“I was more wicked than I had imagined”

Last week, Ben Judah wrote in The American Interest:

Why is it always Orwell o’clock? Why is everything mildly unpleasant about government instantly Orwellian? Why is every banal propaganda effort obviously 1984 sprung to life?..

Most of the Orwell cult only irritates, but one thing legitimately grates: the idea of Eric Blair as a monument to British decency.

Agreed. The whole “What would Orwell do?” business is a joke. St. Eric’s relics have petrified into crutches and cudgels. Admit it – good writers tend to be doupleplusunnice. So do bad readers: half the comments to Ben Judah’s piece are a variation on “who are you to insult the Great Martyr?” (My comment is here.) Sad or amusing, it’s all barely relevant to the man’s output.

Why read Orwell? “For to admire? Nah, for to see,” to mangle a good bad poet. There isn’t much to enjoy in 1984 or in Such, Such Were the Joys but if one has nothing to learn from them – at all! – one must already be enlightened beyond belief. There’s even something to envy – for instance, the way Orwell retraces the birth of Calvinism from the miasma of an English prep school:

It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you. …this was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good… Life was more terrible, and I was more wicked, than I had imagined.

Or take the mats and cale:

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.

I’m convinced both odors had traveled from St. Cyprian’s, 1914, to London, 1984. But, coming from another time and place, I recognized at once the smell of boiled vegetables and dirty rags. Simple, ugly, working, Orwellian.

Going back to Ben Judah’s article, it’s probably fair to say that he doesn’t much like either Orwell the writer (“boring”) or Orwell the man. Not to argue about tastes, if one insists on judging Eric Blair, one would do well to measure his prejudices against those of his peers, of his time and class. As a fan of V. S. Naipaul in particular, Judah could cut Blair some slack when it comes to personal imperfections.

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