Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Getting Orwell (mainly) wrong [4/6/2009]

Julian Barnes in the New York Review of books this month reviewing some George Orwell compilations writes:

You have to feel a little sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan Wilkes, or "Sambo" and "Flip" as they were known to their charges. During the first decades of the twentieth century, they ran St. Cyprian's, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, on the south coast of England [where Orwell boarded.] It was no worse than many other such establishments: the food was bad, the building underheated, physical punishment the norm… [The children’s] daily morale was dependent on whether a boy was in or out of favor with Flip.”

So instead of feeling pity for those Barnes does not mention - the unfortunate people that Orwell spent time writing about in his essays ‘How The Poor Die’ or ‘The Spike’ (destitute tramps) - Barnes would have us keep our sympathy for the pair of sadists who ran Orwell’s primary school like a hideous boot camp.

According to Barnes, Orwell was a “moralist and a puritan.” But a single quick read of 1984 would tell you that Orwell was no puritan. The sexual relationship between the main character Winston and his lover Julia makes it apparent that Orwell was no puritan. (Apparently, away from his writing Orwell was somewhat of a letch, whose preferred method of seduction was the sudden kiss and grope technique.)

As far as Orwell being a moralist, of course Barnes is right. I have read all of Orwell’s non-fiction (much of it several times) and can see that there is hardly a sentence that does not have a moral aspect to it. But Barnes is using the word moralist as uncomplimentary in this review. The question must be whether someone’s morals are humanitarian and progressive morals, not whether they have any at all. An absence of morals or ethics is a vacuum of beliefs about how we treat each other.

He also correctly criticises Orwell for being wrong about the future, and Orwell was certainly mistaken about most aspects of the “1984 Orwellian world.” The state is shrivelling rather than being the monster machine Orwell predicted. (That function has been assumed by international capitalism rather than international government.)

But who will be read in the future? My guess is that Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 will still be seen as more significant than many others of the last one hundred years, and certainly more rightly quoted and respected than Julian Barnes’ “Cross Channel” or Flaubert’s Parrot.”

 [See also a follow-up blog: "Getting Orwell (a bit less) wrong"]

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