Orwell was one of those indispensable geniuses who transcended politics, and who Catholics too need as part of their mental furniture
Some time ago, Joan Bakewell approached the BBC’s director-general, Mark Thompson, to set before him a proposal, backed by a number of journalistic and broadcasting notables, to erect a statue of George Orwell in the empty space that extends behind All Souls’ church and leads towards the brand new entrance of Broadcasting House. The chosen sculptor — an excellent choice — is Martin Jennings, whose splendid statue of John Betjeman now stands in the revitalised St Pancras Station, not raised on a plinth but engagingly among the travellers, typically looking up at that wondrous great arched roof.
Mr Thompson turned the proposal down flat: “Apparently,” writes Lady Bakewell, “George Orwell would be perceived as too Left-wing a figure for the BBC to honour”. What? I can see why Mr Thompson might be careful, in view of all the entirely justified criticisms of too many of the BBC’s commentators as being that way inclined, to avoid unnecessary provocations: but George Orwell? Never was there a more powerful example of a writer who entirely transcended political bias of that kind, one who palpably has as many admirers on the right as on the left, and whose only bias was for liberty and truth wherever it was to be had. Lord Moran, Winston Churchill’s doctor, recorded in his diary that he had found Churchill absorbed in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Have you read it, Charles? Oh, you must. I’m reading it for a second time. It is a very remarkable book.” Churchill, of all people, of course saw the point of it immediately. “Too Left-wing,” indeed. What does he think Orwell was attacking in his naming the ideology of the party of Big Brother as “Ingsoc”? The Tories? Has Mr Thompson ever read Nineteen Eighty-Four? Or Animal Farm?
Mark Thompson’s reaction to Lady Bakewell’s proposal was rejected with scorn in a very good piece by Nigel Jones in his Daily Mail blog.
“There are,” he writes, “several possible explanations for the DG’s reluctance to honour Orwell with a statue on BBC premises. It could be sheer ignorance of Orwell’s work and politics. It could be bureaucratic inertia. Or it could be the hatred still held by many on the Left for Orwell – the man who in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four wrote the most damning indictments of Marxist totalitarianism ever penned… Another reason for Thompson’s horror may be that he knows that Orwell’s view of the Corporation was, at best, ambivalent. He savagely caricatured it in Nineteen Eighty-Four as the Ministry of Truth, pumping out a daily diet of lying propaganda on behalf of the ruling party’s ideology “Ingsoc” (Newspeak for “English Socialism”). Does that sound familiar?”
I’m not sure about some of that: he certainly continued to describe himself as a socialist; but from the late 1930s he defined the word in a very personal way. His suspicion of institutional Socialism of all kinds was ineradicable after his experiences in Spain. In Catalonia, fighting Franco with the republicans, he was shot through the throat by a sniper: then, he was hunted by the secret police of those he had fought with; many of his comrades were arrested, then tortured and killed by the Spanish Stalinists; and his ordeal gave him a profound horror both of Marxism in general and Soviet Communism in particular. His publisher, the socialist Victor Gollancz, refused to publish Orwell’s reminiscences of his Spanish experiences, “Homage to Catalonia”, for fear of upsetting the Russians (Stalin, by now, was the cuddly “Uncle Joe”). But Orwell was never fooled by Stalin. Hence, Animal Farm and then [ital] Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell, of course, was, like most English intellectuals anti-Catholic, almost as a conditioned reflex. But it wasn’t something that obsessed him, and he became less anti-Catholic as he grew older. In 1948 (as he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four) he reviewed Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter for The New Yorker. He opens by saying that “A fairly large proportion of the distinguished novels of the last few decades have been written by Catholics and have been described as Catholic novels. One reason for this is that the conflict not only between this world and the next world but between sanctity and goodness is a fruitful theme of which the ordinary, unbelieving writer cannot make use.” It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of the faith, but he is beginning to see the point.
George Orwell is one of those indispensable literary geniuses whom Catholic believers need to have as part of their mental furniture if they are to understand how far towards the truth an unbeliever can get, by instinctively applying the principles of the natural moral law. Orwell has a nightmare vision of what could happen to our grasp of meaning in a totalitarian culture, a vision which remains as a standing warning, even today, in what we suppose to be a tolerant and libertarian society. Newspeak is still one of his most indispensable inventions: in this age of spin, in which words constantly re-emerge with some new meaning, we see it all around us.
“By 2050 earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared”, he has one of his characters enunciate; “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
His hero, Winston Smith — still surely a hero for our own times — knows that he has to fight to retain his knowledge of the real truth: “How could you tell how much of it was lies? It might be true that the average human being was better off now… The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different… He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.”
Then the defiant insistence that orthodoxy is not unconsciousness and conformity but intellectual liberty, the liberty to insist that there is such a thing as truth:
The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he … was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote:
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
One could say much more about this prophetic figure, of course; but one thing is clear: Orwell should certainly have his statue. I’m not sure, though, that outside the BBC is the appropriate place. He is certainly the greatest writer who ever worked there (he worked in Room 101!) but it might look as though the BBC were laying claim to him in some way, and he despised that institution too much, for reasons that in such a man hardly need any explanation, for that to be at all appropriate.