My first encounter with George Orwell was as unlikely as my first counter with New Kids on the Block: though, certainly, more welcome. I was in the library at middle school - at grade eight - and, while looking through a couple of Sport's Illustrated issues, I happened to notice a worn, paperback on the table I was sitting at. The book was "1984" and the dreary world of Winston Smith, a clerk and bureaucrat of obscurity, within the larger body of INGSOC, the awe of a society under "BB", and his awakening - albeit temporary - that lead to a yearning for life of quality and abundance free of the bubble created by a government, religion, and caste system that eventually swallowed him up, bringing him, though violently, full circle. He went from apathy, accidental awakening, passive aggressive rebellion and then, in the end, with help, salvation through confession and cognitive dissonance.
I took the book and read it over the summer of 1981 immersing myself in the mind of the main character, finding a connection with the profound depression he felt over his powerlessness. Winston Smith, to me, represented every man; I could see him in stages in many of the people I knew around me. Emerging from the yellowed pages of "1984", I wanted to learn more about this writer who seemed to understand so much about people, and who could immortalize so much of that understanding into a story. At that point I became a fan of George Orwell.
Orwell was the product of empire. Eric Arthur Blair was born in Mohar, India in 1903. His father was a civil servant within the British Empire in the opium department, and his mother was, as well a product of empire as the daughter of a merchant in Burma. He came from a line of gentry, who by the time he was born, had fallen in financial stature, but still retained, in title, the caste distinction. This background hardly would seem to dictate an understanding of the human mind he would later lay out in his works, but it does form the understanding of despotic power structures as they would appear in "Animal Farm" and "1984".
In understanding Orwell, with respect to his offerings to literature, one has to have a small grasp of his upbringing. When younger Orwell dreamt of writing a book in the style of H.G. Wells', "A Modern Utopa", which, arguably, happened later on - twice. In America, we generally like to propagandize a lot of his works to suit a particular political point of view. The right generally, as a result, likes to characterize "1984" as an ominous warning against the evil scourge of communism, while the left generally likes to argue against fascism displaying a similar misunderstanding.
Orwell was a Democratic Socialist, which implies an acceptance of Marxism and it's ridiculous dogmatism, but, in truth, doesn't. Every socialist on the planet is who ever made that implication is incorrect. Orwell's protagonist in "1984" rebelled against the products of the collective - Victory Cigarettes and even his own part in the propagandized press as a shill - yearning for something better as he enjoyed the products of a long gone age in bed with Julia, arguably a prototype of leftist feminists. Did this mean Winston Smith yearned for a societal return to an order dictated by "free market" capitalism and consumerism? No. Arguably the worst symptoms of capitalism grows into the corporatism that is prevalent in empires. Orwell, as was his protagonist, had as much contempt for fascism as he did for communism as both are equally as despotic in their missions to enact a perverse order over humankind. As a Democratic Socialist, and it could be argued that Orwell was, maybe, more of a Libertarian Socialist, what he would have liked to see for humankind was a existence dedicated to helping the individual achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness free of supporting a certain class structure whether it be private or state owned. It is an honest socialism that has no room for a status-quo of any kind.
Hence Orwell can be seen in the Spanish Civil War fighting fascist forces along side anarcho-syndicalists, fighting against the old foes of humanity; despotism. Having come from the decadence of the British Empire, this makes sense. Retreating from the Spanish Civil war Orwell returned to England engaging in a simpler occupation of keeping sheep eventually writing "Animal Farm" - an indictment of despotism in both its extreme forms. His later stint during World War Two for BBC countering Nazi propaganda in India no doubt formed some small inspiration for "1984".
George Orwell was a pioneer of explaining where the world was headed by identifying the process that began during his lifetime. His essay, written in 1946, indicting how language is being subverted in the name of propaganda, marketing, or whatever one feels the most comfortable calling it outlines an idea of the "war against the mind". "Politics and the English Language" is an exercise in explaining how opinion is formed through vagueness and subversives in syntax. It is a nod to Winston Smith and the Newspeak used in "1984" as it calls out writers of his day for deceptive practices in explaining topics to audiences. It argues against the use of hyperbole, to my own consternation, as well as the overuse of colloquialism, and the misuse of words in place of simpler language. It is a modern attempt at unifying and democratizing language, on the level of a Sir Francis Bacon, but, arguably, in an attempt to make propaganda harder to hide beneath a "veil" of obscure language. However, in our age of soundbytes and memes, it can be argued that it is necessary to, "raise the bar", if you will in terms of language, is needed just in terms of combating the persistent level of "bullshit" that is being passed off as reasonable thought, as the quality of thought - to paraphrase the words of the late George Carlin - as interlinked with the quality of language.
On Wednesday, June 25th, 2014, George Orwell would have been 111. He left many lessons within the thousands of words he contributed to humanity. I have been fortunate to have read a lot of it, as a fan, but am always surprised at how they are misused by many out there. His life was a journey to create and to communicate the flaws of humanity along with possible answers that may help us along a little bit better. Like Thomas Paine, he sought to reach the people and educate them of a need to be aware of the world around them as it is, as much, their world as it is those in power. If there was more knowledge of his work he would hopefully be as less misquoted, and thus, misunderstood.
Many thanks to that person who, that day years ago, forgot to put "1984" back on the bookshelf.