“Whether thinking about empires or dictators, race or class, nationalism or pop culture, Orwell’s outlook remains indispensable even in a vastly changed world.”
From this extract from the book’s back cover, as from the title itself, I admit I was hoping for an exposition of Orwell’s relevance to contemporary politics. I was looking forward, for example, to read Hitchens’s dissection of how “Big Brother”, in a great leap of surrealism, has become the success story of reality TV, meeting wide public acceptance.
My hope was in vain. Hitchens does make some very short references to contemporary affairs–North Korea and Zimbabwe among them–but instead mostly describes Orwell’s “own” ideas and legacy; that is, on totalitarianism, imperialism, and fascism: the great political issues of his day.
I quite liked this biography anyway. Hitchens doesn’t bother with the usual biographical facts–date of birth and of death, etc.–unless when relevant to Orwell’s opinions and actions, and to the truthfulness of his writings. These are of course the things that mattered to Orwell himself, so that the term “biography” is after all quite appropriate.
Hitchens argues forcibly that Orwell was essentially right about those three political issues. This of course came as no surprise to me, as it shouldn’t to anyone who has read Burmese days, Animal Farm, and 1984. The surprise to me was that apparently Orwell nevertheless wasn’t perceived positively quite as universally as he should. He had critics (both during and well after his lifetime) on the Left and the Right alike, he was misinterpreted and mis-quoted on all sides, his ideas have been abused, and he was criticized on topics he was essentially mute about (feminism is the prime example).
Therefore Hitchens constructs his exposition of why Orwell matters as an investigation of different relationships: Orwell (and his legacy) and the Left, and the Right, and Empire, etc. With his usual sharp and clear argumentation, he rebuts all critics. My only gripe is that some of the polemics are no longer relevant today. For example, the general confusion of the European Left who associated rather too long with Stalinism indeed does show how clear a thinker Orwell was by comparison, but otherwise has lost its interest to my generation.
I am now looking forward to picking up Orwell again: consider this an endorsement of Why Orwell Matters.