It’s no surprise in our post-truth era of election meddling and browser history blackmail that George Orwell’s prose has come back into vogue. To sound minds, the term “Orwellian nightmare” has become embraced as shorthand for what is happening right now in America.
But who was the man behind the writer? What did he see during his life to give his work such prescience?
Did he come back from Iraq, trap a girl in his basement, and force her to take psychedelic mushrooms (a personal domestic violence story for another time– OR NOT)?
But George Orwell, born Eric Blair to British parents in colonized India, was a citizen of the world. After his adolescent schooling in England, Orwell’s family was too poor to send him to university, and he never fully set permanent roots thereafter. In 1922, he became a cop in his homeland of India at age 19. Then, from ages 24 and 28, he became the original modern vagabond writer in Paris and later London, taking odd writing gigs to barely pay the rent (see Down and Out in Paris and London.) Then a private school teacher, and a secondhand bookshop clerk.
Then, 1936. Between the World Wars, the hunger to see combat– physical war among men– strikes Orwell, a hunger similar to that of Fitzgerald or Hemingway 20 years before him. Orwell heads unsummoned to Spain, joins the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), a Marx-reading, anti-Stalinist gang of Spanish militants in a fledgling civil war against dictator Francisco Franco’s fascist policies. Ever a man of grandiose ideology, Orwell claimed he fought in the Spanish Civil War to protest fascism. However, I speculate that he just wanted to be near the “action”– to blend in, gonzo-style, see war up close, and then, to write about it.
“Once again the conquering-hero stuff–shouting and enthusiasm, red flags and red and black flags everywhere, friendly crowds thronging the pavement to have a look at us, women waving from the windows. How natural it all seemed then; how remote and improbable now!”
-Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, 1938
Like Hemingway before him, Orwell suffered a life-changing injury whilst warring abroad. In 1937, Orwell was shot in the throat by a sniper when he failed to hide his lanky frame fully and was sticking out of the trench (eyeroll.) This neck wound required months of recovery and, one might guess, a significant period of reflection. Perhaps receiving these grave marks of war made these writers feel like legitimate veterans, lending authenticity, and authority, to their voices on the page.
What is the connection between war and great, doomed literary men? Are they just a bunch of brave-ass, madcap social chemists donning foreign uniforms, ignorant of the immortal fame their written insights will inspire?
Or, do they know ahead of time how good they are, and take the risk that fate will see them through the gunfire? “No one joins the military because they value their life,” claims my infantry soldier boyfriend.
Many writers have an inborn fascination with war, as it represents, among other things, some classic brands of strife, e.g. the superiority of machine to man, or the marginalization of the human drama in favor of a worldwide narrative. War in general brings about all sorts of existentialist repercussions and questions of moral calculus. Lots to unpack.
Basically, guys like Hemingway and Orwell have an eye for story and a knack for sacrificing their own safety for their art. Like when Hannah gets HPV on Girls.
Free e-book, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938)
Free article, “Spain through Orwell’s Eyes” by Jared Spears (01 May 2017)