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Why Orwell Matters (2002)

por Christopher Hitchens

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1,0411314,942 (3.83)45
In this widely acclaimed biographical essay, Christopher Hitchens assesses the life, the achievements, and the myth of the great political writer and participant George Orwell. In true emulative and contrarian style, Hitchens is both admiring and aggressive, sympathetic yet critical, taking true measure of his subject as hero and problem. Answering both the detractors and the false claimants, Hitchens tears down the façade of sainthood erected by the hagiographers and rebuts the critics point by point. He examines Orwell and his perspectives on fascism, empire, feminism, and Englishness, as well as his outlook on America, a country and culture towards which he exhibited much ambivalence. Whether thinking about empires or dictators, race or class, nationalism or popular culture, Orwell's moral outlook remains indispensable in a world that has undergone vast changes in the fifty years since his death. Combining the best of Hitchens's polemical punch and intellectual elegance in a tightly woven and subtle argument, this book addresses not only why Orwell matters today, but how he will continue to matter in a future, uncertain world.Christopher Hitchens, one of the most incisive minds of our own age, meets Orwell on the page in this provocative encounter of wit, contention and moral truth.… (mais)
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A lucid and readable short biography of George Orwell by one of his most sincere and respectful imitators. Christopher Hitchens' admiration for the writer extended beyond his essays – a path which Hitchens followed – to include an appreciation for the man's general bearing. Orwell, Hitchens writes, was a writer "forever taking his own temperature" (pg. 114); "the outstanding English example of the dissident intellectual who preferred above all other allegiances the loyalty to truth" (pg. 47).

While not a piece of literary criticism (only the eighth chapter, about twenty pages long, is explicitly dedicated to Orwell's novels), Orwell's Victory is trying throughout to appraise the author's legacy; to demonstrate why (as the American title of the book says) Orwell matters. To do this, Hitchens not only covers Orwell's biography, and his essay and fiction writing, but the depth and origin of his various political opinions. He wades into the various debates surrounding Orwell with formidable fists, remarking on the "body-snatching of Orwell" (pg. 91) by both the left and right wings.

Hitchens' book is not a hagiography, and he does well to prevent it from becoming so. More than just an author to be invoked for political point-scoring or (sometimes apposite) prophetic warnings about totalitarianism, Orwell is shown to be, in Hitchens' account, a flawed but disciplined individual. A writer "sensitive to intellectual hypocrisy" (pg. 6), whether from the left or right, Orwell emerges as someone prescient regarding the challenges of our time, not least "his views on the importance of language, which anticipated much of what we now debate under the rubric of psychobabble, bureaucratic speech, and 'political correctness'" (pg. 10).

The use of apostrophes around the words 'political correctness' in Hitchens' book might seem dated (the book was published in 2002), because of how ubiquitous and accepted that malignancy has since become, but none of the rest of it does. Hitchens takes the opportunity (with appropriate restraint) to rail against contemporary enemies that Orwell might have identified, including an observation on some of the more foolish extremes of postmodernism that remains pertinent:

"It may one day seem strange that, in our own time of extraordinary and revolutionary innovation in the physical sciences, from the human genome to the Hubble telescope, so many 'radicals' spent so much time casting casuistic doubt on the concept of verifiable truth." (pg. 176)

Ultimately, Hitchens succeeds in his attempt to demonstrate why Orwell matters. This sickly writer, who "never enjoyed a stable income, and never had a completely reliable publishing outlet" (pg. 7), has the enviable legacy of perhaps the largest (or at least the broadest) political footprint in English-language letters. With Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he altered "the way in which even relatively unlettered people became aware of the power" and manipulation of political language (pg. 175). And, Hitchens shows through his biographical journey, he operated with the "decent minimum of hypocrisy" (pg. 137). Orwell represents, if not the best English writing, then the best of the spirit of English writing: how an honest man, with a love for honest Saxon words, can, for all the competing influences and prejudices of class, race and personal experience, emerge a rational individual.

And that prescience, that honesty of the writer, is not only not going away, but perhaps becoming even more necessary to acknowledge. Hitchens quotes an immediate post-war essay by Orwell which says: "We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity" (pg. 77). Orwell was referring to the atom bomb and the Cold War, and later developed the idea for the dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it says a lot to his diligent maintenance of intellectual honesty (if not to the general character of mankind) that such lines still hold today. We can think of those "horribly stable" slave empires and think on the increasingly unbridgeable gaps between the haves and have-nots in our contemporary society. Even the Covid pandemic did not result in a general breakdown; unlike any other comparable event in history, it did not flip the gameboard and provide opportunity, but in fact entrenched those with existing power. In light of this, and the general realisation that Orwell (and Hitchens) would still have a lot to write about, is it not the case that Orwell still matters – and perhaps more than ever? ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Jul 19, 2021 |
Ironically, this is the first book of Hitchens that I have read, but it is also fitting since, like Orwell, he seems to fit none of our tightly defined political orthodoxies. This book is an honest, critical appraisal of George Orwell that examines many of the anti-Orwell critiques. Hitchens concludes: "Orwell's 'views' have been largely vindicated by Time....But what he illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that 'views' do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them." ( )
  nmele | Jan 19, 2021 |
"What he illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them."

The book is a defense of Orwell's character written in a time where these things still held some value in the broader picture of society. I'm not sure Hitchens would still see the use in it nowadays, had he been alive in today's 280 characters attention span society.

Orwell was a pretty flaud individual and it makes it that much more important to reflect on his role in the development of post WW2 politics. The world doesnt need perfect individuals to make it better. It needs open minds with goals other than self-enrichment and sharp enough to know fact from fiction. It also shows that humans should not be defined by one mistake or a few if they could arguably be counterbalanced by a multitude of good. ( )
  parzivalTheVirtual | Mar 22, 2020 |
I'm a fan of Hitchens, but this one was just too dry for me - I couldn't finish it. ( )
  adam.currey | Jan 2, 2019 |
Skip it. Why was this book "widely acclaimed?" It lacks a thesis, it's hack scholarship, and it's unnecessarily pusillanimous. Orwell matters, Hitchens' opinion of why he matters does not. ( )
  reganrule | Oct 24, 2017 |
Mostrando 1-5 de 13 (seguinte | mostrar todos)
It is not easy to write a good book about Orwell now. He has been written about so extensively, and sometimes well, that to justify devoting a whole book to him one would really need to have discovered some new material or be able to set him in some new context (not that this will deter publishers eager to cash in on his centenary). The main problem with Orwell’s Victory is that Hitchens doesn’t have enough to say about Orwell to fill a book, so he writes, in effect, as Orwell’s minder, briskly seeing off various characers who have in some way or other got him wrong. This is the structuring principle for a series of chapters on ‘Orwell and Empire’, ‘Orwell and the Left’, ‘Orwell and the Right’ and so on. Some of the offenders clearly deserve what they get, but there’s something repetitive and relentless about it, as though the duffing-up were more important than dealing with Orwell’s own writing.
 
My verdict: it’s worth a read, but only if you a) like Christopher Hitchens and, more important, b) have read a lot of Orwell.
 
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In this widely acclaimed biographical essay, Christopher Hitchens assesses the life, the achievements, and the myth of the great political writer and participant George Orwell. In true emulative and contrarian style, Hitchens is both admiring and aggressive, sympathetic yet critical, taking true measure of his subject as hero and problem. Answering both the detractors and the false claimants, Hitchens tears down the façade of sainthood erected by the hagiographers and rebuts the critics point by point. He examines Orwell and his perspectives on fascism, empire, feminism, and Englishness, as well as his outlook on America, a country and culture towards which he exhibited much ambivalence. Whether thinking about empires or dictators, race or class, nationalism or popular culture, Orwell's moral outlook remains indispensable in a world that has undergone vast changes in the fifty years since his death. Combining the best of Hitchens's polemical punch and intellectual elegance in a tightly woven and subtle argument, this book addresses not only why Orwell matters today, but how he will continue to matter in a future, uncertain world.Christopher Hitchens, one of the most incisive minds of our own age, meets Orwell on the page in this provocative encounter of wit, contention and moral truth.

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