AUGUST 29, 2016
IN 1950, TUBERCULAR BACTERIA spread to George Orwell’s pulmonary artery, burst it, and flooded one of his lungs with blood. The closest he had come to death before this was when a bullet slammed straight through his gawky neck as he peaked over a Spanish Civil War battlement. He assumed then that that was the end: “My first thought, conventionally enough,” he wrote later, “was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world […] I had time to feel this very vividly.”
Twenty-three years before Orwell’s death, the philosopher Martin Heidegger advocated “being-toward-death.” He meant by this that conscious beings should shape themselves and their lives with an awareness of their ultimately finite nature. He argued that by anticipating, rather than awaiting, death, conscious beings could explore the world of possibilities before them individually and authentically. Though the first English edition of Being and Time was published in 1962 and Orwell couldn’t have had a chance to read it, he was, nonetheless, pointedly successful at “being-toward-death.”
Events conspired so that Orwell’s awareness of finitude was unavoidable. His generation, from their school years, suffered survivor’s guilt. They had been old enough to watch older boys be shipped off to the battlefields of World War I, but were too young to be sent off themselves. In attempting to absolve himself of this circumstantial burden, he received that hole in his neck in Spain. With that came a weakened immune system, which would eventually allow tuberculosis to throttle his body.
In his longest direct meditation on mortality, Orwell described a hanging he witnessed in Burma. The condemned man, he wrote, “stood quite unresisting, yielding his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly noticed what was happening.” Here, Orwell seemed to look down on the man for his failure to be conscious of his own fast approaching death. As the man walked toward the gallows, Orwell noticed he “stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.” There, Orwell finally realized that he was about to be complicit, if only as an observer, in the death of a conscious being. “I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness,” he wrote later, “of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”
And yet, John Sutherland claims on the last page of his new book, “Orwell’s life was one long game of Russian roulette.” That book, Orwell’s Nose, though it delivers on its title with an absorbing 50-page preface on Orwell’s unusually acute sense of smell and Sutherland’s loss of that sense, soon shifts its focus to the sense of loss of life. The “odour of mortality,” in Sutherland’s summation, is the essential stench in Orwell’s writing. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Sutherland, now 77, would focus on death, but this seemingly unintentional theme gives rise to a much more interesting book than the treatise of olfactory analysis we are promised by the title. The biographical section of the book presents sequential snapshots of an Orwell so constantly aware that death was on the horizon that he had a frantic and almost violently direct need to live a full life before it hit an end.
On a cold November day in 1946, Vernon Richards took the only two photographs of Orwell at his typewriter. The head on shot is better known. It has the familiar Orwell, erect, with an expression of chilly concentration and a cigarette hanging loosely from his lip, maybe off the hint of a smile. There are rows of books behind him. The second shot, in profile, shows Orwell seated in front of a blank wall, slightly slumped, with sagging skin and an untidy sideburn. His hands are at the ready on the keyboard, perhaps between taps. Their backs, where the metacarpals shot up and down hundreds of thousands of times as he typed his impossibly large oeuvre, are wrinkled and worn.
Orwell’s answer to the problem of death was one particularly suited to the conditions that became, finally, unavoidable in his lifetime. He was an industrial writer, tied to his machine, and he would work tirelessly. His frequency of publication seems impossible, the volume of writing unmanageable, and the number of books he would have had to have read and processed to write all those reviews, unimaginable.
“He drove himself relentlessly,” wrote his friend Tosco Fyvel, “accepting almost every journalistic commission offered. He worked most mornings; then at night he would sit typing into the early morning hours, until 2 or 3 a.m.” It was a frantic existence, and franticness wasn’t only a consequence of Orwell’s circumstances. At some point, it became a stylistic effect he intended to convey in his writing. Cultivated off-handedness became part of the casual Orwell style, which allowed him to make quick and bold pronouncements, convey a feeling in the guise of an argument, and excuse the use of “common sense” in the absence of close reasoning. It also endeared him to his readers as a man who was obviously constantly working. “The dominant fact of his life,” Fyvel concluded, “was his writing.”
Sutherland, unlike many of his predecessors, succeeds in respecting this struggle to produce and in engaging the product. Bernard Crick, the author of the first complete Orwell biography, was the progenitor of the tradition of dismissing the work, because of its factual infidelities, as worthless to the biographical endeavor. As a literary critic, rather than a traditional biographer, Sutherland takes the surprisingly atypical approach of viewing the work as central to the life. The result is a relatively short book that captures the essence of Orwell better than the average 600-page biography.
Despite Sutherland’s meandering style and semi-tangential structure, his book is a more enjoyable reading experience than most Orwell biographies. Orwell’s work bristles with life, whereas litanies of the facts of his life do not. That’s reflected when the book shifts from examinations of the facts of his life to analysis of the literature he created. In the universe of smells that Sutherland presents, the smells of teak, of English pastures, of industrial poverty, and of dying humanity, it was the smell of a working typewriter, of ink running off a ribbon, that most regularly greeted Orwell’s nasal passages. In Orwell’s work, as in his nose, we find the odor of mortality and the mystery of creation paired in a vibrant paradox.
When Orwell died, he left behind a very odd document. Without having warned anyone but his lawyer, he specified in his will that he wanted there to be no biography. Sonia Orwell, his second wife, died in the midst of a fight to suppress Bernard Crick’s book 29 years later. The history of this and subsequent biographies is discussed in a very interesting section of Sutherland’s preface, which would usually be relegated to a bibliography, and much of the rest of the book reads like a wry commentary on previous biographers. Even with all this attention, Sutherland hardly addresses how strange it is that this quibbling community grew up in the shadow of Orwell’s will.
We can’t be sure why Orwell insisted on the prohibition of biographies. There may have been elements and incidents in his life that he wasn’t proud of. He may have wanted to leave the control of his narrative to his own semi-fictionalized memoir pieces. His first wife, Eileen, however, who knew him in his most productive years and whom he outlived by a few years, may have dropped a hint into the historical record: “For him, his work comes before anybody,” she’d told a friend. “Anybody” may have included himself.
The formation of Dasein, the conscious self, was a major part of our death-fixated philosopher’s, of Martin Heidegger’s, philosophical project. He advocated being-toward-death, having had that major epiphany that being is time, because it was a major element of an authentic being. Sutherland’s portrait wonderfully captures Orwell being-toward-death, but it misses the accompanying search for authenticity. For Heidegger, another major aspect of authenticity was grounding. By this he meant having formed one’s own conception of the world by having resisted societal assumptions and through thorough thought and individual understanding come to one’s own conception of the world. Orwell’s works attest to a lifetime of intense and original thought in this manner. As an antitotalitarian socialist since before World War II, he defied later Cold War categorizations of right and left and easy lumping into what Heidegger called “the they.” For him, perhaps, it was the authenticity of the direct engagement — which happened in his work — that counted, rather than the sum of the petty incidents, actions, and circumstances of his life that would make up a biography.
It’s much easier to understand why Sutherland and his predecessors went against Orwell’s wishes by presenting his example in all its complexity. In the years that followed the German publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time, French existentialists extrapolated his ideas into the belief that each person should make their own meaning. Every day and every night, when the clattering of a typewriter keyboard would fill the spaces where he lived, George Orwell was imposing meaning on a world overrun by nationalism, imperialism, chaos, and fear. He was making a mad world a meaningful one.
Eventually, Orwell reached the same understanding as the existentialists of this endeavor: “Our job,” he wrote in one of his deathbed essays, “is to make life worth living.”