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The Enduring Relevance of George Orwell

Thursday 15 August 2019, by siawi3


Debate: The Enduring Relevance of George Orwell


Describing his vision as black and white – and his tone as rhetorical and preachy – does not do justice to the moral nuance and humility Orwell brought to his analyses.

George Orwell street art. Photo: Flickr

Veeksha Vagmita

George Orwell’s moral resonance, much-praised decency and enduring legacy have a compelling basis. Essays like “A Hanging†, “Shooting an Elephant†, “Revenge is Sour†and “Antisemitism in Britain†contain profound reflections on the nature and travesty of political violence; the forces that brutalise reluctant foot soldiers of exploitative powers; the essential futility and vacuity of revenge; the irrational nature of prejudice and its tenacious resistance to facts and reasoned arguments.

Orwell explores these and other themes with unsparing honesty, deep acuity and a respect for complexity. To describe his vision as black and white, his tone as rhetorical and preachy (as Ben Judah does in “Why I’ve had enough of Orwell†, published in The Wire on July 16, 2019) does not do justice to the moral nuance and humility he brought to his analyses of still relevant and pressing subjects.

Also read: Debate: Like It or Not, George Orwell Remains Relevant to the 21st Century

In “Politics and the English language†, Orwell critiques stilted, pretentious and obfuscatory (political) writing. The kind of prose he values, and himself uses, is not visibly rhetorical.

George Orwell)]

Orwell’s evocative description of the (psychic) effects of propaganda and the insidious heights of surveillance in the canonised 1984 has a powerful resonance not necessarily because of its prophetic touch. He may not have anticipated the incredibly complex and fractured postmodern condition but his gritty examination of widespread propaganda, and its destructive potential, gives us tools to analyse the enduring habits of authoritarian regimes.

Historical revisionism; curtailment of public vocabulary/discourse by emphasising binaries, labels and abstractions; news/content monitoring and dissent-checking; the redirection of abstract (collective) rage towards contrived bugbears – these Orwellian features are in stark evidence, especially in today’s India.

In “Shooting an Elephant†, Orwell grapples with the troublingly grey areas of human emotions, the toll taken by conflicting pulls, and the ways in which people cope with, and are morally disfigured by, intense psychological pressure. His account of his experiences as an imperial policeman in Burma is both symbolic and idiosyncratic. His own vulnerability and frailty make his predicament palpably human and real.

Also read: George Orwell, Who Hated Purple Prose as Much as He Hated Injustice

The essay may or may not encapsulate the colonial experience, but Orwell’s personal trials illuminate/symbolise the larger dynamics between the coloniser and the colonised as well as the shared inner conflicts of those who deplore “the dirty work of Empire†as much as the jeering, provoking locals.

More importantly, the essay transcends its immediate context to explore the complex and reversible relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, the controller and the controlled:

“It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. … But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on … And if that happened … some of them would laugh. That would never do.â€

By not acquitting himself easily, Orwell leaves the reader, who can relate to his inward struggles and imperfect responses, with a troubled conscience. There are no simple answers to vexing, real-life challenges, he seems to be saying.

“Antisemitism in Britain†is deeply valuable for its insights into the (resistant) nature of prejudice. It explores the senseless, dangerous biases of ‘rational’ and ‘non-violent’ people. The essay speaks to the sway and pervasiveness of bigotry being witnessed in India.

Also read: Remembering George Orwell, the Socialist

To investigate the underlying rationalisations for baseless prejudice, one must, according to Orwell, ask oneself, “Why does antisemitism appeal to me?†, especially if one is not immune to such sentiments. This self-questioning testifies to the writer’s intellectual honesty and clarity. To interpret it as Orwell’s definite admission of his antisemitic leanings, as Judah does in his piece, would distort the spirit of the argument.

Orwell was a product of his age, characterised, in Zygmunt Bauman’s view, by “solid modernity†. His dystopic vision, powerfully rendered in 1984, is based on the paradigm of an all-powerful, panoptical State. Surveillance in our “liquid modernity†is much more insidious, according to Bauman.

While this may be true, invasive, authoritarian, media and thought-controlling states are a reality we must confront. The administration’s eye, hard to detect and harder to escape, is an uncanny reminder of the ever-watchful Big Brother.

In times like these, it’s best to know your Orwell.

Veeksha Vagmita is a PhD (English) scholar at Ambedkar University Delhi. She has previously worked with the Times of India.