Skip to main content

Orwell and Hitchens

Hitchens made no bones about idolizing George Orwell. The result of that infatuation is that the names Orwell and Hitchens came together enough times that – as quantity turns into quality in the black magic of the press – it became a cliché that Hitchens was like Orwell. That he was our Orwell, or something.

You don’t have to read very much in the works of either writer to find that Hitchens is not at all like Orwell. Hitchens would have been incapable of writing Down and Out in Paris and London because he would have been incapable of being down and out in Paris or London. Orwell’s strength came from not only being able to imagine the “common people”, but being, existentially, as close to them as a Public School graduate can get – whereas Hitchens had no sense whatsoever for the common people. Hitchens’s sensorium was hooked up to the Byzantine elite, whether to despise them or to raise an elbow with them, depending on the various stages of his career.

Last night I went and read the great first chapter of Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, the booklet Orwell wrote in 1940. The first sentence of the booklet was cited by, among others, Kurt Vonnegut, who took from it his idea of how to write about war: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” The idea that the universal – the war – is trying to kill the particular – me – gets a workout in Catch 22. Of course, it gets a workout in the literature of war at least since Stendhal, but Orwell’s sentence sharpens it to a point. Even though it was not an anti-war point – Orwell was anything but a pacifist. He poured a lot of homophobic scorn on pacifists. He was not at his best writing about pacifists. Who is?

However, the sentence I want to take out of that essay comes from the first chapter, which surveys the “English genius”. “But in all societies the common people must live to some extent against the existing order.” This is the Orwellian touch, the premise for his best writing, the insight that makes him, still, a fascinating writer to think with. Hitchens was completely oblivious to this fact. Hitchens writing, at its best, can help one penetrate the feeling in a novel, or the tone of a ‘set’ of political players, but he had no sense for the genius of the common people, and when he would set himself up as a generalizer about nations, regions, politics, etc., he was pretty much at a loss. He made up for this loss of tactile knowledge by moralizing. When moralizing about the doings of his own society, the governing class of the nations in which he prospered enormously, he was often on target. But as his moralizing took in larger and larger fields, it became less and less valuable. In the end, taking up the whole of the Middle East, he only showed, with an amazing stubbornness, that he knew almost nothing about the Middle East.

Orwell, on the other hand, was very uncomfortable in the role of ‘regional expert”. Famously, he quit the BBC in 1943 because his section, which was concerned with India, and his broadcasts made him very unhappy. Unhappy about the Churchillian assumption that the British empire was moral (Orwell disagreed) and unhappy, I think, that he was supposed to fabricate pundits knowledge (a sort of identikit knowledge coming from hasty reading of newspaper clippings) and spit it out when, of course, he could imagine India much better than that. He could imagine that Indians heard other things than the BBC, and were moved by other news than that printed in English papers. He even imagined that Indians might have interests that were opposed to his own, or to his politics. He recognized, in short, the genius of the common people as a different genius from that of the notables.

“The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One
thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world. They have to satisfy these tastes in the face of astonishing, hypocritical laws (licensing laws, lottery acts, etc. etc.) which are designed to interfere with everybody but in practice allow everything to happen. Also, the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.”  

Undoubtedly, Orwell had a jingoistic side where he would forget the doublesidedness of national cultures – the official and the common culture. But he at least recognized it when his nose was crushed up against it.

I should say, too, that in this pamphlet Orwell makes several remarks about socialism and capitalism which, if printed without his name, would be taken to be by Lenin. For instance, this:

“What this war has demonstrated is that private capitalism -- that is, an economic
system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit -- does not work. It cannot deliver the goods. This fact had been known to millions of people for years past, but nothing ever came of it, because there was no real  urge from below to alter the system, and those at the top had trained themselves to be impenetrably stupid on just this point. Argument and propaganda got one nowhere. The lords of property simply sat on their bottoms and proclaimed that all was for the best.
Hitler's conquest of Europe, however, was a physical debunking of capitalism. War, for all its evil, is at any rate an unanswerable test of strength, like a try-your-grip machine. Great strength returns the penny, and there is no way of faking the result.”

Orwell would have recognized the economic crisis we are going through as another test of strength, in which the reliance on private banking with insurance provided – in the trillions of dollars – gratis by the States as another physical debunking of capitalism. His solution should be mentioned, too:

Socialism is usually defined as "common ownership of the means of production".
Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption.
At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc. etc.) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it.
In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates
what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.”

Try getting those two paragraphs printed in any publication in America that routinely genuflects to the name, Orwell. As for this, which could well be applied to the current scene of pharaonic inequalities in the developed countries:

What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency,
class privilege and the rule of the old. It is not primarily a question of change of
government. British governments do, broadly speaking, represent the will of the people, and if we alter our structure from below we shall get the government we need. Ambassadors, generals, officials and colonial administrators who are senile or pro-Fascist are more dangerous than Cabinet ministers whose follies have to be committed in public. Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better for command than an intelligent mechanic. Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices,in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.”

In England now, of course, both parties are headed by half witted schoolboys, and the intelligent mechanics have seen their jobs offshored so that other halfwitted schoolboys could make a killing on the stock market.

But to get back to a comparison of the style of the two writers. Here’s a vintage piece of Hitchens’ prose before the apple soured, from a 1998 essay on the teaching of history in America:

“About four years ago I began to ask the teachers of my own children how it came to be that they could not tell Thomas Jefferson from Thomas the Tank Engine. In the preceding sentence, it is unclear whether I mean that the children didn't know unless I told them, or that the teachers didn't know unless I told them. The confusion is intentional. One instructor, at a rather costly District of Columbia day school, cheerfully avowed that she herself "had never been that much of a reader." Others, more candid, announced that history was a bit of a minefield subject and that "good examples" (like Pocahontas and, on a good day, Frederick Douglass) were the thing. Parson Weems himself could hardly have bettered the modern method whereby children get good reports in a subject that they have never studied in order that a tiny pump be applied to the valves of their fledgling self-esteem.”
I think this is very funny. However, it is very funny because, one notices, the common people are ignorant – the infant Hitchens’ teachers are more akin to the impossible servants of Boot Manor in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop than anything in Orwell – and it has just the nattering tone of complaint of the elites that hints at the turn Hitchens would take to fully Toryism a few years later. The shot, for instance, at the vogue for ‘self-esteem’ is blindly conjoined to a tone of an overwhelming self-esteem, which produces an inadvertent comedic moment – a moment when the author loses control of the material, which takes behind the scenes control of the author. 
Of course, the judges are always being judged themselves – Jesus, as well as Oscar Wilde, warned about that. Orwell’s humor is not funny in that Waugh like way – it is funny in the classic modernist way. The sentence about civilized men flying overhead trying to kill him de-routinizes war. This is the characteristic Orwell gesture, and the gesture of the great writers of his generation, who had inherited it from the formalist revolution at the turn of the century.  
So, for instance, this is Orwell on the teaching of history:
“When I was a small boy and was taught history -- very badly, of course, as nearly
everyone in England is -- I used to think of history as a sort of long scroll with thick
black lines ruled across it at intervals. Each of these lines marked the end of what was called a "period", and you were given to understand that what came afterwards was completely different from what had gone before. It was almost like a clock striking. For instance, in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages, with knights in plate armour riding at one another with long lances, and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance, and everyone wore ruffs and doublets and was busy robbing treasure ships on the Spanish Main. There was another very thick black line drawn at the year 1700. After that it was the Eighteenth Century, and people suddenly stopped being Cavaliers and Roundheads and became extraordinarily elegant gentlemen in knee breeches and three-cornered hats. They all powdered their hair, took snuff and talked in exactly balanced sentences, which seemed all the more stilted because for some reason I didn't understand they pronounced most of their S's as F's. The whole of history was like that in my mind -- a series of completely different periods changing abruptly atthe end of a century, or at any rate at some sharply defined date.”

In one sense Orwell’s paragraph seems much simpler – Hitchens’ depends, for its business, on a lot of fancy referential footwork, from Parson Weems (who is a pure reference – surely Hitchens has never read Parson Weems biography of Washington, but he doesn’t have to – it stands in as an exemplar of didactic history heromaking) to Thomas the Tank Engine. Its texture comes out of a certain association of ideas that makes Hitchens the superior teller – he has the references under his fingertips, and the teachers don’t. This relationship is, purposely, up-ended in Orwell’s paragraph. Although in a parenthetical aside Orwell does tell us history is taught badly in England, he spends the rest of the paragraph displaying his own naivete. The references that are associated with him are cartoonlike, and Orwell himself, at least as a boy, didn’t understand all the references – for as a boy, he mistook a typography that printed s’s as f’s as reflecting the way people spoke. In other words, Orwell shows himself getting it wrong – he is the butt of his own joke.

I think this comparison tells us a lot about the virtues and vices of the essay styles of Hitchens and Orwell. The people who give us the cliché that Hitchens was the Orwell of our time have as little knowledge of Orwell as Hitchens has of Parson Weems – Orwell, here, has been made into a one-dimensional marker. This is a shame, since Orwell truly is a great essayist, the only English equivalent I can think of for the great Sprachkritiker on the Continent (Bloy, Peguy, Tucholsky, Kraus, etc.).

Hitchens is simply another kind of writer, from another family tree – the Tory wits. I was about to say, crossed with Shaw’s prefaces, but no – that isn’t really so. The Tory wits cultivated a style that had its roots in nursery room humor, when the children of the house were under authority figures –the nanny being the great target – who, at the same time, were subordinate to them (as they well knew) in the great scheme of society. Thus, the anti-authoritarianism is directed most cuttingly against authorities who are really secondary to the money and power that keep Vanity Fair going – the proxies, those who have achieved their positions only with a mixture of industry and asslicking. Of course, Hitchens was not to that manor borne, but he made the chameleon’s choice early on to mimic it, and in the end, he had re-created himself as an English nob as well as Waugh re-created himself as a scion of old Catholic nobility.

A pity that the American audience did not, after all, get the references.