Facing Unpleasant Facts and All Art Is Propaganda: Orwell’s Essays

Discussed in this review:
Facing Unpleasant Facts : Narrative Essays
All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays

The English language has played a cruel joke on George Orwell’s reputation. It takes the form of an adjective, “Orwellian,” that is (alas) all too useful in describing certain tendencies in political life. But the word’s durability and lasting popularity have had a perverse effect: it now conveys precisely the opposite of Orwell’s own sensibility, or of his qualities as an author.

The Orwellian universe is a nightmare in which the historical record is constantly rewritten at the whim of those in authority, and reality itself defeated by the brute force of slogans framed with perfect cynicism. Such is the world emerging from Animal Farm and 1984, his last two novels, published in the 1940s, at the height of Stalinism. They have survived as something more than historical documents, for the urge to turn language into a weapon has outlasted the Cold War, too. But no reader who is familiar only with those books really knows George Orwell. For that, you must read his essays, which provide an education in the urgent need to avoid lying to oneself.

Orwell wrote other, less politically topical novels; they remain in print mainly because his name is on them. Each has its moments, but they are not Orwell’s best moments, really — most of which came in the course of his nonfiction writing. Most of it appeared in the form of articles, reviews, and columns written (often very quickly) for magazines and newspapers. Two new volumes compiled and edited by George Packer, All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays and Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays, attempt to winnow out representative selections of the best work to be found among Orwell’s journalism.

I want to insist on that last word in spite of a certain literary and academic squeamishness that insists on equating journalism with the ephemeral — and both with the trivial. Orwell feels no obligation to respect this attitude, or the distinctions underlying it. He ignores the difference between the trivial and the profound; his writing is all of a piece. There is not much difference between the quality of mind Orwell brings to scrutinizing Jonathan Swift or T. S. Eliot for literary magazines and his newspaper columns about the behavior of American G.I.s in London or the proper way to prepare a cup of tea.

His friend Arthur Koestler once said that snobbery is, in the final analysis, a willful form of stupidity: a way of narrowing one’s attention to the world through the lazy expedient of disdain. Orwell is at war with snobbery. There is even something willed about it, leading him to write not only alert and thoughtful analyses of pulp fiction, “smutty” postcards, and adventure magazines aimed at schoolboys, but also an unforgettable account of his own preadolescent years in a boarding school where the fine grades of class were turned into a blunt instrument for mental torture. (That memoir, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” which appears as the final item in Facing Unpleasant Facts, was among the last things Orwell finished; but in some ways it is the best starting point for a reader first discovering Orwell’s nonfiction.)

Orwell carried his egalitarian crusade a step further by making everything he wrote — even a short review of a forgettable play — both pointed in argument and well turned as prose. The results are not uniformly excellent: Only a mediocrity is always at his best. But each of Orwell’s pieces, no matter what the format or the occasion, displays a force of concentration that comes from trying to do the best work he can, at the time. It is pride of craftsmanship. But I think there may be more to it than that.

Everyone remembers Orwell’s most sinister creation: Newspeak, the official language of the Inner Party in 1984. The vocabulary of Newspeak shrinks all the time; so does its user’s power even to imagine challenging Big Brother. This was an extrapolation of the very worst tendencies of Stalinist jargon, but Orwell saw comparable tendencies emerging under the pressure of mass media. He spent much of World War Two writing for BBC radio, an experience that shaped his account of Oceania’s bureaucracy. His essay “Politics and the English Language,” published in early 1946, acknowledged the seductive force of standard phrases: “They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

Orwell’s struggle against political totalitarianism is always unmistakable. Here, he is flagging something else — something less readily challenged by overt polemic: the tendency to brainwash ourselves through sheer laziness. “This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases,” he goes on to say, “can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.” Every page of Orwell’s nonfiction seems either to set up a protective barrier against such invasions or to scrutinize the various reasons we have to crave the numbness.

What makes Orwell a humane essayist, rather than a tiresome scold, is that he accepts the existence of this craving and doesn’t propose to abolish it entirely. He was a socialist but never a utopian. An insistence on the permanent intimacy between the best and the worst parts of our nature is as close to a dogma as he ever gets. “On the whole,” he writes, “human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.”

As a longtime reader of Orwell, I would say the same thing about these two volumes of his selected essays: they are good, but not too good, and not quite all the time. All Art Is Propaganda seems the better edited of the two, containing most of the major critical writings. (The omission of his essay on George Gissing, a Victorian novelist he resembled in a number of intriguing ways, is unfortunate. And room should have been made for at least one of Orwell’s commentaries on James Burnham, who was a kind of proto-neoconservative.) A few of the pieces in Facing Unpleasant Facts can be aptly described, per the subtitle, as “narrative essays.” Most are nothing of the sort, though — being rather examples of the familiar essay, in which the flow of observations is not tethered to any effort at storytelling.

For someone encountering Orwell’s nonfiction for the first time, they are a good point of departure. But in the best case, they will encourage readers to explore the four volumes of The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell or the hefty Everyman Library edition of his nonfiction.