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Friday, 5 July, 2002, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Talking Point: Your e-mails answered
In his video essay, Christopher Hitchens told how George Orwell's fierce independence as a writer has earned him an enduring legacy.

Here, Christopher responds to some of your e-mails as part of the Talking Point.

Talking Point: Your e-mails and Christopher Hitchens' replies

Christopher says "In moments where clarity is required, there are always enough writers and intellectuals who will seek refuge in euphemism, or in the consolations of nearness to power." - the value of having a maverick journalist or writer (such as Christopher himself) is undoubted. But surely this has diminishing returns - every journalist in the country now seems to be by nature a cynic, and it's possible that this has had some effect on people's disenchantment with the political process. Most politicians are not corrupt, but there are dangers in everyone believing that they are - the rise of extremism for one.
posted by Geoff Camlett, London, UK

Orwell matters today because too few journalists pay him anything other than lip service. Most newspaper OpEd pages seem to avoid any view that is unfashionable or politically incorrect. The reason is, as I think Orwell pointed out, that many writers are turning out work for the dinner-table approval of their chums and colleagues and baulk at addressing issues with a stark clinical moral approach which may cause these familiars anguish or, at the very least, assault their lazy, received intellectual and moral conventions. Whether they actually, really believe what they write is another matter altogether.
posted by Barry Lynch, Dublin, Ireland

Mr Camlett and Mr Lynch are right when they say that a world full of "mavericks" would be unbearable, and that a press full of self-described mavericks is not a pretty sight. (Harold Rosenberg had a term for this when discussing the "dissident" New York intellectuals. He called them "the herd of independent minds".)

But journalistic egotism, manifested by big-mouth columnists preaching from well-appointed pulpits, is as different as possible from the world of George Orwell, who never had a regular job or a steady income in the mainstream press, and much of whose writing had to be unearthed by researchers from obscure radical sheets.

The test of our modern cynics would be to see how they would react if an editor or a proprietor asked them to tone down, or to cut out, one of their screeds. In other words one would like to know how they would behave under pressure.

With Orwell we do know, which is part of the reason why he is a gold-standard in these matters. My favourite example: he refused the Book of the Month club prize for his novel 1984, because it came with a request that he cut out or shorten the semi-Trotskyist secret book about the Inner Party, which Winston Smith reads to Julia.

At the time of his refusal he was flat broke and very ill, and the award was worth thousands of scarce American dollars.
posted by Christopher Hitchens

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As usual Mr Hitchens delivers a voice of sanity in a sea of mediocrity. His incisive and timely comments, remind many of us that we need not work in a historical vacuum. I often wonder whether under or non-recognition of Orwell's work is as much down to certain publishers and media outlets wanting to avoid close analysis of his work for fear that it will stir up thoughts and realities which they'd prefer were not laid bare before their readers and viewers.
posted by Eamonn O'Neill, Edinburgh, Scotland

Mr O'Neill is probably right to suspect that publishers and editors avoid anything that might commit them to any arduous principles. Yet Orwell's name often appears in print and on the air, and most often as a "positive" reference.

Indeed, he is almost taught to schoolchildren, in a limited way, as that most forbidding of things "a good example". This paradox arises from a failure to read him all-round, or in the original.

In his time he was a figure of controversy and difficulty, which was why the mainstream publishers from TS Eliot to Victor Gollancz refused his books. I am hoping to restore his status as a hard-to-digest figure.
posted by Christopher Hitchens

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Ok, Orwell was always his own man. But some of his views are terribly dated these days. The most obvious example is that he was a virulent homophobe. This however, has been conveniently overlooked by Orwell's present day cheerleaders. Maybe because they are afraid it will denigrate a man who is frequently championed by liberals and the left. This is the problem with canonising historic figures - the myth inevitably comes apart.
posted by Craig Davies, Leicester, UK

Mr Davies is right to say that Orwell was "homophobic", as we would now term it. In his youth he was also filled with dislike for the "coloured" subjects of the Empire, for the unwashed lower orders in Britain itself, and for Jews. e didn't have much time for women, either.

Some of this prejudice was inculcated by his family and his class; some of it was innate.

One reason for the interest of his work is that it shows a man deliberately reading and writing his way out of prejudice; educating himself against his own tendencies. The effort was on the whole successful but (if I may immodestly recommend them) I have two chapters of criticism of Orwell, first for his failure to appreciate feminism and second for his uncontrollable fear and disgust where homosexuality was concerned.

The latter failure was not small, because it led him to write a very vulgar attack on W.H. Auden. Mr Davies is right in any event to say that humans should not be placed on pedestals. Orwell would have agreed with him there and I don't try to make an exception in Orwell's case.
posted by Christopher Hitchens

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I remember in the early 70s while travelling alone by train through then Communist Czechoslovakia striking up a conversation with a young Czech lady. She confessed that she had not heard of George Orwell so I promised on my return to London to mail her certain "educational materials" and include some Orwell. Some months after I sent her 1984 and Animal Farm I received a letter from her thanking me profusely for she believed Animal Farm to be a perfect description of Czech society of that dark time. She felt comforted that a writer understood and expressed so perfectly the corruption of her society. I will never forget her, or how Orwell's brave words helped her then and how they still remain relevant today.
posted by Peter MacKinnon, Los Angeles USA

Mr MacKinnon's account of his meeting on a Czech train puts me in mind of the great tribute paid to Orwell by the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosc, who is now the national laureate of his own country.

Writing about his own break with Communism in 1951, in his book The Captive Mind, Milosc described how members of the Polish Stalinist elite would pass a clandestine edition of Orwell's 1984 from hand to hand in secret.

They were astonished to learn that its author was an Englishman who had never visited the Soviet Union, because they did not see how he could have captured the "texture" of life in a closed society.

Not a bad compliment from one writer to another. In my book (if I may be immodest again) I tell this story at greater length and show how Orwell's experience in Spain, in Burma and even at boarding school had helped him to picture what ultimate un-freedom might feel like.
posted by Christopher Hitchens

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02 Apr 01 | Entertainment
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