In a day of fake news, alternative facts, and politicians regularly not just massaging the truth but fabricating it to their own benefit, the work of George Orwell seems like it was written in response to today’s news. The writer best known for 1984 and Animal Farm was adamant in his opposition to what he called newspeak–any doublespeak using convoluted and pretentious language to conceal the truth.
is the case with All Art Is Propoganda, a 2009 collection of Orwell’s essays from the 1940s. Here’s one 1946 example of his several assaults on deceit:
The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism . . . Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth. The friends of totalitarianism in this country usually tend to argue that since absolute truth is not attainable, a big lie is no worse than a little lie. (258-59)
His famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” discussed here, goes into more depth and detail on how the truth is altered by government officials, something he saw firsthand when fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell does not aim his guns only at the obvious targets of Russia, Germany, and Italy. He offers a fascinating critique of Rudyard Kipling’s sentimental and myopic imperialist attitudes.
Kipling was not a Fascist. . . . Kipling’s outlook is pre-Fascist. He still believes that pride comes before a fall and that the gods punish hubris. He does not foresee the tank, the bombing plane, the radio and secret police, or their psychological results. . . . The nineteenth-century imperialist outlook and the modern gangster outlook are two different things. (178-79)
The world passed Kipling by, however. He was stuck in a Victorian dream that could not cope with the twentieth century or how empires are actually built.
Kipling spent the later part of his life in sulking . . . He could not understand what was happening, because he had never had any grasp of the economic forces underlying imperial expansion. . . We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are “enlightened” all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our “enlightenment,” demands that the robbery shall continue. (180-81)
essays of literary criticism are equally fascinating. It takes some verve to challenge Tolstoy, but Orwell does so regarding the great Russian’s disdain for Shakespeare and for King Lear in particular. Tolstoy ironically fails to see that he himself is Lear, renouncing his copyrights and titles and stature to live like a peasant (as Lear renounced his throne) only to be angry and frustrated when this doesn’t have the desired effect and things go wrong (as also happens to Lear).
In 1941 Orwell deftly punctured the bogus notion of H. G. Wells (and others) who felt that the progress of humanity and science go hand in hand with great civilization. “Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous,” he wrote (152). Contradicting Wells again, Orwell states there was no inevitability to Hitler and his like failing. That is not how history or humanity works.
An essayist at heart, he was not above lampooning himself, as he does in “Confessions of a Book Reviewer.” Orwell also leads nonfiction writers by example, consistently beginning his pieces with intrigue and ending with strength
What ties his literary and political critiques together is summarized well at the conclusion of Keith Gessen’s introduction, “The lesson of these essays is clear: Look around you. Describe what you see as an ordinary observer–for you are one, you know–would see them. Take things seriously. And tell the truth. Tell the truth.”