“I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood,” George Orwell wrote in 1946. “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
Like many educated in the British system in the second half of the 20th century, the world-view I acquired in childhood owed a great deal to George Orwell. Shaped by the optimism of the postwar democratic welfare state and, more fretfully, by the Cold War, that world-view was intolerant of cruelty and injustice and committed to the freedom of the intellect, yet moderately tempered about the prospects for large-scale political change.
It was, in large part, a mythological world-view. But since acquiring it meant reading quite a bit of Orwell in our English classes, we were also given the tools to take apart myths, spot political cant, identify wilful obscurantism, and to believe that words could and should find ways of getting us to attend to the world that were not dishonest.
It’s fair to say that for many it feels as if the broadly left, tolerant humanism that Orwell once represented has been abandoned. Or perhaps it has abandoned us. In any case, its absence is conspicuous. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a politics of lying, denial and fear has crept back into daily life. Big organisations are once more messing with our minds. Self-censorship has again become routine in some quarters, as has violent disinhibition in others. Yet the sense of a common culture in which dissent and diversity could be nurtured is missing.
The question now cannot be whether we should abandon Orwell – various high-minded attempts have been made to do this over the years, but he remains present – but which Orwell we should be cultivating for our own “over-the-top-Orwellian” times.
Rebecca Solnit’s answer in her luminous new homage to the writer is Orwell the gardener – the man who in 1936 planted roses in his garden in Wallington, Hertfordshire, and in his writing nurtured a sensibility attuned to natural beauty and the life which quietly keeps on generating alongside the weary cynicism and political despair.
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Everybody knows, or at least thinks they know, the Orwell who casts a “cold eye on political monstrosity”. Pronouncing on which bits of contemporary life are “Orwellian” or not has become as cynical and ideological as the politics he despised. By contrast, Solnit, the American author, historian, activist, and one of our best contemporary essayists, is interested in the writer who never abandoned his love of the “surface of the earth” and who (also in 1946) recognised that he had “done good unconsciously” when he bought some baby rose shrubs from Woolworths ten years previously, planted them in his garden, and set something going that would endure beyond his too-short lifespan.
Part biography, part memoir, a historical and cultural analysis and a work of literary criticism, Solnit’s book is a love letter in prose to those roses, to Orwell and to the enduring relevance of his ethical sensibility. It is efflorescent, a study that seeds and blooms, propagates thoughts, and tends to historical associations.
Solnit describes her writing method as “rhizomatic”, by which she means, following the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, that it connects to other images, stories and thoughts, like the runners and feelers of a strawberry plant; or, updating the science a little, like the “mycorrhizal networks, sometimes called the wood wide web, that connect trees to one another”.
Like Alice in the rose garden, sometimes you can get lost in the tangle of this wood. But part of Solnit’s Orwellian point is that the imagination does not thrive in captivity, and that an over-cultivated landscape is often a document to human bondage and brutality – such as in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ painting of the Honorable Henry Fane from the 1760s, which includes Orwell’s great-great-grandfather, the plantation- and slave-owner, Charles Blair.
This is also a story about ecology and labour, and about how dominating nature and dominating people are the twin faces of modern totalitarianism. Stalin insisted that lemons could grow in the garden of his Kuntsevo dacha just outside Moscow (they could not). In Mexico in 1924, the Italian activist and artist Tina Modotti created one of the most beautiful and celebrated images of roses in the history of photography, yet later abandoned art and became an accomplice to Stalin’s crimes.
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“Bread for all, and roses too,” was the radical cry of suffrage and labour movements at the beginning of the 20th century, a protest both for equality and against commodification. In our century, multinational rose farms in Colombia deliver scentless flowers to supermarkets in the US and Europe. “The lovers get the roses, but we get the thorns,” runs a workers’ slogan from a factory Solnit visits; just as industrial Britain got its wealth, and the miners Orwell wrote about in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) got their collapsed lungs and dismal life expectancy.
By tending to his garden, Orwell was creating a refuge from the depredations of advanced industrial capitalism, fascism, war and political mendacity. Like another great theorist of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, he understood privacy – the right to be unworldly – to be a bulwark against authoritarianism. “In an age of lies and illusions,” Solnit writes, “the garden is one way to ground yourself… in nature.” Gardens don’t lie, and getting things to grow requires more than slick rhetoric. In this, they share something with viruses which, likewise, resist domination by political fictions.
Yet unlike Voltaire’s horticulture in Candide, Orwell’s gardening was not a retreat from politics. The man who famously felt strongly about prose style understood that because the solid things of the earth require an unworldly attention, they in turn can cultivate new resistant strains of language and thought. In short, if we want to defy the lies, the imagination needs both freedom and care.
Hannah Arendt once suggested something very similar about the connections between culture, nature, and political defiance. The word “culture”, she observed, “derives from colere – to cultivate, to dwell, to take care, to tend and preserve – and it relates primarily… to the sense of cultivating and tending nature until it becomes fit for human habitation”.
We tend to the imagination, to art, culture, writing and creative thinking, for the same reason that we cultivate the natural world: so that we might find a human habitat. This “attitude of loving care,” Arendt said, “stands in sharp contrast to all efforts to subject nature to the domination of man”. There is perhaps a reason why climate change deniers also tend to disapprove of research funding for the arts and humanities.
Arendt and Orwell never met, but in the 1950s and 1960s she regularly set his books for her US students in her courses on 20th-century politics. She did so not simply for his analyses of the very personal nature of modern totalitarianism, which she shared. But because like him she believed that exercising the imagination was a form of political understanding. An attitude of “loving care” can also grow free thinking and political dissent. It is this tradition that Solnit’s book affirms and revives for the present.
I’m less sure that Orwell always stands quite so far away from cruelty. He loved his garden, but he was no cricket in the sunshine. The dappled shade of the “Golden Country” in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Julia seduces Winston Smith is indeed a place of beauty, sex, privacy and all the good things. But when Winston finally submits to Big Brother at the end of the novel it is with a shout of “Do it to Julia!”, a cry familiar to many women when it’s closing time for the gardens and patriarchy reasserts itself. Early on, he fought with his publisher, Victor Gollancz, over the edits of the scene of child rape in chapter two of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). He thought it was “the only good bit of writing in the book”. I can barely read it.
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Orwell understood the sadism in misogyny because, like the paranoia in anti-Semitism, he shared it. He understood, in other words, that pleasure was also generated by violence and cruelty, and that resistance to domination was to be found not only in gardens but also by being honest about your complicity – sometimes brutally honest. Piety, even about the good things, was also something he distrusted.
Orwell’s shines through in Solnit’s book not least because it is matched by her own. She cares for his words as she does for her own and as she does for the “surface of the earth”. The myth of a common humanism might well now be in tatters, and for good reason – if our times are again “Orwellian” this is in large part because the world-view of the liberal West in the late 20th century has failed so badly. But if we want to learn again from Orwell, and to nurture a common culture of dissent and imagination, this thoroughly loving book tells us where we might begin.
Lyndsey Stonebridge is professor of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham. Her book on Hannah Arendt will be published by Jonathan Cape
Granta Books, 320pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West