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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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