Transcript for Christopher Hitchens on "Why Orwell Matters"

Jim Fleming: Who is the best model of the politically engaged writer.

Journalist Christopher Hitchens nominates George Orwell, author of animal farm and 1984. In his book "Why Orwell Matters" Hitchens says that Orwell got it right about imperialism, fascism and communism.

Hitchens tells Steve Paulson that Orwell opposed all of them, at a time when most intellectuals ignored the contradictions of the left.

Christopher Hitchens: When we look back on the century we have just escaped from, we survived the 20th century. The three great questions, great confrontations in that century were: Should the rest of the world be ruled by white people? Should imperialism or will imperialism be considered civilization? What to do about the threat of national socialism, fascism and nazism, being the challenge to civilization from the extreme right. And what to do about the illusion of serving communism is the answer. Well, early George Orwell seems to answer all these three question correctly.

Steve Paulson: By correctly you mean Orwell was opposed to communism, fascism and imperialism.

Hitchens: He was very strongly against all three and he was against them I think for the right reasons and in the right way. More people ought to be able to say this, it is surprising how few, when you look back, can Hemingway, H. G. Wells. George Bernard Shaw, lots of very well known and quite brave people, quite decent people, that didn't manage to hold all these three thoughts in their minds at once, contradicting themselves often shamefully.

Paulson: It is ironic that Orwell was so anti-imperialist when his father benefited so much from it. He even followed his father as a british policeman in Burma, but he soon left, why?

Hitchens: He was opposed to the whole policy of Imperialism, he didn't like it. But I think he feared in himself, that if he stayed, he would become disfigured and deprived by it. And I think it is very  from both the turn of his first novel "Burmese Days" much underrated novel. Anticipates all of the sultry and horrible world of Graham Green and desolation and conceptual failure and all of that, as well as racism and the dilemmas that were more personal and such and such.He thought that there was something truly repellant about the treatment of the Burmese, and it wasn't just about the labour path and the resources were being taken away by british who kept Burma under developed. It was that there was a sexual element of cruelty in the treatment of the Burmese while this was going on.

Paulson: What do you mean a sexual element?

Hitchens: I will put it like this. If you were a Burmese or Indian or Asian man and you would be the most educated possible, you have been to ten universities, and you were twice as well educated as any of the British rulers of your country. You still would't be allowed into membership of the english club in the town. But if you were Burmese women in their culture at all, you could be admitted to the backdoor of any english man bungalow day or night usually for pay. Flory the policeman was the anti-hero for this novel. At one point quite shockingly very casually lets us know that he's bought his burmese mistress basically as a slave. The master-slave relationship interested Orwell very much. It fascinated him and it repelled him. He was afraid I think of the temptations it had for someone like himself who was on the whole lonely, didn't think he was attracted to women. I don't know, he never told anyone why he quit. I believe very strongly that that is why. He thought; If I stay I will become a monster, with these temptations, these opportunities. He certainly makes all through all his novels, specially in 1984 the climatic one. A very great use of his knowledge of a certain masochistic element that it is involved in what we need to call master-slave relationship. The whole idea of power is involved with cruelty. And that is not a lesson that we can say we have left behind with the 20 th century.

Paulson: So here is Orwell one of the great critics of the British empire. A men of the left and then he turned against communism. How did that happen?

Hitchens: It happened to him precisely because of his big volunteer efforts for the left. He was one of the first people to volunteer for the spanish civil war. To decide that if you really meant what you said, you had to use your own body and put it in the way and try and physically block the advance of fascism in Europe. He went on his own, and as a result he joined a random workers in Barcelona and took a particular interest in the catalonian front and catalonian struggle. And this was actually ran by a group of Marxists in Spain that were very anti Stalin, so by pure chance really.

He was not in the main stream of the left attitude towards the Spanish civil war or the left tactic towards it. And he was able to see with his own eyes something that seemed incredible if you took the stand of view of the civil war as a left-right issue. The communist parties main interest was in putting down the revolutionary element in Catalonia. So he saw something coming that was less like to happen in a lot of European countries. At the time it seemed to people impossible to keep more than one thought in their heads at once. You either followed the public or you followed fascism. We don't want to hear all this complicated business about what is happening, there is a civil war within the civil war if you will. So he wrote a book and said; well, how it looks to me is as is Stalin is trying to destroy the Spanish. And sabotage the anti-fascism course. And I am very worried that this truthful never become known. I feel I have to write a book about it. The book is called " Homage to Catalonia" and it sold, I don't known, probably about 500 copies in his lifetime. Most publishers would not take it, most magazines would not review it, specially on the liberal left.

Paulson: I am sure, it was harassing for him to say these things

Hitchens: It was harassing extreme . And he never expected that it wouldn't have any impact at all and in his lifetime it did not. It was not published in the United States until the 50's, but now is one of the most celebrated books of war reportage, and truth telling. I have never been in a war zone. I have been in places like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Pakistan last year. Where I noticed not the older but the younger workers responders are interested in finding what really is going on. It is not that book what motivated them in to be there in the first place, it is extraordinarily impressive.

Paulson: The one thing that has always puzzled me about Orwell's career as a writer is, he was a great journalist, a brilliant essayist, but he kind of struggled as a fiction writer for a while.

The question is; Why did he want to write novels?

Hitchens: There was a need to be able to discuss things in the third person, which he was not able to do in his non-fiction, in other words. He would not have written about himself, as he writes about Flory. He would have not said he himself felt this sexual and racial frenzy when he was in Burma that he was divided in mind, between whether he loathed a non-white or loved her. He was divided in mind as to whether or not he could take advantage of the availability of slave women. He could not have written that in his own voice.

Paulson : You are really saying that he needed art to be able to express the ambiguibity

Hitchens: Not so much with Animal farm, which I am not a great fan of. But with 1984 he managed to throw into the action of a novel everything he ever learned from his own life, and travels, and struggles and reading. And produce something that now of course is thought to school children, and sells texts and we are not scared of Stalin anymore or Hitler and these kind of things. When the first readers of that book that the publisher has, and opened it. They feared the word sensation of physical fear. they were terrified by what he was doing in Burma. so it is a wonderful fictional sum of a non-fiction career if you will

Paulson: I want to back up for a moment to the novel that you said you are not that big a fan of Animal farm. Which Orwell said that this book is the first book in which I tried with full consciousness of what I was doing defuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one haul. You obviously think he did not succeed.

Hitchens: It is a very touching and skillful and admirable attainment in the swifting style of doing fable or allegory. And it charms people who don't really know what the history behind it is. Who don't know of what is an allegory, it is an artistic success in some ways. I am a big thought minded about this kind of things. If you are going to do an allegory using animals or other creatures, humans perhaps, of the history of the revolution. You have to have three figures in it. You have to have Stalin, you have to have Lenin, and you have to have Trotsky. There is no Lenin in Animal farm. There is only Stalin and the same by the way is true on 1984, there is no Lenin there, there is only Stalin 'Big brother'. In the logic case of Napoleon, there is a Trotsky in each, there is Snowball and Goldstein. This represents a failure on his part to make up his mind about the relationship between that and Stalin. It is such a barring image. And until I read this book. I had not noticed, and not had anyone else. I have never read a discussion on either novel, that point that. It is Stalin vs Trotsky. The Lenin portion is out of existence. I don't know what that is, but he can't be unaware of it.

 

Fleming: Writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens on his book "Why Orwell Matters" Steve Paulson spoke with him

 

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