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Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.
That line, “creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present,” is still chilling 75 years after it was written — and not only because the modern reader is aware of the scale of the horrors about to be unleashed on Orwell’s world.
(The death camps; the Red Army’s rampage of mass rape across a defeated Germany; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; anywhere between 60 and 70 million human beings killed — perhaps more — by the time WWII was over, with civilian men, women and children accounting for at least three-quarters of the dead.) And yet how many of us have thought, in recent months, that creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into , damn it.
That both novels are suddenly on the radar of people who probably haven’t given Orwell a second thought in years is hardly surprising at a time when war refugees are painted as national security threats, white nationalists hold positions of power in the White House and an American president is openly involved in an abusive relationship with the English language.
Orwell, the pen name of the Indian-born Eric Arthur Blair, speaks to us in this moment not only because he understood that words have the power both to shackle and to liberate, but also because since high school have probably forgotten. It is a chronicle of a crushing, obliterating defeat.) The fact that Orwell was clear-eyed enough, meanwhile, to perceive the brute peril manifest in both Stalinism and in the fascism of a Mussolini or a Hitler provides commentators across the political divide with handy phrases to wield against their ideological foes: (Recent events suggest a tasseled loafer stamping on a human face forever might be a more likely scenario.) Regardless of how prescient Orwell’s novels might seem, his powerful, tightly argued essays remain far more relevant in our current batshit cuckoo political climate.
“Political language,” he wrote in 1946, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Right now is as good a time as any — and better than most — to turn from Orwell’s novels to his essays, where language itself is held to account and the only wind the reader encounters is the bracing gale of a fearless mind at work.
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, the English novelist George Orwell describes a dystopian world so disciplined that all vestiges of humanity and individuality are systematically subsumed under the control of the totalitarian state.
In his commentaries, columns and criticism — he wrote that the unquiet age in which he lived had forced him to become “a sort of pamphleteer”— he found something original to say about everything from the dehumanizing nature of imperialism (“Shooting an Elephant”) to Leo Tolstoy’s strange, late-in-life attack on Shakespeare (“Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”) to the beauty and deathless vigor of the natural world (“Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”).
Ultimately, though, many of Orwell’s sharpest, most memorable essays were about the uses and abuses of language.
But it’s precisely because it’s a universal modern impulse that patriotism (or rather its crazy inbred cousin, nationalism) carries such force.
In many countries, an intense, xenophobia-fueled patriotism is the only expression of even nominal power available to the poor, the disenfranchised, those left behind.