Hero for our time
The Crystal Spirit. A Study of George Orwell.
by George Woodcock.
Little, Brown. 366 pp. $6.95.
With 1984 only seventeen years away, it would appear that George Orwell’s reputation has at least as much chance of surviving as we do. It is not as a prophet, however, that Orwell’s name is likely to endure, nor as a novelist, nor a journalist, nor even as an essayist, though in this last form he wrote perhaps as well as anyone who has used the English language in the last fifty years. It is for qualities of person and intellect that he is likely to be remembered—qualities which shine through his writing and at times even transcend it. Orwell is not the only writer in this category; Santayana, with his enormously attractive refinement and intellectual subtlety, belongs to it, and so does the late Isaac Rosenfeld. Having died in his mid-thirties, Rosenfeld never got around to writing anything which might lay claim to being a major work, but everything he did write bears the indelible mark of his own special warmth and humanity. Fittingly enough, it was Rosenfeld who remarked of Orwell, shortly after the latter’s death in 1950: “When he died, I felt as many of his readers who never knew him must have done, that this was a friend gone.”
The 30’s and 40’s, a period when politics were preeminent, stamped most men who lived through them as either knaves or fools, but Orwell emerged from these decades not only with his dignity intact but also as the most honorable political writer of his time. He was able to do so, it would seem, because more than anyone else whose record we have of those years, he most consistently struggled to reconcile his feelings with his politics. In Orwell’s case, this was no mean task, for though a radical in politics, he was in many respects a conservative in feeling. Like Justice Holmes, Orwell might best have styled himself an “anarcho-conservative.” It is one of the ironies of the time that Orwell, the man who has frequently been called the political conscience of his age, conducted a long flirtation with anarchism, a form of anti-politics which at its root implies a supreme loathing for the political life. “As I write,” he began an essay of 1941, “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
The turns and twists of Orwell’s career, along with its long stretches of coherence, have now been mapped out with a clarity close to Orwell’s own by George Woodcock in The Crystal Spirit. (The title is taken from a phrase in one of Orwell’s poems: “No bomb that ever burst/Shatters the crystal spirit.”) Although a book of considerable distinction, The Crystal Spirit can scarcely be called a model study of a man’s life, if only because Mr. Woodcock has respected Orwell’s expressed wish that no official biography of him be written. Could his prescience, one wonders, have extended even to foreknowledge of the dominant form literary biography would take after his death—namely, an elaborately psychoanalytic grubbing for neuroses? In any case, three of the four sections of The Crystal Spirit deal almost exclusively with Orwell’s writing—though the initial section, “The Man Remembered,” which represents Mr. Woodcock’s personal reminiscence of Orwell, is by far the most interesting part of the book.
If the other parts are less fascinating, it is not because Mr. Woodcock is not a perceptive critic, but because Orwell’s writing stands in need of very little explication. Its meaning is unmistakable, and intentionally so. For the sake of clarity, Orwell deliberately eschewed irony, ambiguity, and the other components of modern literary construction. As for those tensions and conflicts that existed between himself and what he wrote about, Orwell was generally the first to spot them. Not only did he bring them to the surface of his writing, but frequently they constituted his very subject matter, as can be seen in almost everything he wrote about working-class life and his own relation to British imperialism. While Orwell’s fiction allows for more critical interpretation than his essays, and Mr. Woodcock’s comments on the novels all seem quite sound, almost all of them were less than first-rate. As a critical subject, then, Orwell provides meager opportunities to be the life of the party at meetings of the Modern Language Association.
Mr. Woodcock, however, has no such aspirations; appropriately, therefore, he concentrates on Orwell’s development as a writer and on putting his work into the contexts—intellectual, political, social—in which it was done. This he is supremely well-equipped to do. As a poet and an anarchist living in London, Woodcock himself was very much caught up in the same atmosphere as Orwell. In fact, his first contact with Orwell was by way of a heated polemic in the pages of Partisan Review. Afterward, Orwell wrote to Woodcock: “I am afraid I answered rather roughly in the Partisan Review controversy. I always do when I am attacked—however, no malice either side, I hope.” Orwell seems to have been constitutionally unable to hate anyone, except in the abstract. For precisely this reason, he deliberately avoided mixing in London literary circles. He used to attack Stephen Spender vigorously in print, but after meeting him face-to-face, he could not resist writing to him: “Even if when I met you, I had not happened to like you, I should still have been bound to change my attitude, because when you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas.” Orwell’s feelings, in other words, were not in the service of his politics.
This did not, of course, diminish his political commitments. “I have no particular love for the idealized ‘worker,’ as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind,” he wrote in Homage to Catalonia, “but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.” No one despised the totalitarian cast of mind more than Orwell, but he despised equally any breach of libertarian standards in the fight against totalitarianism. In 1948, when the British Labour party attempted a purge of Communists from the civil service, using methods which did not allow suspects to confront their accusers, Orwell joined Mr. Woodcock, Sir Herbert Read, and others in opposing the effort—an act which stands in notable distinction to the conduct of certain American anti-Communist intellectuals in regard to our own Smith Act and the bawdry of the late Senator McCarthy. The difference, one is tempted to essay, is that Orwell’s anti-Communism derived from a hatred of injustice, while that of his American counterparts derived merely from a hatred of Communists. Orwell’s primary concern was never with vengeance, but truth. He was well aware, as Mr. Woodcock points out, that he would deface the classic composition of Homage to Catalonia if he followed his inclination to devote a chapter to the ephemeral political infighting which resulted in the Communist betrayal and frame-up of the P.O.U.M. Yet he went ahead and included just such a chapter. In that very act, political honesty is defined.
In writing about Orwell, it is impossible to avoid recourse to words like “honesty” and “truth”; as Lionel Trilling was the first to point out, Orwell demands to be described in old-fashioned terms like “virtue.” It is almost as if he came from a different moral universe than the one we now live in. “Image,” “credibility gap,” “escalation”—these are the words of today’s moral universe. Orwell of course knew all about the brutalization of language and what it implied about the brutalizers. Were he alive today, he would surely insist that “image” means the thing which is not really there; that “credibility gap” means that the gentleman in the White House is probably lying again; and that “escalation” simply means increased killing, no more and no less.
Orwell had, in his own phrase, “a power of facing unpleasant facts.” Unlike Camus, a writer to whom he is very much akin in temperament, he was not a systematic thinker. He reasoned from his experience and trusted his instincts; his cast of mind, though angry and often gloomy, was far from being pessimistic. “All revolutions,” he believed, “are failures, but they are not all the same failure.” The target of 1984, as Mr. Woodcock points out in his book, was not merely totalitarianism but the deadly illusion of perfectionism. “The essence of being human,” Orwell wrote in his essay on Gandhi, “is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”
Toward the end of his life, Mr. Woodcock tells us, Orwell planned to write novels on the model of Joseph Conrad’s. He hoped to give up all his polemical writing, to have done with politics. But it evidently wasn’t in him. Instead, on his deathbed, and with considerable haste, he completed the manuscript of 1984. Such was his sense of duty—in the end he himself was prepared to be “defeated and broken up by life.”