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Orwell

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

It has long been known that George Orwell drew upon his wartime experiences when he came to write Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The drab, forbidding landscape of Winston Smith’s Oceania (subject of two films, the most recent of which captures this aspect of the novel rather better than the 1950’s version) reflects Orwell’s almost phobic aversion to the England that emerged during and after the war, revealing not only the bombed-out buildings and the war-enforced deprivations but also the generalized regimentation and imposed conformity in domestic and public building, which became part of the postwar Labour government’s effort to rebuild and reshape a shattered nation. INGSOC, the political and social dogma of Oceania, while it was in part motivated by a generous dose of anti-Communist ideology (deriving from Orwell’s long-standing contempt for the Soviet Union and its local incarnation, the Communist Party of Great Britain), was more directly a representation of the Clement Attlee government’s attempt to direct social spending toward the masses of underprivileged British workers and the unemployed, to give them for the first time in history a solid and secure material basis upon which to build a decent life. To the extent that any such program of general social improvement would require centralized bureaucracy and state control, it can be said that Orwell’s horrific fantasy of the future (he himself always insisted that this is what the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four was) had no particular government or social system as its model. Nevertheless, given what is known about Orwell’s political beliefs and prejudices, it is not so wrong to say that the novel gives warrant for the Cold War appropriation of it that ensued immediately upon its publication, and that has shaped its reception down to the mid-1980’s. That Big Brother was intended to suggest Joseph Stalin (once more, Orwell made no bones about this) is but another indication of the book’s basic polemical thrust. England is there all right, but behind the picture of war-ravaged London lay Orwell’s nightmares about a Socialist future, which he thought he detected emerging in Labour-led Great Britain and which had as its ultimate avatar what Orwell thought he knew about Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The value and interest of Orwell: The Lost Writings lies in the light it sheds on that period in Orwell’s life when he worked for the India Section of the Far Eastern Service of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), writing and broadcasting radio scripts and arranging for speakers and programs. This period was undoubtedly influential upon Orwell’s ultimate picture of those aspects of Oceania which he saw already incarnated in His Majesty’s government’s wartime organization and administration. It is by now a commonplace in the scholarship on Orwell that much of what Winston Smith experiences in his work for the Ministry of Truth reflects Orwell’s own experiences at the BBC, then under tight rein by the Ministry of Information. Even the physical description of the Ministry of Truth building resembles quite closely the actual University of London Senate House on Malet Street (pictured in a recent photograph in the present book), where the Ministry of Information was headquartered during the war. To a degree, then, Orwell’s novel was less a projection than a recollection, a kind of report of what things were like for at least some of those employed by “our side” in the “struggle against Fascism.” One might profitably read Nineteen Eighty-Four with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), rather than, as has most often been the case, in the company of Eugene Zamyatin’s We (1959) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Orwell’s supposed fantasy might well be taken less as a dystopian fantasy than as a grim, but scarcely exaggerated, historical novel.

The point, however, should not be overdramatized. One can see fairly clearly from the present book that on a daily basis Orwell’s life was not all that distressing. The correspondence reprinted in the second section of the book suggests that the difficulties he faced were scarcely more menacing than the ones met every day by anyone who works in a relatively impersonal organization of any size, whether it be a university or a government agency of ministry. The sense of having someone always looking over one’s shoulder, which W. J. West emphasizes in his introduction and in his commentary on the general governing wartime censorship at the BBC, was perhaps exacerbated during the war. Yet the bureaucratization of the mind (the phrase originated, after all, not in reflections on totalitarian states of the twentieth century but in Max Weber’s analyses of the German imperial bureaucracy whose servant he was), the tendency to adapt oneself to what Orwell would label “doublethink,” is probably part and parcel of the contradictory loyalties anyone is bound to experience when trying to balance personal moral beliefs (for example, simply honesty) with the demands of living in a social environment. The only place where outright lies and plain truth can be directly and without ambiguity opposed is precisely in the realm of fiction.

That said, one can discern in the writings collected here the kind of genuine moral bind in which Orwell most probably felt he had been trapped by agreeing to produce propaganda in support of the British government’s war effort. The difficulties were most acute over questions of political and social commentary on India and the overseas colonies. Orwell complained loudly over the wish of his superiors to have him broadcast under his pen name. He protested that since the reputation of “George Orwell” was, in South Asia at any rate, primarily as an anti-imperialist, to appear suddenly as an agent of the British Crown and perforce an opponent of Indian nationalism (some of those who were pursuing this struggle had gone to Berlin and Tokyo, where they were understandably given cordial treatment) would not only damage his own image (about which he rather disingenuously professed not to care) but also would undermine the credibility of his views. Better, Orwell reasoned, to come over the air waves under the unknown moniker of Eric Blair.

West suggests that Orwell’s consciousness of the extent of real censorship at the BBC was really only awakened after he left the service and tried to find a publisher for Animal Farm (1945). If, however, as West himself argues repeatedly, the experiences and feelings of Winston Smith are indeed derived from Orwell’s own at this period, it is difficult to believe that he was not acutely aware of at least the general run of practices that characterized the Ministry of Information’s scrutiny of every word that was to be broadcast. Possibly the most revealing incident of all concerns the rejection of a script by Barbara Ward on “British Colonial Policy.” West prints the text of the memorandum ordering cancellation of the talk as well as the censor’s detailed criticisms—a masterpiece of the rewriting of history books Orwell was to pillory in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here are some excerpts:

The less said about India at the present time the better. In any case, the Indian problem is not related to Colonial problems.Whereas there is much to explain about our Colonial Empire, on balance there is surprisingly little of which we need to be ashamed.It has been no part of British Colonial Policy to consider any members of the British Colonial Empire as “racially inferior.”As for the “colour bar” this has been fought wherever it has reared its ugly head.When has Great Britain taken “riches out of the Colonies”?

To this last bit of brilliant doublethink, one can only reply: “When did Great Britain, or any other imperial power, not?” The author of this incredible (although under the circumstances of wartime censorship, completely effective) tissue of distortions was one H. V. Usill. Since the techniques of secrecy and repression in Great Britain have not reached quite the degree of efficiency predicted by Orwell himself, Usill, if he or she is still alive, will have the opportunity to rue the bad faith exhibited here. Whatever may be said of Orwell’s subsequent political betrayals, one cannot imagine the author of Burmese Days (1934) stooping this low. Small wonder that he ultimately grew disenchanted with the role he was compelled to play in Great Britain’s war effort, resigning his post to become the literary editor of the Tribune, and to work on his allegorical novel Animal Farm.

Interesting as some portions of Orwell: The Lost Writings are, and valuable as West’s introduction undoubtedly is in filling in the blanks that have remained in one’s knowledge about this brief but important period in Orwell’s career, one’s sense of Orwell as a writer and as a person will not be substantially altered by this book. West’s claim that “the key to Orwell’s evolution from the slightly pedantic and unpolished author of pre-war days lies in the two years he spent” at the BBC, is, frankly, rather dubious. Leaving aside the caricature of Orwell’s writings prior to the war (Homage to Catalonia, 1938, unpolished or pedantic?), nothing in the materials collected here points toward the two works of fiction that would establish his subsequent reputation. What one sees from this book is a competent performer of mundane bureaucratic tasks and a no-more-than-ordinarily literate Englishman called upon to disseminate some bromides about culture at a time when such an activity was a very low priority of the British government. Orwell aficionados will be pleased and delighted by the publication of these writings; the general reader will benefit more from West’s competent and informative introduction. Yet to claim that these documents constitute a great find strains credulity. While one does not wish to endorse the activities of paper shredders and incinerators the world over, there is one principle that can reasonably be applied in deciding what to preserve and what to leave to what Karl Marx once called the “gnawing criticism of the mice”: Not all words and documents are worth preserving, not even all the words of important writers.

Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXI, August, 1985, p. 1598.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, July 15, 1985, p. 706.

Library Journal. CX, October 15, 1985, p. 88.

National Review. XXXVII, November 29, 1985, p. 56.

New Leader. LXVIII, September 9, 1985, p. 19.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, November 17, 1985, p. 18.

The New Yorker. LXI, October 21, 1985, p. 151.

Newsweek. CVI, October 28, 1985, p. 89.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, August 2, 1985, p. 56.

Washington Post Book World. XV, September 8, 1985, p. 11.