Looking Over Their Shoulder: Orwell and the Intellectuals
The title of Every Intellectual’s Big Brother seems to suggest that there is something malign about the influence George Orwell exercises over intellectuals more than fifty years after his death. “Big Brother,” after all, is the Stalin-like figure presiding over Oceania, the totalitarian superstate that provides the setting for Nineteen Eighty-Four. The completeness of the failure of the novel’s main character, Winston Smith, to retain any trace of individuality is revealed by the novel’s famous last words: “He loved Big Brother.”
If Orwell’s influence were indeed a force for ill, then John Rodden would have a lot to answer for. At last count the author or editor of six books on Orwell, he has arguably done more than anybody else in the last twenty years to make the case for Orwell’s contemporary relevance. Rodden has not been content, however, merely to argue for Orwell’s importance. He ended his first book by observing that the variety of characterizations of Orwell offered by intellectuals and literary critics left “Orwell the man and writer” seeming to be little more than “a human kaleidoscope whose variegated imagery has represented nearly all things to all people.” In Every Intellectual’s Big Brother Rodden examines the interpretations of Orwell offered by the “London Left” of C. Day Lewis and Stephen Spender, the English “Movement Writers” such as John Wain and Kingsley Amis, the New York Intellectuals, including Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, American cultural conservatives, particularly Russell Kirk, and the contemporary left, especially Christopher Hitchens. The book also includes two chapters of interviews about Orwell with contemporary writers, a conclusion in which Rodden describes the “unlessons” he himself has learned from Orwell’s life and work, and an epilogue sketching a “prolegomena to an ethics of reception.” Rodden distinguishes Every Intellectual’s Big Brother from his earlier work on the grounds that the latter dealt with “the rhetoric and aesthetics of literary reputation” while the former considers instead “the ethics of admiration and detraction, or what could more broadly be termed reception ethics.”
One might expect, or fear, that a book focusing on responses to the life and work of George Orwell as material to work out an “ethics of admiration (and detraction)” might simply judge writers as ethical or unethical according to their agreement or disagreement with the author’s own view of Orwell. John Rodden, however, has exhibited a remarkable ability throughout his career, both in his books on Orwell and on figures such as Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, to sympathetically understand diverse points of view without giving way to mere blandness. The “prolegomena” Rodden proposes are so basic one might think they could be taken for granted, but given the pervasive failure to abide by even the most elementary rules of intellectual fair play in contemporary cultural-political debates, Rodden is performing a real public service in spelling out guidelines that should inform discussions of George Orwell or any other historical figure.
Rodden offers four rules to guide discussion. His key precept is to “avoid anachronistic interpretation.” Writers who failed to transcend the culture of their time should not be condemned any more harshly than we would contemporaries who subscribe to mainstream but questionable values in our own time. His second precept “involves the acceptance of human imperfection.” A hero may have flaws but still be heroic; insistence on a perfection impossible for human beings serves no purpose. Thirdly, the critic should “distinguish the man from the work.” If the life is not always consistent with the work, as is almost certain to be the case, the work is not thereby invalidated. Finally, Rodden warns against “bounty hunters,” those whose admiration or detraction, motivated primarily by some political or cultural cause, cannot survive disinterested consideration of the historical figure under discussion.
As Rodden himself would agree, these are all rules much easier to formulate than to follow. One of the great strengths of Every Intellectual’s Big Brother is the reader’s sense that Rodden is not himself a “bounty hunter,” surreptitiously pushing his own reading of Orwell by judging the interpretations of others. Unsurprisingly, Rodden’s survey reveals that many if not all Orwell’s admirers emphasize those aspects of Orwell that coincide with their own views and attitudes. Among the New York Intellectuals Lionel Trilling, opposing progressivism’s tendency to reduce morality to politics, “memorialized Orwell as a ‘virtuous man,’” while Irving Howe, eager to claim Orwell for the left, praised him as “a revolutionary personality.” In England John Wain, one of the “Movement writers” who “scoffed at politics,” praised “Orwell’s intellectual and moral purity” in 1954, but a few years later, when “Wain himself was becoming more politically active,” saw Orwell as essentially a polemicist, “a committed pamphleteer.” In a generally favorable portrait discussion of Christopher Hitchens, Rodden observes that “Hitchens defends Orwell partly because Hitchens is writing a veiled self-defense.” Wisely, Rodden does not encourage the reader to take his demonstrations of the ways in which a critic’s view of Orwell is connected to the critic’s view of his or her own situation as a debunking of the former. Orwell’s importance, Rodden’s study suggests, resides in large part because this master of plain prose was a man of many parts, a complex figure whose political radicalism was balanced by a strong cultural conservatism and an aversion to tyranny in any form.
In Rodden’s account Russell Kirk stands out for his willingness to fully acknowledge the differences between himself and Orwell while also paying generous tribute to Orwell’s integrity and moral acumen. Kirk, a convert to Roman Catholicism who was never attracted to socialism, nevertheless “saw Orwell as an atheistic socialist who despaired about socialism yet firmly rejected religious belief and faith in the afterlife.” Kirk, the renowned author of The Conservative Mind, recognized and even insisted that Orwell was no conservative, even though he shared the conservative opposition to state domination over the individual. Kirk told Rodden that “Orwell was not a conservative, but an anti-collectivist. Not all anti-collectivists are conservative. So it was with Orwell.” In the same interview Kirk declared that just as “It’s an abuse of Burke to claim him for the Left . . . it’s an abuse of Orwell to claim him for the Right.” Rodden notes that some Catholic admirers of Orwell such as Christopher Hollis “pronounce[d] Orwell a conservative and would-be believer, rather than a disillusioned socialist. By contrast, Kirk . . . saw Orwell as a self-condemned pagan, a socialist in despair.”
The closest Kirk comes to assimilating Orwell’s opinions to his own is his speculation in his interview with Rodden that the suggestion in Nineteen Eighty-Four that there must be “some terrible force beyond man . . . driving people like O’Brien, a force that causes the destruction of the human personality” implies the existence of a spiritual “diabolical power” the existence of which implies “the existence of a beneficient divine power.” But even in this speculation Kirk refuses to identify Orwell’s ideas with his own. As Rodden makes clear, Kirk recognized that Orwell himself refused to see the implication so clear to Kirk himself: “Kirk held that Orwell’s skepticism proved stronger than his faith.” Rodden closes his chapter on Russell Kirk by eloquently describing what Orwell and Kirk did finally have in common, despite all the their differences of opinion: “. . . though he and Orwell differed on the means, each of them took up his ‘sword of imagination,’ as Kirk proudly termed it. Each of them fought that common enemy, the nightmare of anti-utopian utopianism, from whatever direction—right or left, past or future—they perceived the threat to come.”
The book’s two chapters of interviews with participants in the 2003 George Orwell Centenary Conference held at Wellesley College yield few memorable insights, perhaps because the oral interview format lends itself to opinionating in contrast to the written essay form, which in the hands of a master like Orwell or even lesser figures can present not only opinions but the view of the world behind the opinions. Some of the opinions offered seem simply wrong, at least as bald assertions. Morris Dickstein, for example, asserts that “among the greatest reasons for his literary relevance are his [Orwell’s] creative use of the essay and his blurring of the line between fiction, reportage, and creative writing.” At a time when the postmodernist zeitgeist encourages college professors as well as advertisers to blur the line between fiction and fact, it seems perverse for Dickstein to hail as one of Orwell’s great accomplishments “his blurring of the line.” Orwell, of course, insisted over and over on the reality of “Truth” and on the responsibility of intellectuals to distinguish fact from fiction whether discussing the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or his own England.” As Rodden observes in an earlier chapter, Orwell believed that “The special function of the intellectual in a totalitarian age was to bear witness to historical and political Truth—the ‘record’ as objective reality and social fact.”
The late Richard Rorty’s comments seem shallow, but in his case the shallowness is principled, a consistent expression of his philosophical postmodernism. Rorty, of course, could scarcely sympathize wholeheartedly with Orwell’s search for the truth when Rorty’s own philosophical project could be described as an attempt to find a plausible alternative to what he called “The tradition in Western culture which centers around the notion of the search for Truth.” Similarly, Rorty gained fame for developing a view of morality according to which there was no “neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to the other.” Understandably, then, when the topic of Orwell’s moral authority came up for discussion, Rorty responded that “I am not happy with this term moral authority [italics in original]. Like Shaw, Orwell gave us timely warnings. That was his appeal.” Whatever one thinks of Rorty’s philosophy, his comparison of Orwell to Shaw seems ludicrous. What “timely warnings” did Shaw provide? Orwell warned against Stalinism when many intellectuals refused to see its evil, and he likewise opposed fascism and Nazism. At various times in his long life Shaw praised Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin meanwhile advocating the right of the state to kill—painlessly, of course—any citizens whose continued existence was not cost-effective.
In “Unlessons from My Intellectual Big Brother” John Rodden puts his own cards on the table. He himself “subscribe[s] to an egalitarian, anti-elitist politics at odds with traditional conservatism” but also “to an anti-progressive, tradition-minded politics quite resonant with cultural conservatism.” In contrast to his intellectual “big brother,” Rodden identifies himself as “a vegetarian, a sandal-wearing religious believer, an Irishman, a Catholic.” Rodden’s own intellectual honesty and his belief that Orwell’s political opinions were not the most important thing about him allow him to be an honest broker in characterizing the various camps laying claim to Orwell’s memory. For Rodden, there is little doubt that “Orwell matters today less for political reasons than for moral reasons.” What is most important to remember about George Orwell is his “repeated emphasis on—and inspiring enactment of—intellectual integrity.” And yet, just as Orwell had what Rodden calls his “flaws, foibles, and failings,” Rodden himself sometimes fails to do justice to those whose politics differ from his own. His chapter on Russell Kirk is exemplary, but elsewhere a certain hostility to conservative attitudes occasionally makes itself felt.
In most cases this hostility is conveyed not by direct statement but by tone and implication. When Rodden characterizes Orwell as “an outspoken scourge of both capitalist profiteers and Stalinist ideologues,” he not only leaves the misleading impression that Orwell’s importance derives as much from his critiques of the former as the latter, he also intimates that capitalist excesses and Stalinism are approximately equivalent evils. Discussing Kingsley Amis’s turn toward the right, Rodden observes that Amis’s “self-image developed into that of an intellectual rebel not unlike Orwell.” Rodden, however, comments that “The difference was that Amis became a curmudgeonly Establishment defender possessed of none of Orwell’s feelings of duty toward or compulsion about remaining within the Left-liberal fold.” In the context of a book where Orwell’s superiority to his epigones is (rightly) assumed throughout, one would expect any “difference” pointed out between Orwell and a later admirer to be taken as a reflection on the latter. Yet it is hard to see why Amis’s lack of any “feelings of duty” or “compulsion” about membership in “The Left-liberal fold” should reflect discredit on him. It would be more reasonable, indeed, to argue that insofar as Orwell felt such compulsions, his own thinking was less original and more restricted than it might have been. Likewise, Rodden’s comment that from 1966 on Amis “became almost reactionary in his cultural politics” seems to suggest that, despite Rodden’s own avowed “cultural conservatism,” there is something so bad about being “reactionary” in cultural matters that being “almost reactionary” deserves criticism. Rodden’s lists of Amis’s “almost reactionary” attitudes, however, contains nothing that seems self-evidently wrongheaded, and a good deal that seems quite reasonable:
In his fiction and criticism he attacked new idioms “corrupting the English language,” deprecated rock and modern jazz in preference to early jazz, dismissed free verse and “pop” poetry in favor of metrical laws and regular forms, inveighed against “totalitarian” ideas (prompted by “trendy lefties”) threatening “humane” (conservative) values, opposed university expansion (“MORE WILL MEAN WORSE,” went his much-quoted slogan) in defense of educational “standards” and elitism, and castigated communitarian schemes in support of individualism and free enterprise.
While Rodden occasionally conveys distaste for conservative stances subtly and by implication, he denounces neoconservatism openly and explicitly. Russell Kirk ended an often critical essay on “The Neoconservatives: an Endangered Species” by accepting them as allies: “Even publicans, sinners, and Neoconservatives may do battle for the Permanent Things.” Rodden, however, believes they are on the “opposing side” from Orwell and himself—over there, apparently, with the Fascists, Nazis, and Stalinists that Orwell wrote against. Addressing Orwell directly, he states “Your positive reception by the neoconservatives is evidence that you ran the risk of being misunderstood and claimed by the opposing side.” Rodden differentiates neoconservatism from “a ‘decent’ conservatism” on the grounds that the former champions “progress, business conglomerates and capitalism,” while the latter “battles injustice, but it acknowledges that most human beings need a stable environment and the ownership of property.”
One doesn’t have to subscribe to Commentary or The Weekly Standard to find this attempt to put neoconservatism beyond the pale of decency tendentious in the extreme. Rodden himself concedes that the neoconservatives, while in his view “typically uncritical of the major power centers in the culture,” are indeed “critics of the intellectual culture . . . critics of their own reference group of intellectuals.” Orwell was, of course, famously critical of leftist intellectuals, his “own reference group of intellectuals.” And one does not need to be a “neocon” to see some arguably significant parallels between Orwell and the neoconservatives. Orwell broke with his fellow leftists when the latter’s commitment to equality and democracy turned into a defense of Stalinist dictatorship, while the neoconservatives broke with their fellow liberals because, among other reasons, the latter’s commitment to equality of opportunity and tolerance turned into a defense of equality of outcomes and political correctness.
Whatever objections might be raised to aspects of this study of Orwell’s “literary siblings,” one can only express gratitude for John Rodden’s renewal of the legacy of George Orwell, carried through not only in Every Intellectual’s Big Brother but in a whole series of books and articles that have put us all in his debt—liberals, socialists, conservatives, and even capitalists and neoconservatives. If George Orwell is not “the foremost political writer of the twentieth century,” as John Rodden asserts, he is certainly one of the few whose writings are as necessary today as when they were published. One of the many reasons why John Rodden is so successful in restating Orwell’s importance for today is that he recognizes that even though Orwell was indeed “a political writer,” it is Orwell’s adamant refusal to subordinate morals to politics that ensures his relevance in the twenty-first century and beyond.
James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State University, is most recently the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States (Yale, 2009).
Posted: November 14, 2010
A Return to the Thought-Murders