Sunday, May 30, 2004
We seem to be in the midst of an Orwell revival (and I can't quite figure out how, but he has risen to an eminence that he has never previously enjoyed in my life.) I've read my requireds (1984 and Animal Farm, essays), but nothing else. So I picked up Homage to Catalonia this weekend (fresh from reading that it is one of the top ten best non-fiction books of the century, according to the National Review.

It is an excellent book, a remarkable book, though in an odd sort of way. In the introduction, Lionel Trilling writes (perceptively, not surprisingly) that the real strength of Orwell and of the book is that he is NOT a genius. Homage to Catalonia is a book that any one could write--if any of us were as perceptive and honest as Orwell manages consistently to be. The bulk of the book is a straightforward recollection of what the fighting life was actually like (boring, smelly, cold), and is interspersed with clear-eyed analysis of the complex political maneuverings that (60 years on) seem impossibly bewildering and petty. His presentation of the political shifts and their misrepresentations in the press is more remarkable for having been written just after his experiences and not heavily revised later.

The clarity of language and vision are notable mostly in immediately making other books seem contrived, forced, or insufficient--in the reading, the sensation is a simple transparency--there are no tricks of language or observation, no rococo images or flights of sentiment or rhetoric. You emerge thinking right, this is how books should be.

One striking thread of the book is Orwell's steady socialism--he is allied with the P.O.U.M--a group that wants revolutionary change (and, for a time, seems to be leading the way towards it). As they struggle, and are betrayed, or simply conflicted, Orwell continues to present a hopeful, clear-eyed desire for a just equality among men in a way that prevents it from sounding dated, naive, or misguided. The rise and subsidence of communism, especially in this country, is so charged by the Cold War, that all strains of it are too tainted for us to see their appeal in compelling terms. For us, equality must mean democracy (right...), and anything faintly Marxist must be totalitarian. As we see the complex (and almost invariably unjust) interplay of free market capitalism and democracy, it is refreshing to see the combination of philosophy and practice from a thoughtful and grounded person. Free of cant, Orwell's decisions to be out on the front line and fighting reset the context of the current domestic political morass. I am reminded of how shocking it is that so many people in this country refuse to use political power to protect their own interests, instead of in what seems to me to be the service of some potential life that their own actions are preventing them from accessing--preserving the rights of CEOs to save more in taxes on their benefits than they will make in years of hard work.

That intellectual people take their place in society in combination with all men on equal footing without condescension and without creating some sort of hagiographic distance no longer seems possible. We are so ill-equipped to talk about class in this country that we rarely confront the gap between how we talk and how we live--there is one common arc of experience about the land of opportunity and about the removal of obstacles to economic opportunity that overwhelms our conversations about justice and equality. Economics so dominates our discourse about all other spheres of human interaction so that other considerations take their place within it--it is the force that we find ourselves helpless within as in other ages it may have been political or (as it seems it might become again) religious. Much to ponder, especially among those of us who vote democratic but are somewhere closer to Anarcho-liberitarian-bolsheviks. 4.5 stars.


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