A few days ago, I started re-reading George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. Every so often it’s good to revisit authors who’ve had a profound influence on one’s own writing, and my fiftieth birthday seemed like the right moment to dip back into Orwell, who has always been a touchstone. Like some kindly old professor, the champion of anti-totalitarianism mostly hovers in the background of my mental library. But now and then his ghost re-emerges to prick at my conscience, nudging me to do better.
Like many a loyal fan, I first read him as an undergraduate. I kept underlined photocopies of “Why I Write” and “Politics and the English Language,” which I treated with Talmudic reverence. I wrote earnestly sophomoric journals about Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, adopted the term “Orwellian” for tendentious use in conversation, and—in lengthy correspondences with a dissolute poet friend—shared pretentious scribblings about life as an “impoverished” student (as if mid-1980s, North American suburbia approached anything near the cold, grim desperation of Down and Out in Paris and London).
As I matured and became a writer myself, my respect for Orwell’s place in the world of letters deepened, along with my appreciation for the times in which he lived. He had always struck me as a “young fogey,” a skeptic whose world-weariness seemed far beyond his years and whose passion for politics had—along with the cigarettes—prematurely aged him. But after reading his Spanish civil war memoir, Homage to Catalonia, and the novel based on his service with the Indian Imperial Police, Burmese Days, I had a clearer sense of the factors contributing to that ageing.
How stressful life must have been from the beginning: to be an English male, not of the ruling class, born two years after the death of Queen Victoria—an event that heralded the final collapse of the British Empire. How unlucky, to have been an adolescent during World War I and grown up with all the attendant pressures that came with being a loyal citizen of a declining world power, a nation raging against its own waning influence. How bold, for a public intellectual in the 1930s to position himself as a socialist while maintaining independence from the legions of ideologues who claimed ownership of that label. And how courageous, for a writer to have volunteered for active combat, despite less than ideal fitness, because to have sat things out in Spain would have plagued his conscience forever. “To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself,” wrote Orwell, scolding the British Left for its weathervane allegiances and ostrich-like pacifism before World War II. “War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil.”
The burden of such choices and circumstances is a reality that good fortune in my own life and times prevented me from ever facing. I was lucky to be born one year after the Cuban missile crisis, in a Canada eighteen years removed from its own devastating contribution to the last world war; to be raised in a middle-class, liberal Roman Catholic doctor’s family on a quiet, suburban west coast during stable economic times, with the prospect of conscription never once troubling my mind. Despite periodic episodes of inflation and recession that would concern everyone but the filthiest rich, I had as much opportunity as the next person of similar background to make the most out of life.
As an adult, any discrimination I have suffered due to sexual orientation (a lifetime ban from donating blood, occasional verbal abuse and, quite possibly, lost job opportunities) has been minimal compared to that suffered by more visibly queer folk, and must be measured against all the other oppressions under the sun. As a white, middle class North American who enjoys the right of same-sex marriage in his own country, for example, I am a tower of privilege next to the average Rohingya in Myanmar, a Muslim non-citizen who suffers the full weight of state bigotry and repression just for being heterosexual. (Rohingya men and women in Rahkine State are not allowed to marry and can be jailed for having unauthorized children.)
It is this kind of perspective that one gains from reading Orwell. Today, when I gaze at a classic portrait of him at his BBC microphone—probably taken near the end of WWII, just as Animal Farm was being published and only five years before his death—I am somewhat humbled. Now fifty, I have outlived Orwell by nearly four years but look and feel much younger than the craggy forty-two year old who appears in that photo, a man I never imagined eclipsing in years lived. And what have I produced, by comparison? The sum of Orwell’s contribution in the forty-seven years allotted to him would equal an octogenarian’s output, for a few writers. The gravitas of his lasting influence is something only the rarest among us could ever hope to achieve.
I needn’t beat myself up over failed literary ambitions based on presumptuous comparisons. Like many authors, however, I do measure myself against Orwell because of the main passion that unites us. “Looking back through my work,” he wrote in 1946, “I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” It is fair to say: re-reading Orwell at age fifty reminds one that the sand in the hourglass is mostly in the bottom half. Without knowing how many years one has left, one feels an increasing sense of urgency to make every word count.
Some people land on the right side of history through opportunism and good luck. Orwell landed on the right side of history because he always acted on principle. And that was the best lesson he taught a budding young writer, so many years ago: that the principled position can never be the wrong position.