Homage to Catalonia
April 24, 2015 § 1 Comment
‘Orwell, by reason of the quality that permits us to say of him that he was a virtuous man, is a figure in our lives…what is he the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.’
It is easy to forget that all the success and accolades Orwell enjoys were bestowed upon him posthumously. During his lifetime he was often ill, barely able to make ends meet (though at times the poverty was self-inflicted), and had a hard time getting his works published.
We admire prescient men for their insight; for their ability to maintain a clarity of mind when others are distracted and deceived. Orwell was such a man; a man, as Hitchens remarked, possessing a ‘exalted common sense’
‘…all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.’ It was from this deep slumber, to which he believed his beloved country had returned following the Second World War, that Orwell tried to awaken it. The absolute despair and utter hopelessness of Nineteen Eighty Four, which he wrote against the clock, were aimed at opening his nation’s eyes to the menace of Stalinism. And this is where Homage to Catalonia fits in. It was in Barcelona, accidentally drafted into a Trotskyist militia, that Orwell gleaned the veiled evil of Stalinism. The show trials, the forced confessions, the imprisonments and executions; all were to absorbed by the English radical and would form the basis of his polemics against despotism. Indeed following his narrow escape from Spain, and the secret police, his efforts to unmask the reality of the conflict led to his labelling as a ‘traitor’ and as a ‘backstabber undermining the anti-fascists.’
Towards the end of the book Orwell asserts that everything he has recounted is but one man’s view; one man’s opinion. His working title for Nineteen Eighty Four had been Last Man in Europe, the irony of which he must have noticed. In spite of this he maintained humility; he was quick to ridicule the notion of ‘an artist suffering for his cause.’ It is perhaps Orwell’s devotion to such principles that have elevated him to the precarious position of a saint. Until very recently the Left and Right were involved in a tug of war; each side trying to claim him as one of their own. Czesław Miłosz would pay Orwell a brilliant tribute in an article in the 50’s; marvelling at how a man could so accurately capture the essence of life under a Stalinist regime, having never lived under one.
The account of life in the trenches and the fighting in Barcelona are all told in that crisp and matter-of-fact tone that is typical of Orwell. His wry and sardonic reply to visitors and friends whilst convalescing in a hospital after having been shot, reveal a sense of humor not readily apparent from the grim visage present on book covers.
Homage to Catalonia is not just the account of a civil war that many see as the first round of the Second World War; a brilliant account witnessed by a scathing eye, capable of slicing through the lies and arriving at the truth; but it forms the experiences that would drive the great polemicist till the end of his days. A man who got so much right.