“The best guesser is the best prophet.”
—Greek Proverb

George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in Motihari, India, where his father worked for the Indian Civil Service as a sub-deputy opium agent in charge of manufacturing the narcotic for transport to China. His mother, the daughter of a French teak merchant and boatbuilder, had grown up in a lavish colonial household in Burma. Ancestors on both sides had made small fortunes in India and Jamaica by virtue of cheap (and slave) labor.

In short, the man who became George Orwell entered the world a beneficiary of a corrupt and often ruthless imperialism. His parents never questioned the morality of this exploitation of the less fortunate. Neither did Blair as a young man, when he still considered “Mandalay,” Rudyard Kipling’s sentimental ode to the exotic Orient, the best poem in the language. After graduating from Eton, rather than continuing his education at Oxford or Cambridge with his peers, he followed in his father’s footsteps, serving the British Empire’s interests as an assistant superintendent of police in Burma from 1922 to 1927.

From this morally compromised background, Blair emerged as the “wintry conscience of a generation,” the epitaph V.S. Pritchett bestowed on him—and which Jeffrey Meyers has aptly chosen for the subtitle of his new and immensely clarifying biography, Orwell. Pritchett’s phrase comes from the opening sentences of his obituary for Orwell; he goes on to identify the generation in question as the one that “in the thirties had heard the call to the rasher assumptions of political faith.” These “rasher assumptions” were the totalitarian siren songs of fascism and communism to which so many of Orwell’s contemporaries succumbed while he, despite his revolutionary sympatthes, steadfastly resisted. Like his contemporary (and political opposite), Evelyn Waugh, Orwell knew these were equally hideous. Even during World War II, when Russia allied with England against Germany, he never shrank from proclaiming that both communism and Nazism threatened what mattered most in human life: liberty and decency. Although he called himself a socialist, Orwell refused to go along with others on the left who were willing to overlook the “sins” of Soviet-style communism in order to combat the horrors of fascism.

Orwell’s stance provoked unusually strong reactions, especially from those who knew communism from the inside. They either revered or reviled him. Former communist Arthur Koestler called him the “missing link between Kafka and Swift.” In 1953, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz reported that Orwell’s 1984 fascinated the members of the Soviet Inner Party: They could not fathom how an outsider had gained such insight into daily life under their system. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian philosopher Grigori Pomerantz also noted Orwell’s uncanny grasp of conditions under communism. “Orwell, who got his education at Eton and on the streets of colonial Burma, understood the soul, or soullessness, of our society better than anyone else.” Marxists, on the other hand, have taken a different line. When Animal Farm and 1984 first appeared, they were so flustered by Orwell’s exposure of totalitarian governance that they resorted to namecalling: maggot, hyena, swine, neurotic, and worse. This pleased Orwell, for, as Meyers notes, their childish spluttering “made [him] feel he must have struck home.”

For an author who was subjected to so much naming, no one did it as well Eric Blair himself He decided to use a pen name for his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), fearing his autobiographical report on living with the lower classes might embarrass his family. In retrospect, however, it is difficult not to read into his decision other intentions: Who could be more virtuously English than George, the island’s patron saint, Edmund Spenser’s Red Cross Knight? And Orwell is the name of a river running from Ipswich to the North Sea, a part of the English countryside Blair loved so much. Not by design—he was too unassuming for that—but perhaps by instinct, Blair aligned himself with a legendary knight by defending his country from the ideological dragons of the 20th century.

Orwell’s decision to write under a pseudonym is suggestive in another way: It is the mark of his self-invention. He was not a natural writer. He had neither Waugh’s elegance nor Aldous Huxley’s learning, the novelists with whom he is most often grouped today. Ruth Fitter, a poet and family friend, described his first efforts as being “like a cow with a musket.” What drove Orwell to make himself an effective writer was his unblinking moral vision. As a member of what he sardonically called “the lower-upper-middle class” and a beneficiary of an oppressive imperial system, he felt it his duty to tell the truth to his countrymen and help end the injustices that were everywhere hiding in the miasma of unquestioned convention. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he wrote of the “immense weight of guilt” he needed to expiate:

I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. . . . What I profoundly wanted . . . was to find some way of getting out of the respectable world altogether.

This he did from 1928 to 1931, first becoming a restaurant dishwasher in Paris and then returning to England to join the homeless tramping from town to town, looking for handouts or work. By recording these experiences in Down and Out, he began to create the George Orwell we now regard as the moral voice of his age, a role that seems to have pleased and embarrassed him in equal measures. Turning up at his friends’ homes in vaguely proletarian attire, he endured a certain amount of teasing for wearing his social conscience on his fraying sleeve. Cyril Connolly, his friend from Eton, once remarked that he “could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkercthef industry.” But Orwell gave as good as he got. While at Connolly’s home one night, Peter Quennell stopped by on his way to a more exalted occasion for which he was wearing formal evening dress. “So you still wear the uniform of the class enemy,” Orwell teased his friend.

The work in which Orwell most memorably dramatized the chilling consequences of “man’s dominion over man” was his last, 1984. Its phenomenal success (over 40 million copies sold in more than 60 languages, according to Meyers) has made Orwell’s name an adjective, frequently used by people who have never read the book. “Orwellian” stands for the routine, casual abuse of bureaucratic power by those who expect ordinary citizens to bow uncomplainingly to official authority and big money. Along with his name, Orwell’s terms of political injustice have passed into our common vocabulary: thoughtcrime, doublethink, memory-hole, unperson, thought police, Big Brother, and more. No other writer has so successfully sensitized us to language’s political undercurrents. Without Orwell, would we have taken as much notice as we did when Stanley Fish of Duke University arrogantly coined the term “politically correct,” using it to indicate his leftward litmus test of academic worthiness?

I have found 1984 a useful gauge of character. I first discovered this over 20 years ago when a colleague of mine noticed I had assigned the novel to one of my undergraduate classes.

“You’re not still teaching that?” he asked incredulously. “Our students are really too sophisticated for it, you know.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” I agreed, “if you mean the word in its original sense. There’s little doubt their minds have been shamefully sophisticated by what passes for education today.”

Until that moment, I had not really thought much about my colleague one way or the other. He had always seemed a nice enough, competent young fellow. But now he stood revealed as a gullibly softheaded victim of changing intellectual fashions. It was apparent that he had been all-too-easily sophisticated—that is, traduced—by Marxist propaganda. From the moment Orwell showed up on their radar, the far left had been doing everything possible to portray him as a misanthropic crank who had cravenly betrayed his youthful revolutionary idealism. That they succeeded at all with this transparent slander has always astonished me.

As Meyers explains clearly and in indisputable detail, the communists first took aim at Orwell in 1938, while he was fighting on their side in Spain against Franco’s forces. Since he presented himself as an independent-minded socialist, they judged him “politically unreliable,” meaning he refused to subscribe to the Stalinist line. For this “crime,” they scheduled him for assassination; a sniper shot him in the neck. (The communists have always denied this, but Meyers proves their treachery with documents from Soviet files and with fascinating interviews with two aging British communist participants in the Spanish Civil War.) After partially recovering from his wound, he and his wife—who had joined him in Barcelona— had to flee for their lives to Paris. The communists had targeted not only them but all the anti-Franco forces with whom they were supposedly allied. Saving the nascent Spanish Republic obviously came second to political correctness, those who did not bend to their will were deemed Trotskyites and slated for torture and liquidation.

Over the years, the reds became increasingly enraged that they had failed to eliminate the man who became one of their most potent critics. After Spain, Orwell made it his life’s mission to unmask the communist cause for the ghastly sham it was. His success is everywhere evident. Orwell has become an honored hero of both the right and the anticommunist left. His works played a substantial role in undermining the Soviet system. Meyers reminds us that, when Pope John Paul II was archbishop of Krakow in 1977, he allowed a lecture entitled “Orwell’s 1984 and Contemporary Poland” to be delivered in church, despite the government’s ban. In 1984, the Solidarity Movement issued a clandestine Orwell stamp and distributed illegal editions of Animal Farm and 1984. If taking up arms in Spain had been rashly quixotic, Orwell lived to settle matters with his pen. hi the end, his works would help discomfit the totalitarianism he so despised.

Orwell triumphed because he refused to be sophisticated by what he called in 1940 “the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.” Meyers enables us to understand the origins of Orwell’s resistance to changing political fashions. Everything in his varied life had taught him that what passes for sophistication is all too often the kind of rationalization that permits people to behave unspeakably. He had witnessed firsthand sophisticated ideologues justifying torture and murder to achieve their goals. But it was not just ideologues. While an imperial policeman, Orwell had abused the Burmese, justifying himself on grounds of necessity: There was no other way to maintain colonial order. He even beat his native servants. “I had hit them with my fist in moments of rage,” he would later confess, adding by way of extenuation that “orientals can be very provoking.” Orwell’s knowledge of political brutality and intolerance was never merely theoretical: He knew what people were capable of.

From these experiences, Orwell concluded that, once people are pried from their unsophisticated belief in moral absolutes that transcend political expedience, they are all too ready to do whatever those in power bid. As O’Brien, the Grand Inquisitor of 1984, explains to the thoughtcriminal Winston Smith, a wellrun state requires that truth be a politically managed consensus rather than an objective reality. In other words, if you can get people to believe in anything, you can get them to do anything—sell dope to the indigent, shoot the politically unreliable, or drop bombs on innocent populations. In such a world, concentration camps and gulags come as no surprise. Although a professed atheist, Orwell was honest enough not to duck this issue, hi 1949, he addressed it from his deathbed with a directness worthy of the staunchly Roman Catholic Waugh: “The problem of the world is this: Can we get men to behave decently to each other if they no longer believe in God?”

At its heart, 1984 is much more than a political novel. It is a profound investigation into epistemologieal and theological questions that have bedeviled us throughout history—and with special urgency in our age, when belief has foundered and many intellectuals have concluded that objective truth is merely a nostalgic mirage. These sophisticates have convinced themselves that we have no certain knowledge of anything beyond the signs and symbols we create, a condition that licenses the cognoscenti to do consciously what they believe human beings have always done unconsciously—namely, invent their own reality. This is the message O’Brien preaches. Having accepted the premise that there is no reality except that which is “within the skull,” he puts forth a doctrine of collective solipsism in which the totalitarian state is the ultimate arbiter of truth. History, science, morality—they must all submit to the needs of government. Winston argues desperately against this perverse philosophy. He wants to believe that there is some standard of truth external to the human will, some absolutely fixed fulcrum upon which human beings might exert the lever of their individuality against the juggernaut of the state. Without belief in God, however, he finds he can only appeal impotently to the “Spirit of Man,” a will-o’-the-wisp O’Brien has no trouble brushing away.

By convincing Winston that two plus two equals five, O’Brien presses state propaganda to its logically absurd conclusion. Governments have always striven to convince their citizens that nonsense is truth and viciousness is moral. National leaders of the last century convinced their citizens that sacrificing lives in the tens of millions was necessary to achieve Utopia. More recently, we have endured a leader who had no compunction about informing us that the meaning of “is” is endlessly disputable and that killing healthy unborn children, far from being an unspeakable crime, is nothing less than an unimpeachable moral right. These are the dehumanizing consequences of O’Brien’s brand of sophisticated atheism.

As Meyers amply demonstrates, Orwell was a sworn enemy of O’Brien’s sophistication well before writing 1984. He fought intellectual sophistry on every front, at the risk of prosperity, health, and even life itself He stood for individual liberty against what he perceived to be an increasingly machine-regimented life in the 20th century and shunned what George Bowling, his protagonist in Coming Up for Air (1939), calls the ersatz, streamlined would of modern life. Like Gordon Comstock, the protagonist of his second novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), he was immune to the blandishments of urban, middle-class existence. During his final ten years (when he was most at risk from the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1950), he chose to live in a primitive cottage in Wallington before moving on to Jura, a sparsely populated, inhospitable island off the Scottish coast. He needed to play the role of the prophet who retreats to the wilderness in order to see his society accurately.

As many have pointed out, Orwell’s prophecies did not come true. He never intended, however, to foretell the future. He was a prophet in the sense that he revealed the immoral tendencies of his time, exaggerating what he had witnessed as an agent of British imperialism and a wartime propagandist for the BBC. And perhaps the political nightmare he imagined never materialized precisely because 1984 was published. His cautionary vision may have put the world on alert.

Meyers has done a superbly thorough job of presenting the flawed, difficult man who was born Eric Blair, a man seriously divided within himself As Blair, he had enjoyed the perks of imperialism, including the services of menials and young prostitutes cheaply available to a Brit in Burma; as Orwell, he hated himself for participating in a colonial system that degraded both the ruled and the ruler. As Blair, he did not refrain from caning his students during his brief stint at schoolmastering in Middlesex; as Orwell, he despised bullying in all its forms. As Blair, he yearned to smash fascist faces; as Orwell, he railed against the brutality that war permits. This Jekyll-and-Hyde tension, though it must have been uncomfortable, is hardly unusual, especially in creative minds. Would Joseph Conrad have been so effective in unmasking the squalid egoism underlying romantic idealism had he not been drawn to it himself? Would Waugh have been as effective a critic of technological modernity had he not gadded about on motorcycles and parachuted from planes? We all harbor contradictory urges, but artists feel them more urgently. This is why they are compelled to resolve them in their art.

Eric Blair never lived under totalitarianism, but he did harbor autocratic impulses that enabled him to recognize intuitively the consequences of absolute power. To deal with his inner conflict, he became George Orwell—to the inestimable benefit of everyone living today and, I hope, to those who will come after us.


[Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, by Jeffrey Meyers (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) 320 pp., $29.95]