Of his boarding-school days Orwell wrote. The high-watermark of good favour was to be invited to serve at table on Sunday nights. One got a servile pleasure from standing behind the seated guests and darting deferentially forward when something was wanted… At the first smile one’s hatred turned into a sort of cringing love.’
The oppressed schoolboy was soon to fill the role of oppressor and discover equally paradoxical emotions. As a young civil servant in Burma, he became suffocatingly aware of the mixture of hatred and submissiveness in the colonised. In Shooting an Elephant, a brief and poignant essay on how he sacrificed an elephant’s life to save face and his pukka sahib image, he conveys more than his self-disgust the incident becomes a demonstration of the way power structures distort human values. In an unequal society, Orwell felt, selfpreservation rules and no one can ultimately be trusted.
Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier record his most obvious attempts to divest himself of his privileged background - the ‘land-less gentry’. Dressed in rags stiff with dirt, living among beggars, or working with the miners, he deliberately drank in poverty and the million subtle humiliations that accompany it.
But the watershed in Orwell’s life, politically and personally, was the Spanish Civil War. ‘Thereafter,’ he said, ‘I knew where I stood.’ Homage to Catalonia is an account of his experiences during the early months of 1937 in the trenches at the Aragon front and in the Barcelona street-fighting. Written within months of the events, it has the immediacy of a fleshed-out diary.
But Orwell went further than the First World War writers who had already conveyed the miserable mixture of blood and boredom that characterise trench warfare. Wilfred Owen’s young soldiers suffered and died while hardly knowing why. Orwell knew exactly why he was in Spain. In the tedious intervals that stretched between the dramatic episodes, Orwell tried to set the record straight about the international machinations behind the Spanish political scene. In his view, the anarchist group, the POUM, were the genuine revolutionaries fighting Franco’s Fascists. Under Stalin’s orders the Communists betrayed the POUM, accusing them of being Fascist agents while actually playing a right-wing, anti-revolutionary role themselves. Denounced as traitors by both Fascists and Communists, the POUM were cornered and suppressed. Orwell was full of bitterness towards the large powers, safely tucked away, that had used a small band of idealistic young men as cannon fodder, and was determined that the anarchists’ version of ‘the truth’ should be publicised before it could be obliterated by the propaganda machines. The result is a stirring book that makes one care about a moment in history that took place more than 40 years ago as if it were happening now.
The problem of locating and preserving the truth was posed again in Orwell’s last and best-known books, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Although individual perceptions and memories can never be complete nor free from personal bias, they may be the only bulwark against the falsification of truth by authoritarian powers. Iliad the notice up in Animal Farm always read ‘All animals are equal - but some are more equal than others’? Or was that last clause new?). Orwell, like Koestler in Darkness at Noon, comes down on the side of the individual conscience against the Party line that loops the loop and betrays the loyal revolutionary. Although Orwell’s books are often used to support right-wing fears of Redsunder-the-bed, it was the distortion of Socialism by the Soviet totalitarian elite that Orwell found objectionable. Between egalitarian and healthy individual development he found no conflict.
That’s why the Catalonian experience was crucial to Orwell. It was among the militiamen that he was happy, despite the physical conditions, because it was there that ‘the word "comrade" stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.’
Homage to Catalonia
by George Orwell (1938) Penguin Books
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