George Orwell is such splendid entertainment
Christopher Sykes reviews "Shooting an Elephant"
My debate about Orwell’s rules with Robert Cottrell is at 7pm on April 25th at City Lit, WC2. Tickets are free. Reply to this email or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to be put on the list and we’ll let you know how to get a ticket.
George Orwell’s writing and career can be described by a somewhat overworked idea: he was extremely ‘Hamletish’, not the in the sense that he was a morbid brooder—he was never that—but in the deeper sense of being able to see both sides of many questions with equal and therefore puzzling sympathy. He was an essentially paradoxical man. He was a person who saw through prejudice, but was never rid of his own. He hated the use of un-thought-out political catch phrases, and yet he could use words such as ‘Left’ and ‘reactionary’ as though they contained precise meaning. He ridiculed the pretensions and affectations of people who regarded themselves as advanced thinkers, ‘the-Pansy-Left’ as he sometimes called them, but he never lost an absurd conviction that everyone on the opposite political side was basically mad or wicked. I believe he would rather have been killed than have committed any action in the least treacherous to the rights and liberties of artists, but his understanding of pictures and poetry was negligible. This saintly man regarded sanctity as rubbish.
The present book has nine of his longer essays (not hitherto published in book form) and nine lighter pieces from his contributions to the English Labour weekly, Tribune. He was a philosophical writer whose descriptive essays contained almost as much of his thought as did his political work. The first two of these pieces—‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘A Hanging’—are examples of his formidable evocative power and also acute studies of guilt combined with authority. An essay on Tolstoy’s hatred of Shakespeare, and another on Gulliver’s Travels, are as good literary criticism as his great essays on Kipling and Dickens, essays which have had a decisive influence and rescued many from ‘Pansy-Left’ narrowness; but I think it is a pity that the two essays ‘Politics and the English Language’ and ‘The Prevention of Literature’ have been included. They contain much admirable sense, but they contain, too, some overstated views, and some prophecies as doubtful as those of James Burnham which he so rightly mocks in the last of the longer pieces.
All the same, I will make one prophecy myself. George Orwell will be read for a long time to come, but for a reason which might not have much pleased him—namely, that he is such splendid entertainment. His themes are usually distressing but somehow his valiant treatment of them sends our spirits up. On the few occasions when I met him we talked of melancholy subjects—and he made my day.
I would suggest that this is the most perceptive of the contemporary reviews of Orwell’s essays. Others praised his hatred of cliche, like E.M. Forster, but they were authors and like Orwell not very pragmatic. Sykes was a diplomat and this review captures precisely what is wrong with Orwell’s writing rules: they are more entertaining than useful. He represents the British love of a cloudy day and his rules give vent to the attitude that enjoys going around finding “errors” and decrying the decline of civilisation. Orwell is a grumpy entertainer some people mistake for a thinker. All good fun, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.
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