"He could not blow his nose," wrote Cyril Connolly, friend and contemporary of George Orwell, "without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry." He went on to say that "this ruling purpose is the secret of [Orwell's] best writing, but far too evident in his worst." It seems like near-sacrilege to suggest the 20th century's most enduring dystopian writer had work you could call "his worst." But Connolly, Orwell's peer at prep school in East Sussex, was a career critic. He reviewed most of Orwell's writings and he is probably one of only a select group of people whose background excuses such a backhanded compliment.
But Connolly was right. Orwell's literature occasionally rings false and reads like inchoate or irrelevant political activism, sometimes at the expense of the reader's patience. His earlier novels -- Burmese Days (1934), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), and Coming Up for Air (1939) -- were met with mixed reviews. It wasn't until the early 1940s, when the vortex of a world war sucked soldiers, writers, artists, parents and children alike into an alternate human reality, did Orwell find within him the courage and creative license to hone his political purpose, enshrining his ideas in two English literature masterpieces: Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
Orwell may have lacked a nuanced understanding of political psychology, but that is part of the power his writing has on the public imagination. Orwell held society's ideals up high, ideals elevated in the 'moral war' of World War II, and ideals most politicians -- bogged down in the narcissism of minor differences -- long lost sight of in the course of their soul-sucking stump-speeches, power grabs and incessant backbiting. The further removed from the political system, the better Orwell saw through it.
His insights into the dangers of concentrated power, and society's lemming-like capacity for blindly following orders, has given birth to a whole lexicon of dystopian terms. Two years before Bernard Baruch popularized the term "Cold War," Orwell used it in a 1945 article titled "You and the Atomic Bomb." Without Orwell, there'd be no Big Brother. There'd be no thought police, doublethink or thought crime. Without him, there also wouldn't be these 10 politically charged and eloquently stated quotes to mull over below. As we celebrate Orwell's 111th birthday on June 25, this week in history, let's remember the fiery populism and passion with which Orwell tirelessly approached his work, both on and off the page.
1. "In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird." (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)
2. "At 50, everyone has the face he deserves." ("Extracts from a Manuscript Notebook", 1949, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 4, 1968)
3. "The object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war." (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)
4. "All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others." (Animal Farm, 1945)
5. "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." (Original preface to Animal Farm; as published in George Orwell : Some Materials for a Bibliography, 1953, by Ian R. Willison)
6. 'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)
7. [On The Road to Serfdom and The Mirror of the Past] "Between them these two books sum up our present predicament. Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics." (Review of The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek & The Mirror of the Past by K. Zilliacus, reviewed in The Observer, 9 April 1944)
8. "The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield." ("In Front of Your Nose", Tribune, 22 March 1946)
9. "It is difficult for a statesman who still has a political future to reveal everything that he knows." (Review of Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill, New Leader, 14 May 1949)
10. "Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power." (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)