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Nonfiction Microreviews


Why Orwell Matters

Christopher Hitchens
Basic Books, $24 (cloth)

Despite its title, Christopher Hitchens’s short, often brilliantly argued book on George Orwell doesn’t spend most of its time explaining why Orwell matters. It’s mainly about what Orwell was and wasn’t exactly. Hitchens traces Orwell’s hard-won moral independence, showing how it grew from profoundly personal and humane reactions to cruelty, coercion, and conformity. As a colonial administrator in India, Orwell was repelled by the way colonial rule was brutal toward its subjects and brutalized (in a meaning Hitchens recaptures) its administrators, as well as by the “awful pleasures and temptations of servility” he saw there. Already “an old India hand,” as Hitchens says, by the time Orwell volunteered in the Spanish civil war he was morally equipped not only to oppose fascism—that was “axiomatic”—but to record accurately the “premonitory pangs of a man living under a police regime . . . ruling in the name of socialism and the people” while in Spain, and thus to become an anti-Stalinist anticommunist before so many on the left. So, Hitchens argues, Orwell was the one major literary intellectual in the West to get it right on all three of the twentieth century’s major questions; he was unhypocritically anti-imperialist, antifascist, and anticommunist.

There’s much to admire in Hitchens’s literate, passionate defense, although it requires patience to make it through a characteristically British obsession with the arcana of midcentury literary politics. Hitchens devotes a long chapter to defending Orwell from the left’s common but misguided charge of political passivity and worse. Hitchens argues against recent attempts by conservatives to co-opt Orwell: “George Orwell was conservative about many things, but not about politics.” And he gives learned, entertaining, and very smart reflections on Orwell’s novels, views of America, of women, and of England, among other things.

But what about that title? Why does Orwell matter today? Can he still be a useful guide somehow—especially as an independent thinker and political essayist? Hitchens, who recently made his own famous break with the left by leaving his column at The Nation because of its opposition to war against Iraq, clearly wants to claim Orwellian independence. The most explicit of many examples of identification is an aside about some responses from the left to September 11, in which Hitchens quotes Orwell’s 1945 attack on “intellectual pacifists”—“whose real though unacknowledged motive seems to be hatred of western democracy”—a passage with parallels in Hitchens’s own columns. And surely we’re supposed to hear echoes of Orwell in Hitchens’s strong voice throughout: impatient with party loyalties, indignant and truth-telling, suspicious of hypocrisy and excuses.

But beyond an iconoclastic stance, can we invoke Orwell’s authority in our debates today? The fact is, Orwell can’t help settle them. At the very end of the book Hitchens summarizes Orwell’s legacy in a stirring but slippery assessment that somehow Orwell’s famous writerly style is at the center of how he matters. What Orwell showed, he says, “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.”

But Hitchens can’t have it both ways: he can’t embrace “principles” (even as opposed to “views” or politics) and still say it doesn’t matter what you think. Principles have content. If Orwell’s break with the politics of the left was admirable, it’s because it was justified by principle, not just because he thought more logically or wrote more beautifully or clearly or in a voice that took as its main mode to see through cant and get to the truth, however much those great virtues as a writer helped him avoid the traps of euphemism and excuse. You can say that he thought more clearly than everyone else (that it wasn’t what he thought but how) but what you mean is: he wrote and acted more consistently and courageously according to principles that others on the left should have been loyal to, but weren’t.

So by his own standards, Hitchens has to show that theleft’s mistakes today are based on an abdication of principles. Orwell is a model of choosing humane principle over politics, but he himself knew that equally compelling principles can conflict with each other. (He wrote in 1945, as quoted by Hitchens himself, that “one can only denounce the crimes now being committed in Poland, Jugoslavia, etc. if one is equally insistent on ending Britain’s unwanted rule in India. I belong to the left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism.”) Today we have to find our way ourselves when humane principles lead us in opposing directions. Hitchens may earn the mantle of inheritor of Orwell’s place in political journalism as much as anyone writing these days. But that doesn’t make him right.

—Andrew Hrycyna

Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes)
Hal Foster
Verso, $23 (cloth)

  In the elegant and incisive essays collected in Design and Crime, art historian and theorist Hal Foster argues that in recent years art culture has lost ground to business culture, become a franchise of the pervasive global marketplace. Of course, as the author knows, the blurring of art into merchandise, of culture into commodity, is readily observable, from museum shows that resemble Armani showrooms to commercials that use rock songs to advertise cars and computers. What troubles Foster is not simply this uneasy alliance, but rather how art culture has been complicit in its own devaluation, and blindly so; despite much talk of “resistance” and “transgression,” of the rise of a “neo–avant-garde,” artists have been seduced by the blandishments of corporate and institutional patrons. As Foster writes, “With the spread of a post-Fordist economy of tweaked commodities and niched markets, we experience an almost seamless circuit of production and consumption. . . . In the process some of our cherished ideas of critical culture seem weakened, even emptied out.”

Foster delves into these matters by observing some exemplary figures and institutions in art and architecture. His analysis of the career of the graphic designer Bruce Mau, in particular of his recent monograph-cum-biography Life Style, is unsparing. Mau achieved fame as the designer of Zone magazines and books in the 1980s, and he consolidated his high-design credentials with the megamonograph S,M,L,XL, his mid-1990s collaboration with the architect Rem Koolhaas. But as Foster notes, Mau is not content to be a successful graphic designer; he wants also to be a kind of art-media philosophe to the corporate elite with, in Mau’s words, “the status of the artist . . . and the paycheck of the businessman.” The recent projects of the architect Frank Gehry, too, underscore the tension inherent in being a brand-name designer while retaining one’s bona fides as a leading-edge artist. Foster traces the trajectory of Gehry’s brilliant career, from the playful and energetic early work in Santa Monica to the recent instant-icon of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. And while the early work, in Foster’s view, brought “elite design in touch with common culture,” the later buildings serve “to ingratiate architecture, on the model of the advertisement, to a public projected as a mass consumer.”

Art and design seem everywhere these days, publicized in lavish magazines, displayed in galleries and museums. And yet, as Design and Crime makes plain, the cost of such success has been high. Staking out space—or clocking their fifteen minutes of fame—in the spectacle culture, artists and designers risk becoming mere purveyors of decor to the corporatized powers they claim to critique.

—Nancy Levinson

The Emerging Democratic Majority
John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira
Scribner, $24 (cloth)

  Published in the wake of the 1968 presidential election, Kevin Phillips’s The Emerging Republican Majority anticipated the collapse of the New Deal coalition and the rise of Nixon’s “silent majority.” Three decades later, Judis and Teixeira suggest that we face another realignment—this time to the advantage of the Democrats. The New Deal coalition may be dead, and Republicans have made major gains in the 2000 and 2002 elections, but Democrats have found other ways to compete. They fare increasingly well among professionals and suburban voters, who see Democrats as protectors of the environment, workplace autonomy, and personal freedoms against big business and the Christian right. They also do well among working women and racial minorities. And demographic changes are making all these groups more influential: a postindustrial economy has swelled the ranks of professionals, the percentage of women who work continues to grow, and immigration (and organization) has made Latinos and Asians into powerful electoral constituencies. Together, the authors predict, these shifts will make up for the failure of Democrats since the 1960s to consistently win the votes of the working class and middle-income whites. Though grounded in an analysis of voting patterns, the book is based on an idea: that cultural affinity and the soft-touch management of the economy favored by the Clinton administration can be the basis for a lasting political coalition (not just the temporary triangulation of competing interests). Whether this idea works—whether urban voters and suburban professionals can really find common ground on tax burdens and income redistribution, whether Democratic politicians can really balance economic growth and environmental protection without dividing their vote—will determine what sort of Democratic majority, if any, finally emerges.

—Jefferson Decker

In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye, Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character
Pamela Hunt Steinle
Ohio State University Press, $19.95 (paper)

They counted obscenities. They preached about god and morality and decline. They suggested book-burning. They are the parents, preachers, and cultural custodians chronicled in Pamela Hunt Steinle’s book about the disputes that have dogged J. D. Salinger’s classic novel of adolescent angst since its 1951 publication. Through three emblematic cases, Steinle traces the battle to keep Salinger’s novel out of American high schools. But the fight, she says, wasn’t really about the book.

Catcher, Steinle argues, was really just a token, a flashpoint in a national search for a moral standard befitting postwar America. So it’s not surprising when Steinle admits she has “run far afield of the Catcher debate.” The book wanders into discussions of school shootings, alternative-rock lyrics, and a generation of parents unable “to provide a genuine sense of future and hopefulness for the adolescents in their charge.” Despite its Holdenesque meanderings and its overquoting of already overquoted texts, Steinle’s reading of the cultural anomie of the late twentieth century is deep and searching. And it suggests a remedy. Steinle shows that, in the end, whether it’s 860 “obscenities” or 295 “blasphemies,” whether the book was burned or simply restricted, its detractors missed the point entirely. While their children plunged fearfully over the cliff, these guardians stood bickering in the rye.

—Nicholas Hengen

Originally published in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of Boston Review



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