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In Which It Is A Way Of Asking What To Be

Leon Wieseltier's classic evisceration of Louis Menand's essay on George Orwell in The New Yorker is the shortest possible distance between two points: George Orwell and our admiration of him. Here now Wieseltier's essay in its entirety.


by Leon Wieseltier

Whom to be like? It is a way of asking what to be; and for intellectuals and journalists (they are not always the same) there are many greater mistakes than the aspiration to be like George Orwell.

For a long time, indeed, the admiration of Orwell has been one of the most encouraging features of our political and cultural situation. This aspidistra deserves to be kept flying. Liberals and conservatives tussle over his true teachings, and over the identity of his true sons; and there is something a little comic about all these feuding heirs, and also a little belittling in the way the battle for Orwell has turned into still another franchise, still another exercise in branding, in this stupefyingly mercantile time.

Yet finally Orwell is worth tussling over: He had a narcotic relationship to principles. There are worse masters, much worse. Or so all thoughtful people believed until a few weeks ago, when The New Yorker announced that Orwell was "wrong."

"In what sense," Louis Menand demanded, "can writings that have been taken to mean so many incompatible things be called 'clear'? And what, exactly, was Orwell right about?" About Stalinism, one starts to say - but Menand is not impressed. "Orwell was against imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Excellent. Many people were against them in Orwell's time, and a great many more people have been against them since." The condescension in that remark is disgusting.


As it happens, a great many people were not at all against Stalinism in the years in which Orwell wrote, and if many more people have been against Stalinism since, it is in part owing to the genuinely valiant refusal of Orwell and others to desist from their denunciations of it. Yet the intellectual struggles of the 1930s and the 1940s matter less to Menand than the fact that the CIA - "Howard Hunt was the agent on the case": how repercussive! - secretly bought the film rights to Animal Farm.

Menand disapproves of intellectual struggle. It is so overwrought, so over. "We don't live just by ideas," he observes in his sedative way, as if anybody believes that we do live just by ideas. Of course, it is precisely because we don't live just by ideas that we must live also by ideas; but I am getting heavy.

Menand sneakily makes Orwell over in his own diffident, perspectivist, mildly anti-intellectual image, so as to relieve us of Orwell's obligations. "He is not saying, This is the way it objectively was from any possible point of view. He is saying, This is the way it looked to someone with my beliefs." This is madly incorrect. Here is Orwell in 1942, in "Looking Back on the Spanish War," reflecting on the lies of wartime:

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. ... I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously colored what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that 'the facts' existed and were more or less discoverable.

Orwell plainly regards the eclipse of objective truth as a decline and a danger. This passage, and there are more like it, is not an expression of perspectivism, it is a repudiation of perspectivism.

read it here

"XXXXXX" - Foals (mp3)

For The New Yorker's authority on Orwell, the danger lies not in the fading of the concept of objective truth, but in the clinging to the concept of objective truth. Menand thinks that truth is merely a warrant for terrorism, that objectivity is just an early form of fanaticism, that certainty only kills.

"Moral certainty of any kind can lead to bloodshed," he asserts in Raritan, in a piece that is critical of the abolitionists of the nineteenth century. "Of any kind": All certainty is like all other certainty, its content is insignificant, all that matters are its consequences.

the battle over orwell's legacy

Menand has risen above substance. He is indifferent, and afraid. His fear is understandable: When one has renounced the inquiry into truth and falsity, certainty must seem terrifying. Every conviction must look like an absolute. And so he notes that "in defining the United States as a civilization in opposition to militant Islam, even President Bush found himself, in his speech before Congress right after the attacks, explaining that moral certainty is precisely what makes the enemy so dangerous."

Do you follow? A war against jihad is itself a jihad. There is no distinction between a just war and a holy war. What a haul of irony! In this way "the modernist paradox is complete: Americans now find themselves in the position of fighting, and being willing to die, for the belief that no one should be made to die for a belief."

menand, on kael

"The First Incident" - Frightened Rabbit (mp3)

Menand is fond of that miserably apathetic sentence: He published it also in The New Yorker last fall, in a review of books about the catastrophe of September 11, adding there that "Americans hold it to be a transcendent truth that it is possible to live a good life without loyalty to a transcendent cause." Philosophy is finished. Go shopping.

Who are these Americans whose spiritual condition Menand intuits so clearly?

Myself, I have less anecdotal evidence for the population's perfect post-modernity. I have met Americans who are willing to fight and to die for a belief, and Americans who are not willing; and Americans who would like to discuss the particular belief a little more.

And if we are indeed a nation of suave anti-foundationalists, too enlightened or too embarrassed about transcendent causes, then I see no reason to worry about, say, John Ashcroft and the political Christianity that he faithfully and inappropriately serves.

Ashcroft is a nasty creature of certainty, no question about it; but his opponents are no less certain that his certainty is false. And so they should be, in my view. In Menand's view, however, the argument can never be closed.

He derides Orwell's linguistic contributions to modern liberalism - "Big Brother," "doublethink," "thought police" - as "belong[ing] to the same category as 'liar' and 'pervert' and 'madman.' They are conversation-stoppers." But why should some conversations not be stopped, not concluded with the demonstration that a man who was called a liar actually lied? Or is stopping the conversation in this way like stopping the conversation in the totalitarian way?

fun orwell quotes

John Brown in Pottawatomie and Mohammed Atta in Manhattan acted in a similar spirit, but it is significant that the former dreamed of freeing enslaved people and the latter dreamed of enslaving free people. The notion that the hatred of slavery was an excess of hatred, and perhaps that the Civil War was not quite a war worth fighting, is bizarre.

With their metaphysics, Menand writes, the world of the abolitionists and the world of the slave-owners "seem to have more in common with each other than either does with our own." There speaks the pragmatist: fascinating at a dinner, useless in a struggle. Unlike Menand's Orwell, the pragmatist is not "a misfit." He is a fit.

This essay originally appeared in The New Republic.


At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity. Any writer or journalist who denies that fact - and nearly all the current praise of the Soviet Union contains or implies such a denial - is, in effect, demanding his own destruction.

- The Prevention of Literature

Considering how likely we all are to be blown to pieces by it within the next five years, the atomic bomb has not roused so much discussion as might have been expected. The newspapers have published numerous diagrams, not very helpful to the average man, of protons and neutrons doing their stuff, and there has been much reiteration of the useless statement that the bomb "ought to be put under international control." But curiously little has been said, at any rate in print, about the question that is of most urgent interest to all of us, namely: "How difficult are these things to manufacture?"

- You and the Atomic Bomb

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed.

- Why I Write

"Awake at the Wheel" - Glorytellers (mp3)

[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades…. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

- review of Mein Kampf

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people--the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.

- Shooting an Elephant


No Country for Old Men's roundly sexual encounter with modernity.

The Suicide List.

You my friend, are a damn fool.

Reader Comments (1)

Leon Wieseltier is a doucheblog who hates anyone who does not support forever war

May 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTumbleBORE

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