Orwell - the best exemplar of the public intellectual

The Argument

April 08, 2001|By Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

The moral force of his nonfiction is graced by personal involvement, generosity and self-sacrifice.

Orwellian. It's the kind of word that drippy drunks drop in bars when they're trying to impress you. Which is strange, because everyone who passed the eighth grade has read "1984." Even so, Orwellian has a ring to it -- a kind of vulgate cache that makes a somewhat nobler savage of your average barfly. Sad, really. Because Orwell is so much more than the two works of fiction for which he is best known: "1984" and "Animal Farm." Yet these two works alone define the adjective that posterity has made of his name.

We use Orwellian to refer to futuristic dystopias, omnipotent states that observe and control citizen life. But this is a grave injustice to the man whose life was much larger and stranger than his fiction. In fact, Orwell was, in many respects, a much more gifted essayist and journalist than he was a novelist. But this alone did not distinguish him. For there are, in every generation, many such abstract and brief chroniclers of the time.

What made Orwell special? His generosity and self-sacrifice. The way he used his talent and intelligence to help the less astute see history and the world more clearly. He was, in short, the ideal public intellectual -- one whose like we are not soon likely to see again. This, when we speak with all due respect, is what Orwellian should mean.

Now, in this century, there has been much collective gnashing of teeth over the demise and / or death of this fey creature, the so-called public intellectual. One of the most famous and blistering attacks came from French essayist Julien Benda, whose prophetic outcry in 1928 against intellectualized nationalism "The Treason of the Intellectuals" (W.W. Norton, $10.05) still resounds today. Russell Jacoby's indictment of modern academe -- "The Last Intellectuals" (Basic Books, 304 pages, $20) -- is probably the best recent expression of this sentiment, but it still leaves us puzzled about exactly what public intellectuals are supposed to do or be. What, then, made Orwell the exemplar of the breed?

Certainly, participation must rank high on the list -- the willingness to mire himself in the trenches of experience. This crucial ingredient of Orwell's writing life made him an interactive, not an ivory-tower, intellectual.

As the hermetic convention cycles of modern academe have made all too apparent, this approach is no longer in vogue. Most of our nation's self-styled intellectuals languish in the academy, superimposing their ironclad, proto-Marxist theories on the plots of 19th-century novels and hoping to become tenured armchairmen of their departments. Thus, journalists, to a large extent, have taken the scholar's place in the public square. But even they, with the exception, perhaps, of war correspondents, often stop short of partaking in the action. Those who do are primarily reporters, not intellectuals.

Orwell, by contrast, the consummate thinker, dived into the direst circumstances and recounted what he saw there. Indeed, he crafted his unique idiom -- seemingly omniscient, yet somehow intimate -- by weaving his own unassuming erudition into the language of the common man. Though all of Orwell's nonfiction bears the earmarks of involvement and, often, the immediacy of corporeal suffering, perhaps none does so more effectively than "Down and Out in Paris and London."

To write it, Orwell lived for weeks among the lowly tramps of London, spending nights in the ghastly "spikes," (homeless shelters) and begging for bread and tobacco on the streets. In Paris, he took a menial job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Barely subsisting on an unlivable wage, he resided in the kind of cheap, vermin-infested hotel that would have made Balzac weep. Yet throughout, his insight was keen, his purpose unwavering.

Most importantly, his style was concise and accessible. Just flip through any trendy academic's latest tome on genitals in society, or one of Susan Sontag's oblique essays, and you'll see that lucid writing is a long lost art among our purported intelligentsia.

But Orwell was its master. He narrated the lives of the unwanted, drawing our attention to them, not in the maudlin, self-righteous voice of a Jonathan Kozol, but with the damning exactitude of a camera. Take, for example, his simple reminder to accept a leaflet from the next person we see dispensing promotional literature on the street. While writing "Down and Out," Orwell canvassed sometimes for a living, and thus knew that when you're the poor bastard wearing the sandwich board, you've got to stand there, shoving adverts at hostile passers-by, until your hands are empty. Every receptive palm helps. I defy you not to think of this, and act accordingly, the next time you pass a hired hawker.

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