as it turned out in Russia, even the ruling elite was not willing to maintain mature totalitarianism after Stalin’s death.

Other totalitarian regimes have repeated the pattern. Orwell was wrong and Orwell contradicted himself. He was more insightful about the distant dangers of communist thought-control, in the Soviet Union, than the more pressing thought-control of western consumerism. Nor did he see the sexual revolution coming, not by a long shot; one wonders what the too-frequent taunter of the “pansy left” would have made of the fact that the gay movement was one of the most successful, because most militant, of the post-1960s liberation struggles.

But there is a deeper logic in Orwell’s essays, beneath the contradictions and inevitable oversights. The crisis that he was writing himself through in the 1940s was the crisis of the war and, even more confusingly, the postwar. It involved a kind of projection into the future of certain tendencies latent in the present. Orwell worries about the potential Sovietisation of Europe, but also the infection by totalitarian thinking of life outside the Soviet sphere – not just specific threats to specific freedoms, but to deeper structures of feeling. As the philologist Syme says to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? . . . Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness is smaller.”

If Orwell was wrong in some sense about the long-term development of totalitarianism, he was right about its deepest intellectual intentions, about the rot it wished to create at the centre of thinking itself. And he was right that this rot could spread.

One solution would be to cordon off literature from life and politics entirely: this was, in some sense, the solution adopted by the writers of the previous generation – Eliot, James Joyce, D H Lawrence, Ezra Pound – whom Orwell calls the writers of the 1920s and we now call the high modernists. And yet he did not want to make a special plea for literature; in fact, of all the writers of his time, Orwell was constitutionally the least capable of making this separation. His own writing and politics were the fruit of his specific experience – of imperialism in Burma, of the conditions in the English coal mines, of the war in Spain. He insists on several occasions that “all art is propaganda” – the expression of a particular world-view. In Dickens’s case, for example, this is the world-view of a classic 19th-century bourgeois liberal, a world-view Orwell admires even as he sees its limitations.

For the Orwell of the early essays, the case of Henry Miller is the tough one. Because while Dickens’s politics are in the end congenial enough, Miller’s quietism is less so. “I first met Miller at the end of 1936, when I was passing through Paris on my way to Spain,” writes Orwell. “What most intrigued me about him was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot.” Orwell nonetheless went to Spain, and fought there. He was a writer who felt it was vital to let politics animate his work; Miller was the opposite.

And yet Orwell contrasts Miller favourably to W H Auden, who at this time in the poem “Spain” was miming the thoughts of the good party man about the “necessary murder”. Miller is so far removed from this sort of sentiment, so profound is his individualism and his conviction, that Orwell comes close to endorsing it: “Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale – or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course).” Except Orwell doesn’t really mean this. He may be inside the whale but he does not intend to stop disturbing its digestion, he does not intend to be any more quietistic.

What he admired above all in Miller was his willingness to go against the grain of the time. While all art is propaganda, it needn’t necessarily propagandise something correct. The important thing is that the writer himself believe it.

But there are certain things that you simply can’t believe. “No one ever wrote a great novel in praise of the Inquisition,” he asserts. Is that true? At almost the exact same moment, Jean-Paul Sartre (a writer who, Orwell thought, incorrectly, was “full of air”) was writing in What Is Literature?: “Nobody can suppose for a moment that it is possible to write a good novel in praise of anti-Semitism.” Is that true? It seems to have been a problem that leftist writers of the 1940s were going to face by sheer bluff assertion.

For Orwell the number of beliefs hostile to literary production seemed to expand and expand. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is labelled “Pétainist” – a fairly strong term to hurl at a long experimental poem that doesn’t even rhyme. And Salvador Dalí, in “Benefit of Clergy”, is a “rat”.

As the war goes on, then ends, Orwell’s sense of peril grows sharper, and he looks at literature in a different way. He comes to think that no matter who wins, the world will find itself split again into armed camps, each of them threatening the others, none of them truly free – and literature will simply not survive. This is the landscape of Nineteen Eighty-Four and it is also the landscape of his later essays – “The Prevention of Literature”, “Politics and the English Language”, “Writers and Leviathan”.

There is even, momentarily, a kind of hallucination, in the curious short piece “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”, where some of Orwell’s old interest in the starving writer crops up, now mixed with the wintry gloominess of his later years: “In a cold but stuffy bed- sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it . . . He is a man of 35, but looks 50. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if only his pair were not chronically lost.”

Who is this but Winston Smith, the failed hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four, figured as a book reviewer? Or who, conversely, is Winston Smith, but a book reviewer figured as the prisoner of a futuristic totalitarian regime?

With great doggedness, Orwell keeps delving into the question of literature’s position in society, and what might be done to keep it alive in a time of total politics. In “Writers and Leviathan”, dated 1948, he argues that writers must ultimately separate themselves from their political work. It’s a depressing essay and it ends – one wonders whether Orwell was aware of this – with an echo of the line of Auden’s he so reviled: the writer capable of separating himself from his political activity will be the one who “stands aside, records the things that are done and admits their necessity, but refuses to be deceived as to their true nature”.

Orwell was always a realist who knew that politics was a dirty business –
but he was never quite such a realist as here. The realm of freedom had finally shrunk to a small, small point, and it had to be defended. As Winston Smith says in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”

It is hard not to wonder whether the pessi­mism of this conclusion was partly a response to the art (or propaganda) Orwell was himself creating in those years. He had published Animal Farm in 1945; weakened by the tuberculosis that would kill him, he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1947-48. After the reception of Animal Farm, and with the direction Nineteen Eighty-Four was taking, it must have been clear to him on some level that the world was going to use these books in a certain way. And it did use them that way.

The socialist critique of Orwell’s late work seems essentially correct – they were not only anti-Stalinist but anti-revolutionary, and were read as such by millions of ordinary people (a fact that Orwell, who was always curious to know what ordinary people thought, would have had to respect). Out of “necessity” he had chosen a position, and a way of stating that position, that would be used for years to come to bludgeon the anti-war, anti-imperialist left.

That he had chosen honestly what seemed to him the least bad of a set of bad political options did not make them, in the long view of history, any better.

But what a wonderful writer he had become! That voice – once you’ve heard it, how do you get it out of your head? It feels like the truth, even when it’s not telling the truth. It is clear and sharp but unhurried; Orwell is not afraid to be boring, which means that he is never boring.

His voice as a writer had been formed before Spain, but Spain gave him a jolt – not the fighting nor his injury (a sniper had shot him through the throat in 1937), though these had their effects, but the calculated campaign of deception he saw in the press when he got back, waged by people who knew better. “Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper,” Orwell recalled, “but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed . . . This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.”

This insight reverberates through Orwell’s work for the rest of his life. The answer to lies is to tell the truth. But how? How do you even know what the truth is, and how do you create a style in which to tell it? Orwell’s answer is laid out in “Politics and the English Language”: You avoid ready phrases, you purge your language of dead metaphors, you do not claim to know what you do not know. Far from being a relaxed prose (which is how it seems), Orwell’s is a supremely vigilant one.

It is interesting that Orwell did not go to university. He went to Eton, but loafed around there and, afterwards, went off to Burma as a police officer. University is where you sometimes get loaded up with fancy terms whose meaning you’re not quite sure of. Orwell was an intellectual and a highbrow who thought Joyce, Eliot and Lawrence were the greatest writers of his age, but he never uses fancy terms.

You could say that Orwell was not essentially a literary critic, or that he was the only kind of literary critic worth reading. He was most interested in the way that literature intersects with life, with the world, with groups of actual people. Some of his more enjoyable essays deal with things that a lot of people read and consume – postcards, detective fiction, “good bad books” (and poetry) – simply because a lot of people consume them.

Postwar intellectuals would celebrate (or bemoan) the “rise of mass culture”. Orwell never saw it as a novel phenomenon. He was one of the first critics to take popular culture seriously because he believed it had always been around and simply wanted attention. These essays are part of a deeply democratic commitment to culture in general and reading in particular.

His reading of writers who were more traditionally “literary” is shot through with the same commitment. Orwell had read a great deal, and his favourite writers were by many standards difficult writers, but he refused to appeal to the occult mechanisms of literary theory. “One’s real reaction to a book, when one has a reaction at all, is usually ‘I like this book’ or ‘I don’t like it,’ and what follows is a rationalisation. But ‘I like this book’ is not, I think, a non-literary reaction.” And the “rationalisation”, he saw, was going to involve your background, your expectations, the historical period you’re living through.

If we compare Orwell to his near-contemporary Edmund Wilson, who was in many senses a more sensitive critic, we see Orwell’s peculiar strength. At almost the exact same moment as Orwell, in early 1940, Wilson published a psychobiographical essay on Dickens in which he traced much of Dickens’s later development to his brush with poverty as a young man.

Orwell’s treatment is much more sociological and political, and in a way less dramatic than Wilson’s. Yet at one point Orwell encapsulates Wilson’s argument with a remarkable concision: “Dickens had grown up near enough to poverty to be terrified of it, and in spite of his generosity of mind, he is not free from the special prejudices of the shabby-genteel.” This is stark, and fair, and that “terrified” is unforgettable.

You can tie yourself in knots – many leftist intellectuals have done this over the years – trying to prove that Orwell’s style is a façade, an invention, a mask he put on when he changed his name from Eric Blair to “George Orwell”; that by seeming to tell the whole story in plain and honest terms, it actually makes it more difficult to see, it obfuscates, the part of the story that’s necessarily left out; that ultimately it rubber-stamps the status quo.

In some sense, intellectually, all this is true enough; you can spend a day, a week, a semester proving it. There really are things in the world that Orwell’s style would never be able to capture. But there are very few such things.

Orwell did not want to become a saint, but he became a saint anyway. For most of his career a struggling writer, eking out a living reviewing books at an astonishing rate, he was gradually acknowledged, especially after the appearance of Homage to Catalonia in 1938, to be a great practitioner of English prose. With the publication of Animal Farm – a book turned down by several of England’s pre-eminent houses because they did not want to offend Britain’s ally the Soviet Union – Orwell became a household name.

Then his influence grew and grew, so that shortly after his death he was already a phenomenon. “In the Britain of the 1950s,” the great cultural critic Raymond Williams once lamented, “along every road that you moved, the figure of Orwell seemed to be waiting. If you tried to develop a new kind of popular cultural analysis, there was Orwell; if you wanted to report on work or ordinary life, there was Orwell; if you engaged in any kind of socialist argument, there was an enormously inflated statue of Orwell warning you to go back.” In a way the incredible posthumous success of Orwell has seemed one of the more peculiar episodes in the cultural life of the west.

He was not, as Lionel Trilling once pointed out, a genius; he was not mysterious; he had served in Burma, washed dishes in a Parisian hotel, and fought for a few months in Spain, but this hardly added up to a life of adventure; for the most part he lived in London and reviewed books. So odd, in fact, has the success of Orwell seemed to some that there is even a book, George Orwell: the Politics of Literary Reputation, devoted to getting to the bottom of it.

When you return to his essays of the 1940s, the mystery evaporates. You would probably not be able to write this way now, even if you learned the craft: the voice would seem put-on, after Orwell. But there is nothing put-on about it here, and it seems to speak, despite the specificity of the issues discussed, directly to the present. In Orwell’s clear, strong voice we hear a warning. Because we, too, live in a time when truth is disappearing from the world, and doing so in just the way Orwell worried it would: through language. We move through the world by naming things in it, and we explain the world through sentences and stories. The lesson of these essays is clear: Look around you.

Describe what you see as an ordinary observer – for you are one, you know – would see them. Take things seriously.

And tell the truth. Tell the truth.

Keith Gessen is a novelist and critic

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood