From one George to another

When debates arise, I avoid quoting the novel as much as possible 1984 or to use the term “Newspeak” so much the flagship work of George Orwell is found in the articles of a staggering number of current commentators, to the point of distorting his thinking. We should create an Orwell point like there is a Godwin point.

To summarize 1984 in a criticism taken to the extreme of the excesses of communism (and of the left in general in some minds) is crude, reminds us the Canadian writer George Woodcock (1912-1995) in the essay Orwell His Way – The Life and Work of a Free Spirit, originally published in English in 1966, and the French translation of which appeared by Lux this fall. This final novel is actually a very dark caricature that brings together the many observations of Orwell throughout his life. But who exactly was George Orwell, whom everyone brandishes, and whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair?

I was sure he was already there, but the recent entry of Orwell’s works in La Pleiade provides a fine pretext for returning a little late to this brilliant essay, written by the one who became his friend in his last years. The type of uncompromising friend that Orwell cherished, who here paints a sympathetic and human portrait of the writer by his works first, because the man has kept his private life very secret, and it is a portrait not stripped caveats and insights into the contradictions of man. What could have turned into a dispute – Woodcock’s harsh criticism of Orwell – was instead the trigger for their friendship.

Already, in 1966, Woodcock was struck by the cult which developed around Orwell, and which did not stop growing since, transforming him into “a sort of secular saint of the Cold War” whereas according to him, ” Orwell was too lonely to be a symbol and too irascible to be a saint. As a writer, however, he was able to give shape, in the purest of English, to the thoughts and fantasies of a singular mind that juggled the common problems of his time. If he was an exceptional being (and not a mere eccentric in the eyes of his contemporaries), it was because he tried to put his theories into action and translate his actions into literary works ”.

Woodcock, who sees in Orwell this inner tension that we all have between Don Quixote and Sancho Pança (what Orwell himself recognized), connects him, through his lifestyle, to writers like Malraux, Silone and especially Camus, because he was much more of a rebel than a revolutionary.

This portrait tells the intellectual and literary construction of a man in search of truth, and not of THE truth, who does not hesitate to branch off abruptly from any path drawn in advance and does not submit to the times. Obsessed with the question of social class, defender of socialism while being conservative, he was not a member of any party and was able to anger just about anyone, regardless of his stripes. We discover an Orwell much more self-taught than one could imagine, far enough from theories and abstraction, allergic to those who listen to himself speak.

The first epiphany of youth occurs towards British imperialism, and makes him give up his post of sergeant in Burma to become a writer, which will give his first novel, A Burmese story. All his work will be based on the direct experience of things, enough to make Woodcock say that he lacked a little imagination, except in his last works (the best being in his opinion Animal farm). Fascinated by the world of proletarians whose strength he admires, he will choose a time to live alongside them in the lowlands (which will give the story In trouble in Paris and London), to come to the conclusion that we are all the product of our environment and that we cannot escape our social class any more than we can easily play the defectors. The episode of the Spanish Civil War, where he will go to fight and receive a bullet through the throat, constitutes one of the greatest hopes of his life, one of his great disappointments too. But a fundamental experience for the rest of his literary career.

Contrary to what one might think, Orwell is not a pessimist, Woodcock believes. The mature works that are Animal farm and 1984, his most famous, are more warnings than a vision of the future, but since they were the last, they appear to be terrible wills and many people think that his illness has blackened his handwriting, while these books were a logical continuation, very coherent with his convictions.

Can we consider him reactionary? Not really, believes Woodcock, pointing instead to Orwell’s great distrust of what is presented as progress, which can easily be diverted for the sole benefit of the dominant (yesterday or tomorrow), and that too many people according to received him with blind confidence. “He distinguished himself from the majority of his socialist comrades (and by the same fact came closer to most anarchists) by his refusal of perfectionism,” notes Woodcock.

“In her eyes, eliminating human or social defects was only possible at the cost of a good deal of the best that life has to offer. This is why he wanted the advent of a society where the good would simply have the preponderance. ”

He did not like the spirit of a clean slate of revolutionaries, and believed that the past still had answers to give us. Like others before him (in particular the Russian writer Zamiatin, the great influence of the novel 1984), he understood the relentless advance of the machine behind this progress, which has the power to destroy an existence much closer to true human aspirations. Hence his love for nature and animals. A heavy smoker of black tobacco and tuberculosis, he insisted on living near this nature in difficult conditions for his lungs and died precociously at 46 years old. Like Camus …

His friend George recalls that Orwell said that even if his condition of “decadent semi-intellectual of the modern world” could make him appreciate the comfort brought by progress, he would have preferred “to achieve a simpler and harder life. instead of a softer and more complicated life ”.

Softer and more complicated, isn’t that a good definition of the year 2020?



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