Personality Reviews

‘Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy’ review: Prophecy of 1984

We continue to live in Orwell’s Oceania, ridden with tensions between security and freedom, constraint and consent. Democratic structures stand battered in the face of the “Panopticon” visualised by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Orwell, in his plain prose, direct, and hard-hitting, was warning against the human urge to control his fellowmen. His statement — “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” — tersely describes the strategies of political and social hegemony.

Escaping a bullet

If it hadn’t been for a quirk of destiny, George Orwell would have been cast into oblivion. His miraculous escape from a bullet that just about missed his carotid artery during his involvement on the frontlines in the Spanish Civil War in May 1937 made it possible for generations to use his literary writings to substantiate their stand against totalitarianism.

Like many other revolutionaries who had gone to Spain to fight against fascism, he remained a diehard rebel till the end. Though the wrath of the Stalinist machinery haunted and stalked him while in Spain, Orwell escaped to France. This harrowing experience left him with a constitutional antipathy for the communist cause. He had been always on the Left, but increasingly became exasperated by its non-avowal of Stalinist absolutism, and summed it up thus: “The sin of nearly all left wingers from 1933 onwards is that they wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian.”

Rodden stays clear from taking any position on Orwell’s ideological leanings: “I have sought to clarify with scholarly accuracy his legacy and not to indulge in the practice of robbing his grave or moving his coffin to the left or to the right for my own political purposes.” The emphasis is mainly on establishing Orwell’s controversial trajectory as well as his contribution to the liberal and social narratives of our times when human freedom and rights are under threat.

Nightmares in history

Orwell’s political essays and the outstanding novels Animal Farm and 1984 become for Rodden the hallmarks of political regimes that create nightmares of history endangering the survival of freedom. A perfect metaphor for today, 1984 holds an immense value and urgent warning for our times, though often the expression “Orwellian” ironically represents the totalitarian forces rather than the author who stood up against them.

Combining biography and history, Rodden draws attention to Orwell’s work which echoes the present. The horrors of dictatorship, the corruption of language, the production of a pervasive gullibility, and the endless spying on citizens find reflection in not only his innumerable coinages like “thought crime” “Newspeak”, “Big Brother”, but also his essays on the dangers of imperialism or the politics of language.

Revisiting Orwell, Rodden’s book keeps alive the spirit of the man and his imagination ceaselessly pursuing the idea of freedom and justice under threat of regressive orthodoxy. Orwell was indeed an intellectual who wrote not only for his age, but for the future, becoming a source of inspiration for the ongoing struggles and the survival of the human spirit.

Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy; John Rodden, Princeton University Press, ₹2,274.

The reviewer teaches English at Panjab University.


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