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Stanford Report, December 10, 2003

100 years after birth, Orwell still exerts strong influence, writers say


If George Orwell were alive today, what subjects might he explore in his books? Would the much-quoted author of Animal Farm and 1984 be skewering Big Brother Saddam Hussein or George Bush's "newspeak"? Or would he be less interested in politics and more intrigued by the world of modern commerce, advertising and public relations?

In any case, "Orwell's critical intelligence was such that he never would have run out of topics," said Peter Stansky, the Frances and Charles Field Professor of History, during a Dec. 3 symposium marking the centennial of the British writer's birth. "Orwell, Literature and Politics, Then and Now," which drew a near-capacity crowd to Annenberg Auditorium, also included remarks by New Yorker staff writer George Packer; Orville Schell, dean of the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; and Alex Woloch, an assistant professor of English at Stanford.

Orwell, who was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903, may be best known for his depictions of hellish fictional worlds that have succumbed to totalitarianism. But panelists agreed that Orwell's nonfiction works also deserve a close look, particularly his 1938 account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia.

Packer, whose recent book Blood of the Liberals won the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, said he first read Homage to Catalonia when he was 23, during a flight back to America after a discouraging stint in the Peace Corps. The young man was so captivated by Orwell's journalistic style -- the rhythm of his sentences and particularly his use of first-person narrative -- that he began a "Zen-like" apprenticeship to emulate the celebrated author.

"For me," Packer explained, "what was useful was that Orwell had lived certain things and had written about them in a way that seemed uncomplicated." In fact, there's something artless about Orwell, he said. "A lot of his sentences are clumsy. There are word repetitions; he wrote all his books really quickly. Yet you could learn from his sentences. They were not Faulkner's, not Bellow's. They were sentences you could emulate."

UC-Berkeley's Schell observed that Orwell was practicing New Journalism long before Tom Wolfe gave the term meaning in the 1970s -- that is, Orwell effectively used narrative tools from literature in the service of hard street reporting.

Another impressive thing about Orwell, Schell said, was his "clear-eyed vision." The writer was a socialist, yet somehow he managed to see the destructive tendencies of 20th-century political movements, such as communism and Stalinism, that had seduced so many others. "There was some innate force within him that allowed him to navigate between these fields of gravity and come out unscathed," Schell said. "He was a rather lonely man, it is true, but an exemplar that few people of his time equaled."

Woloch agreed that Orwell was a "political and literary genius" who deserves more attention in academic circles. However, "it's dangerous to reduce Orwell to a simple truth-teller," he said. "His writing is marked by surprising twists and turns, by reversals in meaning, playful language and ironic formulations." Orwell's achievement, Woloch suggested, "rests largely on his subtle and heavily ironic interweaving of his own subjectivity in his documentary observation."

Stansky, an expert on modern Britain who taught a Continuing Studies course on Orwell this quarter, noted that Orwell didn't always tell the truth in the most literal sense. For example, in his posthumously published memoir, Such, Such Were the Joys, Orwell describes how he was beaten at his English boarding school for wetting the bed. It is almost certain, though, that Orwell did not wet the bed; he was reporting on the experiences of his contemporaries. Stansky said Orwell "took the embarrassing episode upon himself" to illustrate the horrors of boarding school life.

Stansky assured Orwell fans in the audience that truth was extremely important to the author -- it is, after all, what 1984 is all about. "Yet I don't believe that the literal serving of truth was his highest goal," he explained. As Orwell himself once wrote, "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism as I understand it. What I have most wanted to do during the past 10 years is to make political writing into an art." Stansky added, "It is my view that he succeeded in his purposes."

Stansky concluded by reading a note from Daphne Patai, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who was invited to be on the panel but was unable to appear. Patai said she did a Google search using the terms "Orwell + Saddam" and turned up more than 37,000 hits. A search of "Bush + newspeak" (a 1984 brand of English designed to fortify thought control) generated 14,000 hits.

"It appears that Orwell has been particularly useful for those wishing to attack the Bush administration -- though most everyone can and does borrow from Orwell as the occasion arises," Patai wrote. "I am as convinced as I was 20 years ago that the habit of citing Orwell in defense or promotion of one's own causes is a way of asserting one's moral superiority and of economizing on the effort to actually defend one's case." Orwell, she added, "needs to be seen in the context of other British writers of the 1930s and '40s, not as a uniquely heroic figure. Invoking him doesn't help us in our struggles."

The Orwell symposium was co-sponsored by the departments of History and English, the Stanford Humanities Center, and the Associates of the Stanford University Libraries.