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Orwell and truth

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 2, 2009 12:35 PM

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"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." That epigram of George Orwell's has served as guiding light to more than one polemicist. But how accurate was Orwell himself in reporting what was in front of his nose? In fact, he was not above bending the truth to suit his literary needs and political goals, the novelist Julian Barnes points out in the latest New York Review of Books.

When Orwell's biographer Bernard Crick asked Orwell's widow, Sonia, about some doubts he had about the events underpinning one of his most celebrated essays, "Shooting an Elephant," she exploded: "Of course he shot a [expletive] elephant! He said he did. Why do you always doubt his [expletive] word." And, indeed, Crick confirmed that Orwell had shot an elephant during his service in India -- but events had not occurred in the way Orwell said they did. The elephant, Crick reported, had not killed a man, as Orwell said it had. (He even described the corpse in detail.)

Nor did Crick think -- and Barnes concurs in the judgment -- that Orwell necessarily saw a man hanged, the subject of his anti-Empire, anti-death-penalty essay "A Hanging." The essay is curiously lacking in certain details a witness might be expected to provide, including the crime the man supposedly committed.

The usual excuses for such reportorial misdemeanors include the argument that the writer aimed at a larger moral truth that was served by the rule-bending, or that in a collision between art and truth a true artist favors the former. These arguments, however, are ill-fitting in the case of Orwell, Barnes says, because of the adamance of rules he lay down in his work . "[H]e taught us that even if 100 percent truth is unobtainable, then 67 percent is and always will be better than 66 percent, and that even such a small percentage point is a morally nonnegotiable unit." As for the aesthetic argument, he presented himself as "a kind of nonwriter's writer," claiming to cut through the rhetorical flimflam of others to give an account of the plain sense of things.

Orwell's writing, in short, was not invulnerable to the charge he made about others': "All art is to some extent propaganda." But that's something his worshipers -- which by now includes almost everyone in England, and no few Americans -- are reluctant to admit.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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