By Danny C. | DCPeriodical | 12/03/19 |
George Orwell isn’t just one of the greatest writers of all time, he’s also one of the greatest documented thinkers of all time. Through heaving himself into the most extreme situations one could imagine, he identified the largest problem mankind has ever faced, and still faces: The Class System.
Like all freedom fighters, George Orwell deserves his credit as much as the next revolutionary who fought for the underdog in times of oppression; and given his rich upbringing it’s a wonder he ever even saw the faults in society that he shone a light on and spelled out for us so clearly and easy to comprehend. His are works of literature which expose dark truths still extremely relevant, decisively ripe with admonition.
Blessed with the mind of a philosopher since birth, Orwell maintained it until his early death. In reality he was an extremely deep contemplator who challenged all he came into contact with — a contrarian, moralist, debater, antagonist — and was unsatisfied with every unfair element of society he came across — from the big aspects to the miniscule. He refused to keep quiet. It’s been joked he couldn’t blow his nose without moralizing all conditions of the handkerchief industry.
Maybe a somewhat a pessimist, but all the more a skeptic — both healthy traits in my opinion — George Orwell is an example of someone who questioned all and dug until the answers were clear, and then faced them, no matter how ugly; and then fought them, no matter how powerful. Like a scientist he shared his results and hypotheses freely, and the world would be wise to listen.
To me, along with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., George Orwell is a personal hero of unparalleled genius and insight. This is his story.
A Brief History of George Orwell
George Orwell might have a been a man’s name — it’s probably been many men’s name — but the man we all know as George Orwell, the man who penned the worldwide phenomenons Animal Farm and 1984, was really named Eric Blair.
Blair was born June 25th, 1903 to an extremely well-off, upper-class family in England. For the first years of his life he enjoyed as much of the finer things as any boy of his social stature.
When he turned 8-years-old, also like other boys of his kind, he was split from his parents and sent away to boarding school. He would never stay in one place for long after that.
Boarding school was a horrible time for Blair. If it taught him anything it was that he didn’t get along with authority figures. One problem he later wrote about with contempt was his problem with wetting the bed every night. Even though he prayed as hard as he could every night that it wouldn’t happen, it inevitably would. This would be followed by a brutal beating from the school’s headmaster after breakfast — every morning — that usually began with a fair bit of strangling. From this savage child abuse, Blair was made to believe from a very young age that he was a born sinner and there was nothing he could do about it — since he didn’t want to wet the bed and couldn’t stop as hard as he tried.
“This was the abiding lesson of my boyhood, that I was in a world that it was not possible for me to be good.”
Coupled with a chest condition he would later learn was tuberculosis, early life was a personal hell for the legendary author, and so the story goes with most passionate artists.
“Later I was educated at Eaton,” he later recalled about the upscale private school he attended after his days at the boarding house. “To me in my boyhood, and to children of nearly all families like mine, common people seemed almost sub-human…I was an odious little snob, but I was both a snob and a revolutionary.”
At this school, too, Blair had regular run-ins with the headmasters, for he never accepted a thing he was told without a witty, sarcastic, yet deeply intellectual and undeniably rational argument in return. After all, how could he not, as a free thinker in such a tight conformist environment, behave this way?
Syl Collins — established author and boyhood friend from Eaton — said Blair was much like Socrates in the way he challenged everything, argued everything, criticized everything. As Collins puts it, “he was the definition of a debunker, even before such a word existed.”
“Shortly after I was 20 years old I went to Burma and joined the Indian Imperial Police,” Blair would later write about his experience directly after he graduated. Many respectable young men on his generation took the exact route as it was viewed as the noble, patriotic thing to do. However, it took bo time at all for Blair to recognize the brutal reality of the situation; and luckily for literature, being part of an occupying outfit was an experience which would shape Blair’s viewpoint for the rest of his life.
“No man, in his heart of hearts, believes it is right to invade a foreign country and hold a population down by force, but I was part of the police, which is to say I was part of the machinery of despotism.”
In his journals he wrote of a life-altering situation he witnessed, where a local Burmese man was arrested by the occupying British police and sentenced to death. It was Blair’s job to walk with the man to the gallows where he was to be hung. This horrible episode — seeing a man’s life taken — affected him deep enough to push Blair into quitting the police force immediately, though the vision of the hanging — a vision he would adapt as a scene in a future classic — would never leave his mind.
“I couldn’t go on working for an imperialist system, one which I saw as a racket.”
Not knowing what to do next, Blair began reformulating a plan he had tucked in the back of his psyche since boyhood — to become a writer. He locked himself up in the bedroom of his parents gigantic manor and began to write, and write, and write. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many writers over the vast expanse of millennia, he couldn’t sell a word. This didn’t deter him, though. In his heart of hearts Blair felt he was destined to become a writer no matter what his current circumstances were; and he kept at his craft with tunnel vision. Writing, he felt, was the way he would be able to get society’s attention and change it for the better, somehow, and though he didn’t know precisely who or what he was fighting against yet, he knew it wasn’t going to be an easy battle. Moreover, it wasn’t a battle he planned to back down from.
By Eric Blair’s mid 20’s, chest infections were becoming a chronic illness which seemed to come back as soon as they left him. Life was usually agony. It was around this time that Blair was officially diagnosed with tuberculosis, a condition, in those days, that could kill him at anytime. Despite this, he regularly ignored the doctors orders, especially if they clashed with his time designated for writing, which was most of the time.
But he was still making less than pennies for his work, and so as artists often do, he searched for a change of scenery to bring new inspiration — a rich family provides such privilege — and in 1928 decided to move to France, where he ended up staying for a year, achieving his first literary victory — the completion of his first novel. To his dismay though, no one would publish it and Blair ended up destroying it in miserable anger.
“At that time failure seemed to be the only virtue,” he would later state in an interview.
As his money from mommy and daddy finally ran out, for the first time in the young man’s life he was alone, not knowing where his next meal was going to come from. A rich young man who was ironically, and somewhat by choice, starving. But believe or not, this was actually a positive in his own way of thinking — and especially in his writing. Blair buckled down and took a job as a Parisian dishwasher to make ends meet, and even though he still couldn’t afford to eat most days, as he later told it, there was a great deal of satisfaction in earning his own keep, and it was an exciting point in his life that would emanate from his later literary works.
Finally succumbing to the hunger pains in 1929, Blair returned home to England, though not to the life he once knew. He was now choosing to live his days as if he were poor in the harshest parts of London, wearing torn up, filthy clothes to fit in with the other beggars. Unknown to them though, Blair was still sleeping, eating, and washing at his parents seaside manor in one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Suffolk every night, while by day he was deep inside the lowest pockets of society with the cheats and thieves that made up Londin’s vast underworld.
“I lived for months among the poor and half criminal elements who inhabit the worst parts of the poorest quarters; begging and stealing. I associated with them through lack of money, but later their way of life interested me for its own sake.”
As a result, Blair began to write small articles about life in the gutter, publishing stories he’d heard and some he’d even witnessed. Finally, now nearing his 30’s, his work began to sell.
At the same time, in secret, he worked feverishly on a book for two years he named Down and Out In Paris and London, sending it to a publisher upon completion who read it and sent back their opinion:
“Utterly disgusting; but socially important.”
The manuscript was approved . This was the break Eric Blair had been waiting for, but ironically, ‘Eric Blair’ would never become an author.
He worried about his parents ritzy reputation being tarnished by their son writing about life as a criminal beggar surrounded by tramps and prostitutes every day, so he decided to change the name he signed to his works. This is how George Orwell was born. George was taken from the king of England who called himself the same; Orwell was a local river.
In 1934, now with a bit of money from his articles, Orwell left his parents house and rented a room in North London. His neighborhood of residence, at that time, was a hub for left-wing political philosophy and a lot of mind elevating conversations were going on all over the place. These were middle class men and women, and what Blair noticed was how these people judgmentally looked at the classes beneath them — the gutter tripe he wrote about — just as they were looked at by the high-class of people he had come from: worthless.
It was at this point met the love of his life, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, an extremely bright, beautiful, and thoughtful Oxford graduate who was also a training psychologist. Many men admired the striking eyes and brunette locks of this young 1930’s girl, but unfortunately for them, after only a few days of knowing each other, Orwell proposed and Eileen accepted.
He had won the number one girl in town, brains and beauty, but because he was making so little money for himself from writing, and unwilling to borrow from his parents to support his fiancee, or even buy a ring, the marriage would take years to come to fruition.
In the meantime, Orwell got a part time job at a bookstore — which would later inspire his book, Bookshop Memories. A lover of books his entire reading life he expected to relish in the work, but being the critically minded, neurotic individual he was, being forced to look at and deal with thousands of books a day soon made him resent them completely; and the impossible-to-please writer quit after just a year with a hatred for books that he would keep for the rest of his life.
Luckily for him — and Eileen; and us — an offer came in the form of a job to travel north and document the working-class industrial workers’ plight in the depression-struck towns of jolly old England. Eagerly accepting this offer as a chance to live among the working class for his first time ever, to see, smell, and feel the lifestyle of the people he had once described as “sub-human,” Orwell was off with exuberance; and from this journey he would go on to write a classic book scholars now note as his first politically driven work, The Road to Wigan Pier.
Within this acclaimed work, Orwell articulately described the horrid conditions he saw people having to endure just to survive while his family and social peers ate caviar and took sailing trips. After a few towns though, his journey was cut short after going down with a crew of miners into the terrible environment of a coal mine, and the mile long journey to get to where they were working. Because of the ridiculously low ceilings, he spent the whole journey with his legs bent and flexed, and his neck cricked forward to see where he was going in what he described as “unbearable agony” and added, “what’s more, one wonders how he will ever get back.”
This was unbelievable to Orwell, that these men were made to do this all day every day, just to afford enough to eat stale bread for dinner — maybe. The work he witnessed these “men of steel” execute inside the mine when they began to work — as he lay sprawled on the floor of the dark mine in exhaustion — was, to him, nothing short of heroic.
“The miner’s job is as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on a flying trapeze, or to win the Grand National.”
Nearly unable to breathe from the inhumane experience, the next day he headed to the neighboring town of Liverpool and sought refuge at his friend Mary’s house, where he collapsed at the front door. Suffering from Tuberculosis didn’t help the situation at all.
After only a few days rest though, Orwell’s energy returned enough for him to head right back out on his journey. His next stop would be an encounter with the industrial workers of Yorkshire, where, like most other places in the western world, unemployment was rampant and the living and working conditions resembled a third-world environment. This was a place he described as “the most hideous town of the old world,” chronicling the labyrinth of seemingly endless winding streets through the brick-made poor neighborhoods as a clear vision of what he would make the streets of Oceania resemble in 1984.
“The inside of the houses are almost all exactly the same. All have almost an exactly similar living room — 10 or 15 feet square,” Orwell wrote of these rotten dwellings; and of the unfortunate poverty stricken residents he informed his readers:
“The basis of their diet is white bread and margarine, corn beef, sugar tea, and potatoes — an appalling diet. The results of this is are visible in a physical degeneracy… You have the feeling of walking around among a population of trilobites.”
At the journey’s end, after experiencing a life normal to those he temporarily dwelt among, Orwell had seen all he needed to, in his opinion, and aptly penned:
“For this is what industrialism has done to us: Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first steam engines tottered into motion, the British Square stood firm under the French guns of Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth century praised God and filled their pockets, and this is where it has all led; to labyrinthine slums and dark black kitchens with sickly aging people crawling round and round them like black beetles…It is a duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist.”
Thirty-three years old now, this would prove to be the career changing success Orwell had been waiting for. The Road to Wigan Pier was an instant success. 1935 was just coming to an end and Orwell was officially making a living off of writing and nothing else. He finally then married his longtime fiance Eileen, bought a fair sized manor, and would never again have to worry about working another laborious dead end job.
Orwell wasn’t the type to sit still though, and this was a very electric time in Europe. Hitler was rising to ultimate power, Mussolini was bombing nations seemingly unchallenged, and Franco was implementing fascism in Spain. Unlike the two former countries, the latter’s citizens struck back against their leader and the Spanish Civil War began; and this, as crazy as it sounds, is where Orwell felt he needed to be.
He arrived in Barcelona just before Christmas of 1936 to meet the rifle-strapped mobs of militias made up of revolutionary industrial, farm, and other workers’ unions filling the streets. He joined their side right away. Eric Blair, who had become George Orwell, now became Corporal Orwell; freedom fighter for human decency and justice.
With a team of men hand picked from the militia, Orwell was sent on a mission into the mountains west of Barcelona. Down in the trenches and ready for war, the natural critic was somewhat disappointed with the lack of military action the workers army faced. As he put it:
“In nearly 3 weeks I’d fired only 3 shots at the enemy. They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, well, at this rate it will take twenty years before I kill a fascist.”
After four months of no action, Orwell headed back to Barcelona just in time for enormous riots to break out in the streets led by the communist party of Spain. Stuck on the roof of a Spanish movie theater for three days as bullets whizzed in every direction, houses were burnt to the ground, and the city was smashed nearly unrecognizable, Orwell survived the devastating May riots of 1937, though 400 other residents didn’t. The communists took control of the city and ordered all if the union fighters to get out of town, join the communist cause, or die. Orwell chose the first option and headed back to the front lines in the mountains.
This would prove to be an unfortunate move. Just after arriving back at his post — at dawn on May 20th, 1937 — a rifle shot cracked through the air and ripped through Corporal Orwell’s throat. It was a clean shot — in through the front and right out the back — just missing the main artery from the throat to the heart. Barely avoiding death by inches, the war was over for Corporal Orwell.
His recovery was by no means a fast one either, but luckily for Orwell, Eileen had come to Spain see him through. After leaving the hospital, together they were left alone in the streets of Barcelona, which had now become a totalitarian state run by the communists. This was Orwell’s first exposure to the living conditions of a man trapped inside a place ruled by fear, violence, and propaganda — it had even become a crime to think ill of the communist party. Every man, it seemed, that he had fought beside for equality in Spanish society was being put in a cramped jail cell by secret police and spies without a reason for arrest, a trial, or communication with the outside world; and here was Orwell with his discharge papers from an illegal militia in his pocket and a bullet hole in his neck, unarmed with a wife to guard. These were tense times. “We were lucky to get out of Spain alive,” he would later pen in recollection of sneaking injured over the border to freedom with Eileen by his side.
The experience would eat away at George Orwell’s mind for the rest of his life. Totalitarianism had left a scar on him worse that the hole he once had in his neck, and he devoted the rest of his life to opposing it. In his words:
“Every serious line of work I’ve written since 1936 has been directly or indirectly against totalitarianism.”
And the battles kept on raging. In September 1939, England declared war on Germany and Orwell volunteered for a public debate defending the decision to do so. He even writes of signing up to the British army, but because of his previous injury and weak lungs he was rejected to serve abroad. However, because England was getting so badly pelted in the start of the war, a home-guard was created out of any man who would join, and Eric Blair, who became George Orwell, then corporal Orwell, then became Sergeant Orwell.
Not having put out a full book in some time, and basically a pamphleteer by this point, Sgt. Orwell began writing instructions for the home-guard soldiers, who mostly consisted of those unfit to fight in the army, and speaking at town hall meetings, inspiring local citizens to stay patriotic to themselves and to revolt against their oppressors — German or English — if the time should call for it. In his mind the guard was a political movement like he had joined in Spain. “Firearms,” he wrote, “everybody should have one and know how to use and clean it. It might just save your life, but more importantly, there’s nothing that demoralizes an invading soldier more than being shot at.”
Within his speeches and writings Orwell was unmercifully critical of Churchill and the aristocrats running England. He felt they would be removed as soon as the home-guard saw the horrible mess they had gotten them into, but after only a few months he could see the home-guard was nothing of the sort. This deeply affected him.
Orwell’s passion for fighting for the underdog had almost disappeared at this point — around 1941 — and he went to work for the other side of the class system, broadcasting a radio show for a station he felt was nothing but propaganda for the senseless masses: the BBC. For fans of 1984, his office was room number 101.
“I consider I kept our propaganda slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been, but I felt I was an orange being trodden on by some dirty boot.”
After two years of being a mouthpiece for the government, ashamed, Orwell resigned his position with the BBC and went back to writing his own works, feeling he could make much more of a difference doing what he knew best. It’s good he did, too, because this was the year — 1943 — he wrote one of the greatest allegories of all time: Animal Farm.
Most of us have read Animal Farm while students in high school and have been taught it is a novel-length metaphor for Communist Russia. Here’s how Orwell himself explained it:
“The actual details of the story didn’t come to me for some time, until one day I saw a boy, perhaps 10 years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path and whipping it every time it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we would have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way that the rich exploit the proletarian.”
Many publishers took offense to the book since England, America, and Russia had entered a joint plan to take Germany out of the war together. It was clear to all who read the manuscript that it was a canon shot against Russia’s ruling political system. They feared the backlash from a famous author publishing such a work. One publisher even demanded the ruling animals be changed from pigs to something less offensive. Needless to say it would be a while until the public and reading enthusiasts would be able to see the book they were hearing so much about in the press.
A few months later — in 1944 — Richard Haratio Blair joined the family. Eileen and Orwell adopted him after Eileen spotted him at the hospital without a family to love him. He was only three months old at the time. Orwell was ecstatic, but it would only be a year that daddy would stay home. In 1945 he left to France for a few months, followed by Germany — right before the Nazi surrender — to report on the Second World War.
Back home Eileen went to the hospital for surgery to remove tumors from her ovaries, and tragically, although it was somewhat a routine operation, died on her hospital bed from a bad reaction to the anesthetic used. She was writing a letter to her husband as she unexpectedly died. Orwell came home for the funeral, gave his son to the care of a nurse, and headed right back to the war to write a report or review every day.
During this time those who knew his writing could clearly see the amplification of pessimism in his words; and those that knew him personally could see his internal anguish coming out in these negative works. The world was an unfair place full of idiots as far as Orwell was concerned. Totalitarianism, he thought, could be just around the corner for Britain, too. The distinction between classes was apparent to him now more than ever:
“The circus dog rolls over as soon as the trainer cracks the whip, but the best trained dog performs the somersault without the whip ever having to be cracked; this is the state this country has reached after 300 years of living together without a civil war.”
In 1945, the war officially over with Germany, and the world on the brink of the cold war, Animal Farm was finally published, and as to be expected it became an instant worldwide best seller. Unfortunately for Orwell though, there was no time to celebrate and enjoy a life on the town. A lesion in his chest caused by his TB had begun to internally bleed, rendering him nearly immobile.
He was ordered to stay in a room without seeing his son until he was non-infectious. So, taking Richard with him to the remotest island of Scotland he could find — with only one road and no other houses — Orwell shut himself off from the rest of the world in his room and began to write the book that would forever cement his name in history — 1984 — talking only to doctors, nurses, housekeepers, his son — from a distance — and his editor, Sonya Brownell.
Smoking as much as ever in bed with a typewriter on his lap, Orwell’s 30 year old editor stated in a letter, “I begin to feel his book is killing him,” after she saw him working on his final draft of 1984 in 1948. This was an astute observation, as Orwell completely collapsed a couple days after finishing the last page of his final draft.
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness; one would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some some demon one can neither resist nor comprehend.”
He was rushed to the best hospital around, University College in London, where he would stay in bed and spontaneously marry Sonya by his bedside. They never had the chance for a honeymoon, and although he would return home, he would never make it out of bed. At age 46, Eric Blair, known to the world as George Orwell, would die of a coughing fit in his bedroom on January 21, 1950. He would state in his last interview done on his deathbed something everyone, especially these days, should pay close attention to:
“Something like 1984 could actually happen. This is the direction the world is going in at the present time.
In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self abasement. The sex instinct will be eradicated; we shall abolish the orgasm; there will be no loyalty but loyalty to the party. But always there will be the intoxication of power. Always at every moment there will be the thrill of victory; the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever. The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one:
Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”
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