Someone (Andrew Sullivan?) wrote that George Orwell was "the first blogger," and the Orwell Prize has taken this thought in an interesting direction. Starting today, the diaries Orwell kept from 1938 to 1941 will be published as a blog, with each diary entry appearing as a blog post exactly seventy years after it was written. Today is the first, an entry Orwell wrote when he was recovering from wounds received in the Spanish Civil War. It is an entry about a snake:
Caught a large snake in the herbaceous border beside the drive. About 2’ 6” long, grey colour, black markings on belly but none on back except, on the neck, a mark resembling an arrow head all down the back. Did not care to handle it too recklessly, so only picked it up by extreme tip of tail. Held thus it could nearly turn far enough to bite my hand, but not quite. Marx [Orwell's dog] interested at first, but after smelling it was frightened & ran away. The people here normally kill all snakes. As usual, the tongue referred to as “fangs”.
A while ago I wrote about going through phases of imitating the various writers I was most taken with, mentioning Adorno and Orwell in particular. This might seem surprising, since the two can be (and have been) thought to be opposites. James Miller an essay in the Lingua Franca collection Quick Studies called "Is Bad Writing Necessary?" that argues that each man represents a model of Left social engagement. (In short: Adorno believed that a too-ready assimilation of the world to concepts is the great modern enabler of tyranny and so booby-trapped his writing against easy understanding; Orwell believed that calculated verbal obscurity is the great modern enabler of tyranny and so made his writing unmistakeably clear. Discuss. Though I don't see why we have to choose — Adorno was a fine writer in his way.) But when one Christmas I was given the Penguin four-volume paperback edition of Orwell's collected journalism, letters, and essays, it deeply affected me. I read these volumes constantly for the next couple of years and tried to understand what Orwell was doing that made even the least of his writings — the little "As I Please" columns he wrote for years in the Tribune, for example — so valuable. For a while I did imitate (semi-consciously) his forthright style, with predictable results, but in time I realized that Orwell works best as a more general kind of model, a model for how to think and see — clear writing flows from clear perception. Honest perception, too—what was perhaps most impressive to me was how Orwell remained so vigilant against letting some received opinion, some cant borne of enthusiasm or righteousness, carry him away from the truth. Of course, there are those on the Left who have never forgiven Orwell for being (as they see it) a traitor, and there is at least one academic study that argues that Orwell was a kind of literary Bob Dylan, a political lightweight whose great accomplishment was to craft a rhetoric of authenticity, an artifice that gives the illusion of political substance. So there are doubtless those who are reading this and rolling their eyes at yet another tribute to Orwell's honesty. (Didn't Orwell say something about avoiding cliches?) And it is true that, whatever Orwell's own commitment to a particular truth, his writings have lent themselves to remarkably elastic interpretations. Christopher Hitchens thinks Orwell would have approved of the Iraq war, Norman Podhoretz thought that he would have approved of nuclear proliferation, etc. Orwell was never himself very consistent, and he's dead anyway, so he won't give anyone the lie. What is left is this literary image of plain humble rightness, easily exploited by hustlers of every political persuasion.
So maybe there's a good reason for the hatery.* But a lot of Orwell's best writing isn't even political. This despite what he said somewhere about how everything he wrote was political because in a politicized age there's no keeping out of politics. Orwell, like Adorno, was much given to gloomy totalizing remarks of this kind, but he wrote wonderful pages about the simple pleasures of plants and the weather and beer in old-fashioned pink china cups, things that he treasured because the pleasure they offered was still free, which is to say, as yet uncolonized by ideology. In a broad way, his enshrining these pleasures in writing was a political act, in a negative sense. "All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia," he wrote. Against the Communist left he asserted that politics was a disease, not a cure; the Communist enthusiasm for suborning every little corner of life to politics was not a liberation, he believed, but slavery, and in writing about little things he was at least hoping to put off the final subjugation a little longer. And, coming at the end of the GWBush presidency — an era whose thuggish, brutal politicization of science, religion, sex, entertainment, etc. has given it a strange flavor of inverted Communism — this is more attractive than ever.
*Though my god, what a stupid, malicious, mendacious article this is — academic resentment writ small.